Two allegedly pre-Columbian crystal skulls turn out to be counterfeits
Welcome to this summer’s scientific blockbuster, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skullduggery.” In his latest cinematic adventure, the bullwhip-cracking Jones chases down an ancient skull carved out of crystal that contains supernatural powers.
But a new analysis of two actual crystal skulls — skulls
carved out of a type of quartz rock — fingers the artifacts as forgeries. The
supposed treasures have been attributed to either the Aztecs or a related
pre-Columbian society in
One of the two life-size carvings was purchased in 1897 by
A team led by Walsh and
Like all other crystal skulls, the
The team studied molds of the tool marks on each artifact. The molds were impressed onto a special silicone wax and studied at high magnification in a scanning electron microscope.
The goblet and beads exhibit shallow, irregular indentations consistent with the use of stone and wood tools tipped with an especially hard material, such as almandine garnet or corundum.
In contrast, both crystal skulls display deep, regular incisions
indicating that they were carved with rotary wheels. The makers of the
Also, close examination of the Smithsonian skull revealed traces of a modern synthetic abrasive.
Analyses of the composition of rock used for the British
skull suggest that it came from
Archival research conducted by Walsh revealed that the
Boban sold at least five crystal skulls to various museums worldwide.
The Smithsonian crystal skull also bears telltale microscopic
signs of having been wheel-cut. It was probably made shortly before its sale to
a private collector in
Walsh suspects that several small crystal skulls now held in
museums, each no larger than a fist, were made in
Unpublished microscopic analyses of a few small crystal skulls brought to the Smithsonian have also yielded evidence of wheel-carving. “Every crystal skull we’ve studied so far is modern in origin,” Walsh says. “It’s reasonable to think that the rest are as well.”
Archaeologist and Aztec researcher Michael E. Smith of
These skulls fit with what’s known about Aztec skull depictions in artwork, he notes. Rock crystal objects recovered at Aztec sites include lip plugs and beads.
Most crystal skulls exhibit styles reminiscent of European traditions of skull art, Walsh responds. Some small crystal skulls probably started out as pre-Columbian beads and were carved into their present shape for sale in the late 19th century, in her view.
French researchers are now applying microscopic analyses, as
well as advanced dating techniques, to three crystal skulls held in European
museums. One of those skulls is now on exhibit in
Indiana Jones and his real-life counterparts may never look at crystal skulls the same way again.
Sax, M., J.M. Walsh, et al. In oress. The origin of two purportedly pre-Columbian Mexican crystal skulls," Journal of Archaeological Science. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.05.007