The Legend Of the Crystal No-Brainer

A Smithsonian Channel documentary on the fake antiquities premieres tonight.
A Smithsonian Channel documentary on the fake antiquities premieres tonight. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Laura Yao
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008

It arrived at the Smithsonian 16 years ago, a heavy package with no return address.

Inside: an unsigned letter and a large hollow skull made of milky crystal.

The package was addressed to the "MezoAmerican Museum" -- which isn't real. And the letter said the crystal skull was made by the Aztecs -- which isn't true.

Smithsonian anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh has researched the skull since 1992. It's a hoax now deemed important enough that it inspired a news conference yesterday at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.

Why now? Walsh doesn't mention the publicity opportunity that is "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," a $306 million (so far) summer movie. "We've been doing a lot of research on it," she avers.

The museum's crystal skull exhibit -- essentially, the skull in a box -- opens today and continues through Sept. 1. The Smithsonian Channel also premieres the documentary "Legend of the Crystal Skulls" tonight. Yesterday morning, several members of the media were lured to a preview that promised to shed "new light" on the myths surrounding the crystal skull. When it was wheeled out on a cart, journalists crowded around in hushed tones; the clicking of camera shutters was the only noise in the room.

"Legend of the Crystal Skulls" recounts how the objects captured popular imagination, spawning countless tales -- namely, there are 13 such skulls that, once reunited, will divulge all knowledge and wisdom about humanity! And crystal skulls prove the existence of Atlantis, the lost city! And they crash computer hard drives!

The documentary also details how the Smithsonian's crystal skull was found to be fake, along with all of the other supposed pre-Columbian crystal skulls around the world (scientists of yore say: Oops.) One is on display in Paris, at the Musee du Quai Branly; another is at the British Museum in London. The British and the French artifacts came from the collection of antiquities dealer Eugène Boban in the late 1800s. Of them all, the Smithsonian's skull is easily the biggest, at about 30 pounds and 10 inches high.

"It's definitely from the '60s," Walsh jokes. "It's so big and bold."

Walsh and British Museum scientist Margaret Sax examined the two skulls from their respective museums under scanning electron microscopes. They saw smooth marks on the surface of the crystal, which could have been made only by modern cutting tools. Their finding was a "definitive debunking of one of the most outrageous archaeological hoaxes of the century," said David Royle, executive vice president for programming and production of Smithsonian Networks.

The most-storied crystal skull, and the one referenced in the Indiana Jones movie, is the Mitchell-Hedges skull, which is in private hands. F.A. Mitchell-Hedges -- a sort of real-life Indiana Jones, except English and a master of tall tales -- and his adopted daughter Anna said they found the skull in the ancient Mayan city Lubaantun.

The skull is known alternately as the Skull of Doom and the Skull of Love, and was said by Mitchell-Hedges to be more than 3,600 years old and the embodiment of evil.

Anna, who died last year, said she basically climbed into a hole in the ground and found it sitting among some rocks. ("I saw something shiny," she reportedly said. Simple as that.) Actually, Walsh said, the elder Mitchell-Hedges bought the skull at a Sotheby's auction in 1943 from Sidney Burney, an art dealer. No one knows where Burney got it from -- but in any case, it's probably not Mayan.

Believers in the crystal skull do not lack for conviction, however. The Mitchell-Hedges official Web site ( http://mitchell-hedges.com) proffers rebuttals to all the scientific points made in "Legend of the Crystal Skulls," stopping short of calling the documentary a work of fiction. Some believers have even concluded from the "evidence" that the skulls were made by neither modern artists nor ancient Aztecs but extraterrestrials with tools beyond the ken of humankind.

There are many questions that remain unanswered. Where did Burney get his crystal skull? Who made the Smithsonian's crystal skull? This Eugène Boban, what was his deal?

The true legend of the crystal skull, perhaps, is its ability to inspire legends. It's all very meta. This is not the Smithsonian's modus operandi -- don't the experts study actual artifacts? -- but the museum has taken some PR hits lately. Padded expense accounts and suchlike.

But it makes for a fascinating narrative: a story of New Age hype, of a convergence of science and myth, and of the time and resources dedicated to researching what is essentially a piece of '60s kitsch. As the skull was wheeled away after the news conference preview yesterday, it was not glowing, not magnetizing everything in sight, not doing anything at all. Proving, once again, that life is always more exciting in the movies.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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