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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

Crystal Skulls History

Museums began collecting “pre-Columbian” rock crystal skulls during the second half of the 19th century, when no scientific archaeological excavations had yet been undertaken in Mexico, and, therefore, knowledge of what real pre-Columbian artifacts actually looked like was scarce.  It was also a period that saw a burgeoning industry in faking pre-Columbian objects, so much so that when Smithsonian archaeologist, W. H. Holmes visited Mexico City in 1884, he saw “relic shops” on every corner filled with fake ceramic vessels, whistles and figurines.  In a “museum building era,” Holmes warned about the abundance of fake pre-Columbian artifacts in museum collections in a journal article for Science (1886:170).

The 19th century was a period of keen fascination with skulls and skeletons in Europe and the Americas, and death and hell were popular artistic subjects.  During the reign of Louis Napoleon (1852 – 1870), French artists created dozens of stereoscopic photographs called diableries -- miniature dioramas of skeletons at formal dress balls, at conferences with the devil and in amorous situations.  Wicked lampoons of Napoleon’s court, they voiced political and social commentaries on the times.  Europeans had collected miniature skeletons and skulls for some time, to remind them of the fragility of life.  These memento mori were a way of living with the eventuality of death, while taking the sting out of it, perhaps.


Diableries-- miniature dioramas of skeletons at formal dress balls, at conferences with the devil and in amorous situations. (Courtesy of Paula Fleming Collection)

The use of skeletons and skulls was also widespread in Mexico, representing Catholic notions of the “good death,” and figuring in holiday observances for the day of the dead, or All Souls Day. The skeleton humor and political satire, which appears in Mexico in the 1870s in José Guadalupe Posada’s work, might have been influenced by diableries imported into Mexico during the French intervention that began in 1863, when Louis Napoleon’s army invaded the country.  Although Maximilian von Hapsburg of Austria was installed as emperor of Mexico, this “second empire” was short-lived, and by 1867 the French army had been defeated.

Illlustration of skull with dimensions noted.

In 1886, the Smithsonian acquired a crystal skull that may have been a pre-Columbian bead re-carved in the 19th century. This catalogue entry shows the object at close to its actual size, and with a vertical drill hole through its center. (Smithsonian Institution, U.S. National Museum Annual Report for 1896)

 The first generation of Mexican, “pre-Columbian,” crystal skulls, makes its debut between 1860 and 1880.  As a class, they are small, usually not larger than 2 in. high.  The earliest specimen may be a British Museum crystal skull (3.3 cm. or 1.25 in. high) that was acquired by Henry Christy, perhaps around 1860.  Two other examples (both under 5 cm or 2 in. high) were exhibited in 1867 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris by Eugene Boban, a French antiquarian and “archaeologist” in the Mexican court of Maximilian.  He was also a member of the French Scientific Commission in Mexico, whose work the Paris Exposition was designed to highlight. But the exhibition was not entirely successful in showcasing Louis Napoleon’s second empire, because its opening coincided with the execution of Maximilian by the forces of Mexican president Benito Juarez. 

Two other small crystal skulls, both under 2 in. high, were collected during this period by the National Museum in Mexico City.  In 1874, the museum purchased one for 28 pesos from Luis Costantino, and another for 30 pesos from Felix Mala in 1880 (1992:10; 21). The Smithsonian Institution purchased a small crystal skull, pictured below, (3.7 cm or 1.5 in. high) in 1886 from the collection of Fr. Augustin Fischer, who had been Emperor Maximilian’s secretary in Mexico, but it disappeared mysteriously from the collection sometime after 1973, when it was taken down from an exhibit about fake archaeological objects.

The first small crystal skulls may represent a 19th-century reworking of actual pre-Columbian quartz crystal beads, as most of them are drilled through vertically from top to bottom, as though they were pendants.  These drill holes may in fact be pre-Columbian in origin, and the skulls may have originally been simple beads, later elaborated for the European market as little skulls, or mementos mori.

By 1878, Eugene Boban sold another crystal skull to Alphonse Pinart, who donated the pre-Columbian collection he purchased from Boban, which included three crystals in all, to the Trocadero. The 1878 skull is more than three times larger than others from this early period, measuring about 11.3 cm or 4.4 in. high.

Boban and collection of artifacts

French antiquarian Eugène Boban with his collection of Mesoamerican artifacts at an 1867 Paris exposition. Among the objects on display were two crystal skulls. At his feet rest a pot and a battleaxe Boban exhibited as Aztec. Both are fakes. (Courtesy Jane Walsh/Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City)

This skull, now in the Musée du Quai Branly, has a large hole drilled vertically through its center.  The hole at the top shows marks of considerable use.  There is a comparable, though smaller, skull in a private collection which serves as the base for a crucifix; this somewhat larger Quai Branly skull may have been similarly used.  These two larger skulls with vertically drilled holes may be transitional pieces between the comparatively small skulls that appeared first and the much larger skulls that came later, perhaps manufactured in Europe for use in Catholic services.

A second generation skull--of life-size dimensions--makes its first appearance in 1881, in the Paris shop of none other than Eugene Boban. This crystal skull is 21 cm or 8.25 inches high. The sale catalogue description provides no provenience; in fact, the skull is listed separately from his Mexican antiquities.  He calls it a masterpiece of lapidary technology, and notes that it is unique in the world.  Boban was not able to sell this skull for his asking price of 3,500 francs, so when he returned to Mexico City in 1885, after a 16-year absence, he took it with him.  He exhibited it alongside a collection of actual human skulls in his Museo Científico as a “pieza única en el mundo.” According to local gossip, he tried to sell it in partnership with Leopoldo Batres, whose official government title was protector of Pre-Hispanic monuments, to the National Museum of Mexico, as an Aztec skull. This partnership later soured, and Batres denounced Boban as an antiquities smuggler.

In March 1886, the French antiquarian moved his museum business and collection to New York City, and in December 1886 he held a large auction of several thousand archaeological artifacts, colonial Mexican manuscripts and a large library of books through George A. Leavitt & Co. on Broadway, where Tiffany & Co bought the skull for $950.  In 1887 it was sold to George Sisson for $1,100.00.  A decade later, Tiffany, perhaps acting on Sisson’s behalf, sold the skull to the British Museum for the original purchase price of $950.

Interestingly enough, Boban’s 1886 New York auction catalogue lists yet another crystal skull, of the smaller variety (# 5  “human skull, carved in rock-crystal, 3.5 cm, Valley of Mexico;”) and a rock crystal hand, 4 cm, which is described as Aztec. Neither of these crystal objects can now be accounted for.

A third generation of skull appears some time in 1933, when Sidney Burney, a London art dealer, acquired a crystal skull of nearly identical proportions to the Boban-Tiffany-British Museum specimen. There is no information about where he got it, but he attempted to sell it to the American Museum of Natural History in February, 1933, saying that it was from Mexico.  It is very nearly a replica of the British Museum skull, almost exactly the same size and shape, with more detailed modeling of the eyes and the teeth.  It also has a separate mandible, which puts it in a class by itself.  In 1943, it was sold at Sotheby’s in London to F. A. Mitchell Hedges.  Since the 1954 publication of Mr. Mitchell Hedges’s memoir, Danger My Ally, this third generation, 20th-century skull has acquired a Mayan provenience, as well as a number of fantastic, Indiana Jones-like tall tales.  Now variously known as the Skull of Doom, the Skull of Love, or simply the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, it is said to emit blue lights from its eyes, and has reputedly crashed computer hard drives.

Although nearly all of the crystal skulls have at times been identified as Aztec, Toltec, Mixtec, and occasionally Maya, they do not reflect the artistic or stylistic characteristics of any of these cultures.  The Aztec and Toltec versions of death heads were nearly always carved in basalt, occasionally covered with stucco and were probably at one time painted.  They are usually attached to walls or altars, or depicted in bas-reliefs of deities as elements worn on belts. They are comparatively crudely carved, but are more naturalistic than the unprovenienced crystal skulls, particularly in the depiction of the teeth.  Pre-Columbian people did carve quartz, although the only archaeologically recovered quartz artifacts are small, softly polished lip plugs, ear spools, beads and water-worn quartz pebbles, possibly used as polishing stones. The Mixtec occasionally fabricated skulls in gold, but these representations are more precisely described as human faces with fleshless mouths-that is they are skull-like faces with intact eyes, noses and ears. The Maya also carved skulls, but in relief on limestone.  Often these skulls, depicted in profile, represent days of their calendars. 

MesoAmerican Skulls

A cursory examination of any of these pre-Columbian interpretations of the human skull shows little if any relationship to crystal skulls.  The crystal versions don’t look Mesoamerican, and they mostly don’t even look very old.  The reason for that is fairly obvious: they are not old.   

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