Sacrificial skulls at Templo Mayor

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Archaeologists have discovered 50 human skulls and over 250 jawbones dating back over 500 years near a sacrificial stone at the main Aztec temple in Mexico City.

Located within the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan, the old Aztec capital, the remains represent the largest number of skulls found in a single deposit at Templo Mayor.

Forty-five of the skulls seem to have been simply dumped on top of the stone, said Raúl Barrera, head of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH)’s Urban Archaeology Programme, but five more had been buried beneath it.

These five all have holes in both sides of the cranium, suggesting that they had been hung on a tzompantli, or skull rack, used to display the heads of sacrificial victims and associated with communication between the human world and the gods.

Raúl Barrera said the skulls had belonged to men and women aged between 20 and 35 years old, and that their association with the sacrificial stone – not typically linked with decapitation – could shed new light on Aztec ritual practice.

‘In ancient times, stones like this were used to lie people on their back so they could be sacrificed by opening the rib cage to get the heart,’ he said. ‘Skulls were used by the Aztecs during ceremonies of consecration or closing of architectural spaces. They were also involved in and rituals associated with the worship of Mictlantecuhtli, god of death.’

This is not the first enigmatic discovery made at Templo Mayor in recent times; two months ago, INAH excavations uncovered the unique burial of a young woman surrounded by heaps of almost 2,000 human bones (see CWA 55), together with the trunk of a sacred tree.

Raúl Barrera said he hoped further research would reveal more information about the significance of these finds.

We will be following INAH’s investigations at Templo Mayor with great interest – watch this space for more information on their findings.

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