May 25, 2008

Secrets of the Real Crystal Skulls

Indiana Jones returns May 22 in
the long-anticipated film "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal
Skull." Indy, of course, is not just a globetrotting adventurer but also
an archaeologist.

In most of the Indiana Jones
films, the stories by George Lucas involve some mysterious, long-lost artifact.
In "Raiders of the Lost Ark," it was of course the Ark of the
Covenant; in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," it was the Holy

This time Indy battles menacing
Russians who are after crystal skulls that have the ability to control
people's minds
. Yet while the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail may be
mythical, crystal skulls are quite real.

George Lucas has said in
interviews that he's been interested in crystal skulls for many years. Here's
an inside look at the real crystal skulls that inspired Indiana Jones's latest

The mythology

There are many skulls in the
world carved out of quartz, of varying sizes and designs, though not all of
them are steeped in myth and
. There are only a handful of the largest, life-size skulls in
existence, and they have inspired awe for generations.

They are said to be hundreds
of years old, and possibly of Mayan or Aztec origin.

The skulls are indeed a sight
to behold; I examined a glowing, clear skull in the Smithsonian for about 20
minutes, trying to tease out its secrets. Beyond the artistry of carved
crystal, many believe the skulls have special abilities, such as aiding psychic
, healing the sick-or even power over death.

The Skull of

Joe Nickell, in his book "Adventures
in Paranormal Investigation," discusses one of the best-known crystal
skulls, the so-called Skull of Doom. It was supposedly found in the 1920s at a
lost Mayan ruin in Central America by an
explorer named F. A. Mitchell-Hedges.

The skull, an impressive
piece of quartz at almost 12 pounds, was rumored to have the power to kill: When
a Mayan priest conducted arcane rituals and focused his concentration on the
powerful relic, the skull could kill anyone at the priest's command.

Though dramatic, the story is
as fictional as any Indiana Jones script. Nickell's research revealed that
Mitchell-Hedges lied about where and when he got the skull, instead having
purchased it from a collector many years after he claimed. There was also no
evidence it held any special powers.

The science

And what does science say about
the origins of the skulls? Doubts about the skulls' origins have circulated for
decades. In 2005 an anthropologist at the Smithsonian examined several
skulls and found that the cuts into the crystal unmistakably showed evidence of
modern, not ancient, carving techniques. Not only were the cuts done with
modern lapidary wheels, but the skulls themselves were polished with modern

Nickell, an expert on crystal skulls, concludes that "none of
the famous skulls appears to be pre-Columbian; in fact, all of them may be
European forgeries."

With such a track record,
it's clear why those who own the crystal skulls often refuse to have them
scientifically examined. It's better to preserve
the mysterious
(if not magical) aura around the skulls than to get a
definitive (but negative) answer. Put another way, it's more fun to wonder if
the skull was used centuries ago in some ancient civilization than to find out
it was made fifty years ago in some carver's basement in Berlin.

Though the crystal skulls apparently
have no supernatural
-healing, death, mind control, or otherwise-they do have one
undeniable, proven quality: the power to fascinate.

Radford, like George Lucas, has a longtime interest in crystal skulls. Also
like Lucas, Radford is a filmmaker, but unlike Lucas he hasn't made a dime from
his movies. His books and films can be found on his website.