Archaeologists have long been mystified by the ghastly skull masks offering found in Mexico’s Templo Mayor, one of the major Aztec temples still standing in the ruins of Tenochtitlan.
Previously thought to be made of the skulls of victims of human sacrifice, researchers from University of Montana have determined that the skulls were those of soldiers of noble birth whose craniums received special treatment and were revered as spiritual objects once transformed.
In a study published in the journal Current Anthropology, archaeologists compared the age-at-death, sex, and health status of eight skull masks with that of 30 unmodified skulls from human sacrifices made under the rule of Axayacatl (AD 1469–1481) and 127 skulls of fighters who died during "military encounters."
All the skull masks appeared to come from men between the ages of 30 and 45 who were in remarkably good health and appeared to have little or no dental disease or nutritional deficiency.
This led archaeologists to speculate that the skulls must have come from people of noble birth. Researchers believe that the victims were captured during battle and taken to temples to be sacrificed, but given their noble birth, once dead their skulls received special treatment.
The skull masks were made by Aztec priests who removed the back part of the cranium, inserting blades, stones and inlays in the eyes and nose and even coloring them with dye. Once the masks were completed they were placed on ominous racks called “tzompantli" in temples such as Templo Mayor.