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The Controversial Crystal Skulls Part I:
The British Museum Skull

by Mark Chorvinsky

There are two known life-size crystal skulls. If you have read about "the crystal skull" you are most likely familiar with tales of the so-called Mitchell-Hedges Skull, but if you have seen "the crystal skull" on television, odds are that you have seen a different skull entirely, one which is in the collection of the British Museum in London.

In 1937 an article appeared in the British journal Man comparing the only two known life-size skulls made of quartz crystal.1 One of these skulls has become quite famous as a superstar of strange artifacts. The other has lurked nervously in its shadow. Very little has been written about the British Museum skull since the 1937 piece. The book The Crystal Skull2 mentioned the British Museum skull but the title "character" of the book was the "Mitchell-Hedges Skull". The "M-H" skull has a wide range of anomalous phenomena associated with it. It is said by some to be a 12,000 year-old survivor of Atlantis — an oracle of great magnitude — and has been known as "The Skull of Doom" due to a curse that is alleged to be attached to it. These claims and others will be examined in the second part of this article.

Before my recent discussion with the curator at the Museum of Mankind, only one phenomenon had been associated with the British Museum skull — it is said that some of the janitorial staff don't want to work around the artifact at night. This is somewhat less than an exciting phenomenon as the Museum of Mankind is not the place that most of us wish to be alone in after dark. A trip to the British Museum to speak to the curator and go through the crystal skull file, an object of great mystery in my life for the last few years, shed some light on the British Museum skull.

In the Shadows of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull

The British Museum does little to distinguish between the two skulls — many visitors think that they are viewing the Mitchell-Hedges skull that they have heard or read about.

The Museum of Mankind information desk says that the skull is easily the most popular artifact in the museum — more people ask about it than any other single exhibit. There is no doubt that a good part of its popularity is due to the publicity generated by the Mitchell-Hedges skull. In books and articles on The Crystal Skull, the skull of the title is the M-H skull and the British Museum's is given very short shrift.

While the British Museum's holding may be inferior in workmanship to the M-H skull, it is nevertheless a fascinating artifact that is extremely attractive and unusual in its own right. Furthermore, while it is quite different in appearance, it has often served as a double by the media.

While there are several mysteries surrounding the British Museum skull, there are nowhere near the number of anomalies associated with it as the M-H Skull. There are a number of possible reasons for this. One is that it may simply not have the types of powers attributed to its near-double. A second possibility is that the Mitchell-Hedges skull may not have some or all of the powers associated with it — and that no one has had a motive for promoting imaginative tales concerning the British Museum skull as they may have with the M-H skull. A third possibility for the British Museum skull's relative lack of anomalies is suggested by British Museum ethnographic curator Elizabeth Carmichael: "Our skull isn't as well known as the other skull because ours has not been available to people to experiment with. We have had requests to put it into various liquids, to shine lights through it, and so forth, but we keep it in its case." The British Museum skull, then, may not have as many tales surrounding it because for the last 89 years it has been in the possession of the British Museum, an organization with little interest in strange phenomena and not the type of institution that would go out of its way to test anomalous artifacts for powers whose existence the Museum staff generally does not recognize. There has been some testing of the British Museum crystal skull by the British Museum Research Laboratory but secrecy surrounds the tests and their results. It is true that the British Museum skull does not have as great an encrustation of strange tales surrounding it as does the other, but there are a multitude of unanswered questions surrounding the crystalline curiosity.

Where is it from? Who made it? Why was it made? How was it made? What strange phenomena are associated with it? These are just a few of the mysteries that we will attempt to look into in this article, but be forewarned — there are very few solid answers to any of these or the other questions concerning the British Museum skull. After protracted investigations it remains one of the world's most mysterious artifacts.

The British Museum's Public Stance

Those who visit the British Museum are not given a great deal of information about the skull. The plaque on the exhibit is short, ambiguous and raises more questions than it answers. The plaque reads: "Skull carved from rock crystal. Possibly from Mexico. Age uncertain. This carving of a skull of the nineteenth century probably came from Mexico. While it resembles in style Mixtec carvings of fifteenth century Mexico, some of the incised lines which form the teeth may have been cut with a jeweler's wheel. This is difficult to verify, but if it is so, the skull must have been made after the Spanish conquest." This is not much solid information considering the superstar status of the skull. The British Museum skull has appeared on Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World television show, graces the cover of the book of the same name, and is a featured visual in the commercial for the series. It has been shown on the Ripley's Believe it or Not television show with no attempt made to distinguish between it and the Mitchell-Hedges skull. Time-Life Books' advertising materials describe the Skull as "thought by some to possess mystic powers. People who have scoffed at this are said to have been struck dead." While they are clearly referring to the M-H skull, the supposed possessor of such "powers," the accompanying photograph is that of the British Museum artifact. Clearly there has been and continues to be some confusion between the two crystalline objects, some of it intentional.

Of Unknown Origin

What is known about the origin of the British Museum skull? Not a great deal but certainly more than the British Museum likes to let on. "Possibly from Mexico" and "probably from Mexico" as the exhibit's plaque relates, tells the public little and gives the impression that the skull's origin is uncertain. While the origin of the skull is a mystery and is likely to remain one, we do know how the British Museum acquired the artifact and there are clues as to some of its previous owners.

In the British Museum's crystal skull file there is information indicating that the skull was purchased through G.F. Kunz on January 3rd in 1898 from Tiffany and Co. in New York. The Cristy Fund was used to make the acquisition.

Museum curator Elizabeth Carmichael confirms that the skull was purchased from Tiffany and Co. in 1898 but says that she has no idea of where Tiffany and Co. acquired it. She was familiar with the notion that it was obtained by a soldier in Maximilian's army in Mexico but she explains that this is not a certainty by any means.

The G.F. Kunz through whom the item was purchased authored the classic Gems and Precious Stones of N. America in 1890.3 Kunz writes of the skull that "little is known of its history and nothing of its origin. It was brought from Mexico by a Spanish officer sometime before the French occupation of Mexico, and was sold to an English collector, at whose death it passed into the hands of E. Boban, of Paris, and then became the property of Mr. Sisson." This is certainly the one that would later become a part of the British Museum Collection. It is uncertain what happened to the skull between 1890 and 1898, when the British Museum purchased it, but it made its way from Sisson to Tiffany’s, probably through several others, including Kunz, who was obviously tracking its ownership intently.

Who Made the Skull?

Kunz's assertion that the skull was brought from Mexico has been largely accepted. The 1950 British Museum laboratory test report on the crystal skull, which will be described in more detail shortly, stated that the skull "is regarded as Mexican, towards end of Aztec dynasty, 1400-1500 AD." This report states that it was brought back by a French officer from Mexico rather than a Spanish officer, but this is probably confusion on their part. Museum officials have most often concluded that the skull is reminiscent of the Mixtec carvings of fifteenth century Mexico.

The BM skull file also contains the unpublished report of an examination of the skull in 1950 at which time Mr. Braunholtz of the BM made the general comment that the skull was ancient but might have been polished using modern lapidary techniques. He also considered that it may have been a piece of modern quartz cut by an amateur.

No British Museum official has suggested publicly that the skull is not ancient or that it is anything other than Aztec. However, in the soon-to-be-discussed British Museum crystal skull file, there is a letter from Adrian Digby to Dr. A.E. Werner of the Research Laboratory in which Digby makes a very intriguing assertion that varies greatly from the British Museum's public stance and raises additional questions. Digby wrote (italics added), "Our specimen is clearly not of Aztec origin, though it may well have been a cult object of some esoteric sect or it may be Masonic." While the British Museum public stance may be that it is probably Aztec, it is clear from this statement by Adrian Digby, a man concerned with the skull throughout his life, that he considered its origin to be unknown — clearly not Aztec.

Rock Crystal

Both life-size skulls are made of quartz crystal. The word "quartz" is first found in print in the work of Agricola in 1530 and may be based on an Old German word of uncertain origin. The word crystal is from the Greek, meaning "clear ice". Quartz (SiO2) is a very common mineral and is found in many forms and colors. Quartz is fairly hard. On the Mohs scale it has a hardness of seven (hardest is ten) — it cannot be scratched by a knife. It has a specific gravity of 2.65.

The gem-quality quartz crystals are found almost exclusively in Brazil, in Calaveras County, California, and in Madagascar. This high-quality crystal is used to make the crystal balls favored by fortune tellers.

In addition to its far-flung reputation as a divinatory medium, quartz is unusual in that it exhibits a piezoelectric effect — when pressure is applied to it, it develops a positive and negative charge on alternate prism edges. It has been suggested that this effect occurring on a large scale beneath the earth's surface may be responsible for some incidents of ghost lights and UFOs.

The Man Article

The article published in Man in 1936 has been the only anthropological journal article to appear on either of the life-size crystal skulls as of this writing. Morant did a comparison of the two skulls and compared their measurements to that of a human skull, concluding that: "No one of these measurements would be at all exceptional for an actual skull except the orbital index...which appears to be slightly removed from the human range for this character. At the same time the other measurements are in remarkably close accordance."

After Morant's piece, the British Museum's Adrian Digby and H.J. Braunholtz commented on it. Digby felt that it was doubtful that the British Museum and Mitchell-Hedges skulls were copied from the same human model. Braunholtz made the point that the British Museum's possession was probably sculpted first. At least one expert then had gone on record stating that the BM skull actually predates the M-H skull. Fourteen years later, Braunholtz and Digby were still arguing about it.

The Crystal Skull File

I have been told by a Museum of Mankind Students Room employee that the crystal skull there was considered the "most sensitive artifact in the museum." He went on to say that there were tales of curses and various unusual phenomena associated with the British Museum skull. It is very possible that he was confusing the tales surrounding the M-H skull with the British Museum's, as so many others have. He said that he couldn't talk any more about it. This may have been because he wasn't allowed to or because he didn't know the specifics. I strongly suspect the latter from his attitude. I asked this fellow if there was a crystal skull file there and he said that there was not and that I would have to contact the curator if I wanted more information about the skull. On another occasion when I was doing research in the Students Room, I started a conversation with another of the young gentlemen working there. I asked him if there was a crystal skull file and he said that there was no such file. At first he was reluctant to discuss the skull. Later, after he realized that I was, as he put it, "a serious researcher and not another crystal skull loony," he started to talk freely about the artifact. It was obvious that he had read some of the classic skull material. After about a half hour of talking about the skulls he went behind a desk, opened a drawer and extracted a file labeled The Crystal Skull — laying to rest the oft-repeated statement in skull articles that there is no crystal skull file in the British Museum. He would not let me look through the file, but rather held onto it and flipped through it, describing some of its contents. Several days later I asked a museum curator about the file and she expressed surprise at the secretive nature of the fellows in the Students Room and gave me permission to go through the file. This file is the source for the laboratory reports and correspondence referred to in this article.

The 1950 British Museum Findings

On April 24th, 1950 a meeting was held in the British Museum lab concerning the crystal skull. Attending were Mr. Braunholtz, Mr. Digby and Dr. Plenderleith. Braunholtz and Digby were two of the contributors to the Man article fourteen years earlier. The skull was removed from display and Braunholtz agreed that it could be kept by the lab for as long as necessary for completion of a technical examination.

A second unpublished report in the British Museum crystal skull file also described the results of a meeting between Dr. Plenderleith and Mr. Brown, Post Office Research Lab, Dollis Hill, England, which took place on April 26, 1950. Three objects are examined: a small crystal skull, the full-size Mexican skull (as the report refers to it) and a rock crystal coyote. The report addresses some of the questions concerning the skull, answering a few and raising others. Mr. Brown, an expert on crystals, provides a good deal of relevant information about the skull, including some clues as to where the crystal may have been from.

Did the Crystal Come from Brazil?

Mr. Brown was based in Brazil from 1942 to 1948 and was responsible for buying over 400 metric tons of grade A quartz for the British government during that time. "This is an excellent specimen of a very bad piece of rock crystal from Brazil, the kind of thing which is rejected every day by those selecting crystal for its piezoelectric properties," Brown states in the lab report on the British Museum skull.

According to Brown, rock crystal comes from three sources in Brazil — a source 500 miles up country, another which was inaccessible before this century, and the third a source in Bahia. During the 1800's rock crystal was only known to the Brazilians in the form of crystals found in rivers. These crystals, used for making spectacle lenses, were traced to their mountain source during the first quarter of the 20th century.

The Brazilians have no lapidary traditions, and thus had no use for the tremendous amount of waste quartz material that was rejected by government crystal experts like Brown during the 1940's.

Brazil then began regular trade with China and Japan in which less-than-perfect quartz was shipped to the Orient for cutting into objects such as crystal balls, animals, beads and so forth — the objects then being shipped back to Brazil to be sold there. It is possible that sporadic trading occurred much earlier than this.

"A Tour-de-Force"

One of the most interesting statements in the 1950 laboratory report is Mr. Brown's assessment of a possible modern origin for the skull (italics added): "The skull could easily have been cut in modern times by diamond dust and polished by rouge." This does not mean that it is modern, only that it could be modern. Brown believes that "…there would have been nothing out of the ordinary in Brazilian quartz being thus treated in Japan and returned to Mexico." The main problem with this theory involves the quality of the cutting, which Brown describes as "very amateurish." Brown felt that the work was not up to the standard of the oriental rock cuttings. Among the signs of amateurishness that Brown notes are the different sizes of the eyes, and drill marks showing in the nostrils. It is, in fact, the kind of thing that might have been made for a fortune teller. Had a Chinese done the teeth each tooth would have been separately modeled. As things are, they are done very crudely and it is quite possible that a diamond had been used on the end teeth. The general conclusion is that Mr. Brown, who claims to have no knowledge of archaeology or chemistry, but much of geology, and particularly of rock crystal, is quite convinced that this cannot be other than Brazilian rock crystal, the British Museum report states. There is no rock crystal in Mexico.

"It was a tour-de-force to make a skull. That great lumps of crystal could be exported from Brazil more than 150 to 200 years ago is very difficult to believe. First of all, it was not mined; secondly, it would have to come many miles down to the coast, and the natives had no instinct for the sale of such things," Brown opines in the 1950 report. It is nonetheless surprising that such specimens of rock crystal turn up in such unexpected places as Egypt and China, although Chinese rock crystal seems to have come mostly from Burmese ruby quarries.

How Was It Made?

Pre-Columbians had the skill to manufacture objects out of hard quartz crystal. There is a granite serpent and a red carnelian grasshopper in the Museo Nacional, Mexico. A Mixtec cup of rock crystal from Monte Alban Tomb #7 from Central America can be found in the Museo Regional de Oaxaca. There are also numerous small crystal skulls, a crystal rabbit, and a rock crystal coyote head from Guatemala thought to be Mayan.

G.F. Kunz, in his Gems and Precious Stones of N. America, writes that "the line separating the upper from the lower row of teeth has evidently been produced by a wheel made to revolve by a string held in the hand, or possibly by a string stretched across a bow, and is very characteristic of Mexican work."

It is possible that the skull was fire-polished and there are other more unusual notions that could conceivably have some bearing such as American archeologist A. Hyatt Verrill's theory that there was an ancient paste used to soften rock.

In the 1950 British Museum report, Mr. Brown stated that, "The skull could easily have been cut in modern times by diamond dust and polished by rouge." If it is true that it could have been easily made in modern times, then how can we determine its age? Again, only by style. There are two further problems that hamper questions of dating and origin. Firstly, rock crystal is an excellent medium for forgery. Secondly, there may be a tool mark on one of the teeth.

Rock Crystal: A Forger's Favorite

Since rock crystal cannot be dated, fakes are very hard to detect and crystal, together with jade and gold, have become favorite materials for the forger to work in. There is virtually no way to tell the age of objects made of these materials except by the object's style. This is providing, of course, that the forger uses primitive techniques. A dentist's drill is often used to carve an "artifact" to near completion. Drill marks are then removed by polishing the piece with an abrasive made with the powder resulting from the carving. The fact that quartz objects are easy to forge and fakes are so hard to detect adds to the questions surrounding the British Museum skull and its relatives.

There is a note in the British Museum crystal skull file stating that "Scratch marks between end teeth might indicate diamond." Also, according to Elizabeth Carmichael, in the opinion of a jeweler from Geneva who studied the skull in the "early sixties," there was a wheel cut on the tooth — rather than a chisel type tool mark. Casts were made of the incised marking on the teeth and closely examined. The jeweler, according to Ms. Carmichael, came to the conclusion that the skull was pre-Hispanic. Other than this controversial mark on the tooth there are no other signs of modern workmanship on the skull.

The 1960's Skull Controversy

The British Museum skull was taken off display in the late 1960's amidst rumors that it was not genuine. Dr. A.E. Werner, head of the British Museum laboratory, performed a series of tests on the skull in an attempt to learn its age and origin, causing much speculation. Dr. Werner wanted to determine whether the skull is Aztec, a later copy, or a fake. The British Museum would not disclose what tests were performed on the skull. What were the results of the tests? "These 'secret' tests have so far failed to come up with anything conclusive either way about the skull," wrote Peter Hopkirk in a 1967 London Times article entitled "'Aztec Skull' May be Found a Fake."4 High on my agenda for further research is to learn the specifics of the tests performed by the British Museum laboratory and their results. It is hard to guess what the tests would have been. Quartz crystal does not "age," cannot be subjected to radiocarbon dating tests, and neither corrodes nor acquires a patina over the years.

In 1968, the British Museum's Adrian Digby, who had written about the skull 32 years earlier in Man and participated in the 1950 tests eighteen years before, was still concerned with the British Museum crystal skull. In a letter to Dr. A.E. Werner at the Research Laboratory, he suggested an optical experiment that could be performed with the skull. I have been unable to learn if any such experiment was carried out on the skull.

The Mysteries of the British Museum Skull

What mysteries surround the British Museum crystal skull, then? While guesses have been made as to its age and place of origin, there is currently no way to determine these details with any certainty. The skull could in fact be much younger or much older than the fifteenth century dating usually attached to it. While it is considered to have come from Mexico, this is uncertain and the skull could have come from elsewhere. Other crystal objects have been said to have originated in Guatemala (the crystal coyote) and British Honduras (the Mitchell-Hedges skull). Suggestions have been made that the M-H skull was originally from Atlantis. While the British Museum skull has most often been thought to be Aztec, we really don't know who made it and presently have no way to find out with any certainty. It seems probable that the crystal from which the skull is carved was from Brazil, but this too is uncertain.

Other mysteries include:

The British Museum skull is a fascinating objet d'art which, after comparison with the Mitchell-Hedges skull, seems to be very closely related to its better known crystalline cousin. In the second part of this two-part series, we shall examine the myth and the mysteries of the better known Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull and uncover some interesting new information about this, one of the world's most amazing artifacts.


  1. G.M. Morant, "A Morphological Comparison of Two Crystal Skulls," Man, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, XXXVI, 145, July, 1936, p. 105-107. Also, G.M. Morant, "Two Crystal Skulls (Dr. Morant's Reply to Mr. Digby's Comments)." In the same issue, see H.J. Braunholtz, "Two Crystal Skulls (Further Comments by H.J. Braunholtz, British Museum)," p. 109. Adrian Digby, "Comments on the Morphological Comparison of Two Crystal Skulls," p. 107-109.
  2. Richard Garvin, The Crystal Skull, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1973.
  3. G.F. Kurz, Gems and Precious Stones of N. America, New York, 1890, p. 285.
  4. Peter Hopkirk, "'Aztec Skull' May Be Found a Fake," London Times, November 22, 1967.

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