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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 Reality

British Museum SKull

The British Museum skull was a subject of a series of 1936 articles in which British Museum curator Adrian Digby and physical anthropologist G. M. Morant debated whether the it was based on the same original skull, which Digby posited was perhaps revered as a Mesoamerican "death god."

In the 1990s, because of the level of interest in crystal skulls, a collaborative program of research was set up between the Smithsonian Institution and the British Museum to investigate the origin of the large skulls in the collections of the two museums.  The skulls were examined under light and scanning electron microscopes and conclusively determined to have been carved with relatively modern equipment, which was unavailable to pre-Columbian Mesoamerican carvers.  Our findings are being published by the Journal of Archaeological Science in their next issue (Sax, Walsh, Freestone:2008).

So why have they had such a long and successful run, and why do some museums continue to exhibit them, despite their lack of provenience and obvious iconographic, stylistic and technical problems?  The makers of the crystal skulls read their buying audience well, fabricating something that was instantly appealing to European purchasers—an objet d’art of proven interest and attachment.

The 19th-century carvers also knew that crystal had a special appeal to Europeans, who associated it with royalty because of its purity.  Boban’s sales catalogue lists quite a number of rock crystal lip plugs or labrets, a common ornament in Aztec Mexico, though usually made from wood or obsidian.  The medium of crystal, he wrote, made it certain that the labrets had belonged to the emperor, and he meant Moctezuma not Maximilian. 

Mitchell Hedges Skull

Silicone molds of the Mitchell Hedges skull’s carved features were analyzed by SEM for evidence of tool marks. (James Di Loreto/Courtesy Smithsonian Institution)

While the antiquities shops in 19th-century Mexico sold hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fake pre-Columbian ceramic vessels, whistles and figurines, the high-end pre-Columbian fakes were always fabricated from some intrinsically valuable material, like jade, rock crystal or gold.  Hollywood can always be counted on to take things a bit farther; as mentioned previously, its version of the jade-like Tlazolteotl in Indiana Jones’s first adventure was made of pure gold.  We await their version of crystal skulls with great expectations.

I have developed an interest in fakes because as a museum anthropologist I find that these objects tell us a great deal more about ourselves than they do about the cultures we think they represent.  They also inform us about the history of museums and collection building, and open a window onto the evolution of Western notion of history, archaeology and ethnology.  In essence, they hold up a mirror to us, as Hollywood sometimes tries to do.  Esther Pasztory, who’s written eloquently about artifact faking, noted that they “show us what our fantasies of the originals were and how far they were off the mark.”  Yet, despite and perhaps because of this, “Before they are unmasked, forgeries are intensely loved” (2002:159). While crystal skulls are intensely loved by a large coterie of aging hippies and New Age devotees, the reality in this case is reasonably certain: there were never any pre-Columbian crystal skulls.

What can we call them?  They are certainly fake pre-Columbian artifacts.  They are not ancient, some are not even very old.  I believe that all of the smaller skulls from the 19th century were made in Mexico around the time they were sold, between 1860 and 1880– a twenty-year period that may represent the output of a single artisan, perhaps a single workshop.  I think that these small skulls, under 5 cm. or 2 inches high, constitute the first generation of fakery, and are 19th-century Mexican inventions.  The 1878 Paris skull seems to be some sort of transition piece, as it follows the vertical drilling of the smaller pieces, but its size precludes its being a pendant, or worn in any way.  The Musée du Quai Branly and the Center for Research and Restoration for the Museums of France (C2RMF) have begun a program of scientific testing on this piece and two other smaller skulls, so we may know more in the near future.

The Boban-Tiffany-British Museum skull that appears in 1881, I think is definitely a second generation, secondary elaboration, if you will, though still 19th century, and, along with the 1878 Paris skull, are perhaps European inventions.  There is no direct tie to Mexico for either of the two larger skulls, except through Eugene Boban; they simply appear in Paris long after his return from Mexico.

Incising Photo  Diamond Coated Cutting Tool Incisions

The photo on the left is an incision created by a hand-held sharpened stone implement. It is from a well documented Olmec jadeite figurine, which was excavated by Smithsonian archaeologists. You can see the movement of the hand, and the lack of parallel lines of permanently embedded abrasives. The photo on right is an SEM image of incisions made into jadeite, about the same hardness as quartz, with a modern diamond coated rotary cutting tool. The clean sharp lines, and the parallel marks of the diamond abrasive are fairly obvious.

The third generation is represented by the Mitchell Hedges skull, which appears after 1933, a veritable copy of the British Museum skull, with stylistic and technical flourishes that only an accomplished faker would devise.  In fact the suggestion that the Mitchell Hedges skull was an improved copy of the British Museum skull, which showed “a perverted ingenuity such as one would expect to find in a forger,” appeared in the first comparative study of the two skulls, in Man in 1936.  However, Adrian Digby, then a young British Museum curator, dismissed the possibility, because early 20th century microscopic examination did not reveal the presence of modern tool marks (1936:108). 

British Museum SKull

The photograph above is from a light microscope which shows mineral and fluid inclusions in the quartz of the Smithsonian crystal skull. Inclusions can indicate the source of the crystal, or can be used to rule out certain regions, if a mineral inclusion can be identified that only exists in certain areas.

One crystal skull not mentioned so far; is the much larger-than-life-size skull at the Smithsonian, which arrived by mail in 1992, another 20th-century artifact, and perhaps a fourth-generation invention. The Smithsonian skull is huge, by comparison to the first, second and third generations, measuring 25.5 cm or 10. in high.  Its enormous size reflects the exuberance of the decade of the 1960s, when it was purchased in Mexico City, having been manufactured most probably in the 1950s, as the technology used in polishing wasn’t available until after World War II as demonstrated by the British Museum analysis (Sax, Walsh, Freestone 2008). There are now fifth and sixth generations of crystal skulls appearing with some regularity on the Internet.  None has any reliable provenience, but all have myths, legends and colorful stories attached.

The 19th-century crystal skulls first spoke to some specific European notions of beauty and mortality.  Attracted to artifacts that mirrored Western ideas and impressed by their technical excellence and gleaming polish, generations of museum curators and private collectors were taken in by these objects.  But like most things that are too good to be true, crystal skulls fit our own ideas too closely, and don’t fit the ideas of pre-Columbian Mexicans closely enough. Considering the fact that pre-Columbian lapidaries had Neolithic tool kits, crystal skulls are also much too perfectly carved and highly polished to be believed.   

Eugene Boban, a masterful dealer of many thousands of pre-Columbian artifacts, now safely ensconced in museums worldwide, including at least five different crystal skulls, has managed to confound a great many people for a very long time.  He led an amazing life, and left perhaps an even more amazing legacy, one that continues to puzzle us a century after his death. His mid-19th-century Mexican adventures established him as a self-educated archaeologist, Nahuatl speaker and historian. He confidently sold museums and private collectors some of the most intriguing fakes known, and perhaps many more yet to be recognized.  Boban’s story should perhaps someday be featured in an Indiana Jones adventure movie; it might be called “The Real Fake Crystal Skull Mystery.” 

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