The crystal skulls are human skull hardstone carvings made of clear or milky white quartz, known in art history as "rock crystal", claimed to be pre-Columbian Mesoamerican artifacts by their alleged finders; however, none of the specimens made available for scientific study have been authenticated as pre-Columbian in origin.
The results of these studies demonstrated that those examined were manufactured in the mid-19th century or later, almost certainly in Europe during a time when interest in ancient culture was abundant. Despite some claims presented in an assortment of popularizing literature, legends of crystal skulls with mystical powers do not figure in genuine Mesoamerican or other Native American mythologies and spiritual accounts.
The skulls are often claimed to exhibit paranormal phenomena by some members of the New Age movement, and have often been portrayed as such in fiction. Crystal skulls have been a popular subject appearing in numerous sci-fi television series, novels, films, and video games.
Trade in fake pre-Columbian artifacts developed during the late 19th century to the extent that in 1886, Smithsonian archaeologist William Henry Holmes wrote an article called "The Trade in Spurious Mexican Antiquities" for Science. Although museums had acquired skulls earlier, it was Eugène Boban, an antiquities dealer who opened his shop in Paris in 1870, who is most associated with 19th-century museum collections of crystal skulls. Most of Boban's collection, including three crystal skulls, was sold to the ethnographer Alphonse Pinart, who donated the collection to the Trocadéro Museum, which later became the Musée de l'Homme.
Many crystal skulls are claimed to be pre-Columbian, usually attributed to the Aztec or Maya civilizations. Mesoamerican art has numerous representations of skulls, but none of the skulls in museum collections come from documented excavations. Research carried out on several crystal skulls at the British Museum in 1967, 1996 and 2004 shows that the indented lines marking the teeth (for these skulls had no separate jawbone, unlike the Mitchell-Hedges skull) were carved using jeweler's equipment (rotary tools) developed in the 19th century, making a supposed pre-Columbian origin problematic.
The type of crystal was determined by examination of chlorite inclusions. It is only found in Madagascar and Brazil, and thus unobtainable or unknown within pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The study concluded that the skulls were crafted in the 19th century in Germany, quite likely at workshops in the town of Idar-Oberstein, which was renowned for crafting objects made from imported Brazilian quartz in the late 19th century.
It has been established that the crystal skulls in the British Museum and Paris's Musée de l'Homme were originally sold by the French antiquities dealer Eugène Boban, who was operating in Mexico City between 1860 and 1880. The British Museum crystal skull transited through New York's Tiffany's, whilst the Musée de l'Homme's crystal skull was donated by Alphonse Pinart, an ethnographer who had bought it from Boban.
In 1992, the Smithsonian Institution investigated a crystal skull provided by an anonymous source; the source claimed to have purchased it in Mexico City in 1960, and that it was of Aztec origin. The investigation concluded that this skull also was made recently. According to the Smithsonian, Boban acquired his crystal skulls from sources in Germany, aligning with conclusions made by the British Museum.
The Journal of Archaeological Science published a detailed study by the British Museum and the Smithsonian in May 2008. Using electron microscopy and X-ray crystallography, a team of British and American researchers found that the British Museum skull was worked with a harsh abrasive substance such as corundum or diamond, and shaped using a rotary disc tool made from some suitable metal. The Smithsonian specimen had been worked with a different abrasive, namely the silicon-carbon compound carborundum (Silicon carbide) which is a synthetic substance manufactured using modern industrial techniques. Since the synthesis of carborundum dates only to the 1890s and its wider availability to the 20th century, the researchers concluded "[t]he suggestion is that it was made in the 1950s or later".
Other artifacts of controversial origin
None of the skulls in museums come from documented excavations. A parallel example is provided by obsidian mirrors, ritual objects widely depicted in Aztec art. Although a few surviving obsidian mirrors come from archaeological excavations, none of the Aztec-style obsidian mirrors are so documented. Yet most authorities on Aztec material culture consider the Aztec-style obsidian mirrors as authentic pre-Columbian objects. Archaeologist Michael E. Smith reports a non peer-reviewed find of a small crystal skull at an Aztec site in the Valley of Mexico. Crystal skulls have been described as "A fascinating example of artifacts that have made their way into museums with no scientific evidence to prove their rumored pre-Columbian origins."
A similar case is the "Olmec-style" face mask in jade; hardstone carvings of a face in a mask form. Curators and scholars refer to these as "Olmec-style", as to date no example has been recovered in an archaeologically controlled Olmec context, although they appear Olmec in style. However they have been recovered from sites of other cultures, including one deliberately deposited in the ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), which would presumably have been about 2,000 years old when the Aztecs buried it, suggesting these were as valued and collected as Roman antiquities were in Europe.
Perhaps the most famous and enigmatic skull was allegedly discovered in 1924 by Anna Mitchell-Hedges, adopted daughter of British adventurer and popular author F.A. Mitchell-Hedges. It is the subject of a video documentary made in 1990, Crystal Skull of Lubaantun. It was examined and described by Smithsonian researchers as "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." Mitchell-Hedges claimed that she found the skull buried under a collapsed altar inside a temple in Lubaantun, in British Honduras, now Belize. As far as can be ascertained, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges himself made no mention of the alleged discovery in any of his writings on Lubaantun. Others present at the time of the excavation recorded neither the skull's discovery or Anna's presence at the dig. According to new evidence presented in a National Geographic documentary, the skull was purchased at a Sothebys auction by F.A. Mitchell-Hedges in London on Oct. 15, 1943. Shortly thereafter, he discussed the purchase in a letter to his brother.
The skull is made from a block of clear quartz about the size of a small human cranium, measuring some 5 inches (13 cm) high, 7 inches (18 cm) long and 5 inches wide. The lower jaw is detached. In the early 1970s it came under the temporary care of freelance art restorer Frank Dorland, who claimed upon inspecting it that it had been "carved" with total disregard to the natural crystal axis, and without the use of metal tools. Dorland reported being unable to find any tell-tale scratch marks, except for traces of mechanical grinding on the teeth, and he speculated that it was first chiseled into rough form, probably using diamonds, and the finer shaping, grinding and polishing was achieved through the use of sand over a period of 150 to 300 years. He said it could be up to 12,000 years old. Although various claims have been made over the years regarding the skull's physical properties, such as an allegedly constant temperature of 70 °F (21 °C), Dorland reported that there was no difference in properties between it and other natural quartz crystals.
While in Dorland's care the skull came to the attention of writer Richard Garvin, at the time working at an advertising agency where he supervised Hewlett-Packard's advertising account. Garvin made arrangements for the skull to be examined at Hewlett-Packard's crystal laboratories in Santa Clara, California, where it was subjected to several tests. The labs determined only that it was not a composite as Dorland had supposed, but that it was fashioned from a single crystal of quartz. The laboratory test also established that the lower jaw had been fashioned from the same left-handed growing crystal as the rest of the skull. No investigation was made by Hewlett-Packard as to its method of manufacture or dating.
As well as the traces of mechanical grinding on the teeth noted by Dorland, Mayanist archaeologist Norman Hammond reported that the holes (presumed to be intended for support pegs) showed signs of being made by drilling with metal. Anna Mitchell-Hedges refused subsequent requests to submit the skull for further scientific testing.
The earliest published reference to the skull is the July 1936 issue of the British anthropological journal Man, where it is described as being in the possession of Mr. Sydney Burney, a London art dealer who is said to have owned it since 1933. No mention was made of Mitchell-Hedges. There is documentary evidence that Mitchell-Hedges bought it from Burney in 1944.
F. A. Mitchell-Hedges mentioned the skull only briefly in the first edition of his autobiography, Danger My Ally (1954), without specifying where or by whom it was found. He merely claimed that "it is at least 3,600 years old and according to legend it was used by the High Priest of the Maya when he was performing esoteric rites. It is said that when he willed death with the help of the skull, death invariably followed". All subsequent editions of Danger My Ally omitted mention of the skull entirely.
In a 1970 letter, Anna also stated that she was, "told by the few remaining Maya that the skull was used by the high priest to will death." For this reason, the artifact is sometimes referred to as "The Skull of Doom". Anna Mitchell-Hedges toured with the skull from 1967 exhibiting it on a pay-per-view basis. Somewhere between 1988 and 1990 she toured with the skull. She continued to grant interviews about the artifact until her death.
In her last eight years, Anna Mitchell-Hedges lived in Chesterton, Indiana, with Bill Homann, whom she married in 2002. She died on April 11, 2007. Since that time the Mitchell-Hedges Skull has been owned by Homann. He continues to believe in its mystical properties.
In November 2007, Homann took the skull to the office of anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh, in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History for examination. Walsh carried out a detailed examination of the skull using ultraviolet light, a high-powered light microscope, and computerized tomography. Homann took the skull to the museum again in 2008 so it could be filmed for a Smithsonian Networks documentary, Legend of the Crystal Skull and on this occasion Walsh was able to take two sets of silicone molds of surface tool marks for scanning electron microscope (SEM) analysis. The SEM micrographs revealed evidence that the crystal had been worked with a high speed, hard metal rotary tool coated with a hard abrasive such as diamond. Walsh's extensive research on artifacts from Mexico and Central America showed that pre-contact artisans carved stone by abrading the surface with stone or wooden tools and in later pre-Columbian times, copper tools, in combination with a variety of abrasive sands or pulverized stone. These examinations led Walsh to the conclusion that the skull was probably carved in the 1930s, and was most likely based on the British Museum skull which had been exhibited fairly continuously from 1898.
In the National Geographic Channel documentary "The Truth Behind the Crystal Skulls", forensic artist Gloria Nusse performed a forensic facial reconstruction over a replica of the skull. According to Nusse, the resulting face had female and European characteristics. As it was hypothesized that the Crystal Skull was a replica of an actual human skull, the conclusion was that it could not have been created by ancient Americans.
British Museum skull
The crystal skull of the British Museum first appeared in 1881, in the shop of the Paris antiquarian, Eugène Boban. Its origin was not stated in his catalogue of the time. He is said to have tried to sell it to Mexico's national museum as an Aztec artifact, but was unsuccessful. Boban later moved his business to New York City, where the skull was sold to George H. Sisson. It was exhibited at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New York City in 1887 by George F. Kunz. It was sold at auction, and bought by Tiffany and Co., who later sold it at cost to the British Museum in 1897. This skull is very similar to the Mitchell-Hedges skull, although it is less detailed and does not have a movable lower jaw.
The British Museum catalogues the skull's provenance as "probably European, 19th century AD" and describes it as "not an authentic pre-Columbian artefact". It has been established that this skull was made with modern tools, and that it is not authentic.
The largest of the three skulls sold by Eugène Boban to Alphonse Pinart (sometimes called the Paris Skull), about 10 cm (4 in) high, has a hole drilled vertically through its center. It is part of a collection held at the Musée du Quai Branly, and was subjected to scientific tests carried out in 2007–08 by France's national Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France (Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums in France, or C2RMF). After a series of analyses carried out over three months, C2RMF engineers concluded that it was "certainly not pre-Columbian, it shows traces of polishing and abrasion by modern tools."[full citation needed] Particle accelerator tests also revealed occluded traces of water that were dated to the 19th century, and the Quai Branly released a statement that the tests "seem to indicate that it was made late in the 19th century."[full citation needed]
In 2009 the C2RMF researchers published results of further investigations to establish when the Paris skull had been carved. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) analysis indicated the use of lapidary machine tools in its carving. The results of a new dating technique known as quartz hydration dating (QHD) demonstrated that the Paris skull had been carved later than a reference quartz specimen artifact, known to have been cut in 1740. The researchers conclude that the SEM and QHD results combined with the skull's known provenance indicate it was carved in the 18th or 19th century.
The "Smithsonian Skull", Catalogue No. A562841-0 in the collections of the Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, was mailed to the Smithsonian Institution anonymously in 1992, and was claimed to be an Aztec object by its donor and was purportedly from the collection of Porfirio Diaz. It is the largest of the skulls, weighing 31 pounds (14 kg) and is 15 inches (38 cm) high. It was carved using carborundum, a modern abrasive. It has been displayed as a modern fake at the National Museum of Natural History.
Paranormal claims and spiritual associations
Some believers in the paranormal claim that crystal skulls can produce a variety of miracles. Anna Mitchell-Hedges claimed that the skull she allegedly discovered could cause visions, cure cancer, that she once used its magical properties to kill a man, and that in another instance, she saw in it a premonition of the John F. Kennedy assassination.
In the 1931 play The Satin Slipper by Paul Claudel, King Philip II of Spain uses "a death's head made from a single piece of rock crystal," lit by "a ray of the setting sun," to see the defeat of his Armada in its attack on England (day 4, scene 4, pp. 243–44).
Claims of the healing and supernatural powers of crystal skulls have no support in the scientific community, which has found no evidence of any unusual phenomena associated with the skulls nor any reason for further investigation, other than the confirmation of their provenance and method of manufacture.
Another novel and historically unfounded speculation ties in the legend of the crystal skulls with the completion of the current Maya calendar b'ak'tun-cycle on December 21, 2012, claiming the re-uniting of the thirteen mystical skulls will forestall a catastrophe allegedly predicted or implied by the ending of this calendar (see 2012 phenomenon). An airing of this claim appeared (among an assortment of others made) in The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls, a 2008 program produced for the Sci Fi Channel in May and shown on Discovery Channel Canada in June. Interviewees included Richard Hoagland, who attempted to link the skulls and the Maya to life on Mars, and David Hatcher Childress, proponent of lost Atlantean civilizations and anti-gravity claims.
Crystal skulls are also referenced by author Drunvalo Melchizedek in his book Serpent of Light. He writes that he came across indigenous Mayan descendants in possession of crystal skulls at ceremonies at temples in the Yucatán, which he writes contained souls of ancient Mayans who had entered the skulls to await the time when their ancient knowledge would once again be required.
The alleged associations and origins of crystal skull mythology in Native American spiritual lore, as advanced by neoshamanic writers such as Jamie Sams, are similarly discounted. Instead, as Philip Jenkins notes, crystal skull mythology may be traced back to the "baroque legends" initially spread by F.A. Mitchell-Hedges, and then afterwards taken up:
By the 1970s, the crystal skulls [had] entered New Age mythology as potent relics of ancient Atlantis, and they even acquired a canonical number: there were exactly thirteen skulls.
None of this would have anything to do with North American Indian matters, if the skulls had not attracted the attention of some of the most active New Age writers.
In popular culture
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, film that revolves around a fictional back-story about crystal skulls, specifically mentioning the Mitchell-Hedges skull.
- Stargate SG-1 (season 3), Episode 21 revolves around a crystal skull found on an alien planet, and an associated skull that seems to borrow details from the Mitchell-Hedges skull, other than the discoverer. In the show it was reportedly found by Daniel Jackson's grandfather, Nick Ballard.
- The Phantom starring Billy Zane, a 1996 movie in which the union of three skulls plus a control ring gives the user unlimited power.
- "Crystal Skulls -- National Geographic". National Geographic. Retrieved 1 October 2014.
- British Museum (n.d.-b), Jenkins (2004, p.217), Sax et al. (2008), Smith (2005), Walsh (1997; 2008).
- Aldred (2000, passim.); Jenkins (2004, pp.218–219). In this latter work, Philip Jenkins, former Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies and subsequent endowed Professor of Humanities at PSU, writes that crystal skulls are among the more obvious of examples where the association with Native spirituality is a "historically recent" and "artificial" synthesis. These are "products of a generation of creative spiritual entrepreneurs" that do not "[represent] the practice of any historical community".
- Holmes (1886)
- Walsh (2008)
- Craddock (2009, p.415)
- British Museums (n.d.-b); Craddock (2009, p.415).
- The specimen at the Musée de l'Homme is half-sized.
- See "The mystery of the British Museum's crystal skull is solved. It's a fake", in The Independent (Connor 2005). See also the Museum's issued public statement on its crystal skull (British Museum n.d.-c).
- See the account given by Smithsonian anthropologist Jane Walsh of her joint investigations with British Museum's materials scientist Margaret Sax, which ascertained the crystal skull specimens to be 19th century fakes, in Smith (2005). See also Walsh (1997).
- Sax et al. (2008)
- Carborundum occurs naturally only in minute amounts in the extremely rare mineral moissanite, first identified in a meteorite in 1893. See summary of the discovery and history of silicon carbide in Kelly (n.d.)
- See reportage of the study in Rincon (2008), and the study itself in Sax et al. (2008).
- Such as at Teotihuacan; see Taube (1992).
- See for example Olivier (2003).
- Smith, Michael E. (May 19, 2008). "Aztec Crystal Skulls". Publishing Archaeology Blog.
- "Smithsonian puts its fake- crystal skull- on display". San Francisco Chronicle (July 18). 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-21.
- Artworld University of East Anglia collections
- "Crystal Skull of Labaantun (1990)". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-20.
- Walsh (2008). See also the 1936 debate on its resemblance to the British Museum skull, in Digby (1936) and Morant (1936), passim.
- See Garvin (1973, caption to photo 25); also Nickell (2007, p.67).
- Nickell (2007, pp.68–69)
- See "The Truth Behind: The Crystal Skulls", which includes an interview with Dr. Jane Walsh, Smithsonian Institurion, "It was sold at auction, at Sotheby's, to Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, so he didn't get it at Lubaantun, he didn't dig it up."
- Dorland, in a May 1983 letter to Joe Nickell, cited in Nickell (2007, p.70).
- See Garvin (1973, pp.75–76), also Hewlett-Packard (1971, p.9). The test involved immersing the skull in a liquid (benzyl alcohol) with the same diffraction coefficient and viewing it under polarized light.
- Garvin (1973, pp.75–76); Hewlett-Packard (1971, p.9).
- Hewlett-Packard (1971, p.10).
- Garvin (1973, p.84); also cited in Nickell (2007, p.70).
- Hammond, in a May 1983 letter to Nickell, cited in Nickell (2007, p.70). See also Hammond's recounting of his meeting with Anna Mitchell-Hedges and the skull in an article written for The Times, in Hammond (2008).
- Nickell (2007, p.69)
- See Morant (1936, p.105), and comments in Digby (1936). See also discussion of the prior ownership in Nickell (2007, p.69).
- See Mitchell-Hedges (1954, pp.240–243); also description of same in the chapter "Riddle of the Crystal Skulls", in Nickell (2007, pp.67–73).
- Mitchell-Hedges' quote, as reproduced in Nickell (2007, p.67).
- Garvin (1973, p.93)
- Hammond (2008)
- Stelzer, C.D. (2008-06-12). "The kingdom of the crystal skull". Illinois Times. Retrieved 2009-02-08.
- Walsh, Jane MacLaren (May 27, 2010). "The Skull of Doom:Under the Microscope". Archaeology Magazine. Archaeological Institute of America. Retrieved February 17, 2013.
- The Truth Behind the Crystal Skulls. National Geographic Channel: The Truth Behind. 2013. National Geographic Channel. http://natgeotv.com/uk/the-truth-behind/videos/crystal-skull.
- "The Truth Behind The Crystal Skulls, page 1". Retrieved 8 November 2013.
- "A Great Labor Problem. It Receives Attention from the Scientists. They devote attention, too, to a beautiful adze and a mysterious crystal skull" (PDF). New York Times (August 13). 1887. Retrieved 2008-07-17.
- British Museum (n.d.-a, n.d.-b)
- Digby (1936)
- British Museum (n.d.-a)
- British Museum (n.d.-c). See also articles on the investigations which established it to be a fake, in Connor (2005), Jury (2005), Smith (2005), and Walsh (1997, 2008).
- Rincon (2008), Sax et al. (2008)
- Kunz (1890, pp.285–286), see description in "Ch. XIV: Mexico & Central America"
- Quote reported by Agence France-Presse, see Rosemberg (2008).
- Quote reported by Agence France-Presse, see Rosemberg (2008). See also Walsh (2008).
- Calligaro et al. (2009, abstract)
- Edwards, Owen (May 30, 2008). "The Smithsonian's Crystal Skull". Smithsonian Museum. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
- Various authors. "The Crystal Skulls" Skeptic magazine. Vol. 14, No. 2. 2008. Page 89.
- Claudel, Paul. The Satin Slipper. Trans. John O'Connor and Paul Claudel. London: Sheed & Ward, 1931. Originally published as Le Soulier de Satin (Paris: Nouvelle Revue Française).
- See Nickell (2007, pp.67–73); Smith (2005); Walsh (1997; 2008).
- John Schriber (Executive Producer). Kevin Huffman, Erin McGarry, Andrew Rothstein and Andrea Skipper (Producers). Jayme Roy (Director of Photography). Lester Holt (Presenter) (May 2008). The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls (television program). New York: Peacock Productions (NBC), in association with the Sci Fi Channel. Retrieved 2008-06-06.
- Serpent of Light - Beyond 2012, ISBN 1-57863-401-6
- See discussion of the various claims put forward by Sams, Kenneth Meadows, Harley Swift Deer Reagan and others concerning crystal skulls, extra-terrestrials, and Native American lore, in Jenkins (2004, pp.215–218).
- Quotation from Jenkins (2004, pp.217–218).
- Aldred, Lisa (Summer 2000). "Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality". American Indian Quarterly (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press) 24 (3): 329–352. doi:10.1353/aiq.2000.0001. ISSN 0095-182X. JSTOR 1185908. OCLC 184746956.
- British Museum (n.d.–a). "Rock crystal skull". Explore: Highlights. Trustees of the British Museum. Retrieved 2008-04-22.
- British Museum (n.d.–b). "Study of two large crystal skulls in the collections of the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution". Explore: Articles. Trustees of the British Museum. Retrieved 2008-04-22.
- British Museum (n.d.–c). "The crystal skull". News and press releases: Statements. Trustees of the British Museum. Retrieved 2008-04-14.
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- Real Science monograph on examinations of both the BM & BH skulls
- skepdic.com: crystalskull
- Mitchell-Hedges Official website Biography of Anna Mitchell-Hedges and account of the discovery of the skull.
- The Magic of Crystal Skulls - Legend of the 13 - 10:10 Event – roundtable discussion about crystal skulls in connection with the October 9–10, 2010 Crystal Skull Events in New York City.
- The Crystal Skull of Doom Critical look at the Mitchell Hedges Skull and other crystal skulls.
- Ancient Mexico, Hollywood and the French Connection
- "The Crystal Skull: Mystical, or Modern?" A skeptical look at the mystical claims for the various crystal skulls, and a fact-based look at their true histories.