Feature Articles –   Origin and symbolism of the crystal skulls
The mysterious crystal skulls are likely to have originated in Central America and may have performed an important role in re-enacting the Mayans’ creation myth and networking their temple complexes.
by Philip Coppens


Sacred Relics or Alien Artefacts? Although researchers have written dozens of books and hundreds of articles about crystal skulls, few have attempted to explain the origin and purpose of these sculptures. For some, the crystal skulls are 19th-century “hoaxes”; for others, they are extraterrestrial artefacts, while yet others believe they are remnants of a lost civilisation.

Perhaps the most likely explanation is that they are part and parcel of the ancient cultures, particularly the Mayan, that existed in the area of Central America where they were found. Could it be that these skulls were one of the most important relics in the sacred temple complexes? Crystal skulls speak to the imagination, but are some of these skulls and their stories too good to be true?

The English artist Damien Hirst focused his 2007 exposition “Beyond Belief” around a platinum skull completely covered by 8,601 diamonds weighing 1,106 carats. “For the Love of God” is a life-sized cast of a human skull containing a single large diamond in the middle of the forehead, reportedly worth US$4.2 million alone. Hirst financed the project himself, and estimated its cost as between £10 and £15 million (approx. US$20–US$30 million). It is the most expensive piece of contemporary art ever created. He later sold the skull to an unnamed investment group for £100 million (approx. US$200 million).

The fourth instalment of the Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, has Indy in a race against Soviet agents to find a crystal skull. In an early episode of the television series Stargate SG-1, a crystal skull was used as an artefact, left behind by an ancient extraterrestrial civilisation, which transported people between Earth and the aliens’ home world. Crystal skulls have therefore served Hollywood and the entertainment industry well. But Tinseltown’s plotlines are very much copied from existing theories about crystal skulls – one of which was insured for US$500,000, and this was 30 years ago. But what are they?

The crystal skulls began their slow climb to fame in the 1980s, largely through researcher Joshua Shapiro’s meeting Sandra Bowen and Nick Nocerino, who had a crystal skull named Sha-Na-Ra in their possession. Slowly, Shapiro became exposed to a number of other skulls, with names such as the Mayan Crystal Skull, the Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull and the Texas Crystal Skull (also known as Max, supposedly given to the people of Guatemala by a Tibetan healer).

In March 1989, Bowen, Shapiro and Nocerino’s Mysteries of the Crystal Skulls Revealed was released. The book created a vehicle through which the authors were able to “meet” several more skulls, with names such as Windsong, Rainbow, Madre, Synergy and even ones named Skully and ET. ET is a smoky quartz skull found in the early 20th century in Central America. It was given its nickname because its pointed cranium and exaggerated overbite resemble those of an alien being (and the skull is somewhat similar to the alien-looking one that Indiana Jones needs to find). ET is part of the private collection of Joke (pronounced “Yo-kay”) Van Dieten, who tours with her skulls to share the healing powers she believes they possess.

Today, there are dozens of crystal skulls in circulation. The majority of these are what are perhaps best called “second-generation” skulls – modern fabrications, owned or “worked” by people who use the skulls for healing, meditation, channelling, etc. But there are also a dozen or so skulls that appear to be older and from unknown provenance. These crystal skulls have largely appeared out of nowhere, often going straight into private collections. Only two skulls sit in museums – one in London, the other in Paris. Controversy over Fabrication Claims The British Museum Skull is part of the exhibit at the Museum of Mankind in London, where it is one of the most popular items on display. The label on its case reads “originally thought to have been Aztec, but recent research proves it to be European”, of late 19th-century fabrication. The museum obtained the skull for £120 in 1897 from Tiffany & Co., the New York-based jewellers. As to how Tiffany’s had acquired it, speculation was that it originated from a soldier of fortune in Mexico.

In 2004, Professor Ian Freestone, of the University of Wales at Cardiff, examined the skull and concluded that it was cut and polished with a wheeled instrument, which he said was not used by the Aztecs (see http://hnn.us/roundup/comments/9582). Freestone argued that the sculpture was therefore of modern, post- Columbian origin, further noting that the crystal used was common in Brazil but not Mexico – the Aztec homeland – and that “the surface of the skull, which contains tiny bubbles that glint in the light, is more sharply defined than softer-looking Aztec crystal relics with which it has been compared”. However, Freestone said that even though there was strong circumstantial evidence suggesting the artefact was 19th-century European in origin, this did not amount to cast-iron proof.

In recent years, the story of how the British Museum acquired the crystal was investigated by Dr Jane MacLaren Walsh of the US Smithsonian Institution. She concluded that the British Museum Skull and the one at Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris were both sold by Eugène Boban. Boban was a controversial collector of pre-Columbian artefacts and an antiques dealer who ran his business in Mexico City between around 1860 and 1880. Though it is indeed likely that Boban placed the skull at Tiffany’s for auction, there is no hard evidence. However, such evidence does exist for the Musée de l’Homme Crystal Skull, which in 1878 was donated by collector Alphonse Pinart who had bought it from Boban. Boban’s 1881 catalogue does list another crystal skull, “in rock crystal of natural human size”, selling for 3,500 French francs – the most expensive item in the catalogue. It is possible it was never sold, and hence was offered to Tiffany’s to sell at auction.

Having established these facts, however, Walsh then argued that the skulls are not genuine artefacts but instead were manufactured between 1867 and 1886 in Germany, as German craftsmen were deemed to be the only people with the skills to be able to carve these skulls.

Though Boban was indeed a controversial figure, he was, of course, no different from all the other operators on the antiquities markets in those days – some of whom made deals for treasures such as the Rosetta Stone or the Elgin Marbles that continue to upset entire nations from which they were “exported”.

However, there is no evidence – not even circumstantial – that Boban sourced these skulls from Germany. It is logical to conclude that, as Boban operated in Mexico, he may have acquired the skulls in Mexico. It would be completely logical to assume that, if they are Aztec in origin, they were offered on the Mexico City antiques market where Boban picked them up. It is the most logical scenario, yet academics seem to prefer the modern German fabrication theory for which there is no evidence. Why? Perhaps they prefer to label them as fakes so as to evade potential claims from Mexican authorities?

As to the fact that the skulls were polished with a wheeled instrument, Professor Freestone himself argued that this in itself does not mean they are modern fabrications (he examined the Paris as well as the London skull in 2004). Though Freestone, Walsh and others suggested this overturns the likelihood that the skulls are pre-Columbian, other experts like Professor Michael D. Coe of Yale University stated that evidence of wheel markings in no way proves that the skulls are modern. He actually said that although it has long been accepted that no pre-Columbian civilisation used the rotary wheel, new evidence contradicts this scientific dogma. Wafer-thin obsidian ear-spools are now known to have been made using some rotary carving equipment and to be dated to the Aztec/Mixtec period. According to Chris Morton and Ceri Louise Thomas in The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls, Coe concluded (p. 226): “People who sit in scientific laboratories don’t know the full range of the culture they’re dealing with. We really don’t know half as much about these early cultures as we think we do. People need to re-examine their beliefs.”

Walsh and some of her colleagues have largely presented Boban as a charlatan, but they’ve failed to report that Boban was known to have owned genuinely ancient artefacts as well as a collection of rare books and early Mexican manuscripts. He had even written a scientific study, “Documents pour server à l’histoire du Mexique” (“Documents to serve the history of Mexico”) (1891). Furthermore, he personally crusaded against frauds and fakes, such as in 1881 when he spoke out against forgeries that were being made in the suburbs of Mexico City. Would he shoot himself in the foot that same year by listing a fraudulent crystal skull in his catalogue?

Mentions of the German connection and claims of Boban’s dishonesty come from a single letter from one of Boban’s competitors, Wilson Wilberforce Blake. He wrote how they should buy from him, not Boban, who was “not honest”, and he made accusations that the skull Boban had sold was a forgery, insinuating that the skull had been made in Germany instead. However, no evidence was ever produced for any of these claims, and it is clear that Blake had an obvious motive as to why he wanted to smear Boban’s character: he was specifically after Boban’s share of the market.

In short, Walsh has uncovered good indications that Boban had skulls and sold them; but as to a German connection, she has relied on the words of a man who almost openly stated that he was out to smudge Boban’s ethics. As such, the story of how the crystal skulls have been treated by academics has – alas – all the usual hallmarks of how the scientific establishment treats such anomalous finds and pushes them aside, labelling them fakes. And afficionados of the genre will know that involvement of the Smithsonian Institution and the British Museum in such a controversy is not a unique event. Archaeological Speculation Eugène Boban Could these skulls be genuine archaeological finds? As Morton and Thomas pointed out, Boban’s artefacts went on sale at a time when Teotihuacán, just north of Mexico City, was being excavated. Teotihuacán is one of the most important sites in the Americas, with pyramids – and a pyramid layout – on par with the pyramids of the Giza Plateau.

Boban is known to have visited the excavations; in fact, he did so in the company of Leopoldo Batres, the Inspector of Monuments. Interestingly, Blake claimed that Batres, too, was “not only a fraud but a swindler”. Even if these allegations were true, did Boban get the skull from Teotihuacán? If so, the finger of guilt should not point to Batres. In those days, half of the finds the excavators made ended up on the black market, while the other half became part of the “archaeological record”. It is known that even the great Howard Carter, in his exploration of the Tutankhamun tomb – heralded as the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century – fell victim to this.

Either way, concluding that the skulls are genuine archaeological treasures is more logical – and better documented – than speculating about a theoretical German connection. However, it is a fact that none of the skulls was found during an archaeological excavation – that is, apart from the so-called Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull, named after its discoverer, the adventurer F. A. (Mike) Mitchell-Hedges, if we believe the “official” version of its find. This skull is by far the most beautiful, detailed and complex, and consists of two parts: the skull itself and a separate jawbone which allows for movement, as if the head is speaking. Famed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke used an image of this skull as the logo for his popular television series Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.

The official version goes that the skull was found in the ruins of Lubantuun in Belize (then British Honduras) in 1924 during an archaeological survey of the site, though controversy reigns over this conclusion. This “Skull of Doom”, as Mitchell-Hedges himself labelled it, was not referenced until 1931 as being in existence.

In his autobiography Danger My Ally (1954), Mitchell-Hedges stated that “the Skull of Doom is made of pure rock crystal and according to scientists it must have taken 150 years, generation after generation working all days of their lives, patiently rubbing down with sand an immense block of rock crystal until the perfect skull emerged”. He continued: “It is at least 3,600 years old and according to legend was used by the High Priest of the Maya when performing esoteric rites. It is said that when he willed death with the help of the skull, death invariably followed. It has been described as the embodiment of all evil.” For a man who had “danger” as his “ally”, he obviously tried to frighten his readers with the power of this object.

So, Mitchell-Hedges associated the crystal skull with the Maya in 1600 BC – when the Maya were not yet around. Noting Mitchell-Hedges’s interest in finding evidence for Atlantis, many people have argued that the skull is therefore a relic of this earlier civilisation. What the sceptics have made of this can be easily divined… A Crystal Legacy Today, three main theories exist about what crystal skulls are and where they come from. One argument states that they are an extraterrestrial legacy; another that they are remnants of a lost civilisation (often to be read as Atlantis), both of which are favoured on the New Age circuit. For the sceptics, they are “obviously” late-19th-century fabrications from Germany. A fourth theory, however, might be closer to the truth.

The problem of the crystal skulls is that they are made of crystal. Quartz crystal does not age; it does not corrode, erode, decay or change in any way with time. It cannot be carbon dated. A skull could be hundreds if not thousands of years old, yet still look as if it was made yesterday – and vice versa. Hence, other means of dating had to be devised, and so evidence of skulls having been polished with wheels has become the key determinant of whether they are modern/post-Columbian or “genuine” archaeological artefacts.

As mentioned, Michael Coe has scorned those laboratory scientists who have preached against the authenticity of the skulls. And rightfully so, as one skull, owned by Mexican Norma Redo, is mostly notorious, at least for some, as the skull that supports a large crucifix on its top. The skull shows similar “evidence” of wheelwork, but from his analysis archaeologist Dr Andrew Rankin argued that the skull was sculpted from the same crystal as that of the crystal goblet from tomb no. 7 at Monte Albán, which is an uncontested archaeological find. Furthermore, the 1571 hallmark on the crucifix is also deemed to be genuine, thus in general excluding the likelihood that this skull is of 19th century European fabrication. In short, this hard evidence confirms what Michael Coe has argued: that the Maya apparently do seem to have been able to work with crystal… and thus may have made the crystal skulls after all.

However, the Maya would not have been the only ancient civilisation to have mastered working with crystal. Robert Temple’s The Crystal Sun (2000), subtitled Rediscovering a lost technology of the ancient world, was promoted thus: “Based upon 33 years of research all over the world, in museums from Stockholm to Shanghai, from Athens to Cairo, and in thousands of books in several languages, Robert Temple has reconstructed a wholly forgotten story: the story of light technology in ancient civilisation. It goes back at least to 2600 BC in Old Kingdom Egypt, and continues throughout Western antiquity.”

Temple’s quest began when he spoke to Arthur C. Clarke about the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, whereby British science historian Derek Price, who is most famous for his study of the Antikythera device (another anomalous archaeological discovery that only recently has received serious academic attention), then spoke to him about the Layard Lens as another example of our forefathers having worked with crystal.

In the mid-19th century, English archaeologist Sir John Layard excavated the remains of Babylon and Nineveh. In 1850, during the excavation of the throne room of the Assyrian King Sargon II’s palace, he discovered a lens. It is dated to 721–705 BC and is currently – also – in the British Museum. It is considered to be the first used (or found) plano-convex lens.

Temple notes on his website: “…this rock crystal lens, now cracked and considerably damaged, was originally a perfect convex lens with a flat (‘plane’) base, which was ground in a special way known to opticians as ‘toroidal’ – a technique only available for the public since about 1900. Such grinding produces lenses to correct for individual cases of astigmatism. It would be possible to go out into the street today and find someone whose astigmatism was perfectly corrected by the Layard Lens… It is most extraordinary that such a high technology existed in the 8th century BC. And not a single Assyriologist has acknowledged the publication of my study of this important object except for the one who encouraged me in the first place; he was curious as to what the results would be. So it appears that the community of Assyriologists find it convenient not to ‘see’ my book.”

Why? Largely because, as with the crystal skulls, the establishment believes – for that is what it is – that only from the 19th century were “we” able to do such things.

However, archaeologists are not totally denying the existence of lenses in antiquity, as evidenced in a study by George Sines and Yannis A. Sakellarakis (American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 91, no. 2, April 1987), reporting how “…a recent find in the Idaean Cave in Crete of two rock crystal lenses of unusually good optical quality led to this investigation of other lenses from antiquity. The evidence indicates that the use of lenses was widespread throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin over several millennia.” They added: “The use of lenses as burning glasses in Classical Greece is noted, as is the need for magnifying lenses to authenticate seal impressions.” Scientific Scrutiny of the “Skull of Doom” Mike Mitchell-Hedges In 1936, eminent anthropologist G. M. Morant and Adrian Digby, a future Keeper of the Department of Ethnology at the British Museum, analysed the Mitchell-Hedges Skull and argued that it is not of modern workmanship. Digby wrote: “…in neither case [they analysed the British Museum Skull as well] is there any trace of identifiable tool marks, and it is certain that neither specimen was made with steel tools. On the teeth there is no trace of a lapidary’s wheel which would betray one or both specimens as being of comparatively recent origin.” Writing in the journal Man in July 1936 (vol. 36), they both commented that the skull’s detachable lower jaw would have taken the creator – whoever he was – many hundreds if not thousands of hours of extra work, and that thus there would have to have been an important reason why the jaw had to be detached – more so than for purely artistic reasons. In 1964, Anna “Sammy” Mitchell-Hedges – the adventurer’s adopted daughter and custodian of the Skull of Doom – lent the skull to Frank and Mabel Dorland, famous art experts and restorers. Dorland commenced his study by taking many photographs from various angles. He also used a binocular microscope to create a three-dimensional image of the skull.

During this scientific analysis, the skull also seemed to reveal a magical dimension. One evening, Dorland finished his work too late for the skull to be returned to its vault in the Mill Valley Bank. So he took the skull home, placing it next to the fire he had lit for the evening. He then noticed how the light of the fire was reflected through the eyes of the skull. This made him realise that the skull allowed certain optical effects to be produced – though other stories state that throughout the entire evening the house was also a hive of poltergeist activity.

Dorland discovered that the optical effects were the result of how the skull had been carved, which gave him even further insights into the precision of the workmanship. He observed that there was a type of “layering” on top of the skull, which made the skull behave like an amplifying glass. The back of the skull channelled the light through the eye sockets at the front of the head. While no one would be able to see what was happening from behind the skull, anyone looking at the face would perceive a spectacular series of images that would appear to come from within the skull itself.

Finally, Dorland discovered two holes at the bottom of the skull that are invisible when the skull is positioned upright. The holes can be used so that the skull can be swung without falling over. Together with the detachable jaw, this was a further indication that this skull was not a mere display object