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You Know those Aztec Crystal Skulls? They’re Fake.

March 9, 2013
A fake crystal Aztec skull

A fake crystal Aztec skull

They make for good Indiana Jones-type stories, but the ancient, “Aztec” crystal skulls in the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution are fake – it was all a hoax.  A new report from the British Museum details extensive analysis that concludes the skulls were not made by Aztecs.  In fact, based on chemical analysis: ” The Smithsonian crystal skull appears to have been made shortly before it was bought in Mexico City in 1960.”

According to the Museum’s press statement:

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.

[N]o quartz crystal skull has ever been found on any of the many well-documented official archaeological excavations of ancient sites.

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.

French antiquarian Eugène Boban with his collection of Mesoamerican artifacts at an 1867 Paris exposition. Among the objects on display were two crystal skulls. At his feet rest a pot and a battleaxe Boban exhibited as Aztec. Both are fakes. (Courtesy Jane Walsh/Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City)

French antiquarian Eugène Boban with his collection of Mesoamerican artifacts at an 1867 Paris exposition. Among the objects on display were two crystal skulls. At his feet rest a pot and a battleaxe Boban exhibited as Aztec. Both are fakes. (Courtesy Jane Walsh/Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City)

The Aztec crystal skull craze began in the 19th century, according to Archaeology Magazine:

Museums began collecting rock-crystal skulls during the second half of the nineteenth century, when no scientific archaeological excavations had been undertaken in Mexico and knowledge of real pre-Columbian artifacts was scarce. It was also a period that saw a burgeoning industry in faking pre-Columbian objects. When Smithsonian archaeologist W. H. Holmes visited Mexico City in 1884, he saw “relic shops” on every corner filled with fake ceramic vessels, whistles, and figurines. Two years later, Holmes warned about the abundance of fake pre-Columbian artifacts in museum collections in an article for the journal Science titled “The Trade in Spurious Mexican Antiquities.”

The first Mexican crystal skulls made their debut just before the 1863 French intervention, when Louis Napoleon’s army invaded the country and installed Maximilian von Hapsburg of Austria as emperor. Usually they are small, not taller than 1.5 inches. The earliest specimen seems to be a British Museum crystal skull about an inch high that may have been acquired in 1856 by British banker Henry Christy.

Two other examples were exhibited in 1867 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris as part of the collection of Eugène Boban, perhaps the most mysterious figure in the history of the crystal skulls. A Frenchman who served as the official “archaeologist” of the Mexican court of Maximilian, Boban was also a member of the French Scientific Commission in Mexico, whose work the Paris Exposition was designed to highlight.

As the British Museum study notes: “Eugène Boban … had previously also been involved in the sale of three other rock crystal skulls, one which is around 11 cm high and two small ones (which are less than five cm high), currently in the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris.”

The Aztec’s did create works using skull imagery, according to the Museum’s press statement:

“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.”

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