Feature Articles – The Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull Mystery
The account of the finding of the world-famous crystal skull in the Mayan city of Lubaantun was a cover story to hide the truth about how explorer Mike Mitchell-Hedges actually acquired it.
by Philip Coppens
The official story of the discovery Most major finds have a known date of discovery. In the case of the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull, that is not so, although new information has now come to light. The skull’s owner, the English adventurer Frederick A. “Mike” Mitchell-Hedges, writes in his autobiography: “How it came into my possession I have reason for not revealing” – and he never did.
Mike’s secrecy was not shared by his adopted daughter, Anna, who inherited the skull from her father upon his death in 1959. She would state that it was she who found it, in the Mayan city of Lubaantun (in British Honduras/Belize), on the occasion of her 17th birthday (1 January 1924). If true, it begs the question as to why her father was so reluctant to reveal this rather mundane and innocent discovery.
The “Lubaantun version” has become the most accepted and widely quoted story. The place of its alleged discovery, Lubaantun, is not the most famous of Mayan ruins, if only because it is off the common tourist route. Its name means “place of the fallen stones” and its location was first reported to the British colonial authority at the end of the 19th century. In 1903, the governor of British Honduras instructed Dr Thomas Gann to survey the site. Gann’s conclusion was that Lubaantun had been a major site within the Mayan empire.
The next series of excavations occurred in 1915, led by Harvard University professor R. Merwin. He uncovered three memorial stones, showing men playing the ballgame, and also uncovered the court in which the ballgame was played.
Gann returned for a new round of excavations in 1924, accompanied by F. A. Mitchell-Hedges, his daughter Anna and Lady Richardson-Brown, his companion and financier. The account goes that despite two previous series of excavations, Anna was nevertheless able to find the top part of the crystal skull in what seemed to be an altar. Three months later, the jawbone was discovered nearby.
Despite Anna Mitchell-Hedges’s repeatedly telling this story (often with minor but nevertheless important variations), several researchers could not believe her version. Hence, some argued that Mitchell-Hedges had discovered the skull some time before and had hidden it for Anna to find on her 17th birthday. Other accounts argue that Anna did not find the skull at all, while another account relates that the local population became close to hysterical when the skull was shown to them.
Alice Bryant and Phyllis Galde in The Message of the Crystal Skull (1989) report that the local Mayan people began to dance while others worshipped the skull as a relic. In no time, an altar was erected on which the skull was placed. Allegedly – once again – the local workforce stopped all further excavations for a period of three days for feasting. Apparently, the locals’ veneration of the skull left Mitchell-Hedges confused, not knowing how to behave and what to do. It seems that he even offered the skull as a present to the local people, provided they returned to their excavation work – which suggests he did not think too highly of the monetary value of the skull or he placed the welfare of the expedition and the local people above any financial gain. Allegedly, the workmen agreed and returned the following day.
If this account is correct, then not only was Mitchell-Hedges silent about this discovery: all of the other people on the expedition remained equally silent, including Dr Thomas Gann. Upon his return, Gann left a detailed account of his travels. This publication is intriguing, if only because none of the photographs shows Anna, which some have suggested means she was not even in Lubaantun as claimed. For sure, travelling in those regions with a 17-year-old daughter was not customary but not necessarily extraordinary either, seeing her dad was a famous explorer and, unlike most, knew where true danger stalked. But what is most remarkable is that Gann’s account does not mention anything about the discovery of a crystal skull – a unique artefact, regardless of whether they felt it was highly prized or not. Gann was not the only one not to speak of the skull’s discovery: neither did the other members such as Lady Richmond-Brown or Captain Joyce, each of whom left an account of the expedition. Questioned about this problem, Anna Mitchell-Hedges replied that Captain Joyce knew the entire story of the skull but refused to tell anyone – just like her father.
There is one good reason – seldom quoted – as to why Gann would remain silent about such a discovery. If the skull had been found during this excavation, ownership would immediately have gone to the expedition’s financiers, and Mitchell-Hedges would never have been able to retain this artefact. But though this might explain Gann’s silence in the 1920s, the questions remain: what is so controversial about the discovery of this skull on Anna’s 17th birthday, and why did Mitchell-Hedges three decades later still refuse to tell? Securing possession of the crystal skull To get a proper understanding of why there was this apparent need for secrecy, we need to turn to Mike Mitchell-Hedges himself. A little-known fact is that the skull is referenced in Danger My Ally, Mitchell-Hedges’s autobiography – but only in the UK edition. Indeed, in the UK edition, published by Elek Books Ltd, London, in 1954, there are a scant 13 lines dedicated to the skull, which were later removed from the American edition, published by Little, Brown & Co. in 1955. The all-important question is why these lines were removed. Observers have noted that, if anything, the US publisher would have requested the author to enlarge upon it rather than delete it.
Let us first look to the UK edition, which has a chapter titled “The Skull of Doom and a Bomb”. It contains a full-page picture of the skull, and Mitchell-Hedges adds: “We took with us [to Africa in 1948] also the sinister Skull of Doom of which much has been written. How it came into my possession I have reason for not revealing.
“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.
“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. I do not wish to try and explain this phenomena [sic].”
There is at first sight nothing too controversial as to why these few paragraphs should be deleted from the US edition, except for one detail: as Mitchell-Hedges had always said, he would not reveal how he acquired the skull: “How it came into my possession I have reason for not revealing.” For any publisher, and especially its legal department, this sentence was a red flag and the US publisher no doubt decided to enquire with the author as to why he did not want to reveal such details. No doubt upon learning the facts, they subsequently decided to remove the entire section so that no questions would be asked and so that problems for the publisher, and specifically the author, could be evaded. The controversy over its origin has led sceptics to argue that Mitchell-Hedges only acquired the skull in 1943 from an auction at Sotheby’s in London. As is usual, the sceptics have reduced a complex account to a very saleable theory, neglecting certain important aspects that speak against it.
The skull was known to be in the possession of Sydney Burney, an old school friend of Mitchell-Hedges, in 1936, when the journal Man featured two articles on it in its July edition (vol. 36). The first article, written by Dr G. M. Morant, titled “Morphological Comparison of Two Crystal Skulls” (pages 105–107), is followed by Adrian Digby’s “Comments on the Morphological Comparison of Two Crystal Skulls” (pages 107–109). In the article, Digby notes that he could not find any history of the skull prior to January 1934, but that in 1936 it was in the possession of Burney.
Whether Burney “owned” the skull or was merely looking after it for Mitchell-Hedges is not highlighted in the article. What is known is that Burney kept it until 1943, when it was put up for auction at Sotheby’s by Burney’s son. In the auction catalogue for 15 October, it is listed as item 54: “a superb life-size crystal carving of a human skull”, length 174 mm, and described thus: “the lower jaw separate, the details are correctly rendered and the carver has given the orbits, zygomatic arches and mastoid processes the similitude of their natural forms, glabellar-occipital”. It refers to the fact that “this magnificent skull” was the subject of “an interesting article” in Man in July 1936. Mitchell-Hedges apparently acquired it for £400 (Sotheby’s has lost the details of the sale), and in his letter dated 22 December 1943 to his brother, he mentions: “You possibly saw in the papers that I have actually acquired a Crystal Skull formerly in the Sydney Burney collection.”
The auctioning of the skull that would be valued at more than $500,000 by the mid-1970s is a curious episode in its history. For sceptics, it is all the evidence they need that both father and daughter lied about how the skull arrived in their possession. But why would Mitchell-Hedges have tried to cover up that he bought the skull at a public auction, instead claiming that he would never reveal how he acquired it?
Legal experts have noted that, under contemporary law, by purchasing the skull at auction there could be no contest over its ownership: Mitchell-Hedges was the rightful owner, regardless of how he acquired it. Hence, the true importance of the auction might have been totally missed by the sceptics. It is true that Mitchell-Hedges began to speak about the skull only in the late 1940s, but, rather than this being evidence that he acquired it in 1943, it might be evidence that from 1943 onwards he felt
liberated and able to speak openly about it, knowing that he now legally possessed it and no one could take it away from him.
Furthermore, the sceptics have failed to address – let alone answer – how Burney gained possession of the skull. Digby, in 1936, said he did not know and all he could do was trace the possession of the skull back to January 1934 – a decade after Anna Mitchell-Hedges allegedly found it in Lubaantun. Anna Mitchell-Hedges (who died in 2007) always maintained that Burney only had the skull on loan from her father until he could pay off a debt he owed Burney. The sceptics’ argument – “If it was indeed a loan, why didn’t he just pay it back?” – doesn’t work because, even if it was a sale, Mitchell-Hedges could have arranged this directly with his friend rather than buy the skull through auction.
According to Anna Mitchell-Hedges, what really happened was that Burney had inexplicably put the crystal skull up for auction. Unable to contact Burney, Mike arose the next day at 5.00 am and travelled to London to retrieve his property. Sotheby’s informed him that the vendor was Sydney Burney’s son; and when they refused to withdraw the item from sale, Mitchell-Hedges realised that the easiest way of regaining his property was to purchase it back. In this scenario, the fact that the auction filled the legal loophole of ironing out the ownership of the skull is incidental. However, probably the best evidence that Mitchell-Hedges possessed the skull prior to 1943 comes from Patsy Wilcox, owner of the guest house “The Watchers” in Polperro, Cornwall, who in a 1999 interview stated that in the early 1930s Mitchell-Hedges and his daughter stayed at the house for several months and had in their possession a most unusual crystal skull, which they kept in a cupboard in one of the rooms they rented.
Let us therefore assume, as a working hypothesis, that Mitchell-Hedges obtained the skull at some point before the 1943 auction – as he himself claimed. The question then still remains: how? We know that he never wanted to reveal how he got the skull – which by default means there is some aspect involved that would be hard to explain. Was Mitchell-Hedges a spy? An analysis of his autobiography reveals – very much like a polygraph test – one area of his life which Mitchell-Hedges lied about. He states how in 1913, when working for Mike Meyerowitz, a diamond merchant in New York, he announced that he was leaving for Mexico. By November 1913, he had finally made it to a tiny village a few miles inside the Mexican border, where he was taken captive by General Pancho Villa’s troops on suspicion of espionage and taken to the general himself.
This account suggests that Mitchell-Hedges must have been one of the most unfortunate men ever. But his fortune soon changed, for the general believed Mitchell-Hedges when he said he was not a spy. Indeed, next he became a member of Villa’s army, for a period of 10 months.
Already the story is somewhat unbelievable, but some people do have a run of bad luck and Mitchell-Hedges may have suffered from a form of Stockholm syndrome. Then again – thinking the impossible – could he have gone to Mexico to be captured and to spend as much time, as closely as possible, with the great Mexican revolutionary? All this would require is to accept that Mitchell-Hedges was not a man out for adventure – an Indiana Jones – but, instead, a James Bond, sent by his government to provide an insider’s perspective on the Mexican Revolution. Analysts have argued that during this period Mitchell-Hedges was lying – a prime attribute for any intelligence operative. Villa fought 15 battles while Mitchell-Hedges was allegedly with him, yet in Danger My Ally not one of these campaigns is mentioned. Why leave out details of events with which his readership would have been more than impressed?
Still, everyone is agreed that Mitchell-Hedges was truthful when he said that he had personally known Villa, a conclusion based on his assessment of the general in his book. Mitchell-Hedges does mention one battle, a dawn attack on Laredo, Texas, whereby Mitchell-Hedges personally saved Villa and his men. However, the entire incident is a lie: there never was a battle at Laredo. So why did Mitchell-Hedges make this false claim, which anyone could quickly discredit and prove he was a liar? As to how he left Villa’s army, there sits another lie. In the chapter of his autobiography titled “Pancho Villa’s Prisoner”, Mitchell-Hedges writes: “So willynilly, I had no choice; but as the weeks slipped by my position grew more desperate. The United States Government at last took decisive action and General Pershing marched to the frontier of Mexico with 60,000 troops [most sources refer to only 12,000 troops]. I knew I could never take part in any direct military action against the Americans…”
However logical and understandable, Pershing never marched on the border in 1914 when Mitchell-Hedges was there. This march occurred in 1916, long after Mitchell-Hedges had left for home. In conclusion, there is general acceptance that Mitchell-Hedges did know Villa, but that he had – or chose – to lie about how precisely he knew Villa. Why? To this, we need to add that Mitchell-Hedges was back in England in 1914, and in 1915 he took the ship for New York and on the first night of the voyage he saw none other than Meyerowitz on board! Once again, Mitchell-Hedges told him he wanted to go to Central America, but Meyerowitz convinced him to stay in New York as his employee.
As such, by 1915 Mitchell-Hedges was back where he was two years before, as if the Mexican adventure had never happened – which for some sceptics might indeed be the conclusion they want to accept. But the notion that Mitchell-Hedges was a spy is not idle speculation. Once back in New York, Meyerowitz introduced Mitchell-Hedges to Lieb Bronstein – i.e., Leon Trotsky. The two moved in together, as Bronstein was in financial difficulty. In the chapter titled “The Man from the East Side” in his autobiography, Mitchell-Hedges writes: “One day towards the end of 1919, while I was on a short holiday in England, I received a mysterious letter on Government notepaper, marked ‘Very Secret’, asking me to call on Sir Basil Thompson, Chief of the Intelligence Service, at my earliest convenience. Curious, I dropped in next day.” Mitchell-Hedges was asked to go to Russia because he knew Trotsky, but Mitchell-Hedges said he refused. Though he seems to have declined this specific mission, his autobiography is nevertheless hazy as to what happened afterwards, so it is possible he did actually go – and that this may not have been his first mission. After monitoring the Mexican Revolution, either as an individual or an employee of His Majesty’s Secret Service, he was definitely asked to observe the Russian Revolution. Furthermore, what are we to make of his repeated “short holiday[s] in England”? Could they have been debriefings instead?
His Mexican odyssey becomes even more intriguing when we note that Mitchell-Hedges seems to have decided to exclude an important name from his autobiography: Ambrose Bierce. What our adventurer failed to mention was that when he joined Villa and stayed close to this leader in November 1913, that same month Villa also met Bierce, who joined his command as “an observer” and also stayed close to the general. This means that Bierce and Mitchell-Hedges must have met.
Bierce was a notorious writer and it is strange that Mitchell-Hedges did not name-drop him, either in his autobiography or anywhere else. But that is not all: Bierce disappeared under mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards, and at one point the theories about his death became almost as popular as those concerning John F. Kennedy’s assassination or Princess Diana’s death and resulted in a series of books being written on the subject.
What we do know is that there is no trace of Bierce after a 26 December letter from Chihuahua, when he was with Villa’s army. It is believed that he might have been killed at the siege of Ojinaga on 11 January 1914, but various other scenarios, all equally without any confirmation, have been floated about. But by his own account, Mitchell-Hedges was in Villa’s inner circle and would have been able to present an eyewitness account of Bierce’s disappearance. It would have been a major selling-point for his autobiography, yet once again Mitchell-Hedges opted for total silence.
To make matters even more interesting, Ambrose Bierce decided to leave for Mexico in the summer of 1913 – the same time that Mitchell-Hedges left. In October 1913, Bierce was in New Orleans, where Mitchell-Hedges was, too – working as a waiter, allegedly trying to get the necessary funds to reach Mexico. The latter’s choice of using waiting to get money is quite remarkable, for Mitchell-Hedges was known to be a top poker player who would have been able to win whatever amount he required much faster that way than by waiting tables – unless, of course, his profile for going into Mexico had to be less James Bond–like.
Finally, what are we to make of Bierce when he wrote in a letter dated 13 September 1913 to Mrs J. C. McCrackin, a longtime friend: “Yes, I shall go into Mexico with a pretty definite purpose, which, however, is not at present disclosable.” Was Bierce, too, on an intelligence mission – as some have concluded – or was he looking after something else? Bierce, apart from being a notorious journalist and writer, was also known to be interested in magic. Mexico, of course, was replete with shamans and magical rites, there to be studied, as Gordon Wasson and several others would continue to do well into the 20th century.
One author, Sibley S. Morrill, in Ambrose Bierce, F. A.Mitchell-Hedges, and the Crystal Skull (1972), has underlined the period of late 1913 to 1914, when Mitchell-Hedges was with Villa, as the likeliest time when he acquired the crystal skull. He added, without providing further details, that “some high officials of the Mexican Government are of the unofficial opinion that the skull was acquired by Mitchell-Hedges in Mexico” and that it was illegally removed from the country.
This scenario could explain why Mitchell-Hedges never said how he’d obtained the skull, as well as why his daughter might have felt it prudent to relocate the place of the skull’s discovery to a different country – British Honduras/Belize.
But it would also imply that Mitchell-Hedges acquired the skull at a time when Bierce disappeared. Indeed, it is remarkable that no one ever asked Mitchell-Hedges whether he knew how Bierce had disappeared, but perhaps the obvious reason why not lies in his autobiography, written late in life, which may have stopped most readers from putting two and two together before he died.
The possibility that Mitchell-Hedges acquired the skull in Mexico is the most logical conclusion – if only because it fits in with a period about which he lied and with his reluctance to reveal the circumstances of its acquisition. The likely scenario would thus be that as Villa’s troops often ransacked villages and large farms and traded with local people, someone might have sold or given it to Villa and his troops – and/or to Mitchell-Hedges. This scenario would tally well with why Mitchell-Hedges would never reveal the truth and realised he needed the 1943 auction scenario to establish ownership, as well as with Morrill’s information from Mexican officials as to the origin of the skull. But, again, the most logical scenario seems to have been surpassed by an even more spectacular truth. Clues in The White Tiger The Da Vinci Code is a novel that many people have taken as fact; but sometimes authors use (or have had to use) fiction to convey material they know they could not reveal in a nonfictional format. What is little known is that Mitchell-Hedges wrote a novel, The White Tiger, published in 1931, which tackles the subject of crystal skulls.
The novel is about “White Tiger”, the leader of the Mexican Indians, who turns out to be an Englishman who was unhappy with his existence in England and left for Mexico. Early on in the novel, the main character argues that he met White Tiger when he had discussions with the Mexican president, at which time the chief left him his diary which he then published as this novel, though changing certain locations mentioned in the diary.
The most interesting part of the book is when White Tiger recounts how he was elected leader of the Indians – a position that required an initiation which involved being shown the lost treasure of the Aztecs in a lost city of pyramids. White Tiger, now their king, is shown the treasure, which includes “crystal heads” – plural – hidden in an underground cave complex: “The climax however was yet to come. As they passed into the temple, the priest impressively led him to one of the massive walls, placing his hand in a certain manner upon what appeared to be a solid block of stone. At his touch it rolled slowly back, disclosing a flight of steps down which they passed. A lamp which the priest carried flung weird patches of light into the darkness. On and on down countless steps – into the very bowels of the earth until again the priest pressed the apparently solid rock barring their progress. With scarcely a sound the stone block turned as easily as if on oiled hinges and before them yawned a long tunnel. Passing through this they descended another flight of steps. For a third time the priest touched the wall and a huge stone rolled aside. Then in the dim light of the lantern the White Tiger saw that he was in an immense vault cut out of the living rock.
“Before him, piled in endless confusion, lay the treasure of the Aztecs.
“Gold chalices, bowls, jars and other vessels of every size and shape; immense plaques and strange ornaments all glittered dully. Of precious stones there were none, but many rare chalchihuitl (jadeite pendants) [sic]. Masks of obsidian and shells beautifully inlaid were all heaped together with heads carved from solid blocks of crystal. Legend had not exaggerated the treasure of the Aztecs. Almost boundless wealth lay at the disposal of the White Tiger.
“Bloodshed, rape and sickening torture, that the wretched Aztecs had undergone at the hands of the Spanish Conquistadores, had failed to wring from them this secret hiding-place. True to the oath which had they had sworn to their gods they had died rather than that their hated conquerors should benefit [sic].
“With this vast fortune a man could rise to any height, indulge in any luxury, purchase any title, and become one of the exalted of the earth. But the Indians judged, and rightly, that to the White Lord these things were of no account, and that only for their regeneration would this treasure be used.”
Within this one passage, we find a set of circumstances – almost corresponding scene by scene to the opening sequence of the film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark – that provide a reasonable framework as to how Mitchell-Hedges found (or was given) the crystal skull, and why he would never speak about the circumstances in which he had found it. Indeed, within the novel, we find a motive as to why Anna Mitchell-Hedges might have found it prudent to move the location of the discovery of the skull from Mexico to British Honduras: the main character of The White Tiger argues that he, too, changed certain locations in his novel. Changing locations is an often-used method to discourage people from following the trail – and finding the truth.
Finally, one of the rumours that circulate around the skull is that the then Mexican president, Porfirio Díaz, owned a secret cache of treasures, amongst which were two crystal skulls that found their way to Pancho Villa. It is even said that he had two of these skulls on his desk. Though the rumour has never been validated, it is a remarkable story for the very reason that The White Tiger opens inside the Mexican president’s office, where the main character meets White Tiger. Noting that later on in The White Tiger he is the one who sees crystal skulls inside a cave complex, we can only wonder whether the rumour, the novel and the truth might not go hand in hand.
Remarkably, Morrill at no point refers to the novel The White Tiger, though it seems he is familiar with it. Furthermore, some aspects of Morrill’s published conclusions only make sense when placed within the novel’s framework. For example, Morrill highlights that Mitchell-Hedges often left behind the expedition parties of which he was a member and trekked into the jungle. Morrill then speculates he went in search of a cave. Though such a conclusion is totally unwarranted based on the evidence Morrill presents on the specific topic, such “speculation” makes perfect sense when placed within the framework of The White Tiger: Mitchell-Hedges, perhaps using White Tiger’s diary, went in search of this cave containing this phenomenal treasure and may have found it – and its “crystal heads”.
What sceptics hate about Mitchell-Hedges is that he was passionate to explore and find evidence of a lost civilisation that he was convinced had existed. Certainly, of all artefacts in existence, the crystal skull is by far the best evidence that our ancestors possessed knowledge and ability far in excess of what archaeologists – definitely in the first half of the 20th century – were willing to grant to the “primitive Indians”. Today, it is slowly emerging that the “primitive Indians” were far more developed than previously accepted, and are now credited with expert knowledge of plants and medicinal applications as well as farming techniques that included an ingenious method of fertilising the soil to become richer in carbon – the resultant soil known as terra preta. It is now also accepted that they were expert metalworkers – and revelations of their crystal-working techniques may well be found in the not-too-distant future. Either way, whether evidence of a lost civilisation or of indigenous craftsmanship, the skull contains an interesting contradiction in that Mitchell-Hedges walked away with the artefact but would never be able to tell how he acquired it – perhaps because he had been sworn to secrecy.
So who was White Tiger? There is the possibility that the character was – or was meant to be – Mitchell-Hedges himself, but it somehow is less likely. Though Mitchell-Hedges spent time in Central America, he was not sufficiently integrated to be seen by the Indians as their leader. But it is entirely possible that another Englishman had done so before, and that this “English king” spoke about his adventures to fellow expat Mitchell-Hedges when their paths crossed.
There is one final step to make – and perhaps it is one step too far, but one which we can nevertheless not leave unmentioned. Though The White Tiger is in part autobiographical, it is clear that Mitchell-Hedges wrote a bit of himself into several of the characters – including White Tiger.
White Tiger is a man who disappeared and became the leader of the Mexican Indians. Mitchell-Hedges allegedly did know a man who had disappeared: Ambrose Bierce. Did he disappear to become a local leader? As outrageous as this may sound, Bierce, unlike Mitchell-Hedges, must have had inroads with the local Indians as he was a wellversed magician and thus could easily have become their shamanic leader. Even if Bierce “only” wanted to experience the knowledge of the Mexican Indians – like Gordon Wasson and so many others after him – here, too, we have found a possible clue as to why Mitchell-Hedges chose to stay silent about Bierce’s disappearance.
The quest for true knowledge should always take precedence over any bragging rights or ego-enhancement. Like Indiana Jones, Mitchell-Hedges may have come upon a forgotten Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls but, unlike in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, was able to bring it out into the open and give the world an artefact that continues to intrigue mankind. This article appeared in Nexus Magazine, Volume 15, Number 4 (June – July 2008) and as a two-part article in Legendary Times, Vol. 9, No. 3&4 and Vol. 10, No. 1&2.