**Update: A reader correctly mentioned in the comments, that there are also not-so-phony Crystal Skulls around. The original version of the article focussed on the popcultural understanding of different qualities of the Crystal Skulls and therefore omitted several pieces of information, which could help to get a complete picture. I updated this article and added another section, where I present some more information.
A blog about Mesoamerica has to cover certain topics, just because they are so famous, yet often misrepresented across the internet. One of the topics is definitely El Chupacabras, the infamous crypto-animal which seems to turn into quite normal animals upon being shot. TCMAM wants to throw in voices of reasonable thinking in order to keep the steps of wishful thinking at a minimum. Another topic which has to be looked at seriously is the Crystal Skulls of the Maya. A lot of websites already dealt with this topic. Latest when Indiana Jones and the Kindom of the Crystal Skull came out, the general population got aware of the existance of crystal skulls (in Peru, though). Still, there is so much contradicting information about what they are, where they came from and what you can do with them, that we want to order this information a bit today.
What is a Crystal Skull and how do they look?
A Crystal Skull is a skull made from crystal. (duh…) The used material is milky quartz rock, also known as rock crystal. They don’t really look like the one above, used in the movie. The skull above tries to show some kind of alien skull resemblance, while the actual Crystal Skulls clearly display a human skull:
Looks happy, right? But careful! Allegedly they have mystical powers and were used by pre-columbian civilisations in Mesoamerica and/or Southamerica to perform magical rituals. Also today, the skulls seems to have some power: Witnesses report an aura around the skull, the sound of ringing bells, audible, when you’re near it – it can even be used to kill someone. And of course – with 2012 approaching – many authors use the crystal skulls to tie them to the approaching Doomsday. Depending on whom you listen to, the skulls are either vessels for the souls of wise (and dead) Maya elders, that await the time, when they are needed again, or linked to Atlantis or the Mars in some way. Could that be or is there a simpler (and true) explanation?
Where do they come from?
The first example of a Crystal Skull was emerged in Europe. Anna Mitchell-Hedges, the daughter of archeologist Mike Mitchell-Hedges, said that she found it 1924 during diggings in Lubaantun, an old Maya site in today’s Belize. This skull earned quite some fame as the “Skull of Doom” and has been used by spiritists to receive visions. Mike Mitchell-Hedges wrote a biography. In the chapter about the skull – the rumours about the skull were all over the media at that time – he got very brief; only noted that he has reasons to not describe where it came from. He wrote however, that highpriests of the Maya used it in death rituals and “It is said that when he willed death with the help of the skull, death invariably followed.”
Now this biography was written 1954, almost 30 years after his daughter allegedly found it in Lubaantun. The first mention of the skull however was in 1936, in an anthropologic magazine. There it is described as being in the possession of an arts dealer by the name of Sydney Burney, with no connection to Mitchell-Hedges. This makes Mitchell-Hedges’ declaration at least doubtable.
So, did the Maya use crystal skulls?
There is no mention of any crystal skulls in the Aztec or Mayan sources. Never in a documented excavation have crystal skulls been found (see updated chapter). What you can find are depictions of skulls or manufactured jade masks, however.
It is not very likely that these crystal skulls were used in pre-columbian Mesoamerica, also because they don’t fit to any style of art of that time. They are much too naturalistic.
But where could they come from then?
It’s entirely possible to find clues to answer this question. One way to go is having a look at the material. And that’s exactly what happened in 1995, when the British Museum had a look at the Crystal Skull, it possesses. The material unfortunately is not fit for the established dating methods, such as thermoluminescence or carbon dating. But there is another way to find out, when it was made: examining the manufacturing technique and looking for marks that only specia modern machines would leave.
Mitchell-Hedges described in his biography, that for generations the Maya used sand to work a crystal block, resulting in the form of a skull. That sounds romantic, but it’s entirely impossible. With this method, the skull’s surface would be littered with stress marks. Instead the researcher used electron microscopy and found details that showed, that the skull was worked by corundrum or diamond on a rotating disc of some metal, probably steel. That was an important finding.
With the knowledge about the technique used, they could tell that the skull was made in the last 200 years.
And what does that mean?
That means – along with some more evidence – that the skulls are a forgery from the 19th century. Some skulls even have been dated to the 1950s or later. It’s also very probable that they originated from either Paris, the main city for grinding of the time, or from a little town in Germany, Idar-Oberstein. In 1870 a small company started to process huge amounts of quartz from Brazil. And also today the company still exists and it possesses templates for carving skulls, identical to the Lubaantun skull.
**Update: But, what about the smaller Aztec skulls?
Ah, you got me… Indeed, there are different styles of skulls in different sizes. And some of the smaller ones might even be genuine. Archaeologist Michael E. Smith makes a good case in referring to small crystal skulls, which didn’t come from documented excavations. And just because they were not documented and other crystal skulls were successfully recognized as forgery, it doesn’t make all of them a forgery necessarily.
Aztecs have worked with crystal and made little ritual objects. As we read before, Aztecs – and Maya – also used the skull element in drawings, decorations and depictions of gods (as you can see on the picture below). It can therefore be possible, that they also produced small crystal skulls at some point.
These skulls would be Aztec then, however. A finding of “phony-looking crystal skulls the size of footballs” (as Smith says it) in a Maya site in Belize is therefore very unlikely – both temporally and regionally – to be connected, especially if the style of the skull is not really fitting the Maya style.
This aspect can teach us, that we may no simplify too strongly in an historic context. it shows that it’s also not correct to induce from “many proven forged crystal skulls” to “all forged crystal skulls of all styles”. And it can also teach us, how truth and legend and forgery can be mixed, until only legend and forgery survive and are recognized as truth.
The big, phony, infamous Crystal Skulls are certainly not of Maya or Mesoamerican origin, but forgeries, made in Europe, probably in the 19th century. All mystic descriptions surely came from the vague (and false) information, which Mitchell-Hedges distributed. There is no documented case of any paranormal activity around the skull, aside from anecdotes. Modern authors however used all this misinformation an connected the Crystal Skull to other New Age belief, like the 2012 doomsday (which will not happen). Some authors even interpret (or create) Native American lore, to make it look plausible…
**Update: There are however several crystal skulls from non-documented sources, which could be of genuine Aztec origin. So far, there is no clarity in this point, as all information about excavated crystal skulls is hearsay.
Some might be disappointed by the truth, but the fact, that we have the means to find out such things is astonishing. We already know a lot about the pre-columbian cultures and there is much more to learn. Reality and real archaeology and history are so much more interesting and fascinating than modern age fairy tales.