General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 29 Nov 2020/5 Flower
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‘The Man Who Invented Aztec Crystal Skulls’
‘The Man Who Invented Aztec Crystal Skulls’
Read Jane Walsh’s superb study of the adventures of Eugène Boban (2019)
Rock crystal skull, British Museum

‘Aztec’ crystal skulls

For decades the famous crystal skull in the Museum of Mankind in London was (right up until the 1980s) believed by many to be, and indeed labelled, ‘probably Aztec’ - and some thought it also possessed healing and other mysterious powers, including that of moving around within its glass cabinet on the first floor of the Museum at night (we worked with museum wardens at the time who told us!). But all that has changed, and most experts now think it’s a 19th. century ‘fake’*, made in Europe. Its current home is the Americas section of the main British Museum... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Rock crystal skull, British Museum
Rock crystal skull, British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

According to many mystics an ancient North American legend tells of 13 crystal skulls - some still to be discovered - which share information about the origins and destiny of humankind. One day, it’s said, at a time of great need, all the crystal skulls would be rediscovered and brought together to reveal their message for humanity. The fact that the Aztecs believed in 13 planes of ‘heaven’, and that they produced precious crystal ornaments seemed to add weight to the idea that the crystal skulls could be genuinely ‘ancient’.

Crystal skull alongside a modern Mexican papier maché sull
Crystal skull alongside a modern Mexican papier maché sull (Click on image to enlarge)

The most celebrated of those so far ‘discovered’ is the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, unearthed in Belize in 1927: you can read its story by following the ‘Skull of Doom’ link, below. Famously this skull was analyzed by a team in the crystal laboratories of the computer company Hewlett-Packard in California in 1970: it was shown to have come from a single large block of natural and very pure rock crystal; its owner at the time claimed that it had been carved and rubbed entirely by hand in a process spanning ‘300 man-years of effort’. We now know, however, that Mitchell-Hedges claimed this after he purchased it at auction in 1943 from Sotheby’s in London, and he was a master of tall tales.

Eugène Boban, main French dealer in pre-Columbian artifacts during the second half of the 19th century and probable source of many famous skulls
Eugène Boban, main French dealer in pre-Columbian artifacts during the second half of the 19th century and probable source of many famous skulls (Click on image to enlarge)

In tests performed at the British Museum (and filmed by the BBC) in 1996, the background to the Museum’s own crystal skull proved less exotic, however: traces of (jewellers’) wheel markings on the teeth suggested it was manufactured with modern tools, out of Brazilian quartz. This appears to confirm the suspicions of many scholars that the skull - bought by the Museum in 1897 for some $900 from Tiffany & Co. in New York - was, like a similar one in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, a fake that had come through the hands of one Eugène Boban, a dealer in (sometimes fake) antiquities who nearly succeeded in selling the same one now in the BM to the National Museum of Mexico in the 1880s for $3,000.

Plate 26, Codex Borgia (from the ADEVA facsimile): the five directions with (deceased) deities and 20 day signs in the underworld. The human skull represents the central direction
Plate 26, Codex Borgia (from the ADEVA facsimile): the five directions with (deceased) deities and 20 day signs in the underworld. The human skull represents the central direction (Click on image to enlarge)
Margaret Sax presents the results of scientific tests on the skull in the British Museum
Margaret Sax presents the results of scientific tests on the skull in the British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

2007 Update: On August 16th. 2007, Margaret Sax, a Special Assistant in the BM Conservation Department, gave a Gallery Talk on the crystal skull, presenting fresh archival and scientific research on the story. The main conclusions?
• The standard of carving on the skull is not particularly high at all
• Recent tests using scanning electron microscopy reveal that the teeth and mouth were definitely cut with a (metal) wheel charged with an abrasive (and it’s very likely the face was too)
• Though we know that hand drills were used in pre-Columbian times, there’s no evidence at all that wheels were employed
• It’s highly probably that the skull was carved with a 19th century German lathe
• Rock crystal from Brazil - which became popular in Germany for carving crystal balls and other ephemera - only became available in the quantities/sizes needed to carve this skull around 1875
• Boban obtained the skull, probably in Europe, between 1878 and 1881
• He was denounced in Mexico when he tried to sell the skull to the National Museum (see above) and had to flee to the USA...

The BM still needs to identify categorically the source of the rock crystal, thought to be from Brazil
The BM still needs to identify categorically the source of the rock crystal, thought to be from Brazil (Click on image to enlarge)

*Strictly it can’t really be called a fake because there are no real Aztec crystal skulls, at least none that have been excavated by archaeologists.

Note: Serious readers should search for the Journal of Archaeological Science and track down the article by Margaret Sax, Jane Walsh and others (7 May 2008). We’re happy to send you a copy by email, on request.

Special thanks to Jane Walsh (member of our Panel of Experts) for her help and guidance with this article - updated July 2020.

More on the 13 Aztec ‘heavens’

‘The Skull of Doom’ by Jane Maclaren Walsh, Archaeology Magazine May 27, 2010
‘The Fourth Skull: A Tale of Authenticity and Fraud’ by Jane Maclaren Walsh and David R. Hunt (2013)
‘Crystal Skull’ (Wikipedia entry)
‘Sugar skulls and sacrifice’ - Damien Hirst and Mexico’s death culture
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