General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Professor Juan José Batalla

Question for September 2006

Physically how were the skulls stuck into the skullracks? Asked by Gosfield School. Chosen and answered by Professor Juan José Batalla.

Pic 1: The skull rack in the ceremonial centre of Tenochtitlan, with the twin temples of Tlaloc (left) and Huitzilopochtli (right) on the platform at the top of the Main Pyramid
Pic 1: The skull rack in the ceremonial centre of Tenochtitlan, with the twin temples of Tlaloc (left) and Huitzilopochtli (right) on the platform at the top of the Main Pyramid (Click on image to enlarge)

English: The tzompantli or skull rack consisted of a wooden frame made with thick vertical posts that held up other thinner poles running horizontally. It was these horizontal rungs that enabled human heads to be skewered, between the temples, along the length of them. In the images left to us in 16th. century documents it seems clear that each horizontal pole held 4 or 5 heads - many more and the pole would bend under the weight and could come away from the vertical support.

Pic 2: Glyph for the town Tzompanco (‘On the Skull Rack’), Codex Mendoza
Pic 2: Glyph for the town Tzompanco (‘On the Skull Rack’), Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

As to the number of skulls placed on tzompantli, the figures have been exaggerated greatly - as evidence for the supposed ‘barbarism’ of the Aztecs. One Spanish Conquistador claimed to have counted the skulls on the tzompantli and found 136,000. This figure is a wild exaggeration, but this was one way in which the Aztecs could be portrayed as ‘savages’ and the Conquest could be justified. Archaeological excavations of tzompantli have revealed no more than 200 heads. If there really had been tens of thousands in the Tenochtitlan tzompantli the stench from the decomposing heads would have made life unlivable in the city. One calculation suggests that the Aztecs might have amassed a total of some 1,500 skulls from the time of their first arrival in the valley of Mexico to the Spanish Conquest. Some Spanish heads ended up on one of the tzompantli, alongside the heads of horses.

Pic 3: Tzompantli, Codex Vaticanus 3738
Pic 3: Tzompantli, Codex Vaticanus 3738 (Click on image to enlarge)

We also know that the Aztecs sculpted tzompantli out of stone - the heads weren’t real. This provided a convenient way of frightening visitors to the city without having real human heads rotting away and causing illnesses.

Pic 4: part of the stone skull rack, Templo Mayor Museum
Pic 4: part of the stone skull rack, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Español: El tzompantli o entramado de calaveras consistía en un armazon de madera compuesto por postes verticales que sostenían otros menos gruesos en sentido horizontal. Eran precisamente los maderos horizontales los que permitían ensartar las cabezas humanas atravesadas por ambas sienes por los mismos. En las imágenes que tenemos del siglo XVI en distintos documentos que describen el sistema se aprecía que cada madero horizontal sostenía 4 ó 5 cabezas, pues si se ponían más se curvaba con el peso y se podría desprender del poste vertical.

Sobre el número de calaveras que contenían los tzompantli se ha exagerado muchísimo, ya que era una prueba de la supuesta “barbarie” de las culturas mexicanas. Así, un conquistador español relata que contó el número de cabezas que había en el tzompantli de Tenochtitlan y dice que eran 136000. La cifra es totalmente exagerada, pero de esta manera se ponía los aztecas como “salvajes” y se justificaba su conquista. En excavaciones arqueológicas de tzompantli no se han hallado más de 200 cabezas. Si realmente en el de Tenochtitlan hubiera esas cabezas no habría manera de vivir en la ciudad con el hedor que produciría la descomposición de las mismas. Se calcula que los aztecas pudieron llegar a reunir unas 1500 calaveras desde su llegada al valle de México hasta su conquista por los españoles. Las cabezas de algunos de estos también pasaron a formar parte de algún tzompantli, incluidas cabezas de caballo.

Por otro lado, también tenemos constancia de que había tzompantli esculpidos en piedra, es decir, las cabezas no eran reales sino que se realizaban esculpiendo piedras. De este modo, también se infundía temor a los visitantes sin que fuera necesario tener cabezas pudriéndose y provocando todo tipo de enfermedades.

Illustrations:-
Pic 1: Manuscrit Tovar (ADEVA facsimile, 1972, p. XX)
Pic 2: Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), Cooper Clark edition, 1938 folio 17r
Pic 3: Codex Vaticanus 3738 (ADEVA facsimile, 1979, folio 57r)
Pic 4: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

See Dr. Baquedano’s answer on skull racks...

Professor Juan José Batalla has answered 7 questions altogether:

Physically how were the skulls stuck into the skullracks?

Was there any contact between the Aztecs and the ancient Egyptians?

Did most words in the Aztec language end in -tl?

When did the 5 ‘useless’ days come in the Aztec calendar?

Are Spanish children taught in school about what happened to the Aztecs?

Is it true the Aztecs made a sacrifice (on average) every 10 minutes?

How did scribes get rid of mistakes when they wrote their books?

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