Aztec War God's "Tower Of Skulls" Even Bigger And More Gruesome Than Thought


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

The previous 2015 excavation of Mexico City’s Templo Mayor (shown here) revealed what turned out to be just a small portion of these "skull racks." National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH)

A new discovery has reaffirmed that the Aztecs will always be near the top of the list of history's most badass cultures, not that there was ever much doubt anyway.

Flashback to 2015, when archaeologists discovered a chunky cylindrical tower made out of nearly 700 humans skulls deep within Templo Mayor, one of the biggest temples in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, which would one day become Mexico City.


Now, it turns out, archaeologists had only touched the surface of this deathly monument. Science reports that the team has since discovered a colossal skull rack, or tzompantli, around 35 meters (114 feet) in length and 5 meters (16 feet) in height – just as the Spanish conquistadors described in their accounts of the city.

Based on the layout of the structure, they also believe that skull tower had a twin nearby, although they are yet to find it.

The temple – dedicated to the god of war, the Sun, and (of course) human sacrifice, Huitzilopochtli – is essentially the site of industrial-scale sacrificial ritual. Initial analysis suggests that around 75 percent of the skulls belonged to healthy men between the ages 20 and 35. As previous research has hinted, this suggests that the victims were most likely soldiers. The remaining 25 percent were women, most likely slaves and their children, perhaps taken from the Empire’s vassal settlements.

A Spanish depiction of a tzompantli (skull rack) drawn in the 16th century. CJLL Wright/Wikimedia Commons

"The killing of captives, even in a ritual context, is a strong political statement. It's a way to demonstrate power and political influence—and, some people have said, it's a way to control your own population," John Verano, an archaeologist specializing in human sacrifice at Tulane University in New Orleans, told Science.


Individuals would be dragged to Templo Mayor where priests removed their still-beating hearts. Since the Aztecs believed that the heart was the vessel of the individual's spirit and the energy of Sun, the removed heart would be raised to the sky as an offer to the gods. Priests would then decapitate the body using a volcanic glass dagger, before carving a large hole into the side of the skull and placing it on a rack.

The city of Tenochtitlán flourished between 1325 and1521 CE when the Spanish conquistadors came along and destroyed it, along with the Templo Mayor.

Andrés de Tapia, a Spanish soldier who accompanied the infamous conquistador Hernán Cortés in the conquest of Mexico, spoke of these skull towers and racks in his diary entries. According to one re-telling of the story, the Spanish counted the skulls and found at least 136,000 in this temple. This was always interpreted as a wild overstatement, however, this new discovery suggests it might not be quite as exaggerated as previously thought.


  • tag
  • skull,

  • skeleton,

  • ritual,

  • Aztec,

  • gruesome,

  • sacrifice,

  • god of war