The Skull Rack of Copan is rarely compared with the tzompantli of Chichen Itza or Tenochitlan

Most skull racks have the skulls held in place with sticks. The two most infamous tzompantli are of Chichen Itza (Maya/Toltecs) and Tenochitlan of the Aztecs. But I would like to suggest adding the monumental Copan sculpture of the stairway of Structure 16 that shows horizontal rolls of frontal skulls. No sticks are visible piercing each skull but they are in a row. What is different is the variant of a goggle-eyed Tlaloc in the center (are these skulls offerings to a Copan-ized version of Tlaloc?). But what is important is that we have dedicated time and effort to photograph these frontal skulls with good lighting. We will have a complete FLAAR Reports on this sculpture but the present web page will introduce the rows of skulls.

There are also frontal bas-relief skulls at the end of stone sculptures near Altar O.


Temple 22 has been brought into the sculpture museum and reconstructed (what you see outside is a copy; the original is in the Copan Sculpture Museum so it is protected from wind and rain storms). This is one of two identical frontal deep-relief skulls of Temple 22 in the museum. Photo by Nicholas Hellmuth, Nikon D-810, Feb 2, 2024. Since our project was in cooperation and coordination with IHAH we had permission to photograph in the museum at night since often you can do better illumination at night. But this view is with 5:18 pm sunlight plus portable studio lighting.


In the row of hieroglyphs below the doorway into Temple 22 is another skull


Even though eroded from over a thousand years of tropical rain storms and tree roots growing around it, this skull is still staring directly at you with its death eyes. This 3-dimensional skull is in a row of hieroglyphs underneath the doorway into Temple 22, reconstructed in the Copan Sculpture Museum.

Photo by Nicholas Hellmuth, with portable photo studio lighting (to make the skull stand out); Nikon D-810, 5:23pm, Feb 2, 2024, FLAAR Photo Archive.

Several altars have a frontal skull at their end, but only Altar B’ (Bprime) is visible

There are drawings that show several altars have a frontal skull at each end (a smiley face skull). But we found only one, Altar B’ (Bprime) in-situ (near Altar O); none are in the Copan Sculpture Museum.


Smiley-face frontal bas-relief skull at end of Copan Altar B’ (Bprime), outside, near Altar 41 and Altar O. Photo by Nicholas Hellmuth, 7:55pm, February 6, 2024, iPhone 15 Pro Max and portable studio lighting (which is why the Copan bat emblem glyph at the left is well illuminated as is the frontal skull). FLAAR Photo Archive. All these photos we donated to IHAH the day before we left.

Suggested Reading on Skull Racks (and Crossed Bones) including Copan

Yes, Virginial Miller does mention and discuss skulls and crossed bones at Copan. But there is not one single photograph of the skull rack of Copan in the Miller article. However she also mentions human long bones (but again, not showing any photo or drawing) (1999: 349):

At Copan, a small three-room vaulted annex (Structure 10L-230) to the temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway pyramid (Structure 10L-26) was once decorated with reliefs of fleshless human long bones and skulls. While no bodies were found, a broken eccentric flint on the floor of the central chamber hints at a possible sacrificial function (Fash 1991: 149). Dated to the mid-eighth century, this structure may be the earliest in Mesoamerica to display the skull-and-bone motif that becomes so prominent in the Postclassic. Echoing the war and death themes of both Structure 10L-26 and 10L-230, the later Structure 10L-16's facade was decorated with tenoned stone skulls (Fash 1991: 169).

  • FASH, William L.
  • 1991
  • Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copan and the Ancient Maya. Thames & Hudson. 192 pages.

    Skulls and bones mentioned twice but not one single photograph or drawing of either.
  • FASH, William L.
  • 2001
  • Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copan and the Ancient Maya. Thames & Hudson. 192 pages.


First posted February 20, 2024 by Nicholas Hellmuth

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