Tikal: The Temple of the Skulls

The Temple of Skulls, Structure 5D-87, at Tikal
Fig. W0831: Temple of the Skulls 
The Temple of the Skulls (Templo de las Calaveras) is the unofficial name for  Structure 5D-87, which sits on the Eastern Platform of the Mundo Perdido (Lost World) complex. As was common, the Temple was rebuilt and rededicated several times in its 500 year history. Curiously though, during its first reconstruction in the 7th century, the builders rotated the temple 180° so that it is now approached from the Plaza of the Seven Temples rather than the Mundo Perdido complex.

Fig. W0830: The Skulls from Structure 5D-87 at Tikal
Fig. W0831: The Skulls from 5D-87 
At the turn of the 8th century, the the Temple was again rebuilt, this time with four platforms and a curious niche half way up the stairs. The niche was undoubtedly designed to hold a sacred object or idol, but no-one can be certain on exactly what it was that the hut you can see in in the centre of Fig. W0831 was built to house.  At this stage, the Temple was also boosted to having four levels and a height of 8.3 metres.

A close up of a skull from the Temple of Skulls at Tikal
Fig. W0830S: Tikal 
Close up of a skull from the Tzompantli at Chichen Itza
Fig. W0425S:  Chichen Itza 
To add to the mystery, three stucco skulls were added to the small platform on which the niche sits. One skull looks right from the right-hand corner, another looks left from the left-hand corner, and the third looks straight ahead from the centre of the platform, directly beneath the entrance to the niche. The skulls are very similar to those found at on the Tzompantli (skull rack), which is also known as the Platform of Skulls, at Chichen Itza. As you can see from fig. W0830S, which is the skull from Structure 5D-87 at Tikal, and fig. 0425S, which is one of the skulls on the Tzompantli  at Chichen Itza, they both share the distinctive groove running around the eye and along the cranium. There is no knowledge of contact between the two cities and they couldn’t be much farther apart in style, distance and epoch, however, it would be highly improbable that the both came cities came to this design independently of one-another.

The purpose of the niche must be related to the the three skulls, and purpose of the Temple must be related to the niche, but as yet, no-one has uncovered the link. Also, to turn the Temple around when it played a significant part in the alignment of the solstice in combination with the Great Pyramid of the Mundo Perdido raises more questions. The answer to this would seem to be simple though, the Temple originally faced west, towards the dying sun which would normally indicate it was dedicated to the dead. By turning it around, it would be facing the sun on it’s rebirth and the suns rays would shine into the niche, illuminating whatever it was that was kept in there. 

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