The Crystal Skull: Mystical, or Modern?

Is the crystal skull truly an ancient Mayan artifact with mysterious powers?

Filed under Aliens & UFOs, Ancient Mysteries, Paranormal

Skeptoid #98
April 29, 2008
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It was 1926 when Anna Mitchell-Hedges, adoptive daughter of British adventurer and author Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges, was something of a real life Lara Croft. She was crawling through an ancient Mayan temple in Belize, long ago wrecked by the ages and the ravages of the encroaching jungle. Beneath a crumbled altar, she unearthed perhaps the most curious artifact from the ancient world: A perfectly clear crystal skull, expertly carved, and immaculately preserved, and about two thirds the size of a real skull. For nearly 30 years the Mitchell-Hedges family kept the crystal skull a secret, until F.A. Mitchell-Hedges mentioned it briefly in his book Danger My Ally. In this book he said the skull was 3,600 years old, and was used by Mayan priests to strike people dead by the force of their own will. After her father's death, Anna took this so-called "Skull of Doom" on tour throughout the world, and its strange powers became well known. Arthur C. Clarke even used the Mitchell-Hedges skull as the logo for his television series Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World. The fourth Indiana Jones movie is about a crystal skull with mystical qualities, and furthers the theme originally proposed by Mitchell-Hedges that crystal skulls are alien in origin, coming from Atlantis or Roswell or some alien world. In fact, practically every reference to a crystal skull over the past 40 years or so has usually been specifically about the Mitchell-Hedges skull.

Some believers in mystical energy feel that the crystal skulls have a broad range of powers. They can be used to aid in divination, in healing, and even psychic communication. Others claim that they have refractive properties unlike other crystals. They are said to remain at exactly 70 degrees no matter what temperature they are exposed to. They possess spiritual auras that can be photographed. Some even speculate that when all the crystal skulls are brought together, it will bring about the end of the world.

Now, I'm reluctant to burst anyone's bubble, but before going further it's necessary to clear up a few misconceptions. The Mitchell-Hedges skull is not quite 3,600 years old, and Mitchell-Hedges found it a little closer to home than Belize. In fact, he bought it from Sydney Burney, a London art dealer, through a Sotheby's auction on October 15, 1943, as determined in hard black and white by investigator Joe Nickell and others. This explains why neither Mitchell-Hedges nor his daughter ever said anything about it following their alleged 1926 discovery. They had never heard of it, until they bought it 18 years later, and then invented their Mayan altar story.

So this Sydney Burney character, perhaps he was the one who actually found the skull in a Mayan ruin, and traced its history back to the Atlanteans? Well, there is additional hard evidence that Burney owned the skull as far back as 1933, because he wrote a letter about it to the American Museum of Natural History, which they still have. Three years later, the British anthropological journal Man published an article about Burney's skull, and this 1936 article remains the earliest known documentation of any crystal skull. (I've since received an 1887 New York Times article in which a paper was presented about a skull -- see next paragraph. -BD)

It seems clear, but has never been never proven, that Burney bought the skull from French collector Eugene Boban. The timing was right; the two men knew each other; and Boban is known to have sold at least two other crystal skulls about the same time Burney acquired his. If Mitchell-Hedges was the real Indiana Jones, Eugene Boban was the real Belloq. He was even French. And, like Belloq, he didn't actually go into the jungle tombs personally to acquire his artifacts. In Boban's case, he simple purchased them in bulk from the manufacturer. This time, the manufacturer was Germany's so-called "capital of the gemstone industry" Idar-Oberstein, a bucolic hamlet where artisans and craftsmen chip away at semi-precious stones in their workshops like so many Gepettos. In the 1870's, craftsmen in Idar-Oberstein made a large purchase of quartz crystals from Brazil, from which to make carvings. Nobody has ever found documented proof, but at about the time the Idar-Oberstein craftsmen were selling their cunningly carved art objects of Brazilian quartz, Eugene Boban left from there with at least three, and possibly as many as thirteen, freshly carved skulls made from Brazilian quartz. Any connection you choose to draw is purely speculative. According to documents found by Jane Walsh, a Smithsonian archivist, Boban sold one of his skulls to Tiffany's in New York City, which in turn sold it to the British Museum in 1897. Boban sold a second skull to a collector who then donated it to the Museum of Man in Paris. (An 1887 New York Times article describes the British Museum skull then in the hands of New York collector George H. Sisson, who had bought it from Eugene Boban. After this article, Sisson sold this skull to Tiffany's. -BD)

For decades, the British Museum and the Museum of Man displayed their crystal skulls with the provenances originally provided by Eugene Boban, which was that the skulls came from pre-Columbian Aztec origin. But then, in separate studies in the 1990's, both the British Museum and the Smithsonian examined a number of crystal skulls, including all of those in museum collections attributed to Eugene Boban. Analysis of the cut and polish marks by electron microscope proved that they were made using 19th century rotary cutting tools, identical to those in use in Idar-Oberstein at that time. The British Museum now lists their skull as "probably European, 19th century," and "not an authentic pre-Columbian artifact."

The Paris skull, also from Boban, was subjected to even better tests in 2008, confirming that its polishing was done using modern tools. In addition, particle accelerator tests found traces of water used during the cutting and polishing, occluded within the quartz, that positively dated the carving to between 1867 and 1886.

Neither the Mitchell-Hedges nor their skull's current owner, family friend Bill Homann, ever allowed the Mitchell-Hedges skull to be tested with modern equipment; nor have any of the owners of other famous crystal skulls like the one called Max in Texas. The privately owned skulls now confine themselves to touring to mysticism conventions, New Age hotbeds like Sedona, and charging for private viewings and sessions. So far as I've been able to find, no private crystal skull owner has ever allowed controlled tests of their claims of any mystical powers they say their skull has. If they'd like to, this is my personal guarantee to fast-track them to the James Randi Educational Foundation's million dollar prize.

There is enough of a gap in the early history of the Mitchell-Hedges skull that we cannot absolutely trace its lineage from the Idar-Oberstein workshops in the 1870's to the hands of Sydney Burney in 1933. Everything known about the skull is consistent with that history, and no evidence has ever been presented that the skull might have any other origin. There is the Mitchell-Hedges' own story of having found the skull in their pulp-fiction Mayan tomb adventure, but that story has been conclusively proven to be a fabrication by documentation from Sotheby's and Burney.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

All of this makes it rather difficult to form an opinion about the mystical powers of crystal skulls. If these powers are attributed to their Mayan, Atlantean, or alien origin, then that attribution is conclusively false, but that doesn't mean the mystical power itself doesn't exist. The first thing the claimants would need to do is articulate exactly what the supernatural power is, and then demonstrate it under controlled conditions. Neither of these has ever been done, so a truly critical analysis has nothing to advance it beyond a null hypothesis. And so there we have it: All known crystal skulls are of modern origin, with no unusual properties, and no coherent or testable claims of anything out of the ordinary. Indiana Jones might make great entertainment, but it makes poor archaelogical history.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Carroll, Robert Todd. The Skeptic's Dictionary. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003. 92, 93.

Craddock, Paul. Scientific Investigation of Copies, Fakes and Forgeries. Burlington, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2009. 414, 415.

Garvin, Richard. The Crystal Skull: The Story of the Mystery, Myth and Magic of the Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull Discovered in a Lost Mayan City During a Search for Atlantis. New York: Doubleday, 1973. 75-76.

Morrill, S. Ambrose Bierce, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges and the Crystal Skull. San Francisco: Cadleon Press, 1972.

Nickell, Joe. "Riddle of the Crystal Skulls." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Jul. 2006, Volume 30.4.

Walsh, J.M. "Legend of the Crystal Skulls." Archaeology. 1 May 2008, Volume 61, Number 3: 36-41.

Welfare, S., Fairley, J. Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World. New York: A&W Publishers, 1980.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Crystal Skull: Mystical, or Modern?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 29 Apr 2008. Web. 29 Jul 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4098>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 48 comments

I think that was a profoundly unfair response to Rob's June post.

Who said we cant reproduce or improve on a set of xtal skulls? Surely not a documentary -.

Remember there was one hell of a lot of guff presented as documentary and interpreted as some sort of statement.

people do it in skeptoid comments all the time.

What I do see here is something is being read into a documentary for presentation as some sort of argument.

What is being argued here is no reflection of truth, its just comparison..

Manki Drain, Big IL, USO
October 3, 2013 6:36pm

Eric, all that proved was that the current best skull maker wasn't as good as the previous. That's it. That's all it proved.

Hannah, Seoul
October 22, 2013 10:17pm

Sorry to reply so tardily, Eric.
I do not care, or have any respect for, what any TV documentary has to say about anything, since their remits are to give viewers 'wow' experiences, not to pursue serious research.
The skulls in question are, indeed, quite good, which is what you would expect from professionals whose business is to do carvings and who are the recipients of generations of expertise in this skill.
My point was that half-educated people are too easily seduced into believing lies ('these artifacts are beyond even contemporary human expertise' ... ho, hum, yadda yadda) NO THEY ARE NOT. They are pretty good examples of craft skills, and that's all. Contemporary technology can perform feats that would have been considered cray magic even a couple of generations ago.
Sorry, but If you are going to make 'judgments' on the basis of dumb-ass TV 'documentaries', I'm afraid there is no hope for you.

Rob Horne, Colombo, SL
November 16, 2013 2:30pm

Hey, Rob, what in the name of bob's big, blue, belly-button is "cray magic"??

Just wondering.

Gone bye-bye...

Mad Mac, Somewhere in Colorado, I think
January 21, 2014 7:49pm

It's a pity the Mitchell-Hedges skull has never been examined with modern equipement: it seems unlikely that it ever will until it passes into the hands of somebody who doesn't mind if it is a pre-Columbian era artifact or a post-McCarthy era doorstop.

It is exquisitely beautiful, a master's work of art. It is a celestial mystery and I wish I could pick it up and look into those eyes that never existed. It can never be exactly reproduced by any means ancient or modern because art has it's own life and it's own validity apart from the rest of creation.

Swampwitch, Gainesville Fl
January 22, 2014 10:11am

Sigh rob nice name calling and deflection but you failed to discount the point I made.

Lets recap.

It is claimed the hedges skull is a modern (in the last 100 years or so) creation.

A tv show trying to find the truth went to a PROFESSIONAL (aka EXPERT) skull maker (who has every advance tools and experience to use it available to him), gave him the EXACT dimensions and details of the hedges skull.
Then paid him to CREATE IT EXACTLY TO SPECS.

Then scientists checked it out and found that it simply DID NOT MATCH.

I listed a few of the glaring differences and how the hedges skull was better with (the key fact) NO TOOL MARKS.

Now you may try to say because a tv show did it the results have no credibility. WRONG

Does not matter if tv show, university or joe smuck paid for it to be done the FACT IS an expert, with every resource available to him and MOTIVATED to deliver FAILED and credible scientist CONFIRMED IT.

Sorry but maybe there are some things modern science may not be able to reproduce from the past this is PROVEN not one of them.

Unless you have some FACTS to prove otherwise they have shown (at the very least) that its a "modern made skull" is false.

Swampwitch it was examined in the 70's (without the owners knowlege) with the modern tech at the time and what was reported was beyond belief and was documented.

Hence the comparison of the test one above and failure.

Eric, Northern IL USA
January 30, 2014 1:58am

Eric - please skim through the episode again. The claim that it has no tool marks is the untested assertion of the owners - of course they're going to say that; just like a circus side show is going to tell you about their hybrid ape woman.

The other skulls Boban brought back along with it HAVE been tested, and were dated by the water occluded within the tool marks.

It would be awesome if the Mitchell Hedges skull had some magical origin - but although that it is our preferred explanation, the testable evidence shows otherwise.

Brian Dunning, Laguna Niguel
January 30, 2014 10:29am

Brian

My memory may be a little off but the show I refer to where they had a replica skull made.

That show was using the reports from IBM lab where the ORIGIONAL hedges skull was taken for tests.

As the show pointed out (also listed in the report from the scientists) that the owner HAD NO KNOWLEGE OR GIVEN ANY PERMISSION for this to be done.

It was the report of these scientist that gave the dimensions (something no one here or elsewhere has called into question), the clarity, the detail of polishing, the strange light patterns (as described almost computer like) when lights and lasers were passed though it, the details and (most importantly) LACK OF TOOL MARKS.

Note the lack of tool marks was especially puzzeling to the scientists because while they could not say some tools were used, but that what is KNOWN that was available to people from that time would have left distinct marks to trace to the tool.
Brian I am not saying that it is impossible it was man made or it is alien in nature.

But so far by even the fact we cannot duplicate it today gives weight to the theories of alien, alien help or (IMO more reasonable) by an advance civilization that current historical dogma says could not exist.

Eric, Northern IL USA
February 3, 2014 10:53pm

Not IBM, the skull was alleged tested by a Hewllet & Packard lab.

H&P has not a record of such test.

Marcos Dantas, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil
March 8, 2014 10:03am

Marcos I stand corrected.

I confused the two labs and thank you for pointing that out for accuracy. I want to be as accurate as I can and made a mistake.

Outside of saying the wrong lab the test they conducted (which I pointed out in other posts), the results they published (ex no tool marks, a high degree of polishing, and the strange glow they gave off to light and lazers) still stand.

Also the fact they conducted the tests WITHOUT knowledge or consent of the owner. This shows no "choosing a lab for persona bias" thus gives their results a bigger level of credibility.

On a sideline note for discussion.
A point has been made and mocked about it containing knowledge of other peoples/aliens/ect.

We today use crystals for communication and now developing high capacity storage mediums using crystal based technology.

Why would and advance civilization not use such a medium to store vast amounts of data but we being less advance and/or not use the same tech be unable to read it.

Just think about it this way you have one of our modern DVD disk with advance information on it.

But you give it to a society that only used books and had music wax cylinders.

Would they not react the same way we are?

Just food for thought/discussion

Eric, Northern IL USA
March 14, 2014 1:18am

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