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The Crystal Skull - British Museum

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 sold 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 Trust Gallery.

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 sites.

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 white quartz.

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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