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Dr. Elizabeth Baquedano

Question for May 2006

What was the point of the skull rack? Asked by Allenbourn Middle School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Elizabeth Baquedano.

Skull rack, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Skull rack, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Skull rack or tzompantli in Nahuatl - the language spoken by the Aztecs. The purpose of this structure was to display the heads of sacrificed human victims. Sometimes this structure was made of stone with carved human skulls. Skull racks were usually placed near temples or ball-courts. Those displaying real skulls comprised a wooden framework supporting skulls skewered on horizontal poles run through holes drilled through the temples. Tzompantlis were described by Spanish conquistadors and missionary friars in the Sixteenth Century.

Skull racks took a variety of forms and seem to have served several functions: altars and venues for ritual; the heads of sacrificial victims were displayed to commemorate sacrifices in honour of a god. The Aztecs used skull racks to display prowess in war; in obtaining captives to be offered up to their gods. They also used them to terrorize subjugated populations. Likewise, they were used as symbols of defeat, capture and humiliation. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, the ancient Mexicans had never seen horses, so they placed horse heads on skull racks as offerings to their gods.

The earliest known skull was excavated in Oaxaca, dating from approximately AD 600-900. Several other cultures in Mesoamerica produced skull racks: the Toltecs, Maya and the Aztecs as well as one example from West Mexico from approx. AD 900-1519. Several skull racks are known in Aztec sites, including real and sculpted skull racks. At the Great Temple of the Aztecs (their most important temple) archaeologists found a skull rack with at least 240 carved skulls. They had a layer of stucco and were originally painted in red.

Dr. Elizabeth Baquedano has answered 2 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs have kings and queens?

What was the point of the skull rack?

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