Arte-Factual: Toltec Warriors

Sharp-eyed gamers may have noticed that the same colossal sculptures appear repeatedly throughout the Peruvian levels of the original Tomb Raider (1996), most notably in the Tomb of Qualopec. These sculptures are actually based on the real-life Atlantes – or Atlantean pillars – found at Tula, a Postclassic archaeological site in the Mexican state of Hidalgo.**

Lara Croft and statues of Toltec warriors in the Tomb of Qualopec (Photo credit:
Lara Croft explores the Tomb of Qualopec. Photo credit:

The four Atlantes of Tula are basalt pillars carved in the form of Toltec warriors and are thought to have once supported the roof of the Temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (“The Morning Star”), which once stood atop Pyramid B. The Toltec warriors themselves can be seen wearing their full battle regalia: butterfly-shaped breastplates, feathered headdresses, spears, spear throwers (atlatl), decorative sandals, and sun-disks on their backs. The warriors may have represented the god Quetzalcoatl in his manifestation as Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, the warrior Lord of the House of the Dawn who was associated with Venus, the “morning star.”

When the Toltec Empire crumbled in the 12th century, many of Tula’s statues were torn down and unceremoniously dumped in a trench that had been dug into the north face of Pyramid B. The four warriors were eventually reassembled and returned to their original positions following the excavations of the Tula site in the 1940s. Visitors to the site can now see them gazing eastwards and downwards onto Tula Grande, the ancient city’s political and ceremonial centre.

The Atlantes of Tula
The Atlantes of Tula. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the presence of these Toltec warriors in the original Tomb Raider is that they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. The Pre-Columbian cultures of Peru would have had little to no contact with the Mesoamerican cultures of Mexico, so it is unlikely that Toltec art would have found its way into Vilcabamba, an Inca city nestled away in the Andes.

However, since the Vilcabamba in Tomb Raider I is thought to be the final resting place of a fictional Atlantean king, I think we can allow the game developers some artistic license. After all, perhaps in their mind, the artistic traditions of the Toltecs and Aztecs had Atlantean origins and the Tula warriors are merely copies of those found in Qualopec’s final resting place. 😉

If you’d like to learn more about Tula, the Atlantes and the Toltec Empire, check out the links and books listed below:

** The use of the word “atlantean” here has nothing to do with the mythical lost island of Atlantis that features so heavily in Tomb Raider (1996) and Anniversary. “Atlantes” is simply the plural form of the architectural term “atlas”, which refers to the use of a male human figure as a supporting column. Those who are familiar with Greek mythology will probably remember that Atlas was a Titan who was condemned to hold up the heavens for all eternity as punishment for his involvement in the war against the Olympian gods.

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If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about the art and artefacts seen in the Tomb Raider games, feel free to check out the other articles listed in the “Arte-Factual” archive.

About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a writer, part-time translator, and gamer who is passionate about archaeology, language learning, travel, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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5 Comments on “Arte-Factual: Toltec Warriors”

  1. I must write an Obscure Pre-Columbian Sunday post on the (In)Tolerable Toltecs. I love that all the sources seem to delight in saying that, though the Aztecs were big fans of Toltec art (I think “Toltec” actually means “artesan” in Nahuatl), they didn’t seem to produce much that was impressive–except for the Atlantes, of course!

    1. Please do. I’d love to read it. 🙂

      I have to admit I’m not too familiar with Toltec art or history. They seem to be ignored in most of the books I’ve read. The Olmecs, Aztecs and Maya just keep stealing their thunder. 😉