Aztec tzompantli (skull rack)
Stucco replica, 19th century, Templo Mayor, Mexico City, 2004

The Tzompantli was a gruesome yet intricately constructed structure in ancient Mesoamerican civilisations, notably among the Aztecs. Translating to 'skull rack' or 'wall of skulls', it served as a profound symbol of power, religion, and warfare. Consisting of wooden racks or platforms adorned with rows of vertically arranged skulls, it stood prominently in ceremonial precincts or main plazas. The skulls, often those of sacrificial victims, prisoners of war, or captured enemies, were meticulously arranged in a macabre display, sometimes interspersed with sculpted depictions of deities or warriors. The Tzompantli embodied the Aztec belief in the cyclical nature of life and death, as well as the concept of human sacrifice as a means of appeasing the gods and ensuring the continuation of the universe. Beyond its ritual significance, the Tzompantli also served as a stark warning to potential adversaries, showcasing the might and ruthlessness of the Aztec empire.  In Tenochtitlan, the heads of Spaniards and their horses were to eventually grace the racks there. With a terrifying appearance, the Tzompantli was a testament to the intricate artistry and religious fervour of ancient Mesoamerican cultures.


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