Legend of the Crystal Skull: Revealed

The historical documentary series continues with this fascinating investigation into the origins of the world-famous crystal skulls. Since the 19th century, a number of lifelike quartz skulls have been discovered and displayed in museums.

These relics, allegedly dating from Aztec and Mayan civilisations, are believed to have psychic powers. Now, for the first time ever, scientists are given access to the most famous skull of all, the so-called ‘Skull of Doom’.

The crystal skulls are one of the most beguiling mysteries of 20th-century archaeology. Countless legends have swirled around these incredibly detailed quartz sculptures and they have formed the basis for numerous stories – including the latest ‘Indiana Jones’ movie. The skulls have been attributed with mysterious powers and it has even been claimed they are artefacts from Atlantis or an extra-terrestrial civilisation. But is there any truth to these tales?

The most famous of these relics is a pure quartz skull known as the ‘Skull of Doom’. It was first brought to light over 50 years ago by a buccaneering English explorer named Frederick Mitchell-Hedges. A real-life Indiana Jones, Mitchell-Hedges claimed the skull was a sacred Mayan relic of death, made over 3,600 years ago for use by the high priests.

After the dashing adventurer’s death, the skull became the charge of his adopted daughter Anna. She claimed that she was the one who discovered the relic inside a Mayan temple while on one of her father’s expeditions in the 1920s. It was a captivating story that Anna continued to tell the world until her death at the age of 100 in 2007 – despite there being convincing evidence that her father had actually bought the skull in an auction at Sotheby’s in 1943. Anna’s version of the tale helped create the legend that would eventually inspire the silver screen.

Other crystal skulls of varying sizes and styles are on display in museums around the world, but their age and origins remain a great mystery. No crystal skull – including the Skull of Doom – has ever been found in a recorded archaeological dig and they cannot be carbon dated.

The British Museum and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris purchased their own crystal skulls in the late 19th century and labelled them at the time as ‘ancient Aztec’. In 1992, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC received another skull inside a package left anonymously on their doorstep. Smithsonian archaeologist Dr Jane Walsh was apparently warned by a colleague not to look the skull in its eyes as it was cursed.

Intrigued by the artefact, Dr Walsh began an investigation that would last 16 years and involve a decade of collaboration with the British Museum. Together, the two institutions would crack the mystery of their crystal skulls. They would follow the trail of a colourful 19th-century art dealer who specialised in ancient American artefacts and was dealing in crystal skulls well before the advent of Mitchell-Hedges.

Yet the mystery of the most famous of skull of all remains. Modern science has never been able to test the Skull of Doom. The only person allowed to examine the skull was a crystal carver who came to the rather incredible conclusion that the head was shaped against the grain. Not even modern tools can achieve such an effect, because carving against the grain usually shatters the crystal. This gave rise to the theory that the skull had been painstakingly sanded down by sculptors over a period of some 300 years.

But now Anna Mitchell-Hedges’s long-time companion and trustee of the skull has finally allowed scientists to scan the object with a powerful electron microscope. Can they establish the origins of the skull beyond all doubt?

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