Poster for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Poster for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Any introduction to the crystal skulls must begin with the idea of the Out-of-place-artefact (Oopart). These make up one of the most popular sections of this website and to date we have pages on more than 50 Ooparts. This rag-bag assortment of curiosities are items that seem to undermine conventional theories of technological development over time. They are anachronisms (meaning objects out of time) or they are superficially indicative of outside – even alien(!) – influence. Perhaps the most famous of these, in addition to the crystal skulls, are the so-called Baghdad Batteries and Antikythera ‘Computer’.

Damien Hirst’s Diamond Skull

Damien Hirst’s Diamond Skull

When Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God became the most expensive work of art ever created, it was the revival of a long-standing obsession in representational art. Hirst’s haunting, stylised Memento Mori was just the latest incarnation of an enduring ancient form. Inevitably, when it came to the saleroom, the most modern of modern art demanded a most modern price, this time a reported £50m. Like some slumbering monster the crystal skull obsession is currently being re-awakened by the most entertaining and mass-market of all archaeological sources: Indiana Jones.

In general, the known crystal skulls of Central America can be divided into five categories:

  1. One which is found in the British Museum.
  2. Another at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
  3. Another three in the Musée Quai Branly in Paris.
  4. The most famous of all, the Mitchell-Hedges skull.
  5. And any number in private collections, about which we know very little.

Each of the first four have been analysed by experts at one time or another, each has their own mini-biography and as such, each has their own story to tell. This page is an honest attempt to present what we know of these mysterious artefacts.

A few popular magazines (with mixed archaeological merit!) have featured articles about the crystal skulls

A few popular magazines (with mixed archaeological merit!) have featured articles about the crystal skulls

The recent bout of Indy-mania has prompted various news articles and scholarly essays on the subject of the crystal skulls, with the Mitchell-Hedges skull attracting the most attention. Jane MacLaren Walsh has an article in the May/June edition of Archaeology magazine; the entire thing is available free here. Walsh was also part of a team who examined in detail the properties and origins of the Smithsonian and British Museum skulls. Their findings will be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. An advance copy of the paper is available to all of you with personal or institutional library access. The main points of the paper are relayed on this page.

The Earliest Crystal Skulls

According to Walsh, “The earliest [Mexican example] seems to be a British Museum crystal skull about an inch high that may have been acquired in 1856 by British banker Henry Christy.” She continues “Two other examples were exhibited in 1867 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris as part of the collection of Eugène Boban”. These in turn were followed by the appearance of various individual skulls which were acquired by collectors as part of their buy-anything-that-moves policies which came to dominate the major museums in the late nineteenth century.

The general theory for the emergence of the crystal skulls at this time goes as follows: the destabilising of Mexico at the time of the French invasion of 1863 created a stage on which unprovenanced artefacts (and fakes) could be sold with impunity to those with a taste for antiquities. As we have seen with the recent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, archaeological protection quickly becomes a low priority for both politicians (as people sell artefacts in order to feed their families) and law enforcement agencies (who suddenly have far higher priorities).

The crystal skulls have variously been touted as evidence for advanced technology in the past and, much more incongruously, as evidence for unexpected anatomical knowledge. Unlike those found in the new Indiana Jones film, the significance of the distinctly earth-bound skulls cannot be ascertained by studying the crazed etchings of John Hurt. Instead they must be subjected to scientific investigation. Luckily, all four museum skulls have been studied extensively and it is worth looking at these in some detail.

Both the Smithsonian Institution and British Museum Skulls were analysed in some detail and the findings from this work are to be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The skulls were subjected to initial optical microscopy (of up to ×60) and then the most interesting features were cast using a silicone moulding. These pieces of silicone were then subjected to examination using a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). In addition to the microscopy, the surface of the skulls were compared to those from a carved quartz artefact from a known Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican context. A quartz goblet from the post-Classic Mixtec (CE c 900-1512) site Monte Alban and a selection of beads from the Aztec site Templo Mayor (CE c 1325-1519) were selected as indicative of Pre-Columbian lapidary (stone carving).

The mineral content of the skulls were analysed using X-ray diffraction techniques. This enables archaeologists to say something about the possible provenance of the raw material (in this case quartz) of the skulls.

After reviewing all our knowledge of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican lapidary techniques – using both documentary and archaeological data – it is clear that there is no evidence for the use of lapidary rotary wheels. This sits in contrast to modern lapidary where rotary wheels are commonplace.

The Mitchell-Hedges Skull

The Mitchell-Hedges Skull

The Mitchell-Hedges Skull

Of all the skulls allegedly carved from crystal and found in Central America, the most famous is that said to have been found in 1924 by Frederick Albert (or Arthur) Mitchell-Hedges (1882-1959) in Lubaantun, Belize, where the British Museum had been conducting excavations under the direction of Thomas Athol Joyce (1878-1942). The skull and its famous owner have a very smart web site dedicated to them. Whatever the claims of myth and legend associated with it you can’t fault the range of information and pictures contained within.

Origins and reporting of the find

As for the supposed source of the crystal skull, Lubaantun is a late Classic ceremonial centre dated CE 700-900. Despite Mitchell-Hedges’s autobiographical claims to have discovered and excavated the city under an exclusive twenty-year concession, its existence had been known for some time. Moreover, he was sponsored by the Daily Mail and was reporting on the British Museum’s fieldwork, not running it. He was therefore in no position to donate the finds to various museums in Britain, as he claimed in the 1950s. Anna Mitchell-Hedges (1907-2007) recalled its discovery coinciding with her seventeenth birthday in 1924.

The Mitchell-Hedges skull is 130 mm high, 180 mm from front to back and 130 mm wide, and was allegedly carved from a single block of quartz, although the mandible is detachable (and, according to Anna Mitchell-Hedges, was found some time after the “cranium”, which may explain why two separate discovery dates are given). It is rather smaller than an adult skull. It was claimed by Frederick Mitchell-Hedges that the skull is some 3,600 years old, although it is not clear how this estimate of age was arrived formulated.

The skull is supposed to have been found beneath an altar on top of a pyramid, which is inherently unlikely. It was not even found during the British Museum’s excavations (had it been, it would now be in the Museum’s stores), but seems to have been acquired by Mitchell-Hedges in circumstances that he never made clear. It is possible that the skull was planted at Lubaantun for Anna to find, this would be a plausible explanation for such a scenario.

Writing in The Times newspaper, Norman Hammond, Professor of Archaeology at Boston University, claimed “When I worked at Lubaantun in 1970, [Anna Mitchell-Hedges] wrote to me asking why I had not mentioned the skull in my reports, and built up a cottage industry taking it round US cities to display on a pay-per-view basis in rented hotel rooms. On the one occasion when I met her – and the skull – she claimed that the two metal-drilled holes under the jaw, to hold the artefact firmly in its box, had been there when she “found” it in the 1920s.”

A crystal carver, Frank Dorland, obtained permission to have the skull submitted to physical analysis in 1970; supposedly, tests were carried out by Hewlett Packard Laboratories and showed that the original block had first been chiselled into a rough shape before grinding and polishing with water and sand. This is not an unusual technique in working with hard stones, although “fringe’ writers tend to imply that it is and that employing it would mean that it would take between 150 and 300 years continuous work to produce the skull, which is clearly ludicrous. Frank Dorland himself is a promoter of New Age beliefs about crystals and their alleged healing properties, so he is not quite the dispassionate scientist the story tends to make out.

There is, in fact, strong evidence that skull was bought for £400 at a sale by Sotheby’s, London, in 1943, from Sidney Burney, the owner of an art gallery. Burney is recorded as its owner in an article in Man in 1936, when he was said to have owned it since at least 1933. Mitchell-Hedges mentioned it only in the first edition of his autobiography Danger My Ally, published in 1954, without giving an account of how he had acquired it, apart from hinting at mysterious circumstances. Mention of the skull was dropped from subsequent editions. Apparently, he had hoped to be buried with the object, but his adopted daughter Anna held on to it. It is now in the possession of Bill Homann.

The life of Mitchell-Hedges is shrouded in mystery. An adventurer and raconteur, much of his autobiographical work has been dismissed as invention (there are tales of wrestling with sea monsters, sharing a room with Leon Trotsky and the like) and he has been compared with Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr (Baron) von Münchhausen (1720-1797).

The final paragraph of Danger My Ally goes as follows:

This indeed is the basis of the only message that I can fruitfully offer to the youth of my country and the world. When you are young and strong and full of hope, sit down one day and think about the world. Decide what you would like to do above all else – and then go and do it. Follow your star to the bitter end no matter what the hazards or the perils; no matter even if the star proves to be a false guide and you die in the attempt. You will have lived life to the full, you will have enjoyed yourself and even if you leave behind no material treasure, you will leave riches in the hearts of those who have drawn strength from your strength and who will cherish your memory until their day is done.

Whatever the truth of his life, a manifesto like the paragraph above, an appeal for a life full of adventure, can hardly be faulted for a lack of ambition or sentiment. Danger My Ally has been republished thanks to the efforts of Mitchell-Hedges enthusiast Jim Honey and is available from his Canadian store: Sangrael.

Into the dark…

Occultists have made even more extraordinary claims about these skulls. According to the satanist Anton Szandor LaVay (1930-1997), the Lubaantun skull was made by Satan himself! Others are a little more down-to-earth (perhaps that should be up-to-earth?) and merely claim that it emits growling noises or chanting, that it has miraculous healing powers, that images can be seen inside it, that it causes intense thirst and some people cannot stay in the same room as the skull as it induces uncontrollable terror. Fringe writers make much of the discrepancy between the technology required to manufacture these skulls and that available to ancient Mesoamerican peoples. According to them, this is proof that the skulls were made in Atlantis! Anna Mitchell-Hedges went one better and claimed that it was originally from outer space, and was merely kept in Atlantis before being taken to Belize.

The Mitchell-Hedges skull is only the most famous example of a number of similar objects, none of which has ever been found in adequately documented circumstances, nor have any ever been found indisputably in ancient deposits.

The Smithsonian Institution Skull

The Smithsonian Institution Skull

The Smithsonian Institution Skull

According to Jane MacLaren Walsh, writing in the May/June 2008 issue of Archaeology magazine, “Sixteen years ago, a heavy package addressed to the nonexistent ‘Smithsonian Inst. Curator, MezoAmerican Museum, Washington, D.C.’ was delivered to the National Museum of American History. It was accompanied by an unsigned letter stating: “This Aztec crystal skull, purported to be part of the Porfirio Díaz collection, was purchased in Mexico in 1960… I am offering it to the Smithsonian without consideration.”

The skull differs from the British Museum, Quai Branly and Mitchell-Hedges examples by the fact that it is translucent, made with a quartz which gives a creamy rather than glassy appearance. It is also much larger than the others – weighing in at 30 lbs and measuring some 250 mm high.

The Smithsonian skull was the subject of high-powered microscopy and x-ray diffusion analysis. These techniques enable archaeologists to say something about the manufacture methods and provenance of the quartz. This work will be reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The microscopic analysis of the Smithsonian skull revealed the extensive use of rotary wheels to carve the surface of the skull.

Here you can see the surface of the Smithsonian skull reveals striations in the quartz which are typical of the use of rotary lapidary wheels:

SEM image of the surface of the Smithsonian Skull. The close linear striations are typical of rotary lapidary tools.

SEM image of the surface of the Smithsonian Skull. The close linear striations are typical of rotary lapidary tools. © British Museum (From: Sax, M, Walsh, J M, Freestone, I C, Rankin, A H, & Meeks, N D. The origin of two purportedly pre-Columbian Mexican crystal skulls. Journal of Archaeological Science (2008), doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.05.007)

X-ray diffraction analysis of a tiny deposit preserved in a cavity of the skull revealed that this speck was silicon carbide (commonly known as carborundum). This is extremely rare in the natural world. However, it was synthesised at the end of the nineteenth century for use as an abrasive in the carving industry. Carborundum has a hardness of 9.5 on the Mohs scale (diamond is 10 – the highest).

The British Museum Skull

The British Museum Skull

The British Museum Skull

This is housed just a kilometre from where I write this, sitting in a glass case on display at the British Museum (the skull that is, not me). There is an excellent little section of the BM website which explains the analysis which has been undertaken on the skull (see below). The material characteristics and history of the British Museum skull are (along with the analysis of the Smithsonian skull) the subject of a forthcoming article in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

According to the British Museum, the skull was purchased from Tiffany and Co, New York in 1897. At the time of its purchase, the skull was said to have been brought from Mexico by a Spanish officer before the French occupation (in 1863). It was sold to an English collector and acquired at his death by Eugène Boban. According to Jane MacLaren Walsh, “Tiffany & Co. bought the crystal skull at… auction [from Boban] for $950. A decade later, Tiffany’s sold it to the British Museum for the original purchase price.”

The British Museum has a page dedicated to this object here and details of the Journal of Archaeological Science investigation into the Smithsonian and BM skulls are on the BM website here.

High-powered microscopy images from the Journal of Archaeological Science article show that the skull was held by hand which then moved against the rim of a mounted rotating lapidary wheel. The authors also concluded that a hole at the base of the skull was drilled.

These striations across the surface of the quartz are indicative of the use of rotary wheel lapidary tool.

These striations across the surface of the quartz are indicative of the use of rotary wheel lapidary tool. © British Museum (From: Sax, M, Walsh, J M, Freestone, I C, Rankin, A H, & Meeks, N D The origin of two purportedly pre-Columbian Mexican crystal skulls. Journal of Archaeological Science (2008), doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.05.007)

The geological source of the quartz from which the British Museum skull is made is thought to be either Brazil or Madagascar. This conclusion comes from analysis of inclusions within the quartz. These inclusions (usually of minerals incorporated during the geological formation of the quartz) leave a distinctive signature – or set of signatures. These can then be compared to examples of quartz from known geological contexts.

It’s probably safe to say that quartz from Madagascar is beyond the normal reach pre-Columbian stone carvers in Mexico; Brazil might seem like a more plausible source. However, even Brazil is outside the range traveled by any other Aztec object of this sort.

Here you see the inclusions within the BM skull.

Here you see the inclusions within the BM skull. © British Museum (From: Sax, M, Walsh, J M, Freestone, I C, Rankin, A H, Meeks, N D. The origin of two purportedly pre-Columbian Mexican crystal skulls. Journal of Archaeological Science (2008), doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.05.007)

Historical circumstances in the nineteenth century allow for the possibility that the quartz from the British Museum skull came from either Madagascar or Brazil. According to the Journal of Archaeological Science article, French stone carvers obtained large amounts of quartz from Madagascar. And German settlers exported the quartz deposits of Brazil back to Germany from the early decades of the century. Eugène Boban, our omnipresent French antiques dealer, seems to have obtained the skulls from a source in Germany and is suspected of dealing in objects he knew to be faked (see analysis of the Quai Branly skull below).

The Musée Quai Branly Skull

The Musée Quai Branly Skull

The Musée Quai Branly Skull

The fourth skull examined here is housed at Jacques Chirac’s Grand Project: the Musée Quai Branly in Paris. It is the largest of three crystal skulls housed at the Musée. In anticipation of interest generated by the new Indiana Jones film, the museum undertook some analysis of the skull. The findings of the French national museums service conservation branch, along with the Quai Branly’s approach to the new Indy film, can be read here.

Once again we encounter Eugène Boban. He sold the Quai Branly skull to a French collector in 1875. According to Jane MacLaren Walsh, “After returning to France, he opened an antiquities shop in Paris in the 1870s and sold a large part of his original Mexican archaeological collection to Alphonse Pinart, a French explorer and ethnographer. In 1878, Pinart donated the collection, which included three crystal skulls, to the Trocadero, the precursor of the Musée de l’Homme”. The large Quai Branly skull is one of these.

Analysis of the surface of the Quai Branly skull has revealed tell-tale markings which come from machine tools working on the skull. This seems to quash any claim that the skull is pre-Columbian, and may even do the same for any connection with Central America whatsoever. The quartz from which the skull is fashioned originates in the Alps rather than the Andes. It is understood to come from South Germany where there was a cottage industry for the production of relics of this sort in the mid-19th century. The skull has a small hole at the top which was probably meant to receive a small crucifix.

Fortunately (according to Jane MacLaren Walsh) we have a better scientific understanding of the nature and likely origins of the raw material from which the Quai Branly Skull is carved, “the Musée du Quai Branly has begun a program of scientific testing on the piece that will include advanced elemental analysis techniques like particle induced X-ray emission and Raman spectroscopy, so we may know more about its material and age in the near future”.

It is expected that the analysis of the Quai Branly skull, in which they have attempted to date the carving of the skull, will be published in the journal Nature by the end of 2008.

Are these skulls old or new?

There is no evidence that any of these realistic skulls are ancient. Like many out-of-place-artefacts, the most likely origin of these skulls is an entrepreneur looking to exploit a credulous public with the assistance of a sensationalist media. This does not necessarily mean that all of them are 19th century fakes. For example, they may be genuine examples of pre-Columbian artistry which were re-carved using modern tools to suit modern tastes. One theory proposed by Jane MacLaren Walsh is that Pre-Columbian quartz beads were carved into the smaller skulls in the 19th century.

The ‘surprising anatomical knowledge’ shown by these skulls is hardly surprising: skulls from old skeletons may be dug up from any old burial ground and do not require a technology such as X-Rays to be seen. On the other hand, all crystal skulls that can be proven to come from ancient deposits on Mesoamerican archaeological sites are stylised (and usually made from basalt); until one of these naturalistic types is found under similar conditions (i.e. from reliable contexts), they must all be regarded with suspicion.

The Smithsonian, Quai Branly and British Museum skulls have been the subject of testing using a scanning electron microscope (SEM). The SEM produces fine-grained images which allow researchers to look extremely closely at the surface of the skulls. These suggest that they were carved using modern stone carving equipment such as rotary carving wheels – certainly not the kind which would have been available to Pre-Columbian craftsmen. You have been able to see some of these images yourself on this page.

Ah, I hear you say, it must therefore be proof of extra-terrestrial influence on these ancient and mystical people! If that is your reaction then the burden of proof is all yours and the question is not one of archaeology but one of the evidence for quartz-dumping aliens. That’s for another page. On another web site.

The truth is out there… but does anybody care?

For many people, archaeological evidence is irrelevant to arguments about the origins and meanings of the skulls. What matters to them is the effect that these skulls have in the world today – whether it is facilitating world peace or crashing computers.

Back in the early days of the nineteenth century, a few decades before Eugène Boban embarked upon his carreer in the antiquities trade, the young John Keats complained that Isaac Newton’s studies on optics and the refraction of light lessened the poetic beauty and mystery of the rainbow. With regards to the crystal skulls, many a modern day Keats complains that we may be “unweaving the rainbow”. Unsurprisingly, we disagree. The interest in the crystal skulls sparked by the new Indiana Jones film presents a great opportunity to popularise the process of archaeological investigation. And also the ways in which it can be manipulated and misconstrued by assorted acts of skulduggery.

Further Reading

Jones, M, Craddock, P & Barker, N (eds) 1990 Fake? The Art of Deception. London: British Museum Press

Morant, G M 1936 Man 36, 105-109 & 142-146.

Rivialle, P 2001 Eugène Boban ou les aventures d’un antiquaire au pays des Americanistes. Journal de la Société des Américanistes 87, 351-362.

Sax, M, Walsh, J M, Freestone, I C, Rankin, A H, & Meeks, N D The origin of two purportedly pre-Columbian Mexican crystal skulls. Journal of Archaeological Science (2008), doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.05.007

Walsh, J M 1997 Crystal skulls and other problems. In: Exhibiting Dilemmas. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 116-139