Crystal skulls have undergone serious scholarly scrutiny, but they also excite the popular imagination because they seem so mysterious. Theories about their origins abound. Some believe the skulls are the handiwork of the Maya or Aztecs, but they have also become the subject of constant discussion on occult websites. Some insist that they originated on a sunken continent or in a far-away galaxy.
And now they are poised to become archaeological superstars thanks to our celluloid colleague Indiana Jones, who will tackle the subject of our research in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Details about the movie's plot are being closely guarded by the film's producers as I write this, but the Internet rumor mill has it that the crystal skull of the title is the creation of aliens. These exotic carvings are usually attributed to pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, but not a single crystal skull in a museum collection comes from a documented excavation, and they have little stylistic or technical relationship with any genuine pre-Columbian depictions of skulls, which are an important motif in Mesoamerican iconography.
They are intensely loved today by a large coterie of aging hippies and New Age devotees, but what is the truth behind the crystal skulls?
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Where did they come from, and why were they made? Museums began collecting rock-crystal skulls during the second half of the nineteenth century, when no scientific archaeological excavations had been undertaken in Mexico and knowledge of real pre-Columbian artifacts was scarce. It was also a period that saw a burgeoning industry in faking pre-Columbian objects.
When Smithsonian archaeologist W.
Curse of the crystal skulls: The real life story of the new Indiana Jones movie | Daily Mail Online
Holmes visited Mexico City in , he saw "relic shops" on every corner filled with fake ceramic vessels, whistles, and figurines. Two years later, Holmes warned about the abundance of fake pre-Columbian artifacts in museum collections in an article for the journal Science titled "The Trade in Spurious Mexican Antiquities. Among the objects on display were two crystal skulls.
At his feet rest a pot and a battleaxe Boban exhibited as Aztec. Both are fakes. The first Mexican crystal skulls made their debut just before the French intervention, when Louis Napoleon's army invaded the country and installed Maximilian von Hapsburg of Austria as emperor. Usually they are small, not taller than 1. The earliest specimen seems to be a British Museum crystal skull about an inch high that may have been acquired in by British banker Henry Christy.
A Frenchman who served as the official "archaeologist" of the Mexican court of Maximilian, Boban was also a member of the French Scientific Commission in Mexico, whose work the Paris Exposition was designed to highlight. One small crystal skull was purchased in for 28 pesos by Mexico City's national museum from the Mexican collector Luis Costantino, and another for 30 pesos in In , the Smithsonian bought a small crystal skull, this one from the collection of Augustin Fischer, who had been Emperor Maximilian's secretary in Mexico.
But it disappeared mysteriously from the collection some time after It had been on display in an exhibit of archaeological fakes after William Foshag, a Smithsonian mineralogist, realized in the s that it had been carved with a modern lapidary wheel.
In , the Smithsonian acquired a crystal skull that may have been a pre-Columbian bead re-carved in the 19th century. This catalogue entry shows the object at close to its actual size, and with a vertical drill hole through its center. Courtesy of Paula Fleming Collection. These small objects represent the "first generation" of crystal skulls, and they are all drilled through from top to bottom.
Hard Head Fred the Crystal Skull
The drill holes may in fact be pre-Columbian in origin, and the skulls may have been simple Mesoamerican quartz crystal beads, later re-carved for the European market as little mementos mori, or objects meant to remind their owners of the eventuality of death. In my research into the provenance of crystal skulls, I kept encountering Boban's name. He arrived in Mexico in his teens and spent an idyllic youth conducting his own archaeological expeditions and collecting exotic birds.
Boban fell in love with Mexican culture--becoming fluent in Spanish and Nahuatl, the Aztec language--and began to make his living selling archaeological artifacts and natural history specimens through a family business in Mexico City. After returning to France, he opened an antiquities shop in Paris in the s and sold a large part of his original Mexican archaeological collection to Alphonse Pinart, a French explorer and ethnographer. Boban had acquired the third skull in the Pinart collection sometime after his return to Paris; it is several times larger than any of the others from this early period, measuring about 4 inches high.
There is a comparable, though smaller, skull about 2. It serves as the base for a crucifix; the somewhat larger Quai Branly skull may have had a similar use. Macabre Obsession The 19th century was a period of keen fascination with skulls and skeletons in Europe. During the reign of Louis Napoleon , French artists created stereoscopic photographs, called Diableries, of miniature dioramas of skeletons at dress balls, libraries below , conferences with the devil, and in amorous trysts.
How Crystal Skulls Work
Wicked lampoons of corruption at Napoleon's court, they illustrate how popular skeletal imagery was when the first crystal skulls made their appearance. A second-generation skull--life-size and without a vertical hole--first appeared in in the Paris shop of none other than Boban.
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This skull is just under 6 inches high. The description in the catalogue he published provided no findspot for the object and it is listed separately from his Mexican antiquities. Boban called it a "masterpiece" of lapidary technology, and noted that it was "unique in the world. Despite being one of a kind, the skull failed to sell, so when Boban returned to Mexico City in , after a year absence, he took it with him.
He exhibited it alongside a collection of actual human skulls in his shop, which he dubbed the "Museo Cientifico. But the museum's curator assumed the skull was a glass fake and refused to purchase it. Then Batres denounced Boban as a fraud and accused him of smuggling antiquities. In July , the French antiquarian moved his museum business and collection to New York City and later held an auction of several thousand archaeological artifacts, colonial Mexican manuscripts, and a large library of books.
A decade later, Tiffany's sold it to the British Museum for the original purchase price. Interestingly, Boban's catalogue for the New York auction lists yet another crystal skull. Of the smaller variety, it is described as being from the "Valley of Mexico" and is listed with a crystal hand, which is described as Aztec.
Neither of these objects can now be accounted for. A third generation of skulls appeared some time before , when Sidney Burney, a London art dealer, purchased a crystal skull of proportions almost identical to the specimen the British Museum bought from Tiffany's. There is no information about where he got it, but it is very nearly a replica of the British Museum skull--almost exactly the same shape, but with more detailed modeling of the eyes and the teeth. It also has a separate mandible, which puts it in a class by itself.
In , it was sold at Sotheby's in London to Frederick Arthur Mike Mitchell-Hedges, a well-to-do English deep-sea fisherman, explorer, and yarn-spinner extraordinaire. Since the publication of Mitchell-Hedges's memoir, Danger My Ally , this third-generation, twentieth-century skull has acquired a Maya origin, as well as a number of fantastic, Indiana Jones-like tall tales.
His adopted daughter, Anna Mitchell-Hedges, who died last year at the age of , cared for it for 60 years, occasionally exhibiting the skull privately for a fee. It is currently in the possession of her widower, but 10 nieces and nephews have also laid claim to it. Known as the Skull of Doom, the Skull of Love, or simply the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, it is said to emit blue lights from its eyes, and has reputedly crashed computer hard drives. The Mitchell-Hedges skull, top, and the British Museum skull were the subject of a series of articles in which British Museum curator Adrian Digby and physical anthropologist G.
Morant debated whether the two were based on the same original skull, which Digby posited was perhaps revered as a Mesoamerican "death god.
A Mythic Past
Although nearly all of the crystal skulls have at times been identified as Aztec, Toltec, Mixtec, or occasionally Maya, they do not reflect the artistic or stylistic characteristics of any of these cultures. The Aztec and Toltec versions of death heads were nearly always carved in basalt, occasionally were covered with stucco, and were probably all painted.
May 19, Publishing Archaeology Blog. San Francisco Chronicle July Retrieved The New York Times. See also the debate on its resemblance to the British Museum skull, in Digby and Morant , passim. Archaeology Magazine. Retrieved 20 October The test involved immersing the skull in a liquid benzyl alcohol with the same diffraction coefficient and viewing it under polarized light. See also Hammond's recounting of his meeting with Anna Mitchell-Hedges and the skull in an article written for The Times , in Hammond See also discussion of the prior ownership in Nickell , p.
Illinois Times. Archived from the original on Archaeological Institute of America. Retrieved February 17, National Geographic Channel. It Receives Attention from the Scientists. They devote attention, too, to a beautiful adze and a mysterious crystal skull" PDF. New York Times August See also articles on the investigations which established it to be a fake, in Connor , Jury , Smith , and Walsh , Smithsonian Museum. Retrieved 24 April Page The Satin Slipper. John O'Connor and Paul Claudel. Jayme Roy Director of Photography.
Lester Holt Presenter May The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls television program. Aldred, Lisa Summer American Indian Quarterly.