Iconography of Tzompantli at Templo Mayor
Known simply as "Building B" in Leonardo Lopez Lujan's 1978-1982 excavation of the structures surrounding the main building of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City, this structure is located on the so called "North Plaza." On the north, east, and south sides, there are 240 engraved skulls into the plastered tezontle. The west side is a staircase leading to the top of the structure. It was so named the tzompantli-altar because the Nahuatl word for tzompantli comes from tzontli, meaning head, and pan, meaning upon. Thus tzompantli could be roughly translated as the place the skulls are upon. The tzompantli found at the Templo Mayor is not the only skull frieze found at Mesoamerican archeological excavation sites. Other similar skull walls have been found or are suspected to have existed at Loma de la Coyotera, Oaxaca and Chemchan, Uxmal4. Some art historians have assumed a connection between other tzompantlis and the "Mayan Ball Game," a rugby-basketball hybrid game in which it is believed the losers had their heads cut off. It is possible that these tzompantlis not only had a warning and terrifying impression for foreigners or visitors, but also could have served as motivation for Mexica and Mesoamerican people living in such communities to win the Mayan Ball Game or to avoid becoming sacrificial victims.
"Three construction stages were detected1" for the tzompantli at Templo Mayor, the oldest estimated at having been constructed between 1325 and 1475, the intermediate stage which is open to the public is contemporaneous with Stage VI of the Templo Mayor, and the most recent stage was unfortunately dismantled, had only the beginnings of new formations. It is in the middle of two other structures also on the North Plaza that are equidistant from the tzompantli. There is no corresponding temple on the south side.
This is a more permanent representation of the human skulls that were displayed on stakes in Tenochtitlan. These displays were believed to have been made from the skulls of sacrificial victims. Harner estimated from the description of Andres de Tapia, a Spanish conquistador, that there to have been 136,000 skulls on display. A more recent estimate by Ortiz de Montellano, taking into account reasonable heights for posts and measurements of skulls, conservatively gave an estimate of no more than 60,000 skulls2.
The tzompantli has been relatively well preserved, with the vast majority of the skulls easily perceptible as human skulls. The skulls also have subtle differences and are not exactly identical to each other, showing the painstaking nature of the initial carving of the tzompantli. With barred teeth and menacing stares of the stone skulls, the original artist or group of artists must have been trying to emulate the terror that would have been caused by the actual skulls racks which held the skulls of the sacrificial victims.