“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,… in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. … 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? Where did they come from, and why were they made?” ( Jane MacLaren Walsh )
Skulls are humanity’s foremost symbol of death, and a powerful icon in the visual vocabularies of cultures all over the globe. Thirteen crystal skulls of apparently ancient origin have been found in parts of Mexico, Central America and South America, comprising one of the most fascinating subjects of twentieth century archaeology. These skulls, found near the ancient ruins of Mayan and Aztec civilizations, with some evidence linking the skulls with past civilization in Peru, are a mystery… of sorts.
Many indigenous people speak of their remarkable magical and healing properties, but nobody really knows where they came from or what they were used for. Were they left behind after the destruction of a previous world, such as Atlantis? Are they simply ingenious modern fakes or can they really enable us to see deeply into the past and predict the future? Much research is currently being done on the skulls. However, their origin is for the most part, less mysterious than it was; though there is some tinges that defy logic. Everything that is known about lapidary work indicates that the skulls should have been shattered fractured, or fallen apart when carved….
Should you stumble upon it in the British Museum, it is said to take your breath away: A life sized and very deathlike skull carved from a single magnificent piece of rock crystal. Outwardly, it has the sinister shape of a deaths-head polished to a high brilliance ; inwardly its pellucid cranium seems to hold the secret thoughts of Death visibly trapped in crystal. A vein of air bubbles and refracting particles arches through the skull like a Milky Way of dazzling metaphors. Surely, death has never been more spectacularly articulated than this.
The journalist and their who/what/when/where/why? are hard pressed to furnish an answer. The museum has owned the piece for over one hundred years and its commitment to providing information is aggressively non-committal. Is it a fake? The most suspicious thing about it is that more crystal skulls have not been found. One, with a detachable jaw is in the U. S. and the other life size example is in Paris. All the rest are very small. The Paris experts had no qualms about attributing their skull to the Aztecs of the fifteenth century, though they have been waffling lately. They think it probably represents the powerful god of death, Mictlantecutli, Lord of the Undeld, who was the object of so many death’s- head variations in ancient Mexican art.
Mictlantecutli’s skull cult, however, has no proven connection wit the crystal skulls now reposing in museums, which were acquired through dealers or private collectors and cannot be traced to properly documented sources. As far as anyone knows, not one crystal skull has been excavated at a verified archaeological site. Nor has other crystal sculpture of any complexity ever turned up at a site in Mexico.
The British Museum, has of course submitted its skull to laboratory analysis…. but. The consensus seems to be that the teeth had been cut with a circular saw, a tool obviously unavailable to pre-Colombian craftsmen, who wrought their lapidary miracles with the simplest wood or copper cutting tools, using sand as an abrasive. Even so, the fact that the surface bears the marks of modern tools would not rule out the possibility that these, as often happens, are merely traces of subsequent doctoring or “restoration”.
Another troublesome point is the question of style. Aztec sculpture, and virtually all the sculpture that preceded it in that incredibly fertile land of art- never tried to copy nature; it was stylized by an abstractionist hand and molded with an eye to expressive distortion. But the rock crystal skulls, both in London and Paris, are almost perfect copies of a real human skull. Why should the sculptor who carved the two life size skulls have been the first Mexican to prefer realism to abstraction?
The difference might be explained if, as some experts suggest, he were working not in Aztec times but in the Spanish colonial era; perhaps in the sixteenth century, when European naturalism prevailed. The Spanish, after all, had a rich tradition of skulls in ther iconography. That possibility seems to be the most compelling explanation of this enigmatic piece with its implicit paradox: death in its most austere, expressed in art at its most sumptuous. Unless, it was worked over an existing skull that was in an abstract vein.
It would be difficult to make a case for the skull being a fake of the usual sort. George Frederick Kunz, the indefatigable mineralologist who examined the skull in the 1880’s when it still belonged to the American collector George Sisson, wrote that it was brought from Mexico by a Spanish officer sometime before the French occupation of Mexico. The pedigree takes it back at least to the middle 1800’s , when the Mexican art market was hardly profitable enough to warrant carving fakes from materials as expensive as rock crystal. Sisson sold the skull to the British Museum for less than two hundred pounds, according to this story. Besides, if a sculptor wanted to produce a fake, it would be more reasonable to copy a genuine pre- Colombian piece than to invent a “new realism” of its own.
Kunz never doubted that the work was Aztec, but he wondered where such a large block of crystal could have been found. He speculated that it might have come from what is now Calaveras County, California, ” where masses of rock crystal are found containing vermicular prochlorite inclusions identical with those observed in the large skull”.
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 acquired skulls earlier, it was Eugène Boban, an antiquities dealer who opened his shop in Paris in 1870, who is most associated with nineteenth-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 again in 2004 has shown 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, and is only to be 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 Bavarian town of Idar-Oberstein renowned for crafting objects made from imported Brazilian quartz at this period in the late 19th century…..
It has been established that both the British Museum and Paris’s Musée de l’Homme crystal skulls 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.
An investigation carried out by the Smithsonian Institution in 1992 on a crystal skull provided by an anonymous source who claimed to have purchased it in Mexico City in 1960 and that it was of Aztec origin concluded that it, too, was made in recent years. According to the Smithsonian, Boban acquired the crystal skulls he sold from sources in Germany – findings that are in keeping with those of the British Museum.
A detailed study of the British Museum and Smithsonian crystal skulls was accepted for publication by the Journal of Archaeological Science 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 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”. ( Dee Finney )