Museums’ Crystal Skulls Not All They’re Cracked Up To Be

Sometimes even the most crystal clear of things can be deceiving, or so a number of museums are learning. It turns out that many of the spookily enchanting crystal skulls, which have been attracting even more interest than usual in the wake of the new Indiana Jones film, are fakes—crafted not by Mesoamerican craftsmen but by, say, a few guys in Mexico City who were handy with a drill, circa 1960. The electron microscopy-assisted findings, some of them reported in a recent paper in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences, puts such institutions as the Smithsonian, the British Museum, and the Quai Branly Museum in Paris in the position of so many crestfallen Antiques Roadshow comers. According to an Agence France Presse report:

Sleuths pored over the archives of both [the Smithsonian and the British Museum], the Museum of Mankind in Paris, the French National Library, the Hispanic Society of America, and newspaper records in a bid to find where the skulls came from. The only documentation existing for the Smithsonian skull indicates it had been purchased in Mexico City in 1960. The scientists believe the skull was “probably manufactured shortly before it was purchased” there.

Meanwhile, the British Museum’s skull was traced to a shady French antiques collector who sold it at an 1886 auction to Tiffany & Co. The company’s then vice president later pitched it to the museum: he “recommended the purchase of ‘this remarkable object,’ sketched a past of colourful ownership, beginning with a Spanish soldier who had brought it back from Mexico, and quoting the opinion of others that the skull was of ancient Mexican origin but no one knew for sure.”