A stone skull found at the Ndachjian-Tehuacan archaeological site.
Image: INAH

Archaeologists excavating a site in Mexico have discovered a temple dedicated to Xipe Tótec, an Aztec deity associated with the ritualistic practice of wearing the skins of sacrificed individuals.

The temple was unearthed at the Ndachjian-Tehuacan archaeological site in the central Mexican state of Puebla, according to a press release issued earlier this week by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. Archaeologists were already aware of Xipe Tótec, which means “Our Lord the Flayed,” through historical accounts and associated Aztec depictions, but this is the first known structure dedicated to the worship of Xipe Tótec, an Aztec god associated with agriculture and war. Priests associated with Xipe Tótec are thought to have worn the skin of individuals who were sacrificed, or offered, to the deity.

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The temple dates back to between 1000 and 1260 AD, according to the archaeologists who explored the site, a team led by Noemí Castillo Tejero. The site was initially constructed by the Popoloca people, who settled the area around 900 AD. Eventually, these people were integrated into the larger Aztec Empire.

The Xipe Tótec temple at Ndachjian-Tehuacán
Image: Melitón Tapia, INAH

Artifacts associated with Xipe Tótec included a pair of stone skulls, each measuring around 28 inches tall (71 centimeters) and weighing 440 pounds (200 kilograms). A stone torso was also found, featuring an extra hand extending out from its left arm. The archaeologists said the extra appendage was a symbol of the god wearing the fleshy remains of sacrificed individuals.

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“Sculpturally [the torso] is a very beautiful piece,” said Tejero in the press release. “It measures approximately 80 centimeters high [31 inches] and has a hole in the belly that was used, according to the [historical] sources, to place a green stone and ‘endow them with life’ for the ceremonies.”

The torso sculpture with an extra hand extending from its left hand.
Image: INAH

Two circular altars were also found at the site, in an orientation consistent with Aztec Xipe Tótec rituals, as per accounts recorded by Spanish conquistadors during the early 1500s. Followers of Xipe Tótec, according to these accounts, used one altar to kill their victims—typically prisoners of war—with an arrow. Some were already dead, having perished in gladiatorial fights. The second altar was used for the flaying, or fleshing, of the victims, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

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During the ritual, called Tlacaxipehualiztli (meaning “to wear the skin of the skinning”), priests adorned the skin of the victims. The final stage of the ritual involved burying the skins at the foot of the altar. And in fact, two burial pits consistent with these accounts were found at the Ndachjian-Tehuacan temple. The exact reason for the ceremony isn’t entire clear, but it may been a kind of fertility ritual, the AFP reports.

These accounts and the related evidence are as fascinating as they are grim, but Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at the University of California-Berkeley who wasn’t involved in the research, told the New York Times that these interpretations need to be taken with a grain of salt. Violent depictions in Aztec artwork and the temple itself, she said, aren’t necessarily indicative of the presumed religious practices.

“We don’t really look at a Christian church and think that people are being crucified there,” she told the NYT. “We need a lot more archaeology from the site to understand the whole.”

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Once the analysis of these artifacts is complete, the items will be put on display at at the Ndachjian-Tehuacán museum. Excavations will continue at the site, including further investigations into the areas located near and underneath the temple.

[National Institute of Anthropology and History]