Last week, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) announced that researchers had discovered a section of over 119 skulls from men, women, and children beneath the ruins of Mexico City’s Templo Mayor. Archaeologists first discovered this burial, named Huei Tzompantli, five years ago. The skulls date back more than 500 years. The new section of skulls was found in March, buried under the streets of the Mexican capital. (Mexico City was built on top of the Aztec empire’s capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlan.) The newly found set of skulls brings the total skull count for the temple to 484, according to an INAH statement.
“The Huei Tzompantli is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive archaeological finds of recent years in our country,” Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, Mexico City’s culture secretary, said in a statement. “It is an important testament to the power and greatness achieved by Mexico-Tenochtitlan.”
A two-year span of heads at Huei Tzompantli was built sometime between 1486 and 1502. It likely served as a temple dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and human sacrifice.
The tower is more than 16 feet wide and consists of rows after rows of skulls impaled on long wooden poles, like beads on a string. These rows form the walls of the tower.
The skulls all face inward, toward the Tzompantli’s hollow center. According to the associated Press, the Aztecs may have let the flesh on the heads rot off before mounting the rows of skulls together to create the rows of skulls together to create the tower in place.
The archaeologists who discovered the new section of the tower expected the skulls to have come from male warriors, but they were surprised to find skulls belonging to women and at least three children in the mix.
“Although we can’t say how many of these individuals were warriors, some were wearing the costumes of warriors or priests of war societies,” Raúl Barrera Rodríguez, head of INAH’s Urban Archaeology program, said in a statement.
These sacrificed captives were likely “turned into gifts for the gods or even personifications of deities themselves,” he added.
Skull towers were decorated with war god symbols or displayed on poles as offerings to Aztec gods and displayed to intimidate enemies. Priests of war societies would wear war costumes, and the skulls of sacrificed captives were turned into gifts for the gods or personifications of deities. Prisoners of war were often sacrificed to Aztec gods, and their hearts were offered as gifts.
The Aztecs practiced these rituals to appease the gods and ensure the survival of the universe. Such sacrifices, called “nextlahualli” (which translates to “payment of debts”), were seen as a way to curry favor with the deities and ensure the continued harmony of life between the gods and humans, Barrera said.
“Human sacrifice in Mesoamerica was a commitment that was established daily between humans and the gods, as a way to assure the renewal of the sun and ensure the continuity of life itself,” Barrera said.
Many of the Aztec’s sacred towers were lost when the Spanish invaded Aztec lands in the 16th century. As Hernán Cortés’ forces overtook Mexico-Tenochtitlan, they destroyed the tzompantli there.
That’s the reason, according to Barrera’s team, that they’ve only uncovered sections of this tower so far: It was razed and scattered across the city.