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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Archeologists have discovered a massive ceremonial skull rack from the heyday of the Aztec empire in the heart of Mexico City, a find that could shed new light on how its rulers projected power by human sacrifice, the team said on Thursday.
The skull rack, known as a tzompantli in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, was used to display the bleached white craniums of sacrificed warriors from rival kingdoms, likely killed by priests atop towering temples that once stood nearby.
Dug up behind the capital's colonial-era cathedral, the as yet partially uncovered skull rack was likely built between 1485 and 1502 and may have been about 112 feet (34 meters) long and 12 meters (40 foot) wide, lead archeologist Raul Barrera said.
Hundreds of skulls would have been arranged neatly on the wooden poles of the racks, which served to inspire fear and awe.
"The tzompantli had a very specific symbolism," Barrera told reporters. "With more study, we expect to learn that many of these skulls belong to (Aztec) enemies, who were captured, sacrificed and decapitated in order to be displayed there."
The warlike and deeply religious Aztecs ruled a sprawling empire that at its height stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean before the Spanish conquest of 1519-1521.
Reporting by Carlos Carrillo; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Bernard Orr