It’s 1924, and a group of British explorers are deep in the Belizean jungle. The humid air pastes the travelers’ shirts to their backs, and the whine of insects fills their ears. What’s more, after pushing their way through the rampant undergrowth, the team have come across the ruins of an ancient city – and decided to head inside. And it’s here, inside the remnants of a Mayan pyramid, that one member of the party discovers something that will make history: a glittering crystal skull.
The man who had organized this incredible trip was an avid explorer called Frederick Mitchell-Hedges. This writer and traveler first left Britain – his birthplace – soon after he had turned 16, when he visited Norway. And this seemed to spark a passion for adventure, as later in life the Englishman belonged to the British Museum’s Maya Committee and traveled across the globe. However, it’s Mitchell-Hedges’ 1924 expedition to Central America that most concerns us here.
It’s believed that the original purpose of this voyage was to search for the ruins of Atlantis. You see, Mitchell-Hedges thought the fabled civilization had actually once existed in Central America, and he was determined to find evidence of its lost city. To this end, he and a group of explorers ventured to British Honduras. And while they were there, it appears that the adventurers did stumble across the remains of an extinct culture – it just wasn’t the one that they were searching for.
Mitchell-Hedges and his party had apparently found the ruins of an ancient Mayan city called “Lubaatan,” or “The City of Fallen Stones.” When the team first came across the collapsed ancient metropolis, it was reportedly disguised by a thick layer of vegetation. So, it seems that the explorers burnt away the plant life – revealing the crumbling stones underneath. None of them, though, could have imagined what they would find inside.
You see, it appears that one of Lubaatan’s ruined pyramids housed a precious artifact. And it was Anna, Frederick’s own adopted daughter, who supposedly discovered the intriguing object, there under one of the temple’s altars. Incredibly, buried in the soil was a preserved model cranium that had been carved from a solitary slab of pellucid quartz.
The artifact was – and is – a near-perfect representation of a human skull. Weighing just under 12 pounds, it measures 5 inches in both height and width, with a length of around 7 inches. And it’s these diminutive proportions that have caused experts to believe that the object was probably modeled on a woman’s skull.
Either way, though, when Anna first supposedly brought the skull out of the temple, she could hardly have imagined the reaction that the locals would have to it. After all, it’s reported that the Mayan workers were overjoyed when they saw what Anna was carrying. They began dancing and weeping, we’re told. So it appeared that they knew the identity of the object.
One of the reasons why the locals were seemingly so familiar with the skull could be that this type of imagery had been prevalent in Aztec society. In fact, when the Spanish initially encountered these Mesoamerican peoples in the early 16th century, such macabre motifs were commonplace. For example, depictions of skulls were regularly seen on buildings and in artworks.
But why were the Aztecs so obsessed with skull imagery? Well, according to Professor Michael Smith, an Arizona State University anthropologist, skulls were “a symbol of regeneration.” In an interview with the National Geographic, the expert went on to say, “There were several Aztec gods that were represented by skulls, so they were probably invoking these gods.” However, there are no records of crystal or quartz skulls having been discovered prior Anna’s momentous alleged find.
Now given the fact that the quartz skull was apparently the first of its kind ever to be found, you’d rather expect Mitchell-Hedges to have shown off the artifact almost as soon as he returned to England. And yet the explorer seemingly didn’t reveal Anna’s discovery to the public for decades. In fact, it wasn’t until his autobiography, Danger My Ally, was published in 1954 that the globetrotter formally announced the skull’s existence. It appeared that something ominous had happened in the intervening years, however – for he now referred to the crystal object as the “Skull of Doom.”
According to Mitchell-Hedges the artifact had earned this moniker because it had been the focal point of many supernatural goings-on. And these supposed paranormal powers seemed to arise when people mocked the skull. He wrote that “several people who have cynically laughed at it have died, [whereas] others have been stricken and become seriously ill.”
Moreover, it wasn’t only Frederick who claimed that the skull had supernatural qualities. His daughter, Anna, also referenced these alleged properties during the many speaking engagements and television appearances that she undertook across the globe following her father’s passing. For instance, Anna told audiences that she had been informed by Honduran locals that the crystal object could help its owner to “will death.”
In fact, even until the end Anna seemingly remained convinced of the skull’s supernatural capacity. She credited its “healing power” as the reason why she had reached the ripe old age of 100, for instance. The former explorer also maintained that the skull had kept her body invigorated and her mind in good spirits ever since its discovery. And she wasn’t alone, it seems, in believing in the skull’s paranormal potential.
Yes, other people have also claimed that they could corroborate Anna’s outlandish statements. While she was still alive, she received correspondence from a number of individuals who had visited her to witness the mysterious object firsthand. And in these letters, some correspondents reported that they’d also been healed by the skull or had even been able to converse with it.
Moreover, some of these believers went further still and said they’d heard noises or seen visions while in the skull’s vicinity. Reports ranged from perceiving a gentle aura around the crystal to seeing projections, within the object itself, of events that were either ancient or had not yet come to pass. And it’s one of these alleged apparitions that’s perhaps the most bizarre of all the tales told about the skull. A number of visitors purport, you see, to have seen a three-dimensional representation of a flying saucer inside the quartz.
The Mitchell-Hedges skull isn’t alone in possessing these paranormal associations, either. There are potentially as many as 12 crystal skulls dotted across the Earth, in fact, housed in various public and private collections. Yet although these crystalline objects differ in their superficial attributes – they all vary in their proportions, for instance – similar spooky stories are told about many of them.
For example, another crystal skull, known as “Max,” supposedly boasts some impressive psychic abilities. The object is currently owned by Joann Parks, a Texan native with quite a story to tell. Parks was first introduced to Max in 1978, when she asked for the assistance of the skull’s then-owner, an alternative medicine man called Norbu Chen. At the time, it should be noted, Parks’ daughter was terminally ill and had been told that she’d only be alive for another 90 or so days. But allegedly, with Chen and Max’s help, Parks’ daughter defied this prognosis and survived for several years.
Now as well as citing the skull’s supposed healing abilities, Parks also claims that it has other powers. For instance, the Texan says Max has a particular skill that it shares with the Mitchell-Hedges skull: it can communicate with her. This all apparently began when the crystal kept showing itself to her while she was sleeping. And in an interview with the magazine New Dawn, Parks stated that it then progressed to regularly “speaking to her.” In fact, that’s how it came by its name: Parks claims the skull told her in one of these conversations that it prefers to be known as Max.
Yet it isn’t only private collectors who own crystal skulls. In Europe, for example, two famous museums currently boast a skull each. London’s British Museum is host to one, while Paris’ Trocadero Museum houses another. And the two artifacts could nearly be twins owing to the fact that they’re almost identical in their proportions.
But all of this begs the following question: what do people believe these apparently paranormal objects are for? Well, the skulls are all reportedly referenced in what some believe to be a Native American prophecy. And something profound is meant to happen when all 13 of the crystalline objects are brought back together.
According to this legend, the skulls each hold certain secrets relating to the big metaphysical questions that have consumed humanity for millennia. And part of this wisdom apparently involves the crystal objects having been privy to lost information about how humans lived in the past. But that isn’t all; the artifacts are also meant to know our ultimate raison d’être as a species.
When all the skulls come together again, they will, we’re told, share their secrets with humanity. And yet once this happens, it will likely spell trouble: apparently, we’ll need the skulls’ insights if we want to continue as a species. The myth also warns that humans must be spiritually and ethically ready to process this divine information when it’s revealed to us – lest we misuse it.
This isn’t the only version of the prophecy, though. The Cherokee tribe have also been credited with having their own variant. And according to this rendition, Earth hasn’t been our only home in the universe. Instead, so we’re informed, there are 12 planets that at some point have been thronging with human life, and each of these planets was previously host to one of the crystal skulls. The 13th skull, by contrast, supposedly has no set home – but it will be the key to eventually bringing humanity together.
What’s more, people have, over the years, come up with alternative origin theories – and each one is often wilder than the last. One school of thought has it, for instance, that the skulls were forged by the people of Atlantis before the island sank below the waves. Others believe that the objects are the work of aliens.
So with such bizarre theories circulating about the skulls, it’s not surprising that some experts have doubted the artifacts’ legitimacy. The British Museum skull, for instance, was studied on numerous occasions over a period of decades. But it was in 1992 that the truth finally began to come out – and it didn’t bode well for believers.
How so? Because it was in this year that the Smithsonian Institute suddenly found themselves the new owners of a crystal skull. And yet officials there had no idea who had sent the milk-colored object to the building. All they had to go on, in fact, was a mysterious note that had arrived with it.
The letter read, “This Aztec skull… was purchased in Mexico in 1960.” So, was this skull not the stuff of legend at all – and could it help uncover the truth about the others? Jane McLaren Walsh, one of the institute’s Mexican archaeology specialists, set about looking for answers.
Walsh had quite a task ahead of her, too. After all, apart from being privy to the aforementioned note, she had very little information at her disposal. She therefore began by charting similarities between this mysterious skull and those in London and Paris. And yet at some point during her research, Walsh found damning evidence that strongly suggested the objects were fakes.
You see, in the 19th century both of the European museums’ skulls had been associated with one Eugene Boban. Boban was a Gallic antiques specialist and hobby archaeologist who had a particular interest in Aztec finds. Indeed, he regularly went on trips to Mexico to acquire Mesoamerican goods – although what the dealer brought back wasn’t always legitimate.
But while Boban had owned the skulls at one point, he wasn’t the person who’d sold the skulls to the museums. Instead, they had changed hands multiple times: the British Museum, for instance, acquired their crystal skull from the jewelry shop Tiffany & Co in 1898. The jewelers, for their part, had purchased the object from Boban himself – and yet they weren’t the buyers whom he’d initially had in mind. No, he’d originally tried to convince the National Museum of Mexico to take the object – but to no avail.
So, Walsh had already established a strong connection between a dealer known for counterfeit goods and the two European skulls. And she then used empirical methods to attempt to find out more about all three skulls’ origins. In 1996, then, experts from the Smithsonian and the British Museum analyzed their respective crystal skulls to try and finally discover the truth about the objects’ real origins.
This was made more complicated, however, because the researchers couldn’t use one of the most popular tools in the archaeologist’s arsenal – radiocarbon dating – due to the fact that it’s ineffective for quartz. And yet the archaeologists had a plan. Instead, they used powerful microscopes to examine the carving methods, evidence of which was present on the surface of both skulls.
So it was that the experts compared the exteriors of the British and Smithsonian skulls with an authentic pre-Columbian quartz chalice. Yet they found more differences than similarities. In particular, whereas the skulls had uniform markings, the scratchings on the surface of the goblet were uneven. And while the latter strongly suggested that the cup had been constructed by hand, the neat markings on the skulls were indicative of the work of a rotary wheel. Damningly, moreover, such a wheel wasn’t used in the region where the skulls had allegedly been found until after the collapse of the Aztec empire.
The archaeologists subsequently employed raman spectroscopic analysis to find out where the quartz had originally come from. As a result, by examining the flaws within the skulls, the team determined that the crystal was native to Madagascar or Brazil – a very far cry from Mexico. And the fact that these nations had been exporting quartz to Boban’s home country when he was known to be selling fakes was another nail in the coffin.
In fact, in another investigation helmed by the British Museum, scientists discovered that many of the skulls actually hailed from a region of Germany – not from the Americas at all. And towards the end of the 19th century, when Boban had been touting his crystal wares, this part of the world was renowned for its complex crystal and quartz creations.
So with all of this evidence, the museums found that the skulls they’d tested were simply too new to be genuine products of a Mesoamerican civilization. They certainly weren’t Atlantean, either – nor alien, for that matter. But could the most famous of the crystals – the Mitchell-Hedges skull – be real?
Well, the truth was far less thrilling than the tale of derring-do that Mitchell-Hedges had relayed all those years ago. How so? Because the skull had actually made its first documented appearance in the British publication Man, in 1936, as the “Burney skull.” And it hadn’t gained this name in remembrance of an exotic adventure, either. Rather, it was a homage to the object’s previous owner: Sydney Burney – an art dealer from the British capital. The abandoned altar, the skull’s grand discovery in Lubaantun – it was seemingly all a lie.
But the final proof was yet to come. In early 2008 Walsh subjected the skull to empirical tests and concluded that it was also much newer than the Mitchell-Hedgeses had claimed. In fact, Walsh said the crystal object was so similar in proportion to the skull at the British Museum that it could have been made as its duplicate. The truth was out, then – but some people nonetheless still clung on to the legend.
Yes, to this day, certain individuals remain convinced that the skulls are certifiable archaic artifacts. Some of these theorists claim, for instance, that other skulls, including Max, were also examined by the British Museum. But rather than release the results of this study, Walsh allegedly replied “no comment” when asked about the findings.
And yet despite the beliefs of these individuals, it’s most likely that the skulls were in fact fraudulent. Indeed, it appears that the artifacts were as genuine as the titular prop used in the 2008 flick Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. At least, though, the story of the unraveling of this elaborate hoax remains exciting in itself.