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Crystal skulls are fake: study

May 23, 2008
Courtesy Cardiff University
and World Science staff

As In­di­ana Jones rac­es to find an an­cient crys­tal skull in his new mov­ie ad­ven­ture, he might want to take a mo­ment to check its au­then­ticity.

New re­search sug­gests two well-known crys­tal skulls, in the Brit­ish Mu­se­um and the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion in Wash­ing­ton, are not, af­ter all, from an­cient Mex­i­co. Aca­demics now be­lieve the Brit­ish skull was made in 19th-cen­tu­ry Eu­rope and the Amer­i­can one even later.

The Smithsonian Institu­tion's crys­tal skull. (Cour­tesy Smith­son­ian Inst.)


The Brit­ish Mu­se­um bought its skull, a life-size carv­ing from a sin­gle block of rock crys­tal, from Tif­fa­ny and Co., New York, in 1897. Its ori­gins were un­known but there were sug­ges­tions it was of an­cient Mex­i­can or­i­gin.

Hu­man skulls worn as or­na­ments and dis­played on racks were known to have fea­tured in Az­tec art. The skull at­tracted much pub­lic at­ten­tion and specula­t­ion and was once thought to have heal­ing pow­ers. 

Crys­tal skulls have since fea­tured in many books, ar­ti­cles and films, most re­cently in the new Ste­ven Spiel­berg mov­ie In­di­ana Jones and the King­dom of the Crys­tal Skull.

How­ev­er, there have been doubts about the au­then­ticity of the skull since the 1930s. Now an in­terna­t­ional re­search team has scru­tin­ized the Brit­ish Mu­se­um skull and a larg­er white quartz skull do­nat­ed to the Smith­so­nian in 1992. 

Elec­tron mi­cro­scope anal­y­sis for tool marks found both skulls were carved with ro­ta­ry disc-shaped tool, a tech­nol­o­gy the an­cient Mex­i­cans didn’t have. Anal­y­sis of the quartz in the Brit­ish Mu­se­um skull sug­gests it was quar­ried from Bra­zil or Mad­a­gas­car – far out­side the An­cient Mex­i­cans’ trad­ing links.

The team, made up of ex­perts from Car­diff and King­ston uni­ver­s­ities in the U.K., the Brit­ish Mu­se­um and the Smith­so­nian, con­clud­ed that nei­ther skull could have been made in Mex­i­co be­fore the time of Co­lum­bus. They be­lieve the Brit­ish skull was cre­at­ed in Eu­rope in the 19th cen­tu­ry, and the Smith­so­nian’s shortly be­fore it was bought in Mex­i­co City in 1960.

“It is al­ways dis­ap­point­ing when an in­tri­guing ar­te­fact like a crys­tal skull turns out not to be gen­uine,” said Car­diff Uni­ver­s­ity’s Ian Free­stone, a mem­ber of the re­search team. “How­ev­er, it is im­por­tant to be pre­cise about what is au­then­tic and what is fake if we are prop­erly to un­der­stand our past. May­be In­di­ana Jones will have bet­ter luck in his hunt for a real crys­tal skul­l!”

The findings are to appear in The Journal of Archaeological Science.

* * *

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As Indiana Jones races against time to find an ancient crystal skull in his new movie adventure, he should perhaps take a moment to check its authenticity. New research suggests that two well-known crystal skulls, in the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, did not, after all, come from ancient Mexico. Academics now believe the British skull was made in 19th century Europe and the American one even more recently. The British Museum bought its skull, a life-size carving from a single block of rock crystal from Tiffany and Co., New York, in 1897. Its origins were unknown but there were suggestions it was of ancient Mexican origin. Human skulls worn as ornaments and displayed on racks were known to have featured in Aztec art. The skull attracted a lot of public attention and speculation it was once thought to have healing powers. Crystal skulls have since featured in many books, articles and films, most recently in the new Steven Spielberg movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. However, there have been doubts about the authenticity of the skull since the 1930s. Now an international team has used the latest scientific techniques to examine the British Museum skull and a larger white quartz skull donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1992. Electron microscope analysis for tool marks found both skulls were carved with rotary disc-shaped tool – a technology which the Ancient Mexicans did not have. Analysis of the quartz in the British Museum skull suggests it was quarried from Brazil or Madagascar – far outside the Ancient Mexicans’ trading links. The team, made up of experts from Cardiff University, the British Museum, the Smithsonian and Kingston University, concluded that neither skull could have been made in Mexico before the time of Columbus. They believe the British skull was created in Europe in the 19th century, and the Smithsonian’s shortly before it was bought in Mexico City in 1960. “It is always disappointing when an intriguing artefact like a crystal skull turns out not to be genuine,” said Cardiff University’s Ian Freestone, a member of the research team. “However, it is important to be precise about what is authentic and what is fake if we are properly to understand our past. Maybe Indiana Jones will have better luck in his hunt for a real crystal skull!”