April 15, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Crystal Hoax

I have to admit the movie snob in me has been avoiding at all costs any talk of the latest Indy installment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Harrison Ford at 66? And that annoying kid from Transformers??? Pass.

But that was until some friends got into a discussion in my vicinity about what the titular crystal skull is supposed to be and why the ever-present Nazis would want to get their hands on it. So I did a quick Google search and right at the top of the hit list popped a very familiar picture:

Not two feet away from my screen sat the very same picture, a postcard from the British Museum I've had somewhere on a wall near me since 1996. Turns out the crystal skull in question is the same museum artifact I had admired as a teenager. According to the fine print on the back of the card, copyright 1988, the object is a

Skull of rock crystal. Mexico. Probably Aztec.
c.AD1300-1500. The style of this piece suggests that it dates from the Aztec period. If, however, as one line of the carving suggests, a jeweller's wheel was used to make the cut, the piece would date from after the Spanish Conquest.

The museum acquired the shiny crystal noggin in 1897 from Tiffany & Co. via a French art dealer.

In the 1940s the first of such skulls took the world by storm when Brit banker F.A. Mitchell-Hedges announced that his adopted daughter Anna had found the crystal skull tucked under a Mayan temple in the jungles of Belize in 1920. He called it the "Skull of Doom" and claimed it had supernatural powers.

"According to [Mitchell-Hedges], it had been made 3,600 years ago. Mayan priests wielded it to invoke gods and devils. Its curse could bring misfortune and death," the Smithsonian Institution, which now owns the mystical relic, reports on its website.

Well, almost.

Actually the skulls are a huge hoax. Researchers at the Smithsonian estimate that the artifacts could not have been made any earlier than the 19th century based on craftsmanship—and the fact that no such skull has ever been credibly excavated from an authentic pre-Columbian site.

—A painted stucco relief in the museum at Palenque, a Maya ruin in Chiapas, Mexico, from one of the recently excavated buildings. A facsimile stands at the original location.
Photo © 2004 Jacob Rus

Smithsonian experts used scanning electron microscopes to reveal that their skull and two others over at the British Museum showed absolutely no signs of ancient Aztec or Mayan tool work.

“We discovered that all of the crystal skulls had been carved with modern coated lapidary wheels using industrial diamonds and polished with modern machinery,” Jane Walsh, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, said in an online article.

Of course that has not stopped many New Age believers from insisting that the skulls are not only genuine, but magical. A crystal skull has healing properties, it can show you the future, it can talk, it's an alien supercomputer.

And that's where Indy comes in, although this time the Nazis are out. It's 1957, and Soviet agents plan to use the powers of the crystal skulls to do, uh, Soviet things. So our older and wiser hero enters the fray, sullen love interest and whiny sidekick in tow.

I don't think I need a mystical crystal skull to tell me that this flick will be tragic. But then Spielberg and Lucas will surely be grinning evilly all the way to the bank.

1 comment:

Elisa said...

mmmm....shiny crystal noggins.....

Too bad they are fake! I kind of like the idea of an alien super computer!