I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Crystal human skulls with mystical powers began turning up in Central America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were thought to be artefacts from Aztec and Mayan cultures. Museums and wealthy individuals wanted to get their hands on them.
Where Did the Skulls Come from?
Some of the skulls were life sized, others were miniatures; all elicited excitement in the archaeological community.
Some suggested they came from cultures that moved into Central America from the lost city of Atlantis. There was a body of opinion that said they were left behind by aliens who had visited Earth long before recorded history.
But, these rather exotic theories gave way as opinion settled, more conventionally, on pre-Columbian societies as the source of the skulls.
Legends grew up around them. A total of 13 were found and became dispersed around the world. Someone created the myth that if the 13 skulls were ever reunited in the same place secrets vital to the survival of the human species would be revealed.
The Doom Skull
In 1924, or 1926 (accounts vary), the renowned English adventurer Frederick Mitchell-Hedges was leading an expedition in British Honduras (called Belize today). He and his daughter Anna were examining the Mayan ruin of Lubaantun when they stumbled on a crystal skull.
However, Mitchell-Hedges made no mention of the find until 1956. In his book Danger My Ally, he claimed the crystal skull dated “back at least 3,600 years, and taking about 150 years to rub down with sand from a block of pure rock crystal.” He called it the “Skull of doom.”
He built an elaborate mythology around the artefact, claiming it possessed the ability to kill those who mocked it. On the other hand, the skull was said to have great healing powers.
Frederick Mitchell-Hedges died in 1959, and his daughter Anna took the skull on tour. She regaled interviewers and audiences with the story of how she found the skull underneath an altar in a ruined temple. She engaged the service of art restorer Frank Dorland who said he heard choral music and bells emanating from the skull.
The dawn of the New Age movement, with its focus on, among other things, the curative power of crystals brought new fame for the Skull of Doom.
The British Museum Skull
Pre-dating the Mitchell-Hedges skull was a similar artefact that was put on display in the British Museum.
This particular skull first appeared in 1881 in the Paris shop of Eugène Boban, a dealer in antiquaries. He took it to America in 1886 and sold it at a Tiffany & Co., auction. It was sold on to the British Museum in 1898, which put it on display as coming from pre-Columbian Mexico. It bore a striking similarity to the Skull of Doom but with less detail.
The museum notes that “Although the stylisation of the features of the skull is in general accord with other examples accepted as genuine Aztec or Mixtec carvings, the overall appearance does not present an obvious example of Aztec or any other Mesoamerican art style.”
Misgivings began to grow about the skull’s provenance, especially because of its connection to Eugène Boban. He was developing a bit of a reputation for himself as a rascal who occasionally traded in fakes.
The Truth about Crystal Skulls
Doubts about the authenticity of these crystal objects were expressed by some right from the time when they first appeared, but most were content to go along with the appealing narrative that had developed.
Then, in 1992, a mysterious parcel arrived at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Inside, was a milky-white crystal depicting a human skull. An anonymous note was attached that read, “This Aztec crystal skull, purported to be part of the Porfirio Díaz collection, was purchased in Mexico in 1960 . . . I am offering it to the Smithsonian without consideration.”
The object was passed on to Jane MacLaren Walsh, an anthropologist and expert in pre-Columbian art. She began a sleuthing expedition worthy of any detective.
The British Museum joined Walsh in her search for the truth. By using electron microscopes, the researchers were able to show that carving marks were made by tools not available to Aztecs or Mayans. The etch marks were likely made by a jeweler’s rotary wheel. Other tests revealed that the quartz came either from Brazil or Madagascar, not from Central America.
Then, it was the turn of the Mitchell-Hedges skull to get the once-over. Anna Mitchell-Hedges refused to allow physical examination of the skull she owned. After her death in 2008, the skull was subjected to tests and it too turned out to be of quite modern provenance.
And, speaking of provenance, Wash and her colleagues discovered that the earliest crystal skulls can be traced to the same source, Eugène Boban, who we met before. He likely had the skulls made in Germany and then palmed them off as genuine pre-Columbian artefacts.
Since Boban showed the way, others have jumped into the fake skull trade and they keep turning up with histories plausible enough to fool many. A lot of scoundrels have gone beyond the skull swindle and museum curators around the world now lose sleep, wondering if some of their prized exhibits are also bogus. Jane MacLaren Walsh is frequently called in to authenticate items and has to pass on the bad news that a treasured antique is a forgery.
- In 2017, a report revealed that, of the almost 2,000 objects in San Francisco’s Mexican Museum only 83 could be authenticated as genuinely pre-Colombian. The rest were either fake or could not be verified.
- The story has it that a Mayan family in Guatemala found a crystal skull in 1909. In 1991, it came into the possession of a Dutch woman called Joky van Dieten, who describes herself as a “spiritual adventurer.” The skull has since been dubbed “ET” after the extra terrestrial in the movie ET and is said to have arrived from the Pleiades star cluster 444 light years away. Ms. Van Dieten totes ET around the world to demonstrate its ability to cure ailments.
- SHA NA RA is a crystal quartz skull discovered in Mexico in 1995 through the application of “psychic archaeology.” Like all its colleagues it is claimed to possess amazing occult powers. Its current custodian is Michele Nocerino of Portland, Oregon. For a fee she will guide you to SHA NA RA’s ability to “open up resonate fields/portals into dream worlds, communicate knowledge, establish pathways to the unconscious, open portals to other dimensions, and as a tool to stimulate healing.”
- “Just the Facts.” Archaeology Magazine, 2010.
- “The Crystal Skull.” Currator’s Comments, British Museum, 1990.
- “Legend of the Crystal Skulls.” Jane MacLaren Walsh, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2008.
- “These Infamous Crystal Skulls Aren’t From Aztecs Or Aliens, But Just Victorian Hoax Artists.” Daniel Rennie, allthatsinteresting.com, October 30, 2019
- “How Crystal Skulls Work.” Shanna Freeman, science.howstuffworks.com, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 14, 2020:
I had read about these crystal sculls before, Rupert, but your article is interesting none the less. There are so many archaeological frauds out there. Thanks for sharing.