Monday, May 19, 2008

Aztec Crystal Skulls


With all of the hype surrounding the film, “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull” Aztec crystal skulls are in the news. I’ve been interviewed several times about these. Crystal skulls are relevant to this blog because none of the likely authentic ones have been published (see Smith 2004 on problems caused by the lack of publication of museum collections). The example I consider the best candidate as an authentic crystal skull was found at an Aztec site while I was there as an undergraduate. I remember thinking that Mesoamerican archaeology was quite cool indeed if things like crystal skulls came out of every site. Unfortunately that was the last crystal skull I have seen with a reasonable archaeological context.

Now the fact that some crystal skulls have been exposed as fakes is making it into the news. Jane Walsh of the Smithsonian showed ten years ago that one of the huge silly looking skulls (see the image above) was a fake (Walsh 1997). The NPR news show “All Things Considered” featured Walsh in a story on the news this afternoon. This story is also featured on their web site.

Walsh claims that NONE of the surviving crystal skulls are legitimate, but I disagree.

Here is a comment I just fired off to NPR:

"As an archaeologist who has excavated Aztec sites and written books on the Aztecs, I was disappointed in your story on crystal skulls. The museum curators you interviewed proved that several phony-looking crystal skulls the size of footballs are indeed fakes. But they have not shown that the more abundant small crystal skulls are also forgeries. My colleagues and I have excavated many small ritual objects and jewelry of rock crystal at Aztec sites. Although none of the small crystal skulls now in museums come from documented excavations, I consider it extremely likely that they were indeed made by the Aztecs. Indiana Jones probably believes this also".
-- Michael E. Smith ((NOTE: of course they refused to use my comment; see the post on my dismal track record on letters to the editor. BUT WAIT! Archaeology Magazine just said they would publish a letter to the editor commenting on Jane Walsh's 2008 article!)).

Jane Walsh is a crusader for exposing fake precolumbian objects in museum collections. This is great, we need more people like her. But she should limit her interpretations to the empirical scientific data. The fact that big silly-looking skulls are fakes does not say anything about smaller, more indigenous-looking skulls (executed in what appear to be Aztec style and technology). Walsh has studied some of the small skulls (not sure which ones) and has found they are also fakes (personal communication), but I remain skeptical about her conclusions that ALL crystal skulls are fakes. She has an article in the current issue of Archaeology Magazine that tells the fascinating story of the fake large skulls; it can be accessed through the magazine's "Indiana Jones Page."

So here is a very brief outline of the reasons I think that the small crystal skulls were indeed made by the Aztecs and not the forgers uncovered by Walsh.

  1. The Aztecs produced many small objects out of rock crystal, mainly jewelry and ritual items. I have excavated a number of these at every site I’ve worked at. Some of the nicer crystal objects from Mexican museums are illustrated in Serra and Solis (Serra Puche and Solís Olguín 1994).
  2. Skulls were a major iconographic element in Aztec religious art. They are found in the codices, painted and modeled on pottery vessels, carved in stone sculptures and reliefs, etc. Although associated with the death god, skulls were not ominous objects of doom and gloom as in western culture; rather they were symbols of life, fertility, and regeneration (Baquedano 1998).
  3. There are a number of small crystal skulls in museum collections, just as there are numerous objects of clearly authentic Aztec date. Although it is difficult to generalize, my experience with museum storage collections suggests to me that many or most of these objects are legitimately pre-Columbian and not forgeries.
  4. There are other Aztec ritual objects in museum collections that we can be virtually certain are legitimate precolumbian items, yet none have been recovered from documented archaeological excavations. Obsidian mirrors are probably the best example (Smith n.d.).
  5. Finally, there is my own story of the find of a small crystal skull at an Aztec site (read on):

This occurred on the first day of my first trip to Mexico, on the first Aztec site I had ever set foot on. I was in Mexico to work on a settlement survey project, and we went to a known rural Aztec site so that newbies like me could learn the field methods of surface collection and recording notes. It had rained and the site was muddy. We were instructed to pick up rim sherds and other diagnostic artifacts (a “grab bag collection”). As a dumb undergrad, I wondered if we had to look in the big puddle in the middle of the site (in a maize field). Some little boys from a nearby village had gathered to watch the gringos playing in the cornfield. They saw that we were looking for artifacts (and perhaps avoiding the puddle), and they waded in and started squeezing the mud. Lo and behold, one of them came up with a small crystal skull. He showed it proudly to us, and offered to give it to us (since we were obviously collecting artifacts).

Unfortunately, I have no idea what happened after that. Knowing archaeological practices better now after 30 years of central Mexican archaeology, there are two likely outcomes of the offer of the skull. First, the archaeologists in charge may have refused the skull. We don’t buy artifacts, and we typically only take donations under special conditions. Second, they may have taken the gift, bagged it up, and processed the small skull with the rest of the materials from the site. Being a student novice at the time, I just don’t know what happened, I don’t remember what site it was, or the publication. I am pretty sure that the skull was not published, since I am familiar with the relevant survey reports and have mined them for information on the Aztec period artifacts.

It will no doubt have already occurred to the skeptics out there that perhaps these kids already had the skull when they came to the site that day, meaning that it was planted at the site and really has nothing to do with the Aztec occupation. I think this unlikely. It is out of character for central Mexican peasant kids to carry around things like crystal skulls and then bring them out when the archaeologists are in town. It would be much more likely that they brought the skull to sell to us (a common occurrence). But in fact they did not try to sell it, they freely offered it as a gift. If they were not trying to sell the skull, their behavior makes no sense at all, unless they did indeed find the skull in the puddle while we were all at the site.

Now this is not the most secure archaeological context in the world; in fact its pretty shaky. The evidence that they skull came from an Aztec site must be treated as hearsay. It is MY hearsay, so I believe it, but it certainly does not make the grade for a firm archaeological provenience. I can talk about this in an informal setting like this blog, but I certainly cannot publish the find in a professional journal or other venue. If the skull had been collected and properly published, this would be a different story. So to echo the title of the very first post of this blog, “If it's not published it's not science.” But then since the motivation for this business is a silly Indiana Jones movie, science really has little to do with it.

Baquedano, Elizabeth
1998 Aspects of Death Symbolism in Aztec Tlaltecuhtli. In The Symbolism in the Plastic and Pictorial Representations of Ancient Mexico, edited by Jacqueline de Durand-Forest, and Marc Eisinger, pp. 157-180. BAS, vol. 21. Bonner Amerikanistische Studien, Bonn.

Serra Puche, Mari Carmen, and Felipe Solís Olguín (editors)
1994 Cristales y obsidiana prehispánicos. Siglo Veintiuno, Mexico City.

Smith, Michael E.
2004 Aztec Materials in Museum Collections: Some Frustrations of a Field Archaeologist. Nahua Newsletter 38:21-28.

Smith, Michael E.
n.d. The Archaeology of Tezcatlipoca. In Tezcatlipoca: Trickster and Supreme Deity, edited by Elizabeth Baquedano, (book in preparation).

Walsh, Jane MacLaren
1997 Crystal Skulls and Other Problems, Or, "Don't Look it in the Eye". In Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian, edited by Amy Henderson, and Adrienne L. Kaeppler, pp. 116-139. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Walsh, Jane
2008 Legend of the Crystal Skulls. Archaeology 61(3):36-41.

PS - did you know that Indiana Jones was denied tenure at his university?

9 comments:

Devon Ellington said...

Great piece. And it re-emphasizes the need to look at each artifact individually, not make blanket assumptions.

Dick Diehl said...

I was one of the faculty member present on the day Mike Smith describes. We were walking a large Aztec site near the town of Huehuetoca, located north of Mexico City. I remember the incident and the small skull just as he describes it. I suspect that Aztec artisans produced numerous such small skull and other small object from rock crystal and that some the skulls were pierced to be strung on necklaces. I have long wondered what happened to that skull but I have no idea.

Dick Diehl
Professor Emeritus,
University of Alabama

Michael E. Smith said...

When crystal skull nonsense started to hit the media (maybe a year before the Indiana Jones film was released), I started to wonder if my recollection of the skull in the mud was accurate or not. I asked Debbie Nichols about it (she was present too, as a graduate student), and her memory matched mine. Without that confirmation I probably would not have wanted to describe the situation "in public." Now with Dick Diehl's comment, I feel sure that my description is accruate. Thanks, Dick!

Ed Darrell said...

So, the crystal skull may yet be buried in a bag of artifacts warehoused in some massive, dusty storage room at a museum or university.

In miniature, the last scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," eh?

More seriously, is there any way to check to see if the artifact still waits to be analyzed? I think back to the stories that at his retirement "Dinosaur Jim" Jensen left a quarter-million fossils awaiting analysis, stored under Cougar Stadium at Brigham Young University. Great stuff for future senior theses and graduate students on cold winter days -- but were the specimens ever adequately described?

Blue Skull said...

I believe the Aztecs carved quartz into the skull shape. Sure, there are forgeries, but even some of the claimed forgeries may have been polished, to improve their appearance, by modern lapidary equipment. The original carving before the modern polishing could very well have been precolumbian. Max the Texas Crystal Skull was inspected by the British Museum and they offered no comment on its authenticity. I have been to the home of Joanne Parks and seen this crystal skull. If it would have been carved by modern lapidary equipment it would have shattered.

Anonymous said...

Hi...sorry for not having a blog identity. My name is Jo and I live in Cape Town South Africa. For some bizarre reason crystal skulls has recently been coming up for me and I am curious. I like your authenticity and I believe that the skull was not just some mexican village kid joke (otherwise many others would recount the same "scam" or not?) anyway I would like to know how big was the small skull - like the size of a fist? bigger? smaller?
I appreciate if you could let me know and thanks for taking the time to answer.
:-)

Freya the Frypan representitive said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
therandomaztecwarrior said...

this is so cool. Thanks for the information.

Anonymous said...

If all 13 Crystal Skulls got together they
could heal the world.