Just how old are ‘the Crystal Skulls’?

Tomorrow, the next installment in the Indiana Jones series of films is set to come out. The film is subtitled, “and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” I’m extremely excited. As a child, I really enjoyed the other three movies. My favorite was “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” I’ve been eagerly anticipating this new one when word got out last year.

Not many share my enthusiasm. Actually, some anthropologists have always been a hyper-defensive about the Indiana Jones movies, especially in the ways they popularize archaeology. Archaeologists, at least the ones I’ve worked with, don’t carry whips, and they aren’t so full of bravado. They are more systematic and analytical in their fieldwork and research compared to Dr. Jones. For these reasons, archaeologists have been concerned that Indiana Jones improperly portrays a professional in the discipline.

The most notable and recent reaction has been of Rex’s from Savage Minds. You can tell from his tone in sharing the news that Harrison Ford, the actor that plays Indiana Jones, being elected onto the board of directors of the Archaeological Institute of America is not something that particularly brings joy. Many professional archaeologists have dedicated their life’s work and effort to getting the position that Ford has been elected into. Understandably, they may feel stifled to read that Ford takes a spot, not because he’s done any archaeological research, but because of the impact his acting of a fictional character has had in making archaeology entertaining. In that regard, someone set out to write-up a somewhat serious yet comical mock denial of tenure for Indiana Jones, which found through Kerim’s Twitter post, another Savage Minds blogger.

I’m not gonna voice the same arguments, because I find Indiana Jones rather harmless and the reactions of some professionals to be way overboard. In fact, I attribute some of the reasons as to why I have interests in human prehistory to these films. And I believe most laymen realize archaeology isn’t so whimsical. People aren’t so dumb to think that archaeologists snap whips and regularly address women as, “Dolls.” Most people can figure out that they are just films, and Indy is just a character. Furthermore, we have not heard such defensive protests from people in the spying or policing sectors in reaction to James Bond or RoboCop. It seems like these professionals don’t feel threatened by movie character — so why then are archaeologists so vocal?

I am, however, interested in the inspiration behind Indiana Jones films. The new film, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” spins away from the “and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “and the Last Crusade,” recipes in that it is not based on struggle between Nazi and Allied archaeological interests. The two latter titles also kinda allude to what they are based on — biblical archaeology. But what’s this new one based off of?

As I understand it, the new film takes place in an Mesoamerican/Mixtec context. Indiana Jones takes charge of recovering a stolen crystal skull. Adorned skulls have been a big part of many Mesoamerican cultures. For example, many murals, stellae, and statues from Mayans to the Nazca show images of people with skull-icons as jewelry. Some Aztec skulls fortified with polished Jade. Our own popular culture also reveres the adorned skull, whether it be on a belt buckle or a diamond encrusted skull. I reviewed some of their significances in this post, which also happens to be one of the most popular Anthropology.net posts of all time. Many explain the reasons why humans have decorate skulls because of our fascination with death.

But what about crystal skulls? How did the film makers even get the idea of saving the crystal skull? Is there an archaeological record of crystal skulls? This is where an article in press, to be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, comes in. The paper, “The origin of two purportedly pre-Columbian Mexican crystal skulls,” reviews the origin of the two most well known crystal skulls — one in British Museum and the other in the Smithsonian Institution. Both skulls were sold the the organizations under the guise that they are pre-Columbian artifacts.

There’s been a lot of back and forth between those that defend and contest their antiquity. Many years ago, geologists looked at the crystalline structure of the British Museum’s sample, and thought it was made of quartz excavated from a Brazilian rock quarry in 1940’s. The archaeological context of each skull is unknown, and no other quartz skulls have been found from any Mesoamerican/Mixtec archaeological excavation.

In the new research paper, several academics continue this investigation — analyzing the two skulls and comparing them based to what we know about pre-Columbian Mixtec technology. We know that stones weren’t cut with the wheel in pre-Columbian Mixtec cultures. Both skulls show micro-abrasions similar to stones cut with a wheel. Also, if you’ve seen photos of each skull, they look nothing like Mixtec artifacts. In fact they resemble more Art Nouveau style than anything else. I’ve put up photos of each in this post.

These findings lead to the conclusion that the British Museum skull was worked in Europe during the nineteenth century. The Smithsonian Institution skull was probably manufactured shortly before it was bought in Mexico City in 1960; large blocks of white quartz would have been available from deposits in Mexico and the U.S.A. And thus even the foundation of this movie, the pursuit of recovering the crystal skull artifact, is based on faux pseudo-archaeology. Not surprising… since the other three were based upon finding the Arc of the Covenant, glowing rocks, and the Holy Grail.

    SAX, M., WALSH, J., FREESTONE, I., RANKIN, A., MEEKS, N. (2008). The origin of two purportedly pre-Columbian Mexican crystal skulls. Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.05.007

10 thoughts on “Just how old are ‘the Crystal Skulls’?

  1. And thus even the foundation of this movie, the persuit of recovering the crystal skull artifact, is based on faux pseudo-archaeology. Not surprising… since the other three were based upon finding the Arc of the Covenant, glowing rocks, and the Holy Grail.

    Which is amusing in that Jones is clearly portrayed as an atheist in both the first and the third movie. At any rate, I waffle back and forth on my view of Jones. Ultimately, though, the movies are great fun, so I have to take the portrayal of archaeology less seriously. Come to that, scientists in other fields don’t fare much better – none come across as cool as Indie.

    P.S. When that article comes out can you email a copy?

  2. Let me speak in defense of both the erstwhile Dr. Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford. Yes, the movies certainly do make our profession seem more exciting and glamorous. No, they are not even remotely close to reality. Dr. Jones is closer to a tomb raider than even the delightful Lara Croft. That being said, there was a marked increase in interest in the field archaeology because of those movies. More university students explored anthropology and archaeology classes and we got a greater pool of talent to choose from. Be honest, sometimes our little pond grows stagnant.

    Indiana Jones is fun. I have not met one person who actually believed that archaeologists dash around the world with a fedora and a whip.

    Harrison Ford has taken great interest in our field and if his presence on the BoD garners further interest, and funding, then by all means welcome the gentleman with open arms. Hes a well respected actor and is known for his integrity and intelligence.

  3. To all archaeologists that left these silly remarks. It’s a movie. It’s about entertainment. You want to see a movie where Indiana Jones goes on explorations and digs in the sand for two hours? Sounds like a good movie. Wake me up when it’s over.

  4. It’s good to know that there are archaeologists who are so dedicated to their subject that they turn out gobs of science. If they have such clarity of vision that they feel no need to relax and let their imagination wander like most people out there, then more power to them. We can’t all be archaeologists. I’m sure each one of them will add to the body of knowledge that scientists are accumulating so that all the politics and the propaganda out there cannot move the truth. Perhaps there is a greater reason to pursue archaeology. Please let me know if there is.

    In the meantime, there is nothing wrong with a little science fiction.

  5. These findings lead to the conclusion that the British Museum skull was worked in Europe during the nineteenth century. The Smithsonian Institution skull was probably manufactured shortly before it was bought in Mexico City in 1960; large blocks of white quartz would have been available from deposits in Mexico and the U.S.A.

    Even if they’re frauds, they’re still interesting. To me, it just raises the questions of who made them and how he or she managed to convince these two institutions that they were genuine Mesoamerican artifacts. Of course, that would be more of a mystery movie than Indy could credibly pull off. Which literary detective would be best for the case, I wonder? :)

  6. I am an anthropology undergrad at a university I would rather not mention. I have seen (display) and heard the admonishing of the Indiana Jones movies. I can’t remember if it was at that point or when I discovered my professors were quick to strike down any thought that was not lock step with “the norm” that I started to become jaded to the entire field. I have always been fascinated with all aspects of Anthropology’s four fields. Indiana Jones might have had a small role in that as Dontjugglethetrowels pointed out. All I know from observation is that the Anthropologist I have seen are very egotistical and don’t care for other points of view other than the one supplied to them to teach. I find this to be a major turn off and have to remind myself not all Anthropologist are mindless automatons stroking their ego.

    As for the skulls in question it looks like more research needs to be done on the subject. The History Channel program I saw recently on this topic seemed to lack credibility and was more about movie promotion than anything else. However, I found it to be entertaining because that’s what TV programs are most of the time…entertainment…duh!

    I guess you can tell from my tone that I’m just a little worn out and turned off. Sorry…but I’ve read the word “ritual” used one too many times. I guess I am going to have to sit down with the one professor who actually teaches class and ask him why so many people are willing to use the word “ritual” as a crutch in their work. Who knows…maybe I am wrong and that is all Anthropology is today. A carbon copy of everyone else’s idea…and that would actually make it a ritual after all!

  7. In regards to the art nouveau look of the skulls, I think that there has been a series of fake skulls starting from the 1890s. The first were evidently presented to the world by a self promoting French “businessman / ethnographer”.

    Their introduction date may explain their art nouveau look. The fact that some had been in circulation for 70 years by the 1960s (earned a “provenance” sp. of sorts) then made the Smithsonian more willing to accept them as being genuine.

  8. WHO WROTE THIS? You should definitely put your name SOMEWHERE on the page so I can cite you properly…I’m a student at Fordham University and I do not want to go to prison.

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