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Riddle of the Crystal Skulls

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 30.4, July / August 2006

Here and there around the world are found mysterious artifacts, crystal skulls that many New Age enthusiasts believe possess mystical powers. Now new claims—and new reviews of the evidence—spark further controversy. What is the truth about these remarkable objects?

“Skull of Doom”

Perhaps the most famous of the artifacts—dubbed “the weirdest gem in the world” (Welfare and Fairley 1980, 51) and “the granddaddy of all crystal balls” (Garvin 1973, 6)—is the one commonly known as the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull. It is referred to as “the Skull of Doom” by those who believe it holds the power of death over anyone who would mock it (Nickell 1988, 30).

Fashioned from a single block of natural rock crystal (massive clear quartz) although its lower jaw detaches, it weighs 11 pounds 7 ounces. It allegedly first came to light in 1927 (or 1926 or 1924) during the excavation of a lost Mayan citadel in Belize (then British Honduras). The adventurer F.A. Mitchell-Hedges participated in the work, and it was supposedly his young adopted daughter, Anna, who found it under an altar of the ruined city of Lubaantun (from the Mayan word for “place of fallen stones”). (See figure 1.)

Mitchell-Hedges mentioned the skull in the first edition of his auto-biography, Danger My Ally (1954), yet did not specify where or by whom it had been found. He merely published a photograph of what he called “the sinister Skull of Doom,” stating in his customarily glib fashion: “It is at least 3,600 years old and according to legend was used by the High Priest of the Maya when performing esoteric rites. It is said that when he willed death with the help of the skull, death invariably followed.” Of the skull’s provenance, Mitchell-Hedges said only that “How it came into my possession I have reason for not revealing.” As if that were not mysterious enough, later editions of Danger My Ally omitted all references to the skull, an action which the publishers disclaimed knowledge of.

To answer the many questions posed by the crystal skull—specifically, Did Anna Mitchell-Hedges indeed find it at Lubaantun or, if not, where did it come from? and, Does the skull actually have the mystical powers ascribed to it?—I began an investigation with my forensic colleague John F. Fischer that ran from 1982 to 1984. We obtained as much data on the skull as possible: we combed through old newspaper records; corresponded with major museums and laboratories; consulted distinguished experts; amassed information on the Maya, on rock crystal, on the skull motif in art; and sought out those who had examined the skull, as well as Anna Mitchell-Hedges herself.

So far as is known, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges—a habitual liar and faker (Nickell 1988, 38; McConnell 1998)—made no reference to the skull at the time of his return from Lubaantun or in the years immediately following. In the 1930s he wrote newspaper articles and a book that discussed Lubaantun at length, but omitted the “Skull of Doom” in favor of relatively humble figurines.

Evidence Uncovered

In fact, as we discovered, the earliest published reference to the celebrated skull—the July 1936 issue of Man (a British anthropological journal)—makes no reference to the adventurer. Instead the skull was described as “in the possession of Mr. Sydney Burney,” a London art dealer (Morant 1936, 105).

Moreover, there is documentary evidence that Mitchell-Hedges bought the skull in 1944 from Burney, who was said to have owned it for the preceding ten years (Morrill 1972, 28; Welfare and Fairley 1980, 53). Anna Mitchell-Hedges has attempted to rationalize this damning evidence by claiming—in a letter to me—that her father had left the skull with Burney “as security for a loan to finance an expedition” (Mitchell-Hedges 1983).

Asked if she had any record—such as a letter or newspaper clipping—that might help establish her father’s prior ownership of the skull, Anna Mitchell-Hedges (1983) replied that she had “no documentary evidence” but added, “all my father’s papers were lost in Hatteras during a cyclone—photographs and all—also a trunk of his belongings was lost in Plymouth.” Be that as it may, none of those who were actually at Lubaantun ever mentioned Anna being at the site or the skull being discovered there (Nickell 1988, 35–36).

Subsequently, a letter surfaced that further discredits Anna Mitchell-Hedges’s claim that she discovered the crystal skull at Lubaantun. Written by Sydney Burney to George Vaillant of the American Museum of Natural History, it makes clear that Burney had the skull at that time (March 21, 1933), and that he had indeed “bought it” from an unnamed collector (Burney 1933).

Clearly F.A. Mitchell-Hedges’s crystal skull did not come from Lubaantun, but he acquired it later from Burney. This might explain why references to the skull were deleted from subsequent editions of Danger My Ally. No doubt in 1954 (some three years after Sydney Burney’s death) there were persons who could recall Burney’s prior ownership of the skull and its sale to Mitchell-Hedges. Might not such a person have threatened to expose the deceiver?

We had hoped to conduct an examination of the skull in anticipation of learning more about its origins, and we had contacted various experts—including famed microanalyst Walter C. McCrone—about additional analyses that might be performed. Disappointingly, however, Anna Mitchell-Hedges (1973) refused. Nevertheless, we learned that, contrary to assertions that the skull lacked any evidence of modern workmanship, there were “traces of mechanical grinding” on the teeth (Dorland 1973) and holes, intended for support pegs, that were drilled by metal (Hammond 1983).

Further Claims

There remained many fanciful assertions about the skull. In his autobiography, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges (1954) described the “Skull of Doom” as “dating back at least 3,600 years, and taking about 150 years to rub down with sand”; the rock crystal, he exaggerated, was “nearly as hard as diamond.” He said further of the skull: “It is stated in legend that it was used by a high priest of the Maya to concentrate on and will death. It is said to be the embodiment of all evil; several people who have cynically laughed at it have died, others have been stricken and become seriously ill.” Or so “it is said.” Richard M. Garvin, author of The Crystal Skull (1973, 100), concluded: “. . .the claims that the crystal skull has caused or can cause death should most likely be filed right next to the curses of old King Tut.”

Other claims about the skull also failed to survive scrutiny. One was that it remained at a constant temperature of 70° Fahrenheit regardless of the temperature it was subjected to. In fact, the skull was no different in its physical properties from other natural quartz crystals, according to California art expert Frank Dorland (1983).

Mystical properties of the skull—perceived sounds of silver bells and images such as faces—are probably only what Garvin (1973, 100) terms “the result of intense concentration and meditation.”

Less in touch with reality is the approach of one Joshua Shapiro, who, with others, has had channeling sessions to seek psychic impressions from the crystal artifact. These led him to opine that it was an “ancient computer” storing messages for humanity. Instead of a Mayan origin, he posits that the skull could be from a lost civilization or even some extraterrestrial site (Hunter 2005).

Closer to earth, at age ninety-eight Anna Mitchell-Hedges told reporter Colin Hunter (2005) that the skull was the secret to her longevity. Hunter had made a pilgrimage to visit her at a friend’s home in Indiana. She stuck to her story about having found the skull at Lubaantun, although continuing to give conflicting versions of the facts. Hunter’s investigative report reviewed my findings and essentially substantiated and augmented them.

As to the true origin of the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull, there is little evidence beyond the object itself, the meager historical record, and some similar rock crystal skulls in museums and private collections.

Additional Skulls

Various other crystal skulls exist, ranging from as small as an inch in width to a half-life-sized one in the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris and other life-sized examples, notably one in the British Museum. They are generally classified as Aztec, but there are doubts that any of them are pre-Colombian, according to Gordon F. Ekholm (1983), an anthropologist from the American Museum of Natural History.

At least one, the British Museum skull, has recently been scientifically examined. Although fashioned in a single piece and having more stylized, circular eye sockets than the Mitchell-Hedges skull, it nevertheless looks remarkably like it (Nickell 1988).

Ian Freestone, former head of the museum’s scientific research and now a professor at the University of Wales, led a museum team that conducted the examination. The scientists used dental resin to obtain casts of the skull’s surface, then studied them with a scanning electron microscope. According to professor Freestone: “It does appear that in some areas of the skull they have used a rotary tool, and as far as we know that sort of technique was only introduced after the Europeans came to the Americas, so it’s post-Columbus.” He also observed that the type of rock crystal used has never been found in Mexico, the domain of the Aztecs.

The evidence led Freestone to conclude that the skull was likely a fake, apparently fashioned from a lump of rather poor quality Brazilian crystal. The great gem’s cutting and polishing was probably done by a lapidary in nineteenth-century Europe, perhaps Germany, who used a rotating wheel like those common to the jewelry houses of that place and time (Pennink 2005; Connor 2005).

In recent years, yet another skull—dubbed “Max,” the Texas Crystal Skull—has surfaced. It is billed as the “largest ancient crystal skull,” and is reputed to be up to 36,000 years old. However, despite the allegation that it was “found in a tomb in Guatemala between 1924 and 1926” (“Max” 2005), there appears to be no documentation of that claim. Rather, the skull’s owner, a JoAnn Parks of Houston, reportedly received the skull from one Norbu Chen, a “Tibetan Healer” whom she met in 1973. Before his death he gave her and her husband the artifact which they kept in a closet from 1980 to June 1987, while “Max” talked to her in her dreams. Then, seeing a television program on UFOs that featured the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull, they began to publicize Max.

According to Parks, Max says he comes both “from Pleiades” (a group of stars in the constellation Taurus) and “Atlantis” (the mythical continent). Parks adds: “He is a gift to mankind. He’s here as a teacher, and as a tool, to bring people together as a Oneness. . . . He seems to open up an energy in the mind. . . . People pick up visions of the past, of other planets and some are creatively inspired. They feel healing . . .” (Max 2005).

Toward a Solution

Interestingly, Jane Walsh, an archivist at the Smithsonian Institution, has uncovered documents showing that at least two of the crystal skulls were sold by the same man, a French collector of pre-Columbian artifacts named Eugene Boban. The British Museum purchased its skull in 1897 from Tiffany’s, the New York jeweler, which in turn had bought it from Boban. (Boban had earlier attempted to sell it to the Smithsonian.) And the skull at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris was donated by a collector who likewise purchased it from Boban (Connor 2005).

From what we know, it is conceivable that the Mitchell-Hedges skull was also sold by Boban. Putting aside the discredited claim that it was discovered at Lubaantun, the skull’s provenance traces back to Sydney Burney who owned it as early as 1933. He wrote that it was “for several years in the possession of the collector from whom I bought it and he in his turn had it from an Englishman in whose collection it had been also for several years” (Burney 1933). But where did the English collector get it?

A possible source for many of the crystal skulls was the renowned gemstone center of Idar and Oberstein in Germany. The area underwent a resurgence in the 1870s with the shipment of quartz crystals from Brazil. Those were carved into various objects—including “even a few crystal skulls”—by the region’s skilled artisans. (See Max 2005, which displays a modern example; see also Kunz 1913, 54.)

New Agers assert that, according to “prophecy,” one day thirteen authentic ancient crystal skulls—all reputedly from Mexico or Central America—will be brought together and, by uniting people of all races, will heal the earth (Max 2001; Smoker 1995). Yet none of the famous skulls appears to be pre-Columbian, and all may, in fact, be European forgeries.

The chief power of the skulls seems to be that of attracting the credulous, including some with fantasy-prone personalities, and transporting them to a mystical realm from which they return with addled senses. It seems likely that further revelations about the crystal skulls will best come, not from channeling sessions, but from science and scholarship.

Acknowledgments

The portion of this article regarding the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull is largely abridged from my book Secrets of the Supernatural (Nickell 1988). Also, once again I am indebted to Timothy Binga, Director of the Center for Inquiry Libraries, and Vaughn Rees for research assistance.

References

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.