Tzompantli: Gruesome Aztec Skull Walls Contained Severed Human Heads

tzompantli-aztec-skull-wall (Image: Wolfgang Sauber; skull wall of Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City)

When European explorers first encountered the majestic cities of the Aztec people, they were confronted with a civilization that seemed at odds with itself – at least to their eyes. There were vast structures with elaborate architecture, roads, causeways, temples and palaces, all alongside depictions of blood sacrifice and the taking of human hearts from living bodies.

tzompantli-aztec-skull-wall-6 (Image: laap mx; reconstruction of a gruesome Aztec tzompantli)

Among the most gruesomely compelling artifacts were the tzompantli, or ‘skull walls’, a method of displaying the most grisly trophies left behind after ritual sacrifice. Many temples – including those in the cities of Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico and Chichen Itza – featured skull walls in varying forms.

The wall at Casa Grandes was a literal string of human heads and skulls, impaled on spikes driven into the masonry walls. Earlier examples of tzompantli date back possibly as early as 600 AD, although most signs of the practice seem to date to around the 10th century.

tzompantli-aztec-skull-wall-3 (Image: via Wikimedia; illustration of a tzompantli from the Codex Tovar)

Though some skull walls were carved from stone, others featured wooden racks meant for holding the severed human heads, some possibly belonging to captured enemy warriors, whose hearts would be torn from their bodies and limbs hacked off after death. This gruesome apparatus survives in the stories of the Spanish conquistadors, and we can only imagine what they must have thought on first glimpsing the grisly display of strength and devotion. But oddly, for something so widespread, little is known about the ancient Aztecs’ tzompantli practices.

tzompantli-aztec-skull-wall-4 (Image: Wolfgang Sauber; tzompantli carving at Chichen Itza)

In 1997, researchers attempted to conduct a forensic analysis on some of the remains in a bid to understand how the skulls intended for the wall – as well as facial skin-masks – were prepared. They paid close attention to the symbols that surrounded the temple and the location of the initial decapitation, finding that both men and women were involved, and that the act of killing – like the ritual sacrifice in the fearsome Mesoamerican ballgame (a sport where the winner played for keeps and the loser was killed) – was eerily similar to the hunting and slaying of wild animals.

tzompantli-aztec-skull-wall-5 (Image: OliBac)

Once the head was removed and offered to the gods, the body was dragged across the ground in order to cover the entire ball court with blood.

According to the writing of Spanish chronicler Diego Duran, the Great Skullrack (Hueyi Tzompantli) of Tenochtitlan was the largest of its kind, and had space for tens of thousands of skulls. Although most of the skulls were stripped of flesh and fat before being mounted, hair was occasionally left in its follicles. Skulls are said to have been rotated on a fairly regular basis. Those that were weather-worn were ultimately burned – and replaced with new, fresh ones…

tzompantli-aztec-skull-wall-7 (Image: Iris; tzompantli at Templo Mayor museum)

Related – Morbid Mementos in Hollywood’s Museum of Death

 

About the author: Debra Kelly

 

 
 
 


 
 

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