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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