The crystal skull sought by Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in the latest silver-screen installment of the archaeologist’s over-the-top adventures is, of course, a movie prop—masquerading as an ancient artifact from pre-Columbian Central America. (Disclosure: in my day job, I work for a magazine published by producer George Lucas’ Educational Foundation.) As it happens, the prop bears a strong resemblance to scores of crystal skulls in museum collections around the world. These skulls, carved from large chunks of quartz, may well have been chiseled by descendants of Aztecs and Mayans, but they are decidedly post-Columbian.
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Fakes are an all too real part of the museum world. “There are always artists capable of making and selling things that seem old,” says anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Walsh has seen her share of fakes. In fact, she has become something of a specialist on the subject. “I didn’t start out as a skeptic,” she says, “but experience has changed my outlook.”
In 1992, according to Walsh, the museum received an unsolicited donation of a larger-than-life, ten-inch-high skull carved from milky-hued quartz. Some time later, Walsh, an expert in Mexican archaeology, was asked to research the skull, one of several known to exist. Until that point, skulls of this kind typically had been attributed to ancient Mesoamerican cultures.
Walsh knew that if the skull proved to be a genuine pre-Columbian relic, it would constitute an important addition to the Smithsonian collection. But she harbored doubts from the start. “After Mexican independence,” she says, “a lot of outsiders started coming into the country and collecting historic pieces for museums.” The collectors, she adds, “created a demand, and local artisans then created a supply. Some of the things sold to these foreigners may not have been made to intentionally deceive, but certain dealers claimed that they were ancient.”
A major player in the skull game, according to Walsh, was Frederick Arthur Mitchell-Hedges, an English stockbroker-turned-adventurer who, in 1943, began displaying a crystal carving that he called “The Skull of Doom” to his dinner-party guests. His daughter, Anna, later claimed that he had found the skull in a ruined temple in Belize during the early 1920s. The family’s stories seemed to generate the “discovery” of more skulls with even wilder tales attached. (They had come from the lost city of Atlantis or been left by extraterrestrials.)
Investigations by the Linnean Society of London, a research institute specializing in taxonomy and natural history, revealed that Mitchell-Hedges actually purchased his skull at auction at Sotheby’s in London in 1943 for around £400, about $18,000 today. How it came to the auction house isn’t known. (Anna Mitchell-Hedges kept it until her death at age 100 last year; the object remains in the family.) Experts now believe that many extant crystal skulls were made in Germany during the late 1800s; Walsh thinks that the Smithsonian skull was carved in Mexico in the 1950s.
By 1996, Walsh had decided to put the skull to the test. She took it to London’s British Museum, whose collections contain two similar skulls. Margaret Sax, a materials expert there, used scanning electron microscopy to study tool marks on the skulls. In each case, she noted that modern tools and abrasives had been employed. Today, the skull that launched Walsh’s sleuthing sits in a locked cabinet in her Washington, D.C. office, faux and forlorn. Walsh, offering an explanation as to why many museums even today exhibit crystal skulls as authentic Mesoamerican antiquities, describes the artifacts as “reliable crowd pleasers.”
A few years ago, another skull was sent to NMNH for testing. Researchers took a sample; what had appeared to be quartz crystal was found to be glass.
“So that [one],” says Walsh, “turned out to be a fake fake.”
Owen Edwards, who lives in San Francisco, is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions.