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The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

This example is in the British Museum.

This example is in the British Museum.

Crystal human skulls with alleged mystical powers began turning up in Central America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were thought to be artifacts from Aztec and Mayan cultures. A number of museums and wealthy individual collectors wanted to get their hands on them.

Where Did the Skulls Come from?

Some of the skulls were life-sized, while others were miniatures; all elicited excitement from the archaeological community. Some suggested they came from cultures that moved into Central America from the lost city of Atlantis. There was a body of opinion that said they were left behind by aliens who had visited Earth long before recorded history.

Most of these rather exotic theories gave way as opinion settled more conventionally on pre-Columbian societies as the source of the skulls. Legends soon sprung up around them. A total of 13 were found and became dispersed around the world. Someone created the myth that if the 13 skulls were ever reunited in the same place, secrets vital to the survival of the human species would be revealed.

Frederick Mitchell-Hedges found a crystal skull among the ruins of Lubaantun in 1924 or '26.

Frederick Mitchell-Hedges found a crystal skull among the ruins of Lubaantun in 1924 or '26.

The Doom Skull

In 1924 or 1926 (accounts vary), the renowned English adventurer Frederick Mitchell-Hedges was leading an expedition in British Honduras (called Belize today). He and his daughter Anna were examining the Mayan ruin of Lubaantun when they stumbled on a crystal skull.

However, Mitchell-Hedges made no mention of the find until 1956. In his book, Danger My Ally, he claimed that the crystal skull dated “back at least 3,600 years, and taking about 150 years to rub down with sand from a block of pure rock crystal.” He called it the “Skull of Doom.”

He built an elaborate mythology around the artifact, claiming it possessed the ability to kill those who mocked it. On the other hand, the skull was also said to have great healing powers.

Frederick Mitchell-Hedges died in 1959, and his daughter Anna took the skull on tour. She regaled interviewers and audiences with the story of how she found the skull underneath an altar in a ruined temple. She engaged the services of art restorer Frank Dorland who said he heard choral music and bells emanating from the skull. The dawn of the New Age movement with its focus on (among other things) the curative power of crystals brought renewed interest to the Skull of Doom.

Why did these crystal skulls so captivate the populace?

Why did these crystal skulls so captivate the populace?

The British Museum Skull

Pre-dating the Mitchell-Hedges skull was a similar artifact that was put on display in the British Museum. This particular skull first appeared in 1881 in the Paris shop of Eugène Boban, a dealer in antiquaries. He took it to America in 1886 and sold it at a Tiffany & Co. auction. It was sold on to the British Museum in 1898, and the museum put it on display and labeled it as having come from pre-Columbian Mexico. It bore a striking similarity to the Skull of Doom but with less detail.

The museum notes that “Although the stylisation of the features of the skull is in general accord with other examples accepted as genuine Aztec or Mixtec carvings, the overall appearance does not present an obvious example of Aztec or any other Mesoamerican art style.”

Misgivings began to grow about the skull’s provenance, especially because of its connection to Eugène Boban. He was developing a bit of a reputation for himself as a rascal who occasionally traded in fakes.

Eugène Boban is pictured here with some of his artifacts.

Eugène Boban is pictured here with some of his artifacts.

The Truth About the Crystal Skulls

Doubts about the authenticity of these crystal relics were expressed by some beginning when they first appeared, but most were content to go along with the appealing narrative that had developed. Then, in 1992, a mysterious parcel arrived at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Inside was a milky-white crystal shaped like a human skull. An anonymous note was attached that read, “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 object was passed on to Jane MacLaren Walsh, an anthropologist and expert in pre-Columbian art. She began a sleuthing expedition worthy of Mr. Holmes. The British Museum joined Walsh in her search for the truth. By using electron microscopes, the researchers were able to show that carving marks were made by tools not available to Aztecs or Mayans. The etch marks were likely made by a jeweler’s rotary wheel. Other tests revealed that the quartz came either from Brazil or Madagascar—not Central America.

Next, it was the Mitchell-Hedges skull's turn to get the once-over. Anna Mitchell-Hedges refused to allow a physical examination of the skull she owned. After her death in 2008, the skull was subjected to tests, and it too turned out to be of a quite modern provenance.

And, speaking of provenance, Walsh and her colleagues discovered that the earliest crystal skulls could be traced to the same source, Eugène Boban, who we met earlier. He likely had the skulls made in Germany and then palmed them off as genuine pre-Columbian artifacts.

Since Boban showed the way, others have jumped into the fake skull trade, and they continue to turn up backed by histories plausible enough to fool many. A lot of scoundrels have gone beyond the skull swindle, and museum curators around the world now lose sleep wondering if some of their prized exhibits are also bogus. Jane MacLaren Walsh is frequently called in to authenticate items and often has to pass on the bad news that a treasured antique is in fact a forgery.

New crystal skulls still turn up occasionally, and many rubes are still sucked in by their mysterious allure.

New crystal skulls still turn up occasionally, and many rubes are still sucked in by their mysterious allure.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 2017, a report revealed that of the almost 2,000 objects in San Francisco’s Mexican Museum, only 83 could be authenticated as genuinely pre-Columbian. The rest were either fake or could not be verified.
  • A story has it that a Mayan family in Guatemala found a crystal skull in 1909. In 1991, it came into the possession of a Dutch woman called Joky van Dieten, who described herself as a “spiritual adventurer.” The skull has since been dubbed “ET” after the extraterrestrial in the movie ET and is said to have arrived from the Pleiades star cluster 444 light-years away. Ms. Van Dieten totes ET around the world to demonstrate its ability to cure ailments.
  • SHA NA RA is a crystal quartz skull discovered in Mexico in 1995 through the application of “psychic archaeology.” Like its colleagues, it is claimed to possess amazing occult powers. Its current custodian is Michele Nocerino of Portland, Oregon. For a fee, she will guide you to SHA NA RA’s ability to “open up resonate fields/portals into dream worlds, communicate knowledge, establish pathways to the unconscious, open portals to other dimensions, and as a tool to stimulate healing.”

Sources

  • “Just the Facts.” Archaeology Magazine, 2010.
  • “The Crystal Skull.” Currator’s Comments, British Museum, 1990.
  • “Legend of the Crystal Skulls.” Jane MacLaren Walsh, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2008.
  • “These Infamous Crystal Skulls Aren’t From Aztecs Or Aliens, But Just Victorian Hoax Artists.” Daniel Rennie, allthatsinteresting.com, October 30, 2019
  • “How Crystal Skulls Work.” Shanna Freeman, science.howstuffworks.com, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 14, 2020:

I had read about these crystal sculls before, Rupert, but your article is interesting none the less. There are so many archaeological frauds out there. Thanks for sharing.

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