The Legend of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull comes out later this week; it’s expected to make more than $300 million dollars, or roughly the entire salary of the 6000 or so members of the American Anthropological Association this year. The archaeologists don’t know quite whether to lament or to cheer, for Indiana Jones brings a spotlight to antiquities at the same time Dr. Jones highlights grave robbing and a romanticized view of a very patient science.

Lucky I’m not an archaeologist! So I get to talk about the fun stuff, like the crystal skulls. Hopefully I can get to whips and fedoras later.

Do Those Crystal Skulls Actually Exist?

Yes! The magazine Archaeology gives us the low-down. The crystal skulls first appeared in the 19th century, with claims about their Mesoamerican origins. But as the archaeologist Jane MacLaren Walsh reports, not one skull has come from a documented excavation and their overall style has little to do with traditional meso-American skull motifs (think of the Mexican Day of the Dead, with skulls with a more rectangular style rather than the smooth, fairly accurate style of the crystal skulls).

Jane MacLaren Walsh does a stand-out job taking us through the social history of the crystal skulls, brought to some prominence by the Frenchman Eugene Boban, seller of antiquities first in Mexico, then Paris and finally New York.

But the legend really came to prominence with Mike Mitchell-Hedges, a British adventurer and author of Danger My Ally (that title says it all, doesn’t it?). As one Amazon reviewer puts it, “Take it for what it is—tall tales from an egomaniac.” The other one is more generous, obviously recognizing a kindred spirit: “Since childhood the kid showed signs of detesting the classroom and the office, he was obviously inclined to fulfill his life purpose through exploration of remote primeval places, as far as he could get from his native London, England.” Egomaniac or explorer, Mitchell-Hayes now has quite a fancy website to add to his legend.

The skull that Mitchell-Hedges allegedly found on one of his Central American adventures is one that generally gets people hot and bothered. As the Archaeology story relates, “Known as the Skull of Doom, the Skull of Love, or simply the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, it is said to emit blue lights from its eyes, and has reputedly crashed computer hard drives.”

The Local Connection

Mitchell-Hedges adopted daughter kept the Doom & Love Skull for sixty years, occasionally bringing it out for display. Being in northern Indiana, you don’t expect any tie-in to Indiana Jones and crystal skulls, but Anna, the daughter, passed away last year. Who ended up with the skull? Bill Homann, a man in Chesterton, Indiana, about an hour from where I live.

So, this infamous skull ends up, as the local television reporter puts it, “in Bill Homann’s living room in rural Chesterton.” Turns out, Bill and Anna knew each other: “She was my teacher and my best friend and we always had a great time; and she trusted me because she knows I believe what she believes.”

Homann of course believes the skull is the real deal, created between 17,000 and 50,000 years ago and used by the Mayans in ancient rituals (he might check those dates… not a lot of people in meso-America around that time). Its powers? “The crystal has a vibration and it does something to the human body.”

Are They Real?

Unfortunately for believers local and far away, the crystal skulls are fake. Studies done by Jane MacLaren Walsh, author of the Archaeology story, focused on the lapidary marks left over from skulls’ making. The grooves and perforations on the skull all indicate modern tools, for example, rotary tools to make the indent lines to mark the teeth. Still, I rather like how MacLaren Walsh’s adds some sound cultural reasoning on the topic, the Aztecs “displayed the skulls of sacrificial victims on racks.” It was about quantity, not quality—real victims, not crystal skulls.

5 thoughts on “The Legend of the Crystal Skull

  1. Pingback: The Kingdom of Indy, Skullduggery and All « Neuroanthropology

  2. i keep imagining Cate Blanchett speaking English with a German accent in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull even though she’s supposed to be Russian

  3. Pingback: Months of the Year: Neuroanthropology 2008 « Neuroanthropology

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