Indiana Jones and the Heap of Old Junk

The 12 surviving Aztec crystal skulls are cherished by museums, revered by New-Age writers, and have a starring role in Harrison Ford's new movie. There's just one problem: they are fakes, say French experts

A drastic title change may be needed for the much-awaited, new Indiana Jones movie, which comes out next month.

Harrison Ford's comeback as Steven Spielberg's swashbuckling, fedora-wearing archaeologist is to be called Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Judging by the spoil-sport findings of the French government's artistic research centre, revealed yesterday, a more appropriate title might be "Indiana Jones and the Heap of Old Junk".

Some secrecy surrounds the plot of the fourth movie in the Indiana Jones series, which comes out in America on 22 May. It is known, however, to be set in 1957 and has an ageing "Indy" battling Soviet agents (including Kate Blanchett) for the possession of an ancient Mayan or Aztec crystal skull. This object purportedly contains secrets brought to Earth from beyond the stars.

Twelve such skulls, carved from solid crystal or quartz, are known to exist. Three of them are in national museum collections in Britain, the United States and France. Nine are in private hands. They have become the subject of feverish speculation by New Age writers about their purported extra-terrestrial origins. Held at a certain angle, in a certain light, it is suggested, the skulls become crystal balls which reveal the unmistakeable outline of a flying saucer.

According to one version of events, the 12 skulls – and a missing 13th sister skull – must be lined up or piled in a pyramid on or before the last day in the Mayan calendar, 21 December 2012. Otherwise the globe will fly off its axis.

Doubts about the authenticity of the skulls as Aztec or Mayan artefacts have existed for years. The British Museum, which owns one example, concluded 11 years ago that its skull had probably been polished by a wheeled machine. The pre-Colombian civilisations on the American continents discovered many things, but not the wheel. (Ah well, say the New Age theorists, the Mayans may not have had the wheel. The beings from outer space obviously did.)

The "French skull", acquired by the French state from a bankrupt collector in 1878, is now in the hands of the Musée Quai Branly, the excellent new museum of non-Western art beside the Eiffel Tower.

Because of the interest inspired by the Spielberg film, the French national museum service's research and restoration centre, C2RMF, decided a few months ago to subject the crystal skull to the most advanced forms of analysis, including "particle induced X-ray emission and Raman spectroscopy".

The centre's official report will be published next week but the principal findings were released yesterday by the Quai Branly museum. The "French skull" was probably made in a small village in southern Germany in the second half of the 19th century. The quartz from which it is made is of Alpine, not Central American, origin. The pre-Colombian origin of the "French skull", and probably several of the others, was almost certainly concocted by the French adventurer and antique merchant, Eugène Boban, who sold it to a wealthy French collector in 1875.

"The grooves and perforations [on the skull] clearly show the use of jewellery drills and other modern tools," said Yves Le Fur, the deputy head of collections at the Quai Branly. "It is inconceivable that such precision was the work of pre-Colombian artists."

The Musée du Quai Branly intends nonetheless to place its skull – only four inches tall – on special exhibition from 20 May to coincide with the appearance of the Indiana Jones film. The skull will be "hidden" in the museum and visitors will be invited to follow clues to try to locate it. French museum directors have, it seems, learnt a thing or two about spin-off tourism since the film The Da Vinci Code. The directors of the Louvre were, initially, aghast at the absurd and wilful errors made in Dan Brown's best-selling thriller and the subsequent film. They later relented and arranged Da Vinci Code tours of the museum.

Doubts about the authenticity of Aztec or Mayan crystal skulls have recently been posted on archaeology.org, the website of the Archeological Institute of America. Jane MacLaren Walsh, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and a leading authority on pre-Colombian art, traces the strange history of the skulls and the legends which have come to surround them.

The largest of the skulls, almost 10 inches high, larger than a human head, was sent anonymously to the Smithsonian in 1992. The disturbing, milky-white sculpture came with an unsigned letter. "This Aztec crystal skull ... was purchased in Mexico in 1960. I am offering it to the Smithsonian without consideration," it said.

"Crystal skulls have undergone serious scholarly scrutiny, but they also excite the popular imagination because they seem so mysterious," Ms Walsh says. "Some believe the skulls are the handiwork of the Maya or Aztecs, but they have also become the subject of constant discussion on occult websites. Some insist that they originated on a sunken continent or in a far-away galaxy. They are intensely loved today by a large coterie of ageing hippies and New Age devotees."

Ms Walsh points the initial finger of blame at Boban. Several allegedly Mexican crystal skulls turned up in Europe after France intervened in the Mexican civil war in 1863 to install Maximilian von Hapsburg as emperor. Two skulls were exhibited by Boban at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867 after he served as the ill-fated Maximilian's official archaeologist.

Boban went to Mexico as a teenager and learned Spanish and the Aztec language, Nahuatl. He seems to have had a genuine passion for pre-Colombian history and culture but he also had to make a living. He opened an antiquities business in Paris, which is known to have mingled genuine artefacts with the dubious and the downright fake. He later moved his business to New York.

The celebrated Manhattan jewellers Tiffany and Co bought an "Aztec" crystal skull from Boban for $950 in 1881. The British Museum purchased it a decade later at the same price. This skull remains in the museum's collections in Bloomsbury but is now presented as being "probably" a fake.

Enter another generation of experts, fakers or fantasists, this time British. In 1934, Sidney Burney, a London art dealer, bought a crystal skull almost identical to the one in the British Museum. In 1943, it was sold through Sotheby's to the British explorer and writer Frederick Arthur Mitchell-Hedges. He later claimed to have discovered the skull at a Mayan site in Belize (then British Guyana). In his autobiography, Danger My Ally, in 1954, he said that the skull was "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."

The object, sometimes called the Skull of Doom, was owned for 60 years by his daughter, Anna Mitchell-Hodges, until her death last year. She sometimes charged a fee to look at it.

The Skull of Doom is an especial favourite with New Age theorists. It is said to glow with a blue light and to crash any computer hard drive which comes near to it. One of the New Age skull theories holds that the skulls are, in all probability, an very advanced form of extra-terrestrial computer.

"Although nearly all of the crystal skulls have at times been identified as Aztec, Toltec, Mixtec or occasionally Maya, they do not reflect the artistic or stylistic characteristics of any of these cultures," Ms Walsh, the Smithsonian anthropologist, points out. She believes that some of the earlier skulls were faked in Mexico in the 19th century. Others probably came from Europe. The "Skull of Doom" was probably a fake of one of these fakes.

Her findings tally almost exactly with those of the French museums' research centre, C2RMF. This agency, run by the Louvre, establishes the identity of disputed art works and explores old artistic techniques. It is regarded as the most advanced organisation of its kind in the world.

The centre states "with a reasonable degree of certainty" that the "French" skull at the Quai Branly and the "British" skull in the British Museum came from the village of Idar-Oberstein in southern Germany. The village is known to have specialised in making similar objects as bases for crucifixes in the period 1867 to 1886. This would explain why the "French" skull has identical-sized holes at top and bottom.

Analysis of the quartz used in the skull has identified the material as of Alpine origin. The British Museum skull is believed to have used Brazilian quartz. From the Alps or Brazil to Mexico by flying saucer is just a short hop, all the same. Could extra-terrestrial makers of the skulls not have shared the same skills as 19th-century German artisans? We will probably never know.

Legends surrounding crystal skulls have become a staple subject of science fiction novels and video games, as well as New Age theories about the extra-terrestrial history of mankind.

A central legend, according to the Quai Branly, goes as follows. The 12 known skulls represent the 12 "worlds", or planets, which were once inhabited by mankind. Of these, the planet Earth, was the youngest. The "Itzas", the ancient people from other planets, brought the skulls to Earth to convey their knowledge to humans. A 13th skull was manufactured on Earth and all were kept in a great pyramid by successive civilisations in Central America, the Olmecs, the Mayas and finally the Aztecs, who foolishly lost or dispersed them.

Some aspect of this legend will provide the plot for the new movie. It seems that Spielberg, the director, and Ford, the star, had severe doubts about mystic, crystal skulls as the story line for the new Indiana Jones story, the first to appear since 1989. One of the reasons for the long delay, according to Hollywood gossip, is that Spielberg and Ford hated the skulls idea, put forward by George Star Wars Lucas, who wrote the script. But after a dozen re-writes, they were brought around.

Will the new findings of French artistic scientists send Spielberg and Ford into a fit of despair? Hardly. The previous Indiana Jones movies were far from historical documentaries but they were amongst the most popular adventure films ever made.

The success of The Da Vinci Code suggests that it takes more than a few inconvenient facts to spoil a good story. "In one sense these are enchanted objects, even if they are fakes," said Yves Le Fur of the Musée Quai Branly. "No doubt the Indiana Jones film will generate a whole new series of legends."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?