July 9, 2008

Museums Embrace Public’s Fascination With Crystal Skulls

With the summer blockbuster success of the latest installment of the Indian Jones saga, the public has been fascinated by the history of the mysterious crystal skulls.

Starting Thursday, the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History is putting its crystal skull on display for all to see.

"People like to believe in something greater than themselves and crystal skulls are mysterious and beautiful," said Smithsonian anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh.

She said the skulls are a fascinating example of artifacts that have made their way into museums with no scientific evidence to prove their rumored pre-Columbian origins.

Rumored to be the creation of ancient Mesoamericans like the Aztecs, Mixtecs, Toltecs, and perhaps even the Mayans, the skull-carved crystals fed the 19th century's need for drama and mystery as well as its fascination with death.

The skulls, which were then believed to possess supernatural powers, represented the art and religion of these peoples.

But science has remained skeptical.

Nonetheless, the giant crystal skull that mysteriously arrived at the Smithsonian 16 years ago is out of its locked cabinet in Walsh's office and will be on public view until Sept. 1.

Walsh extended her investigation into crystal skulls in other museums and concluded that all are fakes, made in the 19th and 20th centuries.

"In the past, most carved skulls were assumed to be ancient," she said. But why would someone go to the trouble of faking one?

People often ask if there is a real Indiana Jones doing archaeological work, said the museum's director, Cristian Samper.

"I tell them there are several," he said. "People doing field work that is every bit as interesting."

The Smithsonian's crystal skull is one of the largest known, at 10 inches high and weighing 30 pounds. It was mailed to the museum anonymously, accompanied by a note claiming it was of Aztec origin.

But Walsh said it is not.

She says the skulls were carved from blocks of quartz - sometimes called rock crystal - and each show the markings of modern carving tools.

"That means they were not made before the 19th century. The Smithsonian one seems to have been made between 1950 and 1960," she said.

Also, no crystal skulls have ever been found at an archaeological site.

Although skulls appear in Aztec and Toltec art, scientists say they always were carved in relief in basalt, a dark rock.

Most agree the crystal skulls were made in Europe and Mexico, many in the 19th century, a period when there was a thriving market in antiquities, real and fake.

But what about all those claims of mystic powers?

The British Museum views the skull in its collection as an enigmatic object of great interest but with no supernatural properties.

But that doesn't discourage movies from featuring crystal skulls or museums from joining in.

In addition to putting its skull on display, the Smithsonian is reporting on the topic in Smithsonian Magazine's July issue and featuring the skulls in a documentary Thursday night on the Smithsonian Channel.

Crystal skulls can also be viewed publicly at the British Museum in London and the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris.

Image Courtesy British Museum


On the Net:

Museum of Natural History

Crystal Skulls

British Museum

Musee do Quai Branly