For centuries, it was hidden within the walls of an ancient Aztec temple, at the heart of one of the largest cities in the western world — a literal tower of human skulls, representing the decapitated heads of nearly 700 people.
According to Reuters, the tower was recently discovered by a team of archaeologists within a cylindrical structure near the ruins of Templo Mayor — a central structure of the ancient Aztec metropolis Tenochtitlan, where Mexico City now stands.
The skulls are believed to be part of an enormous structure known as the Huey Tzompantli — a scaffold-like tower built to display the heads of executed enemies and sacrificial victims. This particular section was uncovered at one corner of the chapel of the Aztec sun god Huitzilopochtli — who demanded regular human sacrifices in his honor — and the scaffold once held tens of thousands of decapitated heads.
The sight of this epic tower from hell understandably horrified the Spanish conquistadores upon their arrival at Tenochtitlan in the early 1500s, and images and descriptions of it appear in several manuscripts from that period — including the journals of Andres de Tapia, who accompanied Cortes to Mexico in 1521, and illustrations like the one below from the book Relación del origen de los indios que hábitan esta Nueva España según sus Historias (also known as the “Ramírez Codex”), written by Juan de Tovar in the late 16th Century.
Though the dig which led to this particular find began two years ago, the discovery of these additional skulls brings to light a shocking difference from previous digs; while towers like this one are common to many ancient Mesoamerican temples, this is the first time researchers have uncovered the skulls of women and children in the Huey Tzompantli, instead of male warriors from rival nations.
“Something is happening that we have no record of, and this is really new,” reports Rodrigo Bolanos, a biological anthropologist involved in the project. “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.”
Excavation on this section of the Huey Tzompantli is still ongoing, and the team expect to find many more skulls in the coming months.