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
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition