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A tzompantli, illustrated in the 16th C. Aztec manuscript, the Durán Codex.

A tzompantli or skull rack is a type of wooden rack or palisade documented in several Mesoamerican civilizations, which was used for the public display of human skulls, typically those of war captives or other sacrificial victims.



The name comes from the Classical Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, however it is also commonly applied to similar structures depicted in other civilizations. Its precise etymology is uncertain, although its general interpretation is "skull rack" or "wall of skulls". It may be seen to be a compound of the Nahuatl words tzontecomatl ("skull"; from tzontli or tzom- "hair", "scalp" and tecomatl ("gourd" or "container"), and pamitl ("banner"). This derivation has been ascribed to explain the depictions in several codices which associate these with banners; however, Nahuatl linguist Frances Karttunen[1] has proposed that pantli means merely "row" or "wall".



General information

It was most commonly erected as a linearly-arranged series of vertical posts connected by a series of horizontal crossbeams. The skulls were pierced or threaded laterally along these horizontal stakes. An alternate arrangement, more common in the Maya regions, was for the skulls to be impaled on top of one another along the vertical posts.

Tzompantli are known chiefly from their depiction in Late Postclassic (13th -16th centuries) and post-Conquest (mid-16th -17th centuries) codices, contemporary accounts of the conquistadores, and several other inscriptions. However, there is evidence that a tzompantli-like structure has been excavated from the Proto-Classic Zapotec civilization at the La Coyotera, Oaxaca site, dated from c.2nd century BCE to 3rd century CE.[2]

Tzompantli are also noted in other Mesoamerican pre-Columbian cultures, such as the Toltec and Mixtec.


Other examples are indicated from Maya civilization sites such as Uxmal and other Puuc region sites of the Yucatán, dating from around the late 9th century decline of the Maya Classical Era. A particularly fine and intact inscription example survives at the extensive Chichen Itza site.[3]

A tzompantli is illustrated to the right of a depiction of an Aztec temple dedicated to the deity Huitzilopochtli; from Juan de Tovar's 1587 manuscript, also known as the Ramírez Codex.


There are numerous depictions of tzompantli in Aztec codices, dating from around the time or shortly after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, such as the Durán Codex, Ramírez Codex and Codex Borgia. During the stay of Cortes' expedition in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (initially as guest-captives of the Emperor Moctezuma II, before the battle which would lead to the conquest), they reported a wooden tzompantli altar adorned with the skulls from recent sacrifices. Within the complex of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan (Templo Mayor) itself, a relief in stucco depicted these sacrifices; the remains of this relief have survived and may now be seen in the ruins in the Zócalo of present-day Mexico City.

According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo's eye-witness account (The Conquest of New Spain) written several decades after the event, after Cortes' expedition was forced to make their initial retreat from Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs erected a makeshift tzompantli to display the severed heads of men and horses they had captured from the invaders. This taunting is also depicted in an Aztec codex which relates the story, and the subsequent battles which led to the eventual capture of the city by the Spanish forces and their allies.

Based on numbers given by the Conquistador Andrés de Tapia and Fray Diego Durán, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano[4] has calculated that there were at most 60,000 skulls on the Hueyi Tzompantli (great Skullrack) of Tenochtitlan. There were at least five more skullracks in Tenochtitlan but by all accounts they were much smaller.

Association and meaning

Apart from their use to display the skulls of ritualistically-executed war captives, tzompantli often occur in the contexts of Mesoamerican ballcourts, which were widespread throughout the region's civilizations and sites. In these contexts it appears that the tzompantli was used to display the losers' heads of this often highly-ritualised game. New research seems to indicate it is not the losers' heads that were taken, but the winners' heads. It was an honor to be the more worthy sacrifice. Not all games resulted in this outcome, however, and for those that did it is surmised that these participants were often notable captives. Tula, the former Toltec capital, has a well-preserved tzompantli inscription on its ballcourt.

The association with ballcourts is also reflected in the Popol Vuh, the famous religious, mythological and cultural account of the K'iche' Maya. When Hun Hunahpu, father of the Maya Hero Twins, was killed by the lords of the Underworld (Xibalba), his head was hung in a gourd tree next to a ballcourt. The gourd tree is a clear representation of a tzompantli, and the image of skulls in trees as if they were fruits is also a common indicator of a tzompantli and the associations with some of the game's metaphorical interpretations.


  1. ^ Frances Karttunen. "Linguist list server". etymology of Tzompantli. Retrieved September 25, 2005. 
  2. ^ Spencer (1982), pp.236-239
  3. ^ Miller and Taube (1993), p.176.
  4. ^ Ortíz de Montellano 1983


  • Miller, Mary; and Karl Taube (1993). The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05068-6. 
  • Spencer, C. S. (1982). The Cuicatlán Cañada and Monte Albán: A Study of Primary State Formation. New York: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-656680-1. 
  • Ortíz de Montellano, Bernard R. (1983). "Counting Skulls: Comment on the Aztec Cannibalism Theory of Harner-Harris". American Anthropologist 85 No.2: pp.403–406. 


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