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SI Skull

This crystal skull was anonymously mailed to the Smithsonian Institution in 1992. A letter included with the artifact said it was from the Aztec empire.
Photo by James DiLoreto ©Smithsonian Institution

Ancient Mexico, Hollywood and the French Connection

By Jane MacLaren Walsh

GOlden figure of Tlazolteotl.

The golden figure above was modeled on a purportedly pre-Columbian Aztec, green-stone carving called Tlazolteotl, considered to be a masterpiece by the Dumbarton Oaks museum in Washington, D.C.

Hollywood often entertains us by playing to our fantasies.  The wildly entertaining Indiana Jones movies give us Hollywood’s version of a university professor and archaeologist, not to mention its idea of scientific inquiry.  Ah, academia, all adventure and glamour with a bit of danger and heroics thrown in.  Dr. Jones has every girl and boy’s dream job; “Oh, I always wanted to be an archaeologist!” Interestingly, the objects that Indy risks his life for in these films are no more real than the “archaeology” he conducts.

In his first adventure, Dr. Jones is in hot pursuit of an extremely valuable, rare and exotic golden idol. The goddess’s image, which he deftly snatches from an altar, letting loose an enormous boulder that nearly crushes our hero, is of a woman in the act of giving birth. 

The latest issue of the saga is entitled Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the crystal skulls in this movie are alien skulls, outer space aliens, not aliens who’ve crossed our borders, despite the fact that crystal skulls are usually said to be from ancient Mexico.

The goddess giving birth and crystal skulls share the distinction of being highly suspect as Aztec, Mixtec, or even pre-Columbian (Walsh 1997; 2006; 2008a, b; Pasztory 2002). Indiana Jones is not the only person, or even archaeologist, real or imagined, whom these two types of artifacts have fooled, however.   

The greenstone Tlazolteotl has been considered a masterpiece of pre-Columbian art since around the turn of the 20th century. A French mineralogist, Augustin Damour, purchased it in 1883, from a Chinese dealer, with the advice of a Parisian antiquarian named Eugene Boban.  Sixty years later Robert Woods Bliss, who had an eye for gold and jade artifacts from Mexico, bought it from the estate of another art dealer.  My own study of this sculpture, which is being published by the Journal of the Society of Americanists, elucidates its history, iconography, and technology and indicates that it is a 19th-century invention (2008). 

Carvings of human skulls in quartz crystal are highly collectable objects.  They seem to reflect an enduring love of our own image, as well as of the morbid and exotic, and while usually attributed to pre-Columbian Mexican cultures, not a single one in museum collections comes from a documented excavation, and they have little stylistic or technical relationship with any actual pre-Columbian carvings of skulls. 


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