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Patio of the Carved Skulls

Submitted by mccaffer on Fri, 02/29/2008 - 10:03am

By Geoffrey McCafferty (2008)

The Patio of the Carved Skulls is located on the northeast platform of the Great Pyramid.  It was first explored in 1931 by the Mexican archaeologist Eduardo Noguera (1937), who cleared the patio, exposing staircases on two sides, and revealing a miniature pyramid-altar in the center (Fig 1).  The Altar de los Craneos Esculpidos was so-named for the plaster-covered human skulls that were molded onto the exterior of the altar; these have since been removed.    Opening the altar, Noguera discovered the remains of an adult male and adult female, buried with grave goods making this among the 'richest' burials known from Cholula (Fig. 2).  The altar and its contents were the subject of an excellent monograph that Noguera published in 1937, but unfortunately there was little contextual information about the patio itself.  In 1994, Sergio Suarez Cruz from the Puebla INAH office directed a project to map the remains of the Patio and surrounding platform, and in the process of that investigation several small-scale excavations were conducted to ascertain the construction history of the patio.  I assisted in this project with students from Brown University.

Noguera image of Patio of CS

Figure 1: Noguera's excavation of the Patio of the Carved Skulls (1931)


Plan view of burials from Noguera

Figure 2: Plan view of burials inside of altar (from Noguera 1937)


The overarching goal of the 1994 season of the Proyecto Cholula, directed by Suarez Cruz, was to inventory visible archaeological remains on the northeast platform to better preserve the site.  The area was fenced, and stone stairs were built up to the platform.  Evidence of Noguera's excavation were still visible in the form of a trench through an elevated area to the east of the Patio of the Carved Skuls, in which several plaster floors were visible in the cut and polychrome sherds were present in the eroding soil, suggesting that this area contained Early Postclassic contexts.  North of the Patio is another elevated area with exposed floor surfaces and artifacts suggesting that it was a Late Classic period structure (Fig 3), probably also an elite residence.  And immediately east of the Patio and associated rooms was a low-lying area with several large masonry wall foundations, probably exposed by Noguera but unreported in his monograph.

North group

Figure 3: Entrance to North Group on the northeast platform


The major effort of the season was directed at exposing architectural features of the Patio of the Carved Skulls, and then mapping the group (Fig 4).  Basic site maintenance included cutting back the overgrowth in order to expose surface level architectural remains.  In several areas, especially on the north and east sides of the Patio, excavation units were dug to clarify ambiguous surface evidence (Fig 5).

Patio plan

Figure 4: Plan of the Patio of the Carved Skulls


Patio from southeast

Figure 5: View of Patio of the Carved Skulls from southeast


On the north side of the Patio, an alignment of stucco at ground level indicated another architectural feature.  Excavation revealed remains of two additional miniature pyramid altars, one inside the other (Fig 6).  The interior altar had later been encased in the outer one, presumably as part of a rededication ceremony.  Atthough time did not permit excavation of these features, some human bone and a greenstone bead were recovered during cleaning.  Both altar features were partly dismantled and truncated when the north staircase of the Patio of the Altars was built at a later date.  The disregard for these earlier altars suggests a cultural disjunction, although stylistically the pyramid altars are fairly similar to the later Altar of the Carved Skulls.

second altar     altar 2

Figure 6: The dismantled altars north of Patio


In the process of excavating around these additional altars a burial was encountered in what must have been a small pit dug into the fill.  It was the flexed burial of an adolescent, facing north (Fig. 7).  Pathological condition of the skull suggested that the individual may have died from a severe mastoid infection, and the teeth exhibited an extraodinary degree of plaque.(Fig 8).  The only grave goods that may have been interred with the burial was a figurine head (Fig. 9), and the presence of some 'extra'  phalanges may have also been part of a ritual offering. . 

adolecent burial

Figure 7: Flexed burial of adolescent


skull front     underside of skull

Figure 8: Skull of adolescent, with evidence of infected mastoid process



Figure 9: Figurine head associated with burial


A second area where surface evidence indicated subsurface architectural features was excavated east of the east staircase of the Patio.  Here evidence of two earlier staircase were found (Fig 10).  They were also covered in plaster, and later filled with loose earth (including architectural debris and artifacts) and adobe bricks as containing walls.

earlier staircases

Figure 10: Earlier staircases on east side of Patio


Additional cleaning took place in the southeast corner of the Patio, where the alfarda of the staircase was exposed (Fig 11). 

alfarda in corner of patio

Figure 11: Alfarda in southeast corner of Patio of the Carved Skulls


One additional feature was discovered during clearing between the Patio of the Carved Skulls and the north group.  A plaster covered column base also featured evidence for where a perishable, presumably wooden, column had stood (Fig 12).  Although unique in this area of the site, this suggests the possibility of a colonnaded  area associated with the elite complex.

column base

Figure 12: Plaster covered column base


The final task of the project was to conserve the skeletal remains inside of the Altar.  Opening the metal covering revealed the intact skeletons of the adult male and female, virtually undisturbed since they were first excavated by Noguera in the 1930s (Figs. 13 and 14).  Using a solution of Resistol and water, Suarez Cruz carefully coated the bones so that they might preserve another 60 years (Fig. 15).

Skeleton 1

Figure 13: Skeleton A


Skeleton 2 

Figure 14: Skeleton B


Sergio in altar

Figure 15: Arqlgo. Sergio Surarez Cruz adjusting skeleton in Altar of the Carved Skulls






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