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Crystal Skulls -- fact vs. fiction

Posted by Joshua Glenn  April 23, 2008 11:04 AM

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Advance word on "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" suggests that the latest installment in the Harrison Ford action series is about the Cold War, anticommunist fervor, artifact-acquisition rivalry, and the post-WWII generation gap. (Jones was born in 1899, one hears; Jones's juvenie-delinquent sidekick, Mutt, played by Shia LaBeouf, would have been born in 1935 or so, which makes him an Anti-Anti-Utopian.)

Oh yeah, and the movie is also about crystal skulls.


George Lucas, who is credited as the movie's story writer, has for years been interested in the real-life mythology of crystal skulls. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European and American ethnographers and other collectors of pre-Columbian artifacts were thrilled when a number of near-life-sized sculptures of human skulls fashioned from clear or milky quartz crystal rock surfaced in antiquarian shops. These supposedly ancient artifacts were found -- again, supposedly -- in Mexico, Central America and South America, near the ruins of Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Both the British Museum and Paris's Musée de l'Homme possess crystal skulls that were eventually traced to a French antiquities dealer who operated out of Mexico City between 1860 and 1880.

Many people seem to believe that the crystal skulls are vectors of psychic energy, and can be used to bring good luck and good health, predict the future, or bring misfortune to one's enemies. (The latter scenario was, as I recall, the plot of a 1986 episode of "The A-Team.") Some also believe that the skulls were created by extraterrestrials, the residents of Atlantis, or an advanced race who long ago migrated to the hollow center of the Earth. Also: the skulls might be sophisticated computers, containing ancient wisdom. Or all of the above.

The British Museum's crystal skull

So what's the real deal with the crystal skulls? Alas, according to Jane MacLaren Walsh, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History who specializes in Mexican archaeology, the skulls are too good to be true.

Sixteen years ago, Walsh was called in to consult when an anonymous donor sent an "Aztec crystal skull," supposedly purchased in Mexico in 1960, to the Smithsonian. Walsh knew of the British Museum's crystal skull, and was excited to check out the "eerie, milky-white crystal skull considerably larger than a human head," shown below.

The Smithsonian's crystal skull

Thanks to the museum's new artifact, Walsh researched the history of pre-Columbian collections in museums around the world, and she became an expert in pre-Columbian lapidary (stone-working) technology, particularly the carving of hard stones like jadeite and quartz. Writing in the May/June issue of Archaeology, a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America, Walsh concludes that since pre-Columbian artisans used stone, bone, wooden, and possibly copper tools with abrasive sand to carve stone, "the crystal skulls are much too perfectly carved and highly polished to be believed."

Though crystal skulls "are intensely loved today by a large coterie of aging hippies and New Age devotees," Walsh says -- somewhere, George Lucas's ears are burning -- not a single crystal skull in any 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."

Walsh studies a famous crystal skull, at the Smithsonian

Where did these fake antiquities come from? The earliest crystal skulls to surface were probably made in Mexico -- perhaps carved from authentic pre-Columbian crystal beads -- in the early 19th century. Later, forgers in Europe carved skulls out of Mesoamerican crystal in order to dupe credulous collectors. In the early 20th century, a third generation of fakes appeared. Using electron microscopes, Walsh and others have demonstrated that every skull currently in a museum was carved using relatively modern lapidary equipment.

"French and other European buyers imagined they were buying skillful pre-Columbian carvings, partially convinced perhaps by their own fascinated horror with Aztec human sacrifice," suggests Walsh.

Via Savage Minds.

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8 comments so far...
  1. At the British Museum Annex in 1980, I saw a life-sized crystal skull which was similar to or the same as the one pictured in the globe.

    The piece was labeled to be a probable fake. Nevertheless, the sculpture was so great that it was magnificently displayed, center-stage in a darkened room, lit from beneath. I have no memory of the surrounding real artifacts.

    As Marcel Duchamp's "ready-mades" point to the importance of context in art,
    this fake transcended context because of art.

    Posted by Peter DeCamp Haines April 28, 08 11:06 AM
  1. what about the head found on the moon? is it one if the skulls?

    Posted by Charles May 28, 08 01:12 PM
  1. all fake !!! 38 years exp pre col art

    Posted by arany July 25, 08 01:53 PM
  1. she became as "expert" yet she is still unsure of what tools were even used to carve stone, and to say that they were too highly polished, think about it, the Mayan's did have advancements in pottery, as well as lathe work. So along those same lines they couldn't have, you know i'm not going to keep typing cause i really don't care one way or another, i just hate how someone with a fancy title says something everyone loves to take it as fact. Fact is, if the woman can't even tell me how they carved something then she doesn't know what the @#$% she's talking about. And it seems to me that based upon her research she developed an opinion of the mayans and then found what she was looking for...

    Posted by Jon August 25, 08 04:12 PM
  1. this is a cool Crystal skull

    Posted by Claudia November 12, 08 10:11 AM
  1. Old or fake artifacts - either way the skulls do show an artistic hand having been at work. They are beautiful to look at and interesting because no one can 100% for sure tell how they were made.

    Posted by Bonita January 22, 09 04:17 AM
  1. its all real why would the azteks lie when they said on the wall carvings that aliens came to earth and gave it to them. they where simple people and believed in human sacrifice, and they have carved the walls to show future races what they believed and what happened, so people would know and understand it does sound unbelieveable but whats wrong in believing???

    Posted by Elliot April 29, 09 07:04 AM
  1. the worlds gonna end

    Posted by Jesus May 20, 09 07:46 PM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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