Yes, crystal skulls are real. Some extremely detailed crystal skulls were excavated from land previously held by Mayan and Aztec civilizations, and they're among the great ancient mysteries.
The skulls have been used as a plot device on Stargate SG-1 and in the third best Indiana Jones movie (I am looking at you, Temple of Doom). But do the skulls themselves have any mystical properties? Do we need to collect 13 of them to prevent the destruction of the planet in 2012? Are they real at all? Let's take a look.
The best known crystal skull
The most famous crystal skulls are those approximately life-sized, and of those, the one Indiana Jones-like adventurer F.A. Mitchell-Hedges is said to have found in a 1920s expedition of a Mayan city in Belize, is by far the most famous due to its origins, and the skull's astounding craftsmanship. When speaking of the skull (interestingly enough, found by his daughter Anna on her 17th birthday), F.A. Mitchell-Hedges, in the 1954 edition of his autobiography, Danger My Ally, wrote:
It is at least 3,600 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.
This statement was met with skepticism, as Mitchell-Hedges placed such esteem on an object supposedly found by his daughter 30 years prior, an object which he did not speak of for decades. It is suggested that Mitchell-Hedges purchased the skull from an English collector in 1944, but this has been dismissed by Anna Mitchell-Hedges, saying that the skull was left with the collector in order to finance an expedition.
Afterwards, the skull stayed in the possession of Anna Mitchell-Hedges, who believed it had mystical properties, and who did not hold her father's ominous beliefs about the skull. Speaking of the skull in 2005, Anna Mitchell-Hedges said,
I take care of it and it takes care of me. […] It's not for a museum," she said. "It's for someone kind, who has done a lot of good . . . who will do what I did with the skull.
Scientific examination of the crystal skulls
Three other crystal skulls are publicly held – one at the British Museum, one at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, and one at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Upon examination, all three were shown to have modern origins. The Paris skull has traces of water dating to the 1800s inside, while the British and Smithsonian skulls were formed using modern synthetic abrasives and rotary tools not available until the late 19th Century. The British Museum skull is shown, and stands out due to its primitive-looking eye sockets.
Some detective work has linked the trio together, with the British and Smithsonian skulls likely emanating from a German jewelry shop in the town of Idar-Oberstein that specialized in carving sculptures from Brazilian quartz. Sales data also shows that the Parisan and British skulls were initially sold by the same French antiquities dealer, Eugène Boban, who dealt in pre-Columbian artifacts.
The Smithsonian skull, anonymously donated to the museum in 1992, is noted to be a fake in its display at the Museum of Natural History, while the skull held by the British museum is described as "probably European, 19th century AD" and "not an authentic pre-Columbian artifact".
The Mitchell-Hedges skull looks quite different than the Parisian, British, and Smithsonian skulls, and it features a detachable lower jaw. The Mitchell-Hedges skull was examined by Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s, with the examination concluding that the skull was cut from a single piece of quartz, and not from a modern block of fused quartz. However, examinations of the skull during the same time period showed traces of mechanical grinding along the teeth. After this declaration, Anna Mitchell-Hedges refused any additional request to scientifically examine the skull.
Other crystal skulls?
Several other skulls are held in private collections, making a total of twelve "known" crystal skulls, with some believing a 13th skull exists.The twelve are thought to represent the worlds in which human life is present, and some believe they brought by the citizens of Atlantis.
The 13th skull represents the 13th world, land, and this "missing" skull was passed from the Olmecs to the Mayans and then to the Aztecs. And the correct alignment of the skulls could prevent the earth from "tipping over" on December 21, 2012, the last day of the Mayan Calendar. The remaining skulls filling out the twelve "known" skulls include one resembling an alien, a skull made of amethyst, and one inset with a cross.
The E.T. skull is easily the most interesting, fitting in with the idea of ancient aliens who might have seeded life on earth, as it has an elongated cranium and alien features. The skull was found in Guatemala by a Mayan family in 1906, and is held by a collector in Holland.
Crystal skulls in popular culture
While the skulls may not date back to ancient Mayan civilizations, this has not kept crystal skulls from emanating throughout pop culture, with the quartz skulls being artifacts in the Assassin's Creed video game series, a plot component on the A-Team and Stargate SG-1, and a way for a former Ghostbuster to sell vodka. William Shatner even visited the Mitchell-Hedges skull.
Spielberg might not like Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, but the story behind these hunks of crystal is unique, and the skulls themselves are rather astounding looking. It is quite easy to see how they would be revered if the skulls themselves were ancient artifacts from ancient Mayan or Aztec civilizations. If I was a Mayan priest looking for a magical death device, I'd at least give the crystal skull a shot.
Images courtesy of National Geographic, the collection of Joky Van Dieten, the collection of Bill Homann, and the British Museum. Sources linked within the article.