The British Museum Crystal SkullAdmin
The Crystal Skull
Department of Ethnography
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. This particular example in the collections of the Ethnography Department was acquired by the British Museum in 1897 and ever since has been the subject of much speculative interpretation.
What is it made of?
In the 1960s and again in the1990s scientists in the Department of Scientific Research at the British Museum, aided by Professor A. Rankin,of Kingston University, examined the skull to determine its origin and the techniques used in its manufacture. The material used is quartz crystal and careful study of the inclusions suggests that it is most likely to have originally come from quartz crystal deposits in Brazil.
How was it made?
The surface of the skull, examined under the microscope, presents a high polish and shows traces of fine regular grooves. These features indicate that it was shaped using a rotary drill and wheel in conjunction with a diamond abrasive.
How was it acquired?
According to the Museum records the crystal skull was acquired in 1897 from Tiffany and Co. of New York, through Mr G. F. Kunz. In an earlier publication Mr Kunz states that it was brought from Mexico by a Spanish officer before the French occupation. Sold to an English collector, it was acquired at his death by Eugène Boban, a French antiquity dealer, and later became the property of Tiffany and Co, NY. However new archival research by Jane M. Walsh, from the Smithsonian Institution, shows that its provenance is far from clear.
How old is it?
Some of the crystal skulls have been attributed to the work of Aztec, Mixtec or even Maya lapidaries. Others are said to be examples of colonial Mexican art, for use in churches, perhaps as bases for crucifixes.
Stone objects cannot be dated directly by the techniques available today. The skull was compared to a group of rock crystal objects that came from well-documented excavations in Mexico City and Oaxaca (Mexico) and experiments were carried out to study the marks left by modern and ancient tools. The extensive traces of the wheel on the skull and its high polish suggests that it was made in a workshop using traditional European techniques, and therefore after the arrival of Europeans in Mexico and Central America.
Rock crystal has been available from at least two sources in Brazil during the past century, but was unknown during the eighteenth century, save in the form of pebbles or boulders found in rivers. In the early nineteenth century large quantities of Brazilian rock crystal were shipped to Germany. Some evidence suggests that Boban could have acquired the crystal skull there. This would be consistent with the inferred Brazilian origin of the quartz from which the skull was made.
Who made it and for what purpose?
None of the known large skulls have come from a controlled and well documented excavation. During the second half of the nineteenth century interest in collecting ancient artifacts from Mexico was at its height. Large quantities of forgeries were produced at this time to supply the demand in the US and Europe, some of which made their way into museums and private collections. This may have been the case with this particular example.
- Walsh, J. M. Crystal skulls and other problems. In: Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian. A. Henderson and A.L Kaeppler (eds.) Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.
- Jones, M. The Limits of Expertise. In : Fake? The Art of Deception. London: BMP, 1990.
- Kunz, G.F. Gems and Precious Stones of North America. New York. pp. 285-6, 1890.
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Here is a duplication of the signs which are on a wall behind the British Museum Crystal Skull which is displayed within a glass case (see the final photo). This is the latest statements made by the Museum about their crystal skull and as you will read they believe this crystal skull is of recent manufacture of what we would call an "Old Crystal Skull".
In order to duplicate the signs we took photographs of each one and used Adobe Photoshop to make the sign appear as clear as possible. The photographs below for the signs are shown in the order they are presented.
Rock Crystal Skull
Late 19th century AD
It was originally thought to have
been Aztec, but recent research
proves it to be European.
Purchased from Tiffany and Co., New York
through Mr. G. F. Kunz Ethno 1898-1
(Ethno - is the Ethnology Department,
exhibited first in January of 1898)
The Museum calls its skull a fake meaning that the tool marks found on the surface are believed to have been done by modern carvers possibly in the 1800's as this skull is first reported to appear in the 1860's. But the museum has never tried to explain any of the stories of strange phenomena which has occurred around this crystal skull or why so many people are fascinated by it. One day perhaps this mystery will be resolved.
Part III and IV of the British Museum Report will come within next week, so stay tuned for our email - this is will including an interview with one of the Museum Experts and what happened to Joshua when he was allowed to touch the skull in 2003.
We hope you enjoyed our special report about the British Museum Crystal Skull,
in peace and light always,
Joshua & Katrina
your Crystal Skull Explorers
Photo Credit for the the British Museum pictures on this page, they were taken by Zane Bonara-Bell and Joshua Shapiro during his visit to the British Museum in June of 2009.