The Crystal Skull
What is it?
A life-size carving of a human skull made from a single block of rock
crystal (a clear, colourless variety of quartz). It was acquired by the
Museum in 1897 purporting to be an ancient Mexican object. However
scientific research conducted by the Museum has established that the skull
was most likely produced in the nineteenth century in Europe. As such the
object is not an authentic pre-Columbian artefact.
How did it enter the collection?
The skull was purchased by the Museum from Tiffany and Co, New York in 1897.
At the time of its purchase, the skull was said to have been brought from
Mexico by a Spanish officer before the French occupation (in 1863). It was
to an English collector and acquired at his death by Eugène Boban, a
French antiquities dealer, later becoming the property of Tiffany and Co.
The skull was exhibited for many years at the Museum of Mankind in
Piccadilly (which housed the British Museum’s Ethnographic collection), it
is currently on permanent display at the British Museum in the Wellcome
What scientific research has been undertaken?
The British Museum has examined the skull several times between 1950 and
1990. In 1996, a collaborative project focusing on the British Museum’s
skull and a skull in the collection of the Smithsonian Institute, Washington
DC was started. Contrary to popular belief, there are no satisfactory
scientific techniques which can be used to accurately establish when a stone
object was carved. Research has therefore focused on how the skulls were
carved, where the quartz originated from and what is known about the early
history of the skulls. Observations made with a binocular microscope and in
a scanning electron microscope show that the techniques used to carve the
skulls post date the ancient Aztec period. The tool marks on the skulls are
very different to those on ancient Mexican rock crystal objects, which were
carved by hand. The British Museum skull was extensively worked with
lathe-mounted rotary wheels (jeweller’s wheels), which were unknown in the
Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. The research also shows that
the large block of rock crystal suitable for the British Museum skull did
not come from a source within the ancient trade network of Mexico. It is
likely to have originated from a source in Brazil or Madagascar. The results
of this research have been published in the Journal of Archaeological
Science and are available online: Sax, M., Walsh, J.M., Freestone, I.C.,
Rankin, A.H. and Meeks, N.D., Journal of Archaeological Science (2008).
Do others exist?
There is a larger white quartz skull in the collection of the Smithsonian
Institution, Washington DC and a number of other large skulls in private
ownership. There are also a number of smaller rock crystal skulls. Rock
crystal skulls first began to surface in public and private collections,
during the second half of the nineteenth century, and an increasing number
of large and small quartz skulls have become known in recent decades, mostly
in private hands. However, no such skull has ever been reported from
well-documented official archaeological excavation. Archival research has,
in addition, produced a link between the British Museum’s skull and another
rock crystal skull (in the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris). Both skulls passed
through the hands of the French dealer Eugène Boban, raising suspicions
regarding their provenance.
Why were the skulls produced?
It is impossible to be sure why all the skulls were produced. Some may have
been produced to satisfy demands in the US and Europe in the nineteenth
century when interest in collecting Mexican material was at its height.
Others are said to be examples of colonial Mexican art, for use in churches,
perhaps as bases for crucifixes.
Are there any genuine Aztec crystal skulls?
It seems unlikely, since no quartz crystal skull has ever been found on any
of the many well-documented official archaeological excavations of ancient
Did the Aztecs make these kinds of objects?
Skulls and skull imagery featured in Aztec art at the time of the first
contact with the Spanish in 1519. They were worked by Aztec, Mixtec and even
Mayan craftsmen, and a human skull covered with turquoise mosaics is
displayed in the Mexican gallery of the British Museum. Skulls and skull
imagery also feature in architectural elements, carved in relief in basalt
or limestone, but objects of this kind were not produced in rock crystal or
Do they have special powers?
There are some who claim that crystal skulls have healing qualities, emit
energy, have the ability to convey vital information or are repositories of
ancient wisdom. Large quartz crystal skulls have generated great interest
and fascination since they began to surface in public and private
collections during the second half of the nineteenth century. The British
Museum views the skull in its collection as an enigmatic object of great
interest but with no supernatural properties.
What is the British Museum’s response to the new movie?
As entertainment the movie will surely appeal to the public, but it is very
much a work of fiction. We hope, however, that it will encourage visitors to
see the skull at the British Museum and to learn more about Aztec culture.
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