‘Tower of skulls’ in Tenochtitlan’

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Excavations in Mexico City have uncovered a new section of the Huei Tzompantli, an Aztec skull rack. [Image: Institute of Anthropology and History]

Excavations in Mexico City have discovered a new section of the Aztec skull rack known as the Huei Tzompantli.

A tzompantli is a kind of rack for displaying human skulls, associated with ritual sacrifice, that is found in many Aztec and other Mesoamerican cities. The Huei Tzompantli is mentioned in several historical records and is believed to have been the central tzompantli in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City). It is located near Templo Mayor, the main temple of the city in the 14th and 15th century, and dates to the sixth construction phase of the temple complex, during the reign of the Aztec ruler Ahuizotl (r. 1486-1502).

Much of the structure’s last construction stage was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors, but part of the structure was discovered in 2015 (CWA 73) by archaeologists from the Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Further excavation in 2020 discovered a new section of the tzompantli, which appears to represent the eastern end and external wall of the tower of human skulls, measuring 4.7m in diameter.

The new section contains 119 skulls, bringing the total found at the site to more than 600. The identities of these individuals are unknown, but they appear to include men, women, and children, indicating that some could have been enemy warriors, while others may have been captives destined for sacrifice. Isotopic analysis suggests that they were not local, which would fit with them being victims of conflict.

The skulls show signs of cranial modification, a process of altering the shape of the skull that was practised in several Mesoamerican civilisations. The skulls found in the Huei Tzompantli represent an important sample of the population in this period, while the structure itself is one of the most important discoveries made in the archaeologically rich Templo Mayor area.

This article appeared in issue 106 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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