Archaeologists unearth Aztec human skull trophy rack in Mexico temple

Archaeologists unearth Aztec human skull trophy rack in Mexico temple



We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

A trophy rack of human skulls that had once belonged to victims of human sacrifice has been discovered by archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History at the Templo Mayor complex, part of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan on the site of the modern Mexico City.

The racks were known as “tzompantli” and they were used by the Aztecs to display the severed heads of sacrificial victims, which were exhibited for all to see on vertical posts. The skulls were suspended horizontally by the use of wooden poles push through the sides.

According to Eduardo Matos, the skull rack was a “show of might” used by the Aztecs to impress friends and enemies alike. They were invited into the city where they would be cowed into passivity by the grisly display of human heads, several of them in advanced stages of decomposition. Such racks were often depicted in paintings and written texts from the early colonial period, however this discovery is different in that part of the platform where the heads were displayed was itself made from rows of skulls fixed together with mortar. The platform formed a rough circle with an open space in the centre and the skulls looking inward into the open space. However, the archaeologists don’t yet know what was in this central open space.

Illustration showing an Aztec skull rack. Códice Ramírez . ( Wikimedia Commons )

“There are 35 skulls that we can see, but there are many more in underlying layers” said archaeologist Raul Barrera, speaking to Associated Press (AP) . He added that as the archaeologists continue to dig downwards they will probably discover a lot more.

Barrera also said that at least one Spanish writer had described the mortared-together skulls, following the conquest of the Aztec kingdom, but no such discovery has been made – until now that is.

Susan Gillespie, an archaeologist from the University of Florida, said that she doesn’t know of any other instances of skulls being used to make such a structure.

Detail of the Tzompantli located in the Templo Mayor in Mexico . (Wikimedia Commons )

Archaeologists began to uncover the structure from February this year, on the western side of what had once been the Templo Mayor complex. It was located under the floor of a three-story colonial era house, which meant that archaeologists had to work carefully suspended on their stomachs on a wooden platform in narrow excavation wells six feet under the floor level.

Excavations carried out at the site since 1914 have indicated the possible presence of an Aztec ceremonial site, which fits accurately the descriptions of the Spaniards. According to Gillespie, other racks have been discovered which are better described as ‘head racks’ on the basis that the severed heads were displayed shortly after each execution. However, archaeologists have been searching for a long time for the main rack.

Members of the archaeological team working on wooden platforms in an excavation well. Credit: INAH/Jornada.Unam.Mx

“They've been looking for the big one for some time, and this one does seem much bigger than the already excavated one” Gillespie wrote in her notes. “This find both confirms long-held suspicions about the sacrificial landscape of the ceremonial precinct, that there must have been a much bigger tzompantli to curate the many heads of sacrificial victims as a kind of public record or accounting of sacrifices.”

The Templo Mayor, meaning ‘Great Temple’, was a major Aztec temple dating from the Late Postclassic period of Mesoamerica. A typical Aztec sacrificial ritual would involve the victims being forced by four priests to lie down on a slab. Another priest would then open up each person’s abdomen with a flint knife, exposing the diaphragm. The priest would then tear out the victim’s heart while it was still beating. This would be placed in a bowl held by a statue of a god, probably depicting Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death. The victim’s body would be thrown down a flight of steps descending the side of the pyramid on which the temple stood. It would finally come to rest on a terrace at the base. During the reconsecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs boasted that they had slaughtered 80,400 prisoners over the course of four days, although this is believed to be an exaggeration. However, in 2012 archaeologists discovered 50 skulls and 250 jaw bones in the ruins of Tenochtitlan beneath Mexico City, testifying to the gruesome practices of the Aztecs.

Featured image: Newly discovered skulls at the Templo Mayor complex in Mexico. Credit: Jesús Villaseca/Jornada.Unam.Mx

By Robin Whitlock


Archaeologists discovered the site of children’s sacrifice at the foot of an ancient temple in a ruined Aztec city, located at the foot of the ancient Templo Mayor temple in the center of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.

It is believed that the young child was sacrificed to the Aztec war god Huitzilopochtli in the late fifteenth century. The sacrifice of children appears to have been relatively common in ancient Southern and Central American cultures.

Aztecs undertook human sacrifices, including children, as they believed this would bring the rains their crops needed to grow. The discovery comes 12 years after the location of the first child sacrifice site at the archaeological site, now in the center of the Mexican capital, Mexico City.

Archaeologists unearthed the remains of the young child, believed to have been sacrificed in the late fifteenth century, at the foot of an ancient temple in Mexico, in the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, which is now the center of the Mexican capital, Mexico City

The child’s bones were reportedly found along with body adornments and symbols characteristic of Huitzilopochtli.

The remains, named ‘Offering 176’, were found under the floor of a square to the west of the Templo Mayor, which was the center of the ancient city.

The young child was believed to have been sacrificed in the late 15th century. The body of the child sacrifice was found hidden beneath stone slabs

The Aztecs had to raise a series of stone slabs from the floor to make way for the body, archaeologists point out. They then dug a pit in the ground and built a cylindrical box in which the child was placed with volcanic rocks, stuck together with stucco.

One expert told reporters: ‘Then they filled the square with soil brought from the banks of the old lake to build another square on top of it.’

A team made up of the archaeologists Rodolfo Aguilar Tapia, Mary Laidy Hernández Ramírez and Karina López Hernández, together with the physical anthropologist Jacqueline Castro Irineo, had the mission to excavate the find of the Offering 176.

The Aztecs built a cylindrical box in which the child was placed with volcanic rocks, stuck together with stucco. This image shows the remains that were excavated

Each of the human bones and the numerous objects made with different raw materials has been carefully excavated, cleaned, and registered. The discovery comes after hundreds of skulls were recently found in Tenochtitlan that is believed to have been placed on public display in ritual sacrifices.

Tenochtitlan was built on an island in what was then Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. The city was the capital of the expanding Aztec Empire in the 15th century until it was captured by the Spanish in 1521.

At its peak, it was the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. Aztec human sacrifices were far more widespread and grisly that previously thought, archaeologists revealed in June.

A stone Tzompantli (skull rack) found during the excavations of Templo Mayor (Great Temple) in Tenochtitlan. New research has found the ‘skull towers’ which used real human heads were just a small part of a massive display of skulls known as Huey Tzompantli

In 2015 Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) found a gruesome ‘trophy rack’ near the site of the Templo Mayor.

Now, they say the find was just the tip of the iceberg, and that the ‘skull tower’ was just a small part of a massive display of skulls known as Huey Tzompantli that was the size of a basketball court.

In two seasons of excavations, archaeologists collected 180 mostly complete skulls from the tower and thousands of skull fragments. Cut marks confirm that they were ‘defleshed’ after death and the decapitation marks are ‘clean and uniform.’

Three-quarters of the skulls analyzed belonged to men, mostly aged between 20 and 35. Some 20 percent belonged to women and the remaining five percent were children.


Mexico: Archaeologists unearth sacrificial skull trophy rack at Templo Mayor Aztec complex

At the Templo Mayor Aztec complex in Mexico City's historic centre, archaeologists have unearthed a trophy rack for sacrificed human skulls. According to officials, the platform known as "tzompantli" (sohm-PANT-lee) measures between six and eight metres and was used by the ancient Aztecs to display a rack of severed heads held together with a wooden pole.

A warlike and deeply religious people, the Aztecs used human skulls, which were typically from war captives, as a show of strength and symbolism. The Aztecs ruled an empire stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, encompassing much of modern-day central Mexico.

"The tzompantli had a very specific symbolism. It was an indication, in a certain way, of Mexica power," said archaeologist Raul Barrera Rodriguez. "Generally, the skulls of decapitations from several ceremonies would be exhibited in the tzompantli. Sometimes, these ceremonies also took place with Mexicas. Through studies, we are expected to detect that many of these skulls belong to enemies of the Mexicas, who were captured, sacrificed and who were decapitated in order to be displayed there."

The tzompantli was found near the Templo Mayor, the largest and most important temple of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which was used for religious ceremonies and human sacrifices. The discovery could help archaeologists better map out the lost city of Tenochtitlan, razed by the Spanish in the 16th century after the Aztecs surrendered.

"The information we are obtaining now from these buildings is that, at least the Temple of Jeca, the game of ball and the tzompantli, we know their correct location," said archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma. "We think that information is very relevant because it is showing us the relation that exists between those buildings and the Templo Mayor. We know the tzompantli has to be related to huitzilopochtli and with the game of ball."


Archaeologists Find Skull Rack at Aztec Temple

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Archaeologists have found the main trophy rack of sacrificed human skulls at Mexico City's Templo Mayor Aztec ruin site, scientists said Thursday.

Racks known as "tzompantli" were where the Aztecs displayed the severed heads of sacrifice victims on wooden poles pushed through the sides of the skull. The poles were suspended horizontally on vertical posts.

Eduardo Matos, an archaeologist at the National Institute of Anthropology and History, suggested the skull rack in Mexico City "was a show of might" by the Aztecs. Friends and even enemies were invited into the city, precisely to be cowed by the grisly display of heads in various stages of decomposition.

Paintings and written descriptions from the early colonial period showed descriptions of such racks. But institute archaeologists said the newest discovery was different.

Part of the platform where the heads were displayed was made of rows of skulls mortared together roughly in a circle, around a seemingly empty space in the middle. All the skulls were arranged to look inward toward the center of the circle, but experts don't know what was at the center.

Archaeologist Raul Barrera said that "there are 35 skulls that we can see, but there are many more" in underlying layers. "As we continue to dig the number is going to rise a lot."

Barrera noted that one Spanish writer soon after the conquest described mortared-together skulls, but none had been found before.

University of Florida archaeologist Susan Gillespie, who was not involved in the project, wrote that "I do not personally know of other instances of literal skulls becoming architectural material to be mortared together to make a structure."

The find was made between February and June on the western side of what was once the Templo Mayor complex.

The platform was partly excavated under the floor of a three-story colonial era house. Because the house was historically valuable, archaeologists often worked in narrow excavation wells six feet (two meters) under the floor level suspended on their stomachs on a wooden platform.

Periodic excavations carried out since 1914 suggested a ceremonial site was located near the site. Barrera said the location fit very well with the first Spanish descriptions of the temple complex.

Gillespie said archaeologists have found other tzompantli, which she said might be better translated as "head rack" instead of "skull rack" because the heads were put up for display while still fresh.

But experts had long been searching for the main one.

"They've been looking for the big one for some time, and this one does seem much bigger than the already excavated one," Gillespie wrote. "This find both confirms long-held suspicions about the sacrificial landscape of the ceremonial precinct, that there must have been a much bigger tzompantli to curate the many heads of sacrificial victims" as a kind of public record or accounting of sacrifices.


Mexican scientists find 'main' trophy rack for displaying skulls at Aztec temple complex

In this May 30, 2015 photo released by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), skulls are partially unearthed at the Templo Mayor Aztec ruin site in Mexico City. INAH archeologists believe they have found the site's main trophy rack of sacrificed human skulls, known as "tzompantli," where Aztecs displayed the severed heads of sacrificial victims on wooden poles pushed through the sides of the skull, but that this one is different. Part of the platform where the heads are displayed is made of rows of skulls mortared together roughly in a circle, but experts don't know what was at the center of the circle. (Hector Montano/INAH via AP) (The Associated Press)

MEXICO CITY – Mexican archaeologists believe they have found the main trophy rack of sacrificed human skulls at Mexico City's Templo Mayor Aztec ruin site.

Racks known as "tzompantli" were where Aztecs displayed the severed heads of sacrificial victims on wooden poles pushed through the sides of the skull.

But archaeologists at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History said Thursday that this one was different. Part of the platform where the heads were displayed was made of rows of skulls mortared together roughly in a circle. All the skulls were arranged to look inward toward the center of the circle, but experts don't know what was at the center.

The find was made between February and June under the floor of a colonial-era house in downtown Mexico City.


Aztec skull tower: Archaeologists unearth new sections in Mexico City

A new segment featuring 119 human skulls was discovered by archaeologists excavating a famous Aztec “tower of skulls” in Mexico City.

The discovery brings to more than 600 the total number of skulls featured in the structure of the late 15th century, known as Huey Tzompantli, reports Hollie Silverman for CNN.

The tower, first discovered five years ago by archaeologists at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico, is thought to be one of seven that once stood in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital.

It is situated near the remains of the Templo Mayor, a religious centre dedicated to the war god Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Found in the eastern section of the tower, the new skulls include at least three children’s craniums. Archaeologists identified the remains based on their size and the development of their teeth.

Researchers had previously thought that the skulls in the structure belonged to defeated male warriors, but recent analysis suggests that some belonged to women and children, as Reuters reported in 2017.

“Although we cannot determine how many of these individuals were warriors, perhaps some were captives destined for sacrificial ceremonies,” says archaeologist Barrera Rodríguez in an INAH statement.

“We do know that they were all made sacred, that is, they were turned into gifts for the gods or even personifications of the deities themselves, for which they were dressed and treated as such.”

As J. Weston Phippen wrote for the Atlantic in 2017, the Aztecs displayed victims’ skulls in smaller racks around Tenochtitlán before transferring them to the larger Huey Tzompantli structure.

Bonded together with lime, the bones were organized into a “large inner-circle that raise[d] and widen[ed] in a succession of rings.”

While the tower may seem grisly to modern eyes, INAH notes that Mesoamericans viewed the ritual sacrifice that produced it as a means of keeping the gods alive and preventing the destruction of the universe. The skull tower was discovered five years ago under Mexico City

“This vision, incomprehensible to our belief system, makes the Huey Tzompantli a building of life rather than death,” the statement says.

Archaeologists say the tower—which measures approximately 16.4 feet in diameter—was built in three stages, likely dating to the time of the Tlatoani Ahuízotl government, between 1486 and 1502. Ahuízotl, the eighth king of the Aztecs, led the empire in conquering parts of modern-day Guatemala, as well as areas along the Gulf of Mexico. During his reign, the Aztecs’ territory reached its largest size yet, with Tenochtitlán also growing significantly.

Ahuízotl built the great temple of Malinalco, added a new aqueduct to serve the city and instituted a strong bureaucracy. Accounts describe the sacrifice of as many as 20,000 prisoners of war during the dedication of the new temple in 1487, though that number is disputed.

Spanish conquistadors Hernán Cortés, Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Andrés de Tapia described the Aztecs’ skull racks in writings about their conquest of the region. As J. Francisco De Anda Corral reported for El Economista in 2017, de Tapia said the Aztecs placed tens of thousands of skulls “on a very large theater made of lime and stone, and on the steps of it were many heads of the dead stuck in the lime with the teeth facing outward.”

Per the statement, Spanish invaders and their Indigenous allies destroyed parts of the towers when they occupied Tenochtitlán in the 1500s, scattering the structures’ fragments across the area.

Researchers first discovered the macabre monument in 2015, when they were restoring a building constructed on the site of the Aztec capital, according to BBC News. The cylindrical rack of skulls is located near the Metropolitan Cathedral, which was built over the ruins of the Templo Mayor between the 16th and 19th centuries.

“At every step, the Templo Mayor continues to surprise us,” says Mexican Culture Minister Alejandra Frausto in the statement. “The Huey Tzompantli is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive archaeological finds in our country in recent years.”


National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) The discovery yielded 119 skulls of men, women, and children and expanded the scope of Templo Mayor’s dig site.

In 2017, researchers unearthed a macabre tower of human skulls after two years of digging beneath the Templo Mayor site in Mexico City. According to The Guardian, there was even more than initially met the eye, however — as researchers just discovered another section of 119 human skulls in March.

According to Fox News, the previous find yielded a tower of 484 skulls spanning over 16 feet in diameter. This latest find was made on the east side of Huey Tzompantli — the main trophy room of sacrificed men, women, and children. According to Phys, the macabre Aztec hoard now totals 603 human skulls.

Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) discovered this facade of the tower months ago, but only publicized the find on Friday. The cylindrical structure in question sits near the cathedral built over Templo Mayor, one of the main temples of the former Aztec capital. Naturally, the experts are stunned.

“The Templo Mayor continues to surprise us, and the Huey Tzompantli is without doubt one of the most impressive archaeological finds of recent years in our country,” said Mexican culture minister Alejandra Frausto.

National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) Researchers currently believe the new facade of skulls is part of Huey Tzompantli, the temple’s main trophy room for human sacrifice.

While the discovery of more than a hundred human skulls dating back to the 1400s is in itself a remarkable feat, it’s all the more extraordinary for being part of Huey Tzompantli. The enormous tower of skulls famously terrified the conquistadors who conquered the city under Hernán Cortés in 1521.

The diligent INAH researchers have since come to identify three distinct construction phases of the tower, which was built from around 1486 to 1502. The structure’s original discovery in 2017 was a rather shocking find, not merely because of the human remains — but because they weren’t exclusively male.

Experts had initially anticipated that the uncovered skulls had belonged to young male warriors, but found that many of the remains were of women and children. This naturally led to a reevaluation of what historians thought they knew about human sacrifice in the Aztec Empire.

“We were expecting just men, obviously young men, as warriors would be, and the thing about the women and children is that you’d think they wouldn’t be going to war,” anthropologist Rodrigo Bolanos told Reuters in 2017. “Something is happening that we have no record of, and this is really new, a first in the Huey Tzompantli.”

National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) An archaeologist carefully clears debris off the newfound tzompantli, or Aztec rack of skulls.

“Although we can’t say how many of these individuals were warriors, perhaps some were captives destined for sacrificial ceremonies,” said archaeologist Raúl Barrera. “We do know that they were all made sacred. Turned into gifts for the gods or even personifications of deities themselves.”

Frausto explained that the colossal pile of skulls, which was unearthed at about 10.5 feet below street level, had been a point of pride for the Aztec residents of Tenochtitlan. It represented not only strength and power, but a certain level of prestige that was likely unmatched by outside civilizations.

“It is an important testament to the power and greatness achieved by Mexico-Tenochtitlan,” she said.

Perhaps the most gruesome detail is that these racks of Aztec skulls (or tzompantli) not only displayed the decapitated heads — but they also had wooden poles shoved through the sides. There are countless paintings and descriptions from the early colonial period that detail the process, but seeing them first-hand is glaring.

Furthermore, the continuing dig at Templo Mayor differs significantly from many of these recorded accounts. Part of the platform containing these skulls saw many of them mortared together. On top of that, they’re positioned around an empty space in the middle and arranged to look inward — for reasons unknown.

National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) The dig began in 2015 during the restoration of a building in Mexico City. With new discoveries five years in, there’s no telling how much more there is to find.

As it stands, researchers are positing various theories regarding the process. The skulls might have been put on display shortly after sacrifices took place, and were mortared together only once all the flesh had rotted off. Why, of course, is in large part still a mystery — while the goal of sacrifice seems rather clear.

According to the BBC, it was believed that the man who reigned over this area was the Aztec god of the sun, war, and human sacrifice. Huey Tzompantli itself was positioned on the corner of the chapel of Huitzilopochtli, who served as the patron of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.

Ultimately, Tenochtitlan was captured in 1521 when Cortés and his men arrived to take control of the city. While it’s unclear whether the Aztecs knew this or not, a historically inevitable point in time had come where the empire fell — like every single empire before it.


Tzompantli: Gifts for the Gods Or the Gods Themselves?

Reuters in Mexico City say this deathly feature was still active in the 1400s and that the “huge array of skulls” must have struck fear into the Spanish conquistadors when they captured the city under Hernán Cortés in 1521 AD. The Mexican Minister for culture, Alejandra Frausto, said in a INAH statement that the discovery of the huey tzompantli “is without doubt one of the most impressive archaeological finds of recent years in our country.” The minister also confirmed that Mexican archaeologists have now identified three separate construction phases at the tower, which was erected between 1486 and 1502 AD.

When this skull tower was first discovered in 2017 it came as something of a shock to Mexican anthropologists. Normally, the skulls of young male warriors were built into these skull racks, but in this instance they also unearthed the crania of women and children, suggesting researchers have for a long time misinterpreted human sacrifice in the Aztec Empire. In a Telegraph article, archaeologist Raúl Barrera says, “Although we can’t say how many of these individuals were warriors, perhaps some were captives destined for sacrificial ceremonies.” Furthermore, Barrera added that while researchers don’t currently know why all these women and children “were all made sacred,” maybe they were “turned into gifts for the gods or even personifications of deities themselves.”

The archaeologists found the crania of men, women, and children in the tower of skulls. ( INAH)


Aztec trophy rack made of human skulls discovered under a colonial House in Mexico City

A trophy rack entirely made out of human skulls have been found buried in Mexico’s famous Templo Mayor an archaeological site from the Aztec era. These bizarre abacus-like racks came in many shapes and sizes were created by the Aztecs using the skulls of the people who were sacrificed during the legendary ‘top of the temple’ slaughter ceremonies. Known as ‘Tzompantli’, the structures of the racks were made out of wooden poles which were then pushed through the sides of the skulls in equal numbers from top to bottom.

The ‘skull circle’ forms part of the main trophy rack of sacrificed human skulls at Mexico City’s Templo Mayor Aztec ruin site. Source Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH)

The Aztecs revered their rituals, some more bizarre and barbaric than others, most notably the sacrificial ritual that mostly took place on top of a religious temple in the presence of five or six high standing priests.

The victims were taken to the top of the temple, where four priests held them firmly with their heads on a stone slab. The fifth priest, the most skilful out of all others, would then mercilessly start carving the body from the stomach all the way to the diaphragm. Then in an act of sheer barbarism, he would carve out the heart and raise it high above his head, it often still beating with some life left in it, to the amazement of thousands gather to witness the rituals. The heart of the victim would then be kept in a sacred bowl, and the body thrown down the stairs of the temple as a final gesture of the completion of sacrifice and the ritual. Often the neighbouring rulers, friendly and rivals alike, were invited to witness the sacred rituals, presumably to psychologically manipulate them into a constant state of fear and submission.

A tzompantli, illustrated in the 16th-century Aztec manuscript, the Durán Codex. source

A significant amount of research has already been carried out over the last four decades or so in order to better understand the skull racks and the rituals that produced these skulls. The skulls are often arranged in a way that all heads are made to look towards the center no one really knows yet what lied in the middle or why.

The archaeologist and expert on Aztec customs Raul Barrera said that recent discovery in Templo Mayor in Mexico revealed a set of 35 skulls, while an unknown number of other skulls are still buried under the layers. Hence the size of the rack is yet to be determined. Templo Mayor, meaning Grand temple in Spanish, is one of the main historic sites in the Aztec city Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Aztecs, and at the time it was discovered Tenochtitlan covered an area larger than any European major city. The discovery was made during a painstaking dig between February to June last year. The site is situated under a colonial-era house the archaeologists had to work under extreme conditions in the wells under the house which itself is considered to be a historic site.

View of the Templo Mayor and the surrounding buildings.source

Archaeologist Susan Gillespie, who is not the part of the project but has worked on the Aztecs before, suggested that sacrificial rituals were rampant in the antiquity, some more bizarre and bloody than others. However, Says Gillespie, using the skulls of sacrificed people to form mortared trophies is unlike the widely accepted over the top religiosity of the ancients. She added that this one aspect of the Aztec culture, shocking as it is, shows how little we understand about the mindset of the ancient Aztecs, and how they perceived such violent rituals. Gillespie also pointed towards the fact that there have also been some discoveries of similar racks, made using complete heads instead of just the skulls, which is even more mind-boggling for those trying to understand the ancient culture and their customs.


The Aztecs Constructed This Tower Out of Hundreds of Human Skulls

Archaeologists excavating a famed Aztec “tower of skulls” in Mexico City have uncovered a new section featuring 119 human skulls. The find brings the total number of skulls featured in the late 15th-century structure, known as Huey Tzompantli, to more than 600, reports Hollie Silverman for CNN.

Related Content

The tower, first discovered five years ago by archaeologists with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), is believed to be one of seven that once stood in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. It’s located near the ruins of the Templo Mayor, a 14th- and 15th-century religious center dedicated to the war god Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc.

Found in the eastern section of the tower, the new skulls include at least three children’s craniums. Archaeologists identified the remains based on their size and the development of their teeth. Researchers had previously thought that the skulls in the structure belonged to defeated male warriors, but recent analysis suggests that some belonged to women and children, as Reuters reported in 2017.

“Although we cannot determine how many of these individuals were warriors, perhaps some were captives destined for sacrificial ceremonies,” says archaeologist Barrera Rodríguez in an INAH statement. “We do know that they were all made sacred, that is, they were turned into gifts for the gods or even personifications of the deities themselves, for which they were dressed and treated as such.”

As J. Weston Phippen wrote for the Atlantic in 2017, the Aztecs displayed victims’ skulls in smaller racks around Tenochtitlán before transferring them to the larger Huey Tzompantli structure. Bonded together with lime, the bones were organized into a “large inner-circle that raise[d] and widen[ed] in a succession of rings.”

The dead included men, women and children alike. (Courtesy of INAH) Archaeologists first discovered the skull tower in 2015. (Courtesy of INAH) A tzompantli appears on the right of this drawing from Juan de Tovar's 1587 manuscript, the Ramírez Codex (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

While the tower may seem grisly to modern eyes, INAH notes that Mesoamericans viewed the ritual sacrifice that produced it as a means of keeping the gods alive and preventing the destruction of the universe.

“This vision, incomprehensible to our belief system, makes the Huey Tzompantli a building of life rather than death,” the statement says.

Archaeologists say the tower—which measures approximately 16.4 feet in diameter—was built in three stages, likely dating to the time of the Tlatoani Ahuízotl government, between 1486 and 1502. Ahuízotl, the eighth king of the Aztecs, led the empire in conquering parts of modern-day Guatemala, as well as areas along the Gulf of Mexico. During his reign, the Aztecs’ territory reached its largest size yet, with Tenochtitlán also growing significantly. Ahuízotl built the great temple of Malinalco, added a new aqueduct to serve the city and instituted a strong bureaucracy. Accounts describe the sacrifice of as many as 20,000 prisoners of war during the dedication of the new temple in 1487, though that number is disputed.

Spanish conquistadors Hernán Cortés, Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Andrés de Tapia described the Aztecs’ skull racks in writings about their conquest of the region. As J. Francisco De Anda Corral reported for El Economista in 2017, de Tapia said the Aztecs placed tens of thousands of skulls “on a very large theater made of lime and stone, and on the steps of it were many heads of the dead stuck in the lime with the teeth facing outward.”

Per the statement, Spanish invaders and their Indigenous allies destroyed parts of the towers when they occupied Tenochtitlán in the 1500s, scattering the structures’ fragments across the area.

Researchers first discovered the macabre monument in 2015, when they were restoring a building constructed on the site of the Aztec capital, according to BBC News. The cylindrical rack of skulls is located near the Metropolitan Cathedral, which was built over the ruins of the Templo Mayor between the 16th and 19th centuries.

“At every step, the Templo Mayor continues to surprise us,” says Mexican Culture Minister Alejandra Frausto in the statement. “The Huey Tzompantli is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive archaeological finds in our country in recent years.”

About Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.