To some, they are the antithesis of history, a pseudohistorical fraud perpetrated on a gullible public. To others, they are evidence of a more spiritual and mystic time, one where the great civilisations wielded powers beyond Euro-American imagining. To many others, they have been a cash-cow, linked to wealthy speaking tours, books, movies and video-games. No matter the beliefs held, all can agree that the “pre-Colombian” crystal skulls are an impressive sight to behold, awakening primal fears of the unknown. But are these fears justified?
While many crystal skulls claim to be able to trace their origins back to the pre-Colombian Americas, the truth is that almost all are born out of Victorian-era fascination with spiritualism, exploration and archaeology. It was during this time that many amateurs collected specimens from around the globe, claims of experience in the sciences and humanities giving an air of deeper learning amongst some sections of the establishment. These collectors were easy prey for forgers both at home and abroad. Eugène Boban of Paris, France, was one such individual.
Boban was the official archaeologist to the court of Maximillian I of Mexico, having first travelled to the country in 1857. His credentials were high, having exhibited at the then Trocadéro Museum (now the Musée de l’Homme) in Paris as part of the International Exposition of 1867. He worked in Mexico for 20 years between 1860 and 1880 and his reputation was seemingly infallible. Boban operated an antiquities shop in Paris from 1870 and New York from 1887, amongst his collection, were the famed crystal skulls.
One of these skulls appeared in 1881 and was never listed in his catalogue, being rejected by Mexico’s national museum when he tried to present it as a genuine Aztec artefact. After moving to New York, the skull was sold in George H. Sisson and then won at auction by Tiffany & Co, later sold to the British Museum in 1897.
For many years, the skull formed part of an exhibit at the Museum of Mankind. It was listed as “possibly” Aztec. However, examinations of the artefact in the 1950s concluded it had been worked with modern tools, and more recently Professor Ian Freestone of the University of Wales in Cardiff reached the same conclusions. He concluded that there were clear signs of a modern polishing wheel being used and the crystal utilised was Brazilian, not Mexican. The museum now officially considers the skull to be of 19th-century European origin and made with through modern methods.
“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.”
Professor Ian Freestone, University of Wales, Cardiff
Another one of the Boban skulls, now housed in the Musée de l’Homme, was sold to his fellow French collector Alphonse Pinart alongside two others. The Paris skull is around 10cm tall and has a drilled hole in the centre. Scientific tests carried out between 2007 and 2008 concluded that the artefact was certainly not of pre-Colombian origin and also had clear evidence of being worked with modern tools. Tests using a particle accelerator showed that the skull contained traces of water that could be dated to the 1800s.
It seems likely both skulls were created not long before being presented to the public.
Perhaps the most famous crystal skull of all, the so-called Mitchell-Hedges skull, has similarly been identified as a fake.
It was apparently in 1924 that Anne Mitchell-Hedges found the skull at the Maya ruin of Lubaantun, Belize. Anne was the daughter of the noted English explorer and writer F. A. Mitchell-Hedges whose exploits were the very epitome of adventure. He claimed to have gambled with J.P. Morgan, roomed with Leon Trotsky and been captured by Pancho Villa, subsequently brawling with the Mexican rebel leader. Mitchell-Hedges also allegedly worked as a spy and repeatedly made claims about “new” discoveries. He claimed to have discovered lost tribes and cities that had often been well documented for centuries, identified “the cradle of civilisation” as the Mosquito Coast Nicaragua and proclaimed the Bay Islands in Honduras were the remnants of Atlantis. While the majority of these tall tales can be widely debunked, his adventures enthralled his fans, with Mitchell-Hedges having a weekly radio show every Sunday night that aired across New York and a column in Britain’s Daily Mail.
Anne Mitchell-Hedges claimed that she found the skull under a collapsed altar inside a ruined temple at Lubaantun in two pieces, finding the central portion of the artefact on her 17th birthday and the jaw some three months later. This all being despite none of the workers on the dig remembering Anne being present. However, her father made no record of the discovery at the time. He only thought to mention it after the auctioning of a skull at Sotheby’s in October of 1943 by the British art and antiquities dealer Sydney Burney. In a letter to his brother dated December 1943, F. A. Mitchell-Hedges admitted that it was he who had bought the skull from Sydney Burney for the sum of £400.
“The “Collection” grows and grows and grows. You possibly saw in the papers that I acquired that amazing Crystal Skull that was formerly in the “Sydney Burney Collection.” It is fashioned from a single block of transparent rock crystal, exactly life-size; scientists put the date at pre-1800 B.C., and they estimate it took five generations passing from Father to son, to complete. It is anthropologically perfect in every detail, a superb piece of craftsmanship. There is only one other in the world known like it, which is in the British Museum, and it is acknowledged to be not so fine as this.”
F. A. Mitchell-Hedges letter to his brother
Publicly, however, Mitchell-Hedges played up the mystery surrounding the skull, saying: “How it came into my possession I have reason for not revealing.”
In the 1960s, the skull came under the care of freelance art restorer Frank Dorland. Dorland made the astonishing claim that the artefact was the culmination of over 150 years of work and that he could find no evidence of the object being worked by metal, instead believing it was shaped by diamonds and polished by sand over centuries. He stated that it could even be up to 12,000 years old. Many of these “facts” were in line with what F. A. Mitchell-Hedges had written in his 1954 book Danger, My Ally.
“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.”
F. A. Mitchell-Hedges, Danger, My Ally
Anne Mitchell-Hedges noted that her father had utilised Dorland to “promote and sell the icon” and she had done the same, Dorland telling her that “we can launch a programme about the Skull and get your price”. Anne signed an agreement that Dorland would promote the piece and sell it for a price of over $50,000. As part of his promotional efforts, Dorland drew up a document that tells of the established legend, including Anne’s claims of finding the skull in a ruined Mayan temple and recanting its paranormal powers.
“[The skull] the evil eye and carries protection from heaven, being white crystal and highly polished, it defeats all evils of witchcraft and is a benevolent divine magic dealing with heaven and angelic forces.”
The two would have a falling out following Dorland’s ever-increasingly outlandish claims about the skull, Mitchell-Hedges objecting to allegations from her partner that he was the valid owner. Dorland, however, wasn’t willing to give up the gravy train just yet and proposed that they work on a book about the crystal skull alongside the author Dick Garvin.
“I have convinced Dick Garvin (who does sell) it is worth the percentage to you and me and you to furnish the information. This makes it a better book, makes more money all the way around. The skull is not sold, it is put to use in this manner and for public appearances to boost sales and interest.”
Frank Dorland to Anne Mitchell-Hedges
Dorland himself would later write his own book that serves as the origin of many of the claims surrounding the properties of the skull, Dorland stating a belief that the way the Maya utilised quartz was a lost technology.
“The secrets of the crystal are many, but according to shamans and others who work with crystals, the basic, number-one secret is this — a crystal, like any electronic instrument, will never work until you turn it on. A crystal has to have energy like a radio set. The crystal gets its energy from the person using it, so you must either cup your hands around it to allow the energy from your body to activate the crystal or better yet, pick up the crystal in your hands and hold it. Upon receiving your energy, the crystal changes its vibration from its normal pattern to a rhythm that harmonises in sympathy with the natural vibrations of your body cells. That is one of the major secrets. A crystal ball will not work by itself sitting on a stand. A person must hold it or cup their hands around it”
Frank Dorland, Holy Ice
Anne Mitchell-Hedges refused to have the skull tested again after some initial testing during her lifetime. However, the object has since been analysed after it passed into the possession of her husband following her death. The tests carried out by Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History revealed that the skull had been worked by a metal tool tipped with diamond. Such tools did not exist in the pre-Colombian Americas. The conclusion was drawn that the origins of the skull lay close to the 1930s or possibly a little earlier within the Boban timeframe. Its first appearance in literature was when it was noted in the July 1936 issue of the British anthropological journal Man as being owned by Sydney Burney. The article said he acquired the skull in 1933, a fact confirmed in a letter he sent to the director of the American Museum of Natural History where he stated: “I have just acquired a life-size rock crystal skull with separate jaw, from Mexico, and I shall be glad to know if it is of interest to you or your museum.”
Where Burney acquired the skull is unknown, interestingly, the artefacts that had been in Eugène Boban’s possession back in the 1880s are believed to have been carved in Germany. During the period, Germany is known to have received massive imports of Brazilian quartz, the same kind named as the likely origin of the Mitchell-Hedges skull. Upon examining both the Mitchell-Hedges skull and the British Museum skull, scientist Dr G. M. Morant noted that the two artefacts had very similar anatomical details.
In 1992, a different skull was mailed anonymously to the Smithsonian in Washington. A letter accompanying the artefact claimed the relic was genuine Aztec and had come from the collection of Porfirio Díaz, the Mexican general and politician who served seven terms as President of Mexico. The largest of the skulls, it was also carved using modern methods and is displayed as a fake at the National Museum of Natural History.
Despite the clear evidence that the famed crystal skulls are all fakes, there have been many claims of paranormal activity linked to them, including miracles such as the ability to cure cancer and even kill. Anne Mitchell-Hedges, who regularly toured with the skull, claimed that descendants of the Maya had told her the artefacts were used to will death by high priests. The crystals were also linked to the “2012 prophecy”, doom merchants claiming that only the reuniting of 13 mythical skulls of the Maya would prevent a global apocalypse on December 21, 2012. Now being 2020, we can only presume this was achieved!
The skull was made of quartz, which again has led to all manner of pseudoscience surrounding the powers of “quartz technology”, one particular subsection of the belief in ancient technology lost to time and unknown to current science. These claims, pushed by Frank Dorland, attempt to link the quartz in the skull to modern utilisation in computers. These beliefs state that the origins of the artefact lay at the very dawn of civilisation and “contain the answers to human evolution, universal information, planetary information, and most valuable of all, humankind’s destiny and true purpose.” However, the classical Maya were more likely to have utilised Jade or Obsidian in such an alleged ceremonial piece. Other principal stones used were “flint… iron pyrite, cinnabar, hematite, and other materials that were showy (for burial or ceremonies) or useful, such as granite for manos and metates”.
These pseudohistorical claims regularly find favour on American and Canadian television networks, with the supposedly serious Discovery Canada broadcasting the assertions during The Mystery of the Crystal Skulls documentary in 2008. Likewise, these links to the paranormal frequently appear on channels such as The History Channel, being presented in a way that gives them an air of authority. Such ideas also lend their weight to popular culture, with perhaps Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull being the most prominent example of the lore being utilised in fiction. However, the legends and skulls themselves have featured in media as diverse as The A-Team, the Assassin’s Creed video games and the British comedy series Peep Show.
Promoted by individuals of dubious note, many seeking either money or infamy, the crystal skulls of Mesoamerica seem almost undoubtedly pure fiction. While the many lies and frauds have long been exposed, claims of paranormal activity and links to supposed ancient prophecies still abound. Sadly, these false images are all too commonly linked to the rich Aztec and Mayan cultures, obscuring the real history behind these empires. Yet, that is not to say that the striking craftsmanship cannot be appreciated, nor that the exciting lives of the likes of Eugène Boban and F. A. Mitchell-Hedges don’t make for thrilling reading. Standing as primary evidence of society’s willingness to believe a good story and our shared curiosity into all things mystical and arcane, the crystal skulls may not be ancient, but they have a valuable history all of their own.
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