Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History announced on August 20 that archaeologists have found the macabre remains of human sacrifice left behind by Mexico's Aztec ancestors.
Known as a tzompantli in the language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl. The find consists of a rack of the skulls of human sacrificial victims that was once part of the Templo Mayor complex in Tenochtitlan - the capital of the Aztecs that is now Mexico City.
Human skulls in a rough circle mortared in the platform of a trophy skull rack known as 'tzompantli' in the native Nahuatl language of Mexico
The tzompantli was found on Calle Republica de Guatemala, a street that runs at the eastern end of the colonial-era Metropolitan Cathedral in the modern city's central square. This is the first such skull rack that has been found that is mortared together. The human skulls found by the researchers were used almost like bricks. Some of the skulls had holes pierced through them at the temples.
View looking down into archaeological dig revealing human skulls mortared into the tzompantli platform
So far the skull rack not yet fully recovered. Hundreds of skulls are expected to be found, arranged neatly on wooden poles of the racks which measured approximately 112 feet long and 40 feet wide. The victims were probably killed by Aztec priests, who typically opened up their victims’ chests with obsidian knives and their still beating hearts removed. The skulls may be of the warriors of rivals to the Aztecs, such as the people of Tlascala – who eventually became Spanish allies during the Conquest. The tzompantlis were intended to inspire awe and fear among the visitors to Tenochtitlan, which once featured towering temples of human sacrifice.
Archaeologists used artists brushes and specialized tools to excavate the skull rack at the Templo Mayor complex
According to El Universal - a Mexican daily - researchers found the human remains during excavations in February and March of this year. Archaeologist Raul Barrera Rodriguez is the INAE director of urban archeology and is in charge of the work at the site. He said very few tzompantlis have been found, which the historical records of the 16th century and archaeology known as very low, long structures on the tops of which are attached a series of wooden posts through are cross-bars that form niches for the skulls of the victims. The researchers believe that this tzompantli dates to at least 1485, some thirty years before the arrival of the Spanish.
A side view in one of the pits showing the tzompantli platform
Archaeologist Eduardo Matos of National Institute of Anthropology and History believes that the tzompantli was a show of force by the Aztecs. Hundreds of skulls would have been arranged neatly on the wooden poles of the racks which may have measured 112 feet long and 40 feet wide, and whose purpose was to inspire fear and awe, said the team.
Top view of a pit showing post holes left behind by the tzompantli wooden structure
Lead archaeologist Barrera said that an early Spanish writer described such mortared-together skulls, but none had been found before. The 35 skulls that were seen on the wall were formed into a circle, looking towards the center. Experts had not observed this previously. "The tzompantli had a very specific symbolism," Barrera said. "With more study, we expect to learn that many of these skulls belong to (Aztec) enemies, who were captured, sacrificed and decapitated in order to be displayed there."
The Aztecs ruled over much of Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish in 1519. The most recently discovered tzompantli may indeed be the Great Tzompantli of which early Spanish historiagraphers wrote.
Oblique view from above showing tzompantli post holes, as well as remnants of paint
Tzompantlis played a key role in the culture of the Aztecs and their ceremonial civic centers, along with two different ballgames and decapitations. These three elements appear to be closely associated in the archaeological records. One of the ballgames played by the Aztecs was inherited from their Maya neighbors to the south. In the game, players had to put a solid rubber ball through a stone ring without using their hands. The losers were frequently sacrificed to the Aztec gods, such as Tenoch: the namesake of the Aztec capital.
Colonial-era Aztec codex depicting human sacrifice
Published posthumously in 1562 in his classic account, “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote of the Aztec practice of human sacrifice "We looked over toward the Great Pyramids and watched as [the Aztecs] ... dragged [our comrades] up the steps and prepared to sacrifice them…After they danced, they placed our comrades face up atop square, narrow stones erected for the sacrifices. Then, with obsidian knives, they sawed their breasts open, pulled out their still-beating hearts, and offered these to their idols."
Years of careful excavation revealed the macabre Aztec structure in the center of Mexico City.
While critics have questioned how Díaz del Castillo could have possibly seen the human sacrifice he describes from the vantage point he had at the time in 1519, the presence of the grisly tzompantlis where Aztecs displayed their victims bears silent testimony to their brutal methods. The building of the Catholic church that now rests over the remains of the destroyed Aztec killing fields was completed in 1813.
Illustration from a post-Conquest Aztec codex depicting the tzompantli
Below is a map of the modern neighborhood where the Metropolitan Cathedral and adjacent archaeological sites are located.