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.
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.
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 unsettled tool mark question — is there a tool mark on one of the teeth or isn't there?
One of the most interesting aspects of the British Museum skull is its power to attract and fascinate. Its great popularity as a strange artifact attests to its exceptional charisma.
The curious disquieting nature of the skull, which it shares with the Mitchell-Hedges skull, as expressed by the cleaning staff's insistence that the skull be covered at night.
The tantalizing account of the skull moving in its case, which deserves further investigation.
The controversial nature of the skull — the forgery issue, the "nonexistent" crystal skull file, the lack of public information about the skull, the fact that some consider it the most sensitive artifact in the museum.
The allure of the crystal with all of its anomalous properties and strange associations (its traditional divinatory and premonitory uses, its piezoelectric qualities, the mysteries of crystalline formation and growth, to name a few).
There is also the question of whether the British Museum skull exhibits any of the strange phenomena allegedly displayed by the Mitchell-Hedges skull, the subject of the second part of this article. As it is now the only life-size crystal skull other than the Mitchell-Hedges skull, it has gained some of the latter's notoriety, partly out of confusion between the two and partly out of its close resemblance to another object that has so many strange phenomena surrounding it.
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.
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.
Richard Garvin, The Crystal Skull, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1973.
G.F. Kurz, Gems and Precious Stones of N. America, New York, 1890, p. 285.
Peter Hopkirk, "'Aztec Skull' May Be Found a Fake," London Times, November 22, 1967.
The Controversial Crystal Skulls Part II:
The Mitchell-Hedges Skull
by Mark Chorvinsky with Douglas Chapman
The skull is generally said to have a width of 5 inches, a height of 5 inches, and a length of 7 inches. The exact measurements, provided by Frank Dorland and printed here for the first time, are:
width — 4 29/32 inches (124 mm)
height — 5 13/16 inches (147 mm)
length from front to back — 7 7/8 inches (197 mm)
weight — 11 pounds 7 ounces
Quartz Crystal — Hardness of 7 on the Mohs scale
The Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull is a life-size artifact made of quartz crystal. It is certainly one of history's most unusual and controversial objects — one whose beauty and mystery have captured the imaginations of both scholars and seers. The legends surrounding it are many, often overpowering the truth about it, and the lore is increasing with no signs of abating.
When "the crystal skull" is mentioned, it is the Mitchell-Hedges skull that is generally being referred to. It is without a doubt the finest crystal skull that has come to light.
This article should be seen as an interim report, since research and investigation into the skulls continue, and future articles will update the material contained herein. In this article, I will discuss some of the fact and fiction concerning the skull, occasionally attempting to separate the two — not an easy task when dealing with the crystal skulls.
The original instigator of amazing claims for the crystalline wonder was F. A. "Mike" Mitchell-Hedges (1882-1959). Explorer, gambler, author, and soldier with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, the adventuresome Mitchell-Hedges was quite a character.
During his boyhood, he spent much time reading stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, and Arthur Conan Doyle (the latter the author of The Lost World).1 Inspired by such fare, he felt driven to explore Central America and developed a strong interest in Atlantis, which he believed had influenced the civilizations of the former.
He also had a passion for deep sea fishing, and was convinced that sea monsters lived in deep South American waters. As a result of such interests and endeavors, he authored such books as Battles with Giant Fish and Land of Wonder and Fear.
During a stay in Toronto, he adopted Anna Le Guillon Mitchell-Hedges, a 10-year-old Canadian orphan,when she was foisted on him in 1917 by two Americans in Ontario. Given the choice between putting her into an orphanage or raising her himself, he chose the latter, a decision which neither came to regret.
The Legend of the Crystal Skull
And both have been responsible for creating the crystal skull's legend. For example, Anna Mitchell-Hedges has attested that she, her father, and the others on the expedition at the "lost" city of Lubaantun, "were digging in the temple, moving a heavy wall which had fallen on the altar.... I came upon the skull buried beneath the altar, but it was some three months later before the jaw was found which was about 25 feet away."2
She also later claimed that when she pulled the skull from the ground, the Indians at the dig reacted with awe and reverence. since "they recognized the Skull at once as the long-lost god of their ancestors."3
But accounts differ — widely. Mitchell-Hedges, in the 1954 British first edition of his autobiography, Danger My Ally, reported that "how the skull came into my possession I have reason for not revealing." He also included the following about the object he labeled "the sinister skull of doom," initiating its legend: "It is at least 3600 years old and according to legend was used by the High Priest of the Maya when performing esoteric rites. It is said that when he willed death with the help of the skull, death invariably followed." As we shall soon see, this statement by Mitchell-Hedges has had far-reaching reverberations in terms of crystal skull lore.
Oddly enough, the American edition in 1955 deleted the references. Many speculations as to the reason for this deletion have resulted. One (which was recounted in Sibley S. Morrill's book Ambrose Bierce, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges and the Crystal Skull) was that Mitchell-Hedges was a secret agent (in league with Ambrose Bierce) and that he kept the details hidden for that reason.4 A seemingly more plausible theory, that Mitchell-Hedges may have purchased the object, will be discussed later.
After Mitchell-Hedges' death, ownership passed to his daughter. Some have speculated that Mitchell-Hedges originally had the skull planted in Lubaantun in 1927, so that she would find it, enlivening her 17th birthday.
A Speculative History
The stories advanced on the skull's behalf are exciting and tantalizing, but what is more-or-less reliably known about it?
The first time the Mitchell-Hedges Skull was mentioned in print was in July 1936, in an article in Man — A Monthly Record of Anthropological Science ("Published Under the Direction of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland") in which G. M. Morant and Adrian Digby of the British Museum compared the similar British Museum skull with the Burney skull (as the "Mitchell-Hedges" skull was known at the time). They were not able to deduce much, not even reliably which one was created first, or — if their creations were related — which one served as the model for the other. Even the British Museum skull's origin is shadowy — though it was supposed that it might have come from Mexico.
This leaves us with some tough questions about the skull. Is its style of workmanship truly Mayan? Or is its style that of any other culture of the area? Dr. Frederick Dockstader (the former curator of the Museum of the American Indian) has commented that between 1575 and 1650 there were European craftsmen working with crystal; and that they would have had access to similar objects and native materials. He does not think it likely, though, that they created the Mitchell-Hedges skull, because the skull's separated jawbone does not seem typical of their work. He is inclined to identify the skull as an Aztec creation.5 Elizabeth Carmichael of the British Museum feels quite differently. "Aztec it isn't," she states categorically.6 Adrian Digby, formerly of the British Museum, has stated (in correspondence with the author) that his opinion is that the crystal skull is "not pre-Columbian, though it may very well have come from Mexico." Digby thinks that the crystal skulls "were ritual objects made for some esoteric cult of European origin."7
George Kennedy (of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics of the University of California at Los Angeles) has pointed out that the object, whose style seems to him to be Mixtec in origin (dating to around the 14th or 15th centuries), was (supposedly) found in a spot abandoned around 800 A.D.8
One hypothesis about the skull is that it was rough-sculpted in one era and modified in a later one, but this seems rather debatable. Crystal expert Frank Dorland (one of whose occupations has been art restorer) is one such theorist and uses it to explain some evidences of "mechanical grinding on the faces of the teeth," which he believes were done when the jawbone was removed during one of these modifications.
He admits, however, that while he thinks that the skull could be as old as 12,000 years, he "cannot prove by any means that the skull was not made to order sometime in the last five hundred years and finished by hand to please some potentate who was of royal dictatorship, and bent toward the psychic."9
Norman Hammond has enlarged upon this latter idea and, after commenting on a possible 16th to 18th century origin, states that "while a Renaissance origin is not improbable, given the size of the rock crystal block involved, manufacture in Qing Dynasty China for a European client cannot be ruled out."10
Frank Dorland has been told (by people who knew Mitchell-Hedges) that the skull was brought back from the Holy Land by the Knights Templar during the Crusades. The skull was then supposedly kept in their Inner Sanctum in London and later hidden. Mitchell-Hedges rediscovered it when he was dealing in antiques. Dorland's sources hypothesize that after finding the skull, Mitchell-Hedges made up stories to explain where he got it.11 It is to be wondered if this may be the legendary "head" supposedly used as a centerpiece in the rituals of the Knights Templar.
The somewhat cruder British Museum crystal skull was examined in 1950, with admittedly speculative results. A report resulted from the examination by a crystal expert and members of the Museum staff, concluding: "The skull could easily have been cut in modem times by diamond dust and polished by rough.... It is, in fact, the kind of thing that might have been made for a fortune teller."12
As for the source of the crystal used in the Mitchell-Hedges skull's manufacture, it possibly came from the deposits in Calaveras County in California (which people like Dorland and jewel expert G. F. Kunz have speculated is a possible source for one or the other skull).
As a further clue to the source of the skull, we can try to look for evidences of modern fabrication. We can try to see how its craftsmanship resembles those of known schools. And the results here have been equally debatable, since the Mitchell-Hedges skull, with its unusual emphasis on anatomical accuracy (except for suture lines — which were not depicted) is not typical of any known by the various experts who have so far commented on it.
The Hewlett-Packard Tests
The skull, which appears almost invisible after immersion in benzyl alcohol, is viewed through polarizing filters at Hewlett-Packard's Crystal Laboratory in Santa Clara, California. These tests indicated that the skull and jaw were carved from the same piece of crystal.
In order to understand the fine points of the skull's manufacture, it is important to know more about the material of which it is made. On October 27, 1970, Frank Dorland (to whom the skull was at that time on loan) and Richard Garvin (then the supervisor of the Hewlett-Packard advertising account and later the author of a popular book about the skull) took the skull from its vault and brought it to the Hewlett-Packard laboratory in Santa Clara, California for some tests. Hewlett-Packard makes more crystal oscillators than any other company, and their crystal laboratory tests quartz every day.
The technicians at Hewlett-Packard placed the skull into benzyl alcohol, which has the same refraction index as quartz crystal. This means that the skull would almost disappear when placed in the solution. By passing polarized light through the skull and rotating it, it would be possible to locate the axis and observe "twinning." Twinning, a splitting of the direction of crystal growth which can occur under strong impact (and can happen to a single crystal, or to separate ones which can twin and grow together) had been observed (via noticeable darker stress marks) on the Mitchell-Hedges skull around the eyes, nose, and jaw area.
Hewlett-Packard technicians reported that the Mitchell-Hedges skull (including its separated jawbone) was "almost certainly a single crystal of quartz, rather than a composite of three crystals."13 Before this time, Dorland had hypothesized that the skull was composed of separate pieces of quartz.
Oddly enough (though they were not lapidarians) they also felt that it had taken an incredibly long time to make ("300 man-years of effort"),14 a supposition resembling Mitchell-Hedges' contentions that it had taken at least 150 years to do so.
There is a much-quoted line often found in crystal skull articles that is attributed to a crystallographer working at Hewlett-Packard and is melodramatic indeed: "The damn thing shouldn't even be." Now far be it from a professional magician to find any pleasure in demystification, but it must be said that the existence of the skull is not nearly as bizarre as the mythos now growing up around it.
How hard is it really to carve a life-size crystal skull off-axis? Frank Dorland, who has worked with crystals for many years, states that, with proper financing, he could finish such a job within two years.15 This is in opposition to the common contention that the skull could not be duplicated in modern times using the most advanced technology.
The Dorland Manifestations
Frank Dorland, to whom Anna loaned the skull for many years, experienced visionary phenomena through the use of the skull. In particular, he was fascinated by its "aura," as well as the buildings, seemingly from antiquity, which he saw displayed within its eye socket (and on other portions of its cranial "anatomy"). "Visionary" is not the only word for its effect on him and others, since he has heard what he takes to be the sound of faint high metallic bells, chimes, and other noises apparently emanating from it. Dorland has also heard human voices softly singing strange chants. Dorland also claims that the first time he kept the skull in his residence overnight, there was the sound of a prowling jungle cat within his home, as well as the ringing of chimes and bells.
These occurred after Dorland entertained a most unusual visitor: Anton Szandor LaVey, the founder of San Francisco's Church of Satan. LaVey, in the interests of publicity, had brought the editor of an Oakland paper, claiming that the skull was the work of his deity and thus belonged in his church. To Dorland's discomfiture, LaVey did not leave in a hurry, having become ensconced at playing Dorland's organ. (In addition to being Satan's representative on Earth, LaVey is also a masterful organist.) Dorland had wanted to get the skull back into the vault, but found it had now become too late.
After the Satanist had left, Dorland and his wife found a safe spot for the skull and went to bed, but not to a peaceable rest. "All night long there were lots and lots of sounds," Dorland recounted. But, explorations of the house at that time revealed nothing. When they got up the next morning, they found that their belongings had been moved around. "We had a telephone dialer (which was made out of crystal) that had been moved from the telephone at least thirty-five feet to the front door — and it lay right across the front door threshold. I never believed that this [poltergeist activity] happened until it happened to me...."
Dorland attributes the phenomena to LaVey and the vibrations around him, saying that there was a reaction between the Satanist's mind and the skull. "I think there was a conflict of one type of energy against another type of energy which interfered somehow with physical objects."16
It is to be wondered, however, if LaVey had more to do with the phenomena than give off conflicting "bad vibes."
Yet, curiously, when Dorland and his wife found their belongings scattered about the house the following morning, there was no sign of outside intrusion (and the doors and windows were still locked).17 He has experienced lesser but similar phenomena from other crystal items.
When Frank Dorland began to work with the skull he was an art restorer based in San Francisco. He started his skull studies in 1956, and in 1964 the Mitchell-Hedges skull was entrusted to him by Anna Mitchell-Hedges. He took many photos of the skull and made castings in plaster and epoxies. Cross-sections of the casts were cut, measured and studied by Dorland. The epoxy casts, when cut up, showed the exact symmetry of the skull, especially in the area of the eye sockets.
Dorland found that the skull channeled lights from its base into the eye sockets, creating an awesome effect.
But he was not permitted by fate to make such studies forever. In 1970, Anna showed up on Frank Dorland's doorstep and took the skull back from him, bringing it back to Ontario with her by bus.
Crystal Skull Gazing
If the skull creates visionary effects and may act as a crystal ball, then it is to the field of crystal gazing that we must look to for an understanding of the various phenomena reported in regard to it. It has been theorized that through intense concentration on a polished crystal, it is possible to inhibit "normal" waking state consciousness. Some crystal gazers have surmised that this concentration subdues the five senses, allowing a sixth sense to come into play and to operate with little interference from the other senses.
Many forteans find it easy to dismiss strange phenomena concerning crystals, due to the elaborate claims that are being dispensed as New Age gospel. There are many anomalous aspects of crystallography, however, that make crystals valuable subjects of fortean study, and the literature of parapsychology includes many intriguing cases involving the use of crystals with regards to psychic phenomena. When the so-called powers of the Mitchell-Hedges skull are examined in the context of this literature, it becomes clear that these so-called holographic images within the skull, and the scenes that it has most-recently been purported to project, are most likely going on in the mind of the percipient rather than inside the skull.
In the midst of a growing body of crystal folklore that has excited the credulous and tainted the study of crystal phenomenology for others, Frank Dorland remains intelligent and open-minded. Dorland was studying crystals long before the current wave of "crystal experts" who hawk their wares at every New Age conference from here to Timbuktu. His classic monograph Rock Crystal, which was published in 1968, has had a great effect on current crystal study, and many of the ideas originating in that paper have been attributed in countless publications to this or that up-and-coming crystal expert. Frank Dorland believes that a crystal acts as an amplifying reflector to psychic receptor centers. He feels that energy waves from the brain trigger the crystal in some way.
The crystal then filters and amplifies the waves, sending them back to stimulate psychic centers in the brain. Dorland admits that such an exchange of brain waves is not precisely understood and, even if this explanation of the alteration of consciousness through the use of crystals is largely theoretical, it may be a useful model for looking at the visionary aspects of crystal skull study.
When I asked Frank Dorland if he felt that the Mitchell-Hedges skull had any "powers," his response was very interesting. In a letter to me, Dorland recently wrote: The skull itself has no powers of its own. (The emphasis is Frank Dorland's.) "The activity," Dorland continues, "comes from the energy put into the skull by the individual."18
The Skull of Doom
Mitchell-Hedges and Anna, however, have themselves made claims for its supposed powers and helped create its previous mystique as a "Skull of Doom." Others have helped them.
A March 1962 Fate article by John Sinclair (entitled "Crystal Skull of Doom") detailed some anecdotes about the malign things that supposedly happen to people who make fun of the skull. One concerned a Zulu witch doctor who, in 1949 (at the request of the skeptical tribal chief), reportedly spat at the thing, performed a mockery dance at it, and was subsequently killed in a hut (along with a wife of the tribe's chief) by a lightning flash out of the single cloud in a formerly cloudless sky. Another such tale was about a news photographer who, not long after the death of the witch doctor, belittled the skull as he photographed it, yelling, "Will me to death! Rot!" Upon leaving Mitchell-Hedges' abode, he drove straight into a truck, killing himself. (A variation on this story, reported elsewhere, recounted that his darkroom supposedly blew up and killed him as he was developing the pictures of the skull.)
In addition, the Sinclair article recounted the deaths of a woman reporter who had belittled the skull (and perished by a mysterious infection leading to heart failure), a New Zealand girl who had challenged it (another heart failure), and even mildly hinted that the heart-attack death of Mitchell-Hedges himself may have been due to the curse of the skull. ("But what induced it no doctor could say.") Other sources have given cerebral embolism as the cause of Mitchell-Hedges' death.
Quoted in the same article, Mitchell-Hedges himself is supposed to have begged Anna to bury the crystal skull with him: "Priceless as this treasure may be, it is a thing of evil and must die with me." If this is accurate, Anna did not respect her foster father's wishes.
Other publications have added to the legend. Psychic magazine mentioned that "in the early 1950's, three women died mysteriously after each had spent time viewing the skull."19 Fate had mentioned but two. Psychic did not cite its sources, so there is no easy way to check up on the claim of yet another death.
Anna Mitchell-Hedges has also related some intriguing accounts. One was about how Adrian Conan Doyle (the son of the creator of Sherlock Holmes) became very edgy when it was around (even if out of sight) and could ascertain (and thus avoid) its presence when he was visiting her. Another concerned how a neighbor's butler felt the skull to be an ominous presence dominating Anna Mitchell-Hedges's house, and once became nearly senseless when the skull was being handled there — 20 miles away from him — angering the neighbor, who believed the artifact to be responsible.20
Its "cursing" power, however, appears to have been highly exaggerated. A South-African newspaper reportedly did describe an explosion (in London) of an enlarger during development of the skull's picture, but the photographer was entirely unhurt (not squaring with the better-known exaggerated version of the story, in which the photographer died). And the story of the Zulu Royal House and the mockery dance may have been made up out of nearly whole cloth from a letter from Clifford M. Hulley to Mitchell-Hedges. The letter advised that a medicine man might want to steal the skull because of its reputed power and possible use as a totem in potential Zulu insurrections.21 (This does not square with the later account, that Mitchell-Hedges barely missed seeing a lightning bolt destroying a hut within which was a mocking witch doctor.)
The Schizoid Skull
The ensuing years have changed the skull's "personality." Illuminating details of Anna Mitchell-Hedges' recent attitudes about the skull are to be found in the following conversation, which took place in June 1987 between her and Mark Chorvinsky:
Mark Chorvinsky: Do you feel that the skull is in fact cursed?
Anna Mitchell-Hedges: Oh no. Not at all.
MC: But for most of its recent existence it has been known as the Skull of Doom.
AMH: This isn't a cursed skull, this is a healing skull.
MC: What about your father's statements in his autobiography about how the skull was used to will death and so forth.
AMH: You didn't know father did you? He was quite a kidder. He told those things to a reporter that he was having some fun with.22
So much for the Skull of Doom, its sinister curse debunked by none other than Anna Mitchell-Hedges.
Miss Mitchell-Hedges has further contributed to its growing iconic "New Age" reputation as a healing skull by relating how it cleared up one Canadian neighbor's allergies, and healed another's arthritically paralyzed arm.23
Anna has also stated (in a video entitled The Psychic Connection) that the Skull of Doom was used to "will death or to heal, but to will death was in a kind way."
Larry Arnold, the author of a May 1987 article in Rainbows, a New Age newsletter, reports: "Anna Mitchell-Hedges tells us the name is Dum, not Doom as is popularly reported," a further attempt to distance it from its past.24
Nevertheless, back in the early 1960's, she was still stressing its less kindly reputation: "I believe that anyone can will another to death through the Skull of Doom.... It is a thing of evil in the wrong hands."25
When Anna took the skull back from Frank Dorland in 1970, she made it clear that she did not want to have the skull used as a crystal ball. Now it is being used for exactly that. Associates of Anna's say that she consults with the skull from time to time, and when asked whether she has any fear that the priceless skull might be stolen from her, she usually answers that "the skull protects her."
The Atlantean Connection
For an object as mired in legend and lore as the Crystal Skull, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the skull has come to be linked with the ubiquitous fabled lost Atlantis.
However, there is sufficient reason to connect the artifact to Atlantis, since, as previously mentioned, Mitchell-Hedges was a major proponent of the alleged place. There are many people who have taken his theories as gospel and have believed that the magnificently crafted item was created there. According to his speculations, many Atlanteans (fleeing the cataclysm that destroyed them as a race) established themselves in South America and influenced what came to be known as the Mayan civilization (helping to create the many pyramids — as well as other artifacts). Mitchell-Hedges's beliefs had their origins in two of Plato's dialogues (which were the first surviving mentions of the locale). These legends developed more fully during the succeeding millennia.
A Questionable History
Having covered some of the sometimes spurious background and phenomena associated with the skull, it behooves us to look at more of the many controversies that have arisen concerning the history of the artifact. The first of these controversies deals with the source of the Mitchell-Hedges skull. It is first mentioned in the aforementioned Man article, which states that Sydney Burney gave permission for Digby's and Morant's work with it. At no point is the name of its supposed discoverer mentioned. Anna Mitchell-Hedges has claimed that her father used the skull as collateral for a loan from Burney, but we have only her word for that. According to records, the skull was first put up for auction by British art dealer Sydney Burney in September 15, 1943, at Sotheby's in London. The British Museum tried to buy the skull at the sale so that they would have the two life-size crystal skulls known at that time. A note by H. J. Braunholtz of the British Museum reads: "Bid at Sotheby's sale, lot 54, 15 x 43 up to £340 (Fairfax). Bought in by Burney. Sold subsequently by Mr. Burney to Mr. Mitchell-Hedges for £400." A recent letter to this author from Adrian Digby states that he believed Mitchell-Hedges to have purchased the skull from Burney at Christies auctioneers, not Sothebys.26 Crystal Skull expert Frank Dorland concurs with Digby on this point.27 Ongoing research may settle this question.
If the skull was kept by Burney as collateral for a loan, was the "sale" of the skull to Mitchell-Hedges simply Mitchell-Hedges paying off the loan and getting back his skull, or did Mitchell-Hedges acquire the skull in 1943 in London rather than in 1927 in British Honduras? The records of the sale from Burney to Mitchell-Hedges in 1943 make no mention of any earlier dealings between the two. Some have speculated that Mitchell-Hedges removed the Crystal Skull references from his autobiography because some readers had known about Burney's earlier ownership of the skull. And, as we have mentioned, in the 1936 Man article, the skull was referred to as the Burney Skull, not the Mitchell-Hedges Skull. If the skull was Burney's, though, where did he get it if not from Mitchell-Hedges? Research into this question continues.
A letter, written by Adrian Digby to Dr. A. Werner (of the Research Laboratory in the British Museum Department of Ethnography) on April 17, 1968, states (based on the photo of the Mitchell-Hedges skull that Dorland sent him) that the skull was the one which originally belonged to Sydney Burney. Digby goes on to say that Burney sold the skull to Mitchell-Hedges, who, Burney says, incorrectly claimed to have found the object.
In any case, Anna Mitchell-Hedges cannot prove conclusively that her father owned the item prior to its auction, explaining that "all my father's papers were lost in Hatteras during a cyclone — photographs and all — also a trunk of his belongings was lost in Plymouth."28
Mitchell-Hedges did not mention the object's existence in any of his published works concerning Lubaantun until 1954. He made no mention of the skull in any of his numerous lecture appearances and many friends and acquaintances of Mitchell-Hedges who have been queried do not recall him having the skull or discussing it before 1943.
Another controversy regards Anna Mitchell-Hedges' discovery of the skull. There are no reliable records of her presence at the Lubaantun expedition; nor are there any accounts of the finding of the Skull or of Anna's presence in autobiographical publications of any participants other than Mitchell-Hedges. Eric Thompson, who was present at the 1927 British Museum excavation, continually debunked the crystal skull stories. In addition, Anna's accounts of her alleged discovery have placed it at both 1924 and 1926-1927, creating further confusion.29 While there are photographs of Dr. Gann, Mitchell-Hedges, and Lady Richmond Brown on and around the ruins at Lubaantun, neither Anna nor the skull are to be found in any of the published photos. The 1927 Report on the British Museum Expedition by J. E. Thompson on the Lubaantun expedition mentions nothing about the crystal skull being found at the site.
The Future of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull
Despite the present perplexities, what are the prospects for the future of the skull? As crystal becomes further understood, regarding its growth, structure, conductivity, piezoelectric qualities, etc., will we find that there is even a slight basis for the more exaggerated claims for the skull? Will any of its qualities be proven to facilitate strange phenomena? These tests, however, will probably not be done while Anna Mitchell-Hedges controls the skull, due to her reluctance to have any more scientific tests performed upon it. Strange Research and Investigations, the investigative branch of Strange Magazine, is looking into the possibility of further research into the life-size crystal skulls and has been given positive indications that one of the other crystal skulls may be made available in the future for structured experimentation, the results of which will be published in a future issue.
Meanwhile the Mitchell-Hedges skull resides in Anna Mitchell-Hedges' apartment in Kitchener, Ontario, occasionally starring at New Age Conferences and Gem and Mineral Shows. These appearances are invariably described in ads as the "last showing of the Mitchell-Hedges skull," but one gets the feeling that they will continue as long as Anna Mitchell-Hedges has the inclination. And what of the skull's future? There has been talk of establishing a foundation to care for the skull and Anna has often said that if a private individual were to purchase the skull and then donate it to a museum, she would be amenable to such a scenario. For now, the only way to see the skull is to visit Ontario by appointment or to watch your local metaphysical press to see if the skull will be appearing at a venue in your area any time in the future.
However, there are rumors that Mexico, Belize and England all believe that the skull is legally theirs and they would like it back.
The Bottom Line
I find it ironic that while I have been studying the skulls for many years, I have answers for almost none of the important questions about the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull. While there are stock answers for many of the questions, they are just that. While there are speculations aplenty, they remain speculations. For starters, I cannot honestly say that we know with any degree of certainty who made the skull, how it was made, when it was made, and what purpose it served. These questions remain perplexing. The ambiguities surrounding the skull's origins and mystique have added to its legend and left ample room for its many interpreters to fill in the blanks with whatever they find meaningful.
Whatever its origins, the skull continues its fascination largely because of its power as a symbol, one which has enabled people to make use of their visionary resources within. It is no surprise that those who have seen it or heard of it have been attracted to it, and often wish to attribute to it a history and function as awesome as its presence. At the very least it is an artistic masterpiece. At most — who knows?
1. Richard Garvin, The Crystal Skull (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), p. 32.
2. Correspondence from Anna Mitchell-Hedges to Frank Dorland, February 17, 1968.
3. Kaspars Dzeguze, "The Case of the Crystal Skull," Canadian Weekend Magazine, December 29, 1979, p. 19.
4. Sibley S. Morrill, Ambrose Bierce, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges and the Crystal Skull (San Francisco: Cadleon Press, 1972), pp.79-82.
5. Garvin, pp. 80-82.
6. Personal conversation between Mark Chorvinsky and Elizabeth Carmichael at British Museum, London, June 10, 1988.
7. Personal correspondence from Adrian Digby to Mark Chorvinsky, September 1, 1988.
8. Garvin, pp. 80-82.
9. Ibid., p. 85.
10. Joe Nickell and John F. Fischer, "Crystal Skull of Death, Part II," Fate, vol. 37, no. 8 (August 1984), p. 84.
11. Telephone conversation between Mark Chorvinsky and Frank Dorland, September 11, 1988.
12. Mark Chorvinsky, "The Controversial Crystal Skulls — part 1. — The British Museum Skull," Strange Magazine, vol. 1, no. 1. (1987), p. 30.
13. "History or Hokum?," Measure, February 1971, p. 9.
14. Ibid., p. 10.
15. Telephone conversation: Chorvinsky and Dorland, September 11, 1988.
17. Garvin, pp. 90-96.
18. Personal correspondence from Frank Dorland to Mark Chorvinsky, August 30, 1988.
19. J. J. Lamb, "The Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull," Psychic, vol. 1, no. I (June/July 1969), p. 26.
20. Dzeguze, p.19.
21. Garvin, pp. 90-91.
22. Personal conversation between Anna Mitchell-Hedges and Mark Chorvinsky in Elizabethtown PA, July 6, 1987.
23. Dzeguze, pp. 19-20.
24. Larry E. Arnold, "The Crystal Skull," Rainbows, vol. VII, no. 2 May 1987), p. 6.
25. John Sinclair, "Crystal Skull of Doom," Beyond the Strange (New York: Paperback Library, Inc., 1966 — reprint of article published in Fate magazine in 1962), p. 129.
26. Personal correspondence: Digby to Chorvinsky, September 1, 1988.
27. Telephone conversation: Chorvinsky and Dorland, September 11,1988.
28. Nickell and Fischer, pp. 82-84.
29. Joe Nickell and John F. Fischer, "Crystal Skull of Death, part I," Fate, vol. 37, no. 7 (July 1984), pp. 52-54.
Special thanks to Frank Dorland, Grace Fogg of the ARE Library, Elizabeth Carmichael of the British Museum, Adrian Digby, Larry Arnold, and author Phyllis Galde for their help in the preparation of this article. Thanks also to the many individuals who assisted me with my crystal skull research over the years. — MC