Monday, July 27, 2009

Tzompantli Cake

The Tzompantli cake is a follow-up cake of sorts to the Chacmool cake. It was made for friend M for her birthday and the subject matter is due to her interests in things related to bone and archaeology. It was a bit of challenge for me because I really don’t know all that much about bone anatomy. I mean, I like sculpting people (mostly their heads) but I can’t say I have much understanding of what goes underneath. This is doubtless a serious weakness as knowing the underlying anatomy is supposed to help make one a better artist! Oh well. First off, I’d better tell you what a tzompantli actually is supposed to represent.

A tzompantli means “wall/rack of skulls” (more or less) in Classical Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. A skull rack is a place where skulls are placed in a rack and unlike the medieval European tradition of bone curation, mostly these skulls are from sacrificial victims or fallen enemy warriors. These were presumably displayed at public places near public buildings and edifices. At least, that appears to be the idea.

Of course, bone curation was also practiced for family members too, so it’s not like it was just limited to “trophy” skulls but in the case of the rack, it seems that those who occupied it were enemies or captives. So, basically, a tzompantli is another version of a public human sacrifice/warfare memorial, except presumably some of the skulls could have been captured in battle as well as removed under more ceremonial circumstances like a ballgame. So making a tzompantli cake makes a nice addition to my cake repertoire of Mesoamerican human sacrifice monuments.
Honestly, I can’t recall that many skulls have been found in archaeologically recovered contexts with the correct lobes removed or holes for placement in racks, so this may have been a practice that was somewhat more limited or specialized than what the conquistador Bernal del Castillo suggests (his numbers are very high). At this point, it is something that is difficult to know.
However, we do know that they are represented in some of the codices as almost abacus-like structures with skulls as the beads. Most of these post-date the Spanish Conquest so it really is hard to know whether they are all that accurate. We have to just go with what we have for now.
To do my tzompantli cake I had to make some structural decisions. Did I want skull shaped cakes that I could stack together as a rack or did I want to make a regular old cake and merely decorate it with skulls made from fondant? This time, I decided to stick to doing the cake with fondant skulls. For one thing, although I had plastic skull molds for making sugar skulls for the Day of the Dead, I didn't actually have any mold that could withstand oven temperatures. I did see some skull pans once but the details on them were woefully inadequate. Friend M has actually taken quite a bit of bone anatomy and would have doubtless been disappointed with them!

As I’ve said earlier, I wasn’t that good at molding the skulls. As you can see below they really ended up resembling gorilla skulls. Well, sort of…put it this way, had you opted for a statistical shape analysis of my fondant skulls you would have concluded that the individuals in question suffered from all sorts of rare and unusual maladies. You might also have concluded that they were evidence of a now extinct race of polar space gorillas. You know, I did once have access to a 3d scanner, perhaps it would be a fun exercise for next time!

The good thing about doing a skull rack for a friend is that you can also render their head alongside all the other “victims”. In this case I thought it would be better if I did a head with flesh still on it, so it would be recognizably hers. As you can see, it does sort of look like a human head, perhaps a bit too much of a Barbie-like expression but then, I don’t actually know what decapitated fresh heads look like much less what type of expressions are common so it could be just right. I opted to sculpt the head and the features entirely of different colors of fondant rather than paint the features onto the head. I thought painting on the fondant, while it would produce a more realistic head, might make the monochromatic white fondant skulls appear a little to different and fake-looking by comparison. I suppose I was going for more of a "fake" fun style in this case rather than gorey. Perhaps next time I'll go for horribly accurate.

Finally, I attempted to use lollipop sticks to make the requisite “rack” for the skulls. Believe it or not, it did actually stay up but the big problem I found was that the skulls kept spinning and staying at awkward angles more suggestive of a child’s toy or a really macabre abacus rather than a real skull rack.
This is where some more details on skull rack practice would have helped. It’s possible that they used a method other than the simple obvious method of "impale the skulls with a stick and put on rack"…they may have been attached by other means or secured by some other device to the stick. Or it could be that my skulls (being solid and ill-proportioned) were so “off” in their measurements and weight that they simply didn’t behave like real skulls would. I suspect that it’s a combination of the two, I don’t know how the rack worked and I messed up the skull proportions. It would be easy to find out with real skulls but I had cake to finish making. Besides, I don’t have access to labs where they work with skulls at my university and I suspect that they would look askance at anything that might require er, drilling holes into them to see how I could hang them on a rack! But it would be a nice side research project for the history/discovery channel types. I hope they get right on that.

Finally, I just laid the rack directly onto the cake surface so that all the skulls (and fleshed head) were laying in the correct manner. The cake was basically a simple and yummy platform for the actual skull rack. It was a golden buttercream cake with a simple american style confectioner's sugar buttercream (arizona is too hot generally to use any other kind without some access to near constant refrigeration). You can see the happy result below.
Naturally, everyone got their own skull.