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."

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
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.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced