The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Crystal Skulls - Myth vs. Reality

I remember, as a kid, sitting in the kitchen and hearing the theme from the television show In Search Of... play. My parents, I think primarily my mother, would watch the show regularly, and so, while they fed me a steady stream of real science and history via books, magazines such as Scientific American, NPR, and PBS, they also partook of a fair amount of New Age pseudo-science, especially when it was brought to our homes by Leonard Nimoy.

And I loved it. As a kid, and even into my teens, I was fascinated by the various weird claims made by shows such as In Search Of..., though by my late teens I began to realize just what a crock of nonsense these shows really were. Still, the stories are fun, even if I no longer believe them.

One of the things that I first saw on In Search Of... was crystal skulls. This subject became popular once again recently with the release of the latest Indiana Jones movie. As I am an archaeologist it is not uncommon for people to ask me about these items. So I am writing this entry specifically to give my opinion of the whole crystal skull phenomenon so that I can direct others to it when they ask me about them.

For starters, it should be noted that many of the cultures of Central and South America did manufacture carved skulls out of locally available stones. People living in the Americas during the 19th century discovered that European and North American museums were hungry for pre-Colombian artifacts, and would also carve many new ones, possibly including small skulls, out of whatever materials were at hand (sometimes including authentic, but less beautiful, ancient stone artifacts). These skulls were usually highly stylized in keeping with local traditions, however, and were quite different from the style of the crystal skulls of modern fortean lore.

The larger and more finely-made crystal skulls first appear in the late 19th century. One well-known skull, often referred to as the Aztec Skull, had been bought by the British Museum in the late 19th century and is documented as coming from a well-known French antiquities collector named Eugen Boban. This skull was originally displayed as a pre-Colombian artifact from the Americas (and was not described as being mystical), as were other similar items at other museums. As time went on and more crystal skulls came to light, archaeologists and socio-cultural anthropologists began to get suspicious. In fact, most of the skulls (including the Mitchell-Hedges skull discussed below) appeared to be linked to Eugene Boban.

The "mystical crystal skulls" first came to prominence in the 1950s and 60s, when Anna Mitchell-Hedges (daughter of adventurer and self-promoter F.A. Mitchell-Hedges) began to exhibit a skull that she had allegedly found in a Belizian archaeological site during an excavation in 1924. The skull was mentioned briefly in the elder Mitchell-Hedges autobiography, but otherwise had not been discussed until Anna began to present it publicly and touring it for profit. However, later evidence indicates that F. A. Mitchell-Hedges had actually bought the skull at an auction (although a flimsy cover story has been circulated involving him buying it back from someone he had given it for safe keeping). The crystal skulls appear to have struck a nerve, coming in time for the advent of "crystal power" and "crystal healing" belief systems during the 60s and 70s. The skulls are said to have a variety of different properties, ranging from healing powers to the ability to create psychic abilities in those who are near them. Various spooky stories involving the skulls (even when they are said to be beneficial to humanity, there's still a dark edge to most of the crystal skull stories) seem to be a manifestation of both the fascination and the unease with popular claims of crystal power and energy.

The popular stories, and the ones repeated on In Search Of... and similar shows, hold that the crystal skull shave been thoroughly tested by various research institutions and that they lack tool marks and/or were manufactured in ways that are impossible with even modern technology.

As it happens, many of the crystal skulls, including the Aztec skull, have in fact been subjected to tests by numerous research institutions, and the truth is rather different from the popular narrative. The tests have consistently shown that the skulls do have tool marks, and that these tool marks are consistent with European crystal-carving tools dating from the late 19th century through the modern day, and that the manufacturing techniques are actually fairly easy to determine. Some folks claim that different researchers have performed tests on crystal skulls but are refusing to release the results or acknowledge that the tests have been done - which is usually code for "this is all nonsense, but we have to say something unfalsifiable as a way of saving face". In other words, the crystal skulls are fakes. As noted above, several appear to have come from Eugene Boban, who probably bought them in Oberstein, Germany, where such crystal work was routinely done in the late 19th century. The others either are not submitted for proper study or have revealed similar results.

The case of the British museum's Aztec skull is particularly interesting to me, though. while it has been subject to many of the same "crystal power" claims as the other skulls, it also has had a variety of other stories attached to it: it moves on its own, it makes people who are near it feel uneasy, it mus be covered at night in order to not frighten the people who work at the museum, etc. etc. Most of the skull's creepy elements are typical of haunted house symptoms that would have been familiar to late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britons from common folklore as well as the mass media of the day. If I have to venture a guess, I'd say that, as the crystal skulls became the manifestation of the creepy side of the crystal power craze, the Britons working at the museum began to attribute the same sorts of symptoms to the skull.

Me, looking dissaprovingly towards the Aztec Skull

So, there you have it, the skulls are not pre-Colombian artifacts from Central and South America. They are probably of European origins, were created to make a fast buck for a french antiquities dealer, and thorough testing has shown that they are perfectly terrestrial on origin, even if they look a bit weird.

If you want to do more reading (I assume that you are capable of discerning the pseudo-scientific nonsense from legitimate information) then go to The British Museum, How Stuff Works, The Smithsonian Institute, Hometown Tales Podcast, Wikipedia, Podcast, Internet, Internet

...and, because I love you all, here's a special treat:

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