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Aztec tower of skulls

Legendary Aztec Tower of Human Skulls Found in Mexico City

A tower made from human skulls in Mexico City challenges what we known about human sacrifice in Aztec culture.

Archaeologists have announced the discovery of a tower made of human skulls near Templo Mayor in Mexico City, once the capital of the Aztec empire known in that time as Tenochtitlan. They believe the tower is a legendary tzompantli, or ceremonial skull rack, written about by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century which was used to hold the skulls of human sacrifices.

Researchers have long believed that captured enemies, young male warriors, were used as sacrificial offerings. Many of the skulls being found at this site, however, are women and children.

“Something is happening that we have no record of,” biological anthropologist Rodrigo Bolanos told Rueters, “and this is really new, a first in the Huey Tzompantli.”

The Huey Tzompantli was first described by Spanish soldier Andres de Tapia in 1521 upon his arrival with conquistador Hernan Cortes. He, and later Bernal Diaz del Castillo, both described the massive structure as holding more than 100,000 skulls. It was part of a temple dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, sun, and human sacrifices, as well as the patron saint of Tenochtitlan.

The dig, which began two years ago, has yielded more than 650 skulls and thousands of fragments so far. The tower is roughly 6 meters in diameter and made of rising concentric rings where the skulls are cemented together. The base has yet to be uncovered, so many more skulls are expected to be found. While de Tapia’s count is generally believed to be inaccurate, archaeologists believe the tower may once have held as many as 60,000 skulls.

Archaeologists unearth hundreds of human skulls in Aztec tzompantli

Mysterious Aztec Skull Masks Were Made From Slain Warriors

New research suggests 15th century Aztec masks found at the Templo Mayor in Mexico were made from the skulls of slain warriors and elite members of society.
Aztec skull mask found at Templo Mayer in Tenochtitlan, Mexico

Like all great archaeological finds (and Cult of Weird parties), the discovery of Templo Mayor began in 1978 with a decapitated and dismembered body. A carving, that is. A monolith depicting the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui, who was beheaded by her brother Huitzilopochtli and thrown down a mountain. Huitzilopochtli was the Mesoamerican deity of war, sun, and human sacrifice. The monolith was part of a large temple dedicated to him at the heart of the 15th-century Aztec capital city Tenochtitlan, the area that is Mexico City today.

Inside the excavated ruins of the once massive Templo Mayor, where an estimated 20,000 human sacrifices had been conducted, archaeologists discovered 8 masks made from human skulls. The back of the craniums had been removed so they could be worn, with shells and stones placed in the eye sockets, and knives used for noses or tongues.

The purpose and origin of these relics was a mystery, but in a new article for Forbes, Kristina Killgrove writes that new research has shed some light on the macabre Aztec skull masks.

templo-mayor
A model of the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan, with Templo Mayor at the back. Museum of Anthrology, Mexico City.

The study reveals that the skulls belonged to males with good diets, in good health, and likely came from a variety of different areas around the Aztec Empire. They were probably defeated warriors and nobility brought to Tenochtitlan to be sacrificed.

Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote of leathery skin masks made from the flayed faces of sacrificed enemies, but using the skull seems to have been rare, leading to the conclusion by researchers that it was reserved for only the most elite.

Aztec skull mask from the Templo Mayor
Aztec skull masks on display at the Templo Mayor Museum

Read more here: Mystery Of Morbid Aztec Skull Masks Solved By Archaeologists