The Eerie Crystal Skulls

The Mitchell-Hedges skull is probaby the strangest gemstone in the world. (Copyright of F.R. 'Nick' Nocerino. The Museum wishes to thank Mr. Nocerino and the The Society of Crystal Skulls, International for its use.)

The movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull highlights these strange archaeological oddities. Were they created in ancient times for paranormal purposes or are they modern fakes?

Some people with a mystical bend credit them with strange, supernatural powers. Geologists marvel at their size. Archaeologists wonder who made them. And nobody denies that they possess an eerie, horrible beauty unmatched by almost any other objects. They are the crystal skulls.

There have been many replicas of human skulls that have been polished out of a crystal of rock. Some might be ancient, others contemporary. A few have been made from pure quartz and are absolutely clear, while others sport a myriad of colors. A rare few are life-sized and carved out of a single crystal of quartz.

Crystal Quartz

Quartz, composed almost entirely of silicon dioxide, is found in almost every type of rock and can form huge crystals that weigh tons. While it is colorless and transparent when pure, if a tiny portion of the silicon atoms are replaced with iron, aluminum, manganese or titanium, the crystal can take on beautiful colors. Amethyst is violet quartz. Jasper is quartz with red, yellow, brown, gray or black coloring. Onyx and agate are quartz with bans of color. Bloodstone is green with red spots. If a single streak runs through the quartz it might be called cat's eye, tiger's eye or rutile. Skulls have been carved out of almost every variation of this mineral.

The skull at the British Museum of Mankind was originally thought to be of Aztec origin. (Wikiapedia Commons Share Alike/Sayamindu)

All crystal is ancient and there are no good ways of guessing how long ago a skull shape was carved or polished out of the quartz. Scientists have examined some of the skulls whose history is not known looking for tiny marks that may tell what type of tools were used to carve them, but this may not always give a reliable age or origin. It does not eliminate contemporary artists using ancient methods.

The owners of crystal skulls often credit them with paranormal powers such as divination (like a crystal ball) and healing. While there are many skulls carved out of quartz, two are particularly famous and controversial. Both are made of clear crystal and are approximately life-sized: The "Mitchell-Hedges" skull and a skull owned by the British Museum.

The British Museum Skull

The British Museum's skull, which stands about eight inches high, was part of the exhibit at the Museum of Mankind in London for many years. The skull sat in a case there labeled as "possibly of Aztec origin- the colonial period at the earliest." This was guesswork on the part of the museum staff, however. The museum obtained the skull from Tiffany's, the New York jewelers. From there the providence of the object gets a little foggy, though there were rumors that it was part of a collection amassed by a mysterious soldier of fortune in Mexico. Examinations of the skull in the 1950's suggested that a rotary tool had been used to shape the skull. Since such a device was unknown to the Aztecs, speculation grew that instead the skull was made in Europe in the 19th century.

The Michell-Hedges skull, sometimes referred to as "The Skull of Doom." (Copyright of F.R. 'Nick' Nocerino. The Museum wishes to thank Mr. Nocerino and the The Society of Crystal Skulls, International for its use.)

Recently, Professor Ian Freestone, of the University of Wales in Cardiff, re-examined the skull with modern high-tech tools and came to a similar conclusion. Freestone cast the skull with dental resin, and then put the cast through a scanning electron microscope. Under high magnification he saw straight, perfectly-spaced surface markings, which could be attributed to a modern polishing wheel. Freestone also noted that the type of crystal in the skull came from Brazil, not Mexico, which makes it unlikely to be of Aztec origin. The sharp features in the carving, he believes, do not fit the Aztec style either, which has a softer look.

Freestone notes that critics of his conclusion might argue that the marks he observed came from a more recent cleaning, not from the original carving. "Stone is one of the hardest materials to date," he admits. "That is why it has been an open question for so long. It's still not definitively solved and it will never be." The professor goes on to say that even if its providence is not ancient, the object still seems to fascinate people. "If you see this skull in bright light it is fairly impressive, whatever your views about its origin. Most people who have encountered it do say it has made an impression."

Some of the staff at the Museum of Mankind might agree. Though the skull is no longer displayed because its origins are in question, it is so strangely hypnotic that there is a story that the museum maintenance crew at one time insisted that the object be covered with a black cloth before they worked around it at night.

Mitchell-Hedges Skull

Legend of the 13 Crystal Skulls

Though most archeologists believe that the life-sized crystal skulls we are familiar with today are 19th century fakes, there is a one popular myth that connects them with the ancient Mayan culture. The story goes that in ancient times there were 13 skulls, most of which are now lost to history. According to the story, they must be found before December 21, 2012. That day marks the end of the current Mayan calendar cycle which has lasted 5,126 years. On that date, according to the legend, the earth will be knocked off its axis, unless the thirteen skulls are brought together and aligned properly. If that is done, the paranormal power of the skulls can save the planet.

The Mitchell-Hedges skull has an even more checkered past than the one at the Museum of Mankind. Its supposed discoverer, Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges, was a self-proclaimed British adventurer during the early twentieth century. He traveled through much of South and Central America and the Caribbean working sometimes as an explorer for different organizations, at other times as a correspondent for the Daily Mail. He contended that he found the skull while exploring an ancient temple in the Mayan city of Lubaantun in British Honduras. He seemed, however, very reluctant to reveal the details, writing: "How it came into my possession I have reason for not revealing."

Mitchell-Hedges, a colorful character if there ever was one, was apparently not above telling a few tall tales. He alleged that he had gambled with the rich J.P. Morgan, roomed with Leon Trotsky and fought with Pancho Villa. All of these stories, however, appear to be total fabrications.

The skull itself, of course, is very real, but how it came into Mitchell-Hedges possession is an open question. We know for sure that he owned it in 1944. That year a member of the staff of the British Museum bid on the skull at an auction and made this note:

Bid at Sotheby's sale, lot 54, 15 x 43 up to 340 [pounds] (Fairfax). Brought in by Burney. Sold subsequently by Mr. Burney to Mr. Mitchell-Hedges for 400 [pounds].

Some researchers believe the story about finding the skull in Honduras was just another tall tale and Mitchell-Hedges obtained it through Burney (an art dealer) at the Sotheby's sale. Other members of that Honduras expedition, Lady Richmond Brown and Dr. Thomas Gann, never wrote or spoke about Mitchell-Hedges finding a skull, though such an event would be of remarkable interest.

Mitchell-Hedges' adopted daughter, Anna Mitchell-Hedges, supported her father's story. Anna, who inherited the skull when her father died, argued that her father only placed the skull with Burney as collateral for a loan and when he realized Burney was trying to sell the stone, he bought it back at the auction.

Not all skulls are clear. This skull, known as the "Mayan," has a hazy, greenish color. (Copyright of F.R. 'Nick' Nocerino. The Museum wishes to thank Mr. Nocerino and the The Society of Crystal Skulls, International for its use.)

Anna, in fact, seems to have added to the original version of how the skull was found. She claimed that she had gone along on the expedition and that it was she who discovered the skull on her 17th birthday. According to her account she found the skull (missing the jaw) under an ancient alter. Three months later she also found the matching jaw in the same room. Critics doubt Anna's story, however, as there is no evidence she was along on the expedition and none of the many photographs taken during that trip include her.

The skull itself, probably the strangest gemstone in the world, weighs some 11 lbs., 7 oz (5.19kg), stands 5 inches high, and is carved out of a single quartz crystal. Mitchell-Hedges often referred to it as the "Skull of Doom." The separate jaw looks like it might have been wired to move, perhaps giving it the ability to appear to be speaking. Mitchell-Hedges theorized the skull was used as an oracle, the jaw operated by remote control as a voice came from a hidden speaker tube. It isn't hard to picture the priest of some ancient religion dazzling his followers with such a display.

Though, there is much lore about the skull, most of it seems to have come from Mitchell-Hedges imagination, instead of actual history or scientific investigation. He once wrote:

Skull of Doom is made of pure rock crystal and according to scientists, it must have taken over 150 years, generation after generation working all the days of their lives, patiently rubbing down with sand an immense block of rock crystal until finally 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.

Eugene Boban in front of a display of his Mexican artifacts.

The above quote is from Mitchell-Hedges book Danger is My Ally, but it is unclear where Mitchell-Hedges got the information. The actual history of both the Mitchell-Hedges skull and the British skull probably has less to do with generations of Aztec workers patiently rubbing them with sand, however, and more to do with a Frenchman named Eugene Boban.

The Boban Connection

Boban, a gentleman of dubious reputation, lived in the 19th century and seems to be associated with the appearance of both skulls as well as with a third skull now at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris. Boban operated a business in Mexico for some years that traded in artifacts. Apparently it was Boban that sold the British skull to Tiffany's. Instead of obtaining the skulls in Mexico, however, it is thought he got them from Germany where they were carved during the 19th century. During that period large amounts of Brazilian quartz crystal were imported and shaped there.

There is certainly evidence that supports the idea that both the skulls came from the same source. One scientist, Dr. G. M. Morant, got to examine what is thought to be the Mitchell-Hedges skull (then in Burney's hands) and the British skull together in 1936. He noted the skulls were very similar in many anatomical details. It was his theory that the one in the British Museum might be a slightly rougher copy of the Mitchell-Hedges skull.

Despite their suspicions neither Morant, nor later Freestone, has been able to definitely establish a time or place where either of these skulls were created. So, many people continue to attribute them with ancient origins and remarkable powers. Even if they lack paranormal capabilities, however, they remain fascinating oddities set in crystal stone.

Were crystal skulls used for worship in some hidden temple? (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2008).


A Partial Bibliography

Rock Crystal Skull: The British Museum Website, aoa/r/rock_crystal_skull.aspx "

Secrets of the Supernatural By Joe Nickell, Prometheus Books, 1988.

Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian by Amy Henderson and Adrienne L. Kaeppler. ,Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

The mystery of the British Museum's crystal skull is solved. by Steve Connor, The London Independent, January 7, 2005.

Comments on the Morphological Comparison of Two Crystal Skulls. By Adrian Digby, Man, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, July 1936.


Copyright Lee Krystek 1998-2008. All Rights Reserved.