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Mystery of The Aztec Skull Masks

Over 30 years ago, 8 masks made from human skulls were found at a temple in Tenochtitlán, Mexico. Their purpose and origins have always been somewhat mysterious. However a new archaeological analysis suggests that these morbid masks may have been made from slain warriors and other elite members of ancient Aztec society.

The discovery of Templo Mayor began in 1978 with a decapitated and dismembered body. A monolith depicting the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui, who was beheaded by her brother Huitzilopochtli (the Mesoamerican deity of war, sun, and human sacrifice) and thrown down a mountain. The monolith was part of a large temple dedicated to him at the heart of the 15th-century Aztec capital city Tenochtitlan, the area that is Mexico City today.

The masks, along with the 30 unmodified skulls, date back to the reign of emperor Axayacatl (AD 1468–1481). Decorative human skull masks were made to be worn over the face or as a part of a headdress, and left as offerings to the deceased.
By Rekonstruktion_Tempelbezirk_von_Tenochtitlan_2_Templo_Mayor.jpg: Wolfgang Sauberderivative work: Joyborg (talk) - Rekonstruktion_Tempelbezirk_von_Tenochtitlan_2_Templo_Mayor.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0

Parts of the bone were removed, and the skulls were dyed and modified, some with blades jutting from the nasal cavities and shell or pyrite inlays in the eye sockets. These offerings were found near the temple Huitzilopochtli, which the researchers say suggests the bones came from warriors who had been captured and sacrificed.

A group of anthropologists led by Corey Ragsdale of the University of Montana set out to analyze the skull masks, in addition to unmodified ritual skull offerings, to learn more about the origins and creation of the masks. Their analysis is published in the June issue of Current Anthropology.

The masks in question are "decorative headpieces made from human skulls that would have been worn over the face or as part of a headdress," Ragsdale and colleagues write. 

The study reveals that the skulls belonged to males with good diets, in good health, and likely came from a variety of different areas around the Aztec Empire. They were probably defeated warriors and nobility brought to Tenochtitlan to be sacrificed.

Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote of leathery skin masks made from the flayed faces of sacrificed enemies, but using the skull seems to have been rare, leading to the conclusion by researchers that it was reserved for only the most elite.


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