THE LEGEND OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS
The truth behind Indiana Jones's latest quest
Jane MacLaren Walsh*
Sixteen years ago, a heavy package addressed to the nonexistent "Smithsonian Institution Curator, Mesoamerican Museum, Washington, D.C." was delivered to the National Museum of American History. It was accompanied by an unsigned letter stating: "This Aztec crystal skull, purported to be part of the Porfirio Díaz 3collection, was purchased in Mexico in 1960. I am offering 2it to the Smithsonian without consideration." Richard Ahlborn, then curator of the Hispanic-American collections, knew of my expertise in Mexican archaeology and called me to ask whether I knew anything about the object - an eerie, milky white crystal skull 14considerably larger than a human head.
I told him I knew of a life-sized crystal skull on display at the British Museum, and had seen a smaller version the Smithsonian had 15once exhibited as a fake. After we spent a few minutes puzzling over the meaning and significance of this unusual artifact, he asked whether the department of anthropology would be interested in accepting it for the national collections. I said yes without hesitation. 1If the skull turned out to be a genuine pre-Columbian Mesoamerican artifact, 13such a rare object should definitely become part of the national collections.
I couldn't have imagined then that this 16unsolicited donation would open an entirely new avenue of research for me. In the years since the package arrived, my investigation of this single skull has led me to research the history of pre-Columbian collections in museums around the world, and I have collaborated with a 17broad range of international scientists and museum curators who have also crossed paths with crystal skulls. Studying these artifacts has prompted new research into pre-Columbian lapidary (or stone working) technology, particularly the carving of hard stones like jadeite and quartz.
Crystal skulls have undergone serious scholarly scrutiny, but they also excite the popular imagination because they seem so mysterious. Theories about their origins abound. Some believe the skulls are the handiwork of the 5Maya or Aztecs, but 4they have also become the subject of constant discussion on occult websites. Some insist that they originated on a sunken continent or in a far-away galaxy. And now they are poised to become archaeological superstars thanks to our celluloid colleague Indiana Jones, who will tackle the subject of our research in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Details about the movie's plot are being closely guarded by the film's producers as I write this, but the Internet rumor mill has it that the crystal skull of the title is the creation of aliens.
Although nearly all of the crystal skulls have at times been identified as Aztec, Toltec, Mixtec, or occasionally Maya, they do not reflect the artistic or stylistic characteristics of any of these cultures. [...] I believe that all of the smaller crystal skulls that constitute the first generation of fakes were made in Mexico around the time they were sold, between 1856 and 1880. [...]
British Museum scientist Margaret Sax and I examined the British Museum and Smithsonian 7skulls under light and scanning electron microscope and conclusively determined that they were carved with relatively modern lapidary equipment, 6which were unavailable to pre-Columbian Mesoamerican carvers. So why have crystal 9skulls had such a long and successful run, and why do some museums continue to exhibit 8them, despite their 18lack of archaeological context and obvious iconographic, stylistic, and technical problems? 12Though the British Museum exhibits its skulls as examples of 11fakes, 10others still offer them up as the genuine article. Mexico's national museum, for example, identifies its skulls as the work of Aztec and Mixtec artisans. Perhaps it is because, like the Indiana Jones movies, these macabre objects are reliable crowd-pleasers. [...]
From: Archaeology. Volume 61, Number 3, May/June 2008
*Jane MacLaren Walsh is an anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
In "If the skull turned out to be a genuine pre-Columbian artifact" (ref. 1), "turned out" could be replaced by
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