Happy World Digger’s Day 2013! aka Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones, and the Real Crystal Skulls.

I love old Indy!

Lets be fun today, it’s the second international World Digger’s Day and as such we’ve all been asked to change our icons and avatars to either a pic of Indiana Jones or Laura Croft…I went with Indy because Croft is a Tomb Raider.

That being said, I thought it might be fun to dedicate a post to the glorious Harrison Ford. Why you ask?

I’m not going to lie, the Indiana Jones movies were my favorites growing up, I got all worked up when the Last Crusade came out, and when Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls came out I about died. I love them all, and maybe they had some influence on me choosing to got into this field. When I worked in the Arch lab during my undergrad, there was a life-sized cardboard figure of Indy watching over all of us. My advisory kept a hat and whip on hand at all times, and frankly, I can’t really think of a single individual I have worked with that hasn’t told me that they like the movies too.

Indy is a meme, or trope, for those of us in the field  however seriously or not-seriously we take him. He represents our naive ideals and is the starting point of many a real conversion on why we need to educate the public on what archaeology really looks like. We love Indy, and we hate him, and frankly we’re jealous of him.

But Indy isn’t a real person, he’s an archetype, a legend. What about the man behind him, the man who took words on paper and gave him life? What about Harrison Ford!

Harrison Ford was my first Movie Crush. I remember getting in to a fight in 4th grade with another girl over which one of us was going to marry Harrison Ford when we grew up. (needless to say neither of us won that argument.) Harrison Ford is also an active advocate for archaeology, a cheerleader if you will, and we love him for that even more.

Harrison Ford publicly speaks on behalf of archaeology, helping to raise public awareness and constantly advocating for the preservation of natural resources and places of historical significance. Matching with Indy’s statement “It belongs in a museum!” he also works to prevent looting and the illegal antiquities trade. He’s been serving as a General Trustee on the Governing Board of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) since 2008.

Screw it, I liked Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Now I know many don’t agree with me, but I liked the last movie. It was fun, fast paced, had all the old Indy feel to it, yah it was over the top, but Temple of Doom? Hello!

But one thing I wanted to look at a bit closer, because this is a blog about archaeology, were the Crystal Skulls themselves.


Apparently, there is something to the Crystal Skulls. Their story starts in the 19 century as a collection of small skull shaped beads. They were recovered, supposedly, from locations in Mexico in a time when no scientific archaeological excavations had been done there, so knowledge of pre-Columbian artifacts was scarce (Walsh 2008). This was also a time when it was very lucrative to fake pre-Columbian artifacts, which was something Smithsonian archaeologist W. H. Holmes observed when he visited Mexico City in 1884 and was overwhelmed by “relic shops” (Walsh 2008).

William Henry Holmes (Wiki Commons)

The man who seems to be tied most intimately to the skulls is a French antiquarian named Eugène Boban. Boban was a Frenchman who was the official “archaeologist” of the Mexican court of Maximilian, and also a member of the French Scientific Commission in Mexico.

French antiquarian Eugène Boban with his collection of Mesoamerican artifacts at an 1867 Paris exposition. (Walsh 2008)

Boban appears to have fallen in love with Mexican culture at a young age, in his teens he spent his youth conducting archaeological expeditions on his own, becoming fluent in Spanish and the Aztec language, Nahuatl (Walsh 2008). Around this time he appears to have began selling his finds through a family business in Mexico City (Walsh 2008). He returned to France in 1870 and opened an antiquities shop selling a large amount of his collection eight years later to Alphonse Pinart, a French explorer and ethnographer  (Walsh 2008). Pinart donated the collection to the Musée de l’Homme. The collection at this time contained three crystal skulls  (Walsh 2008).

In July 1886, Boban moved his museum business to New York City where he later held an auction of several thousand archaeological artifacts including a crystal skull that Tiffany & Co. bought for $950 (Walsh 2008). In 1896, Tiffany’s sold that skull to the British Museum for the original purchase price (Walsh 2008). Off topic but interesting none the less, is Boban’s 1886 catalog for the New York auction lists another small crystal skull and it is listed with a crystal hand, neither can be accounted for today (Walsh 2008).

In the end Boban managed to sell no less than 5 crystal skulls, all in museums world-wide. Where did he get them? Who made them, and can they really melt your brain if you look at them?

All of Boban’s skulls are claimed to be from either Aztec origins, or more generically Mexico Valley. But there are no records to back up those claims. Archaeology was in its infancy at this time, and the Mexico Valley untouched by academic and scientific archaeology. We are well within our rights to question the claims of Boban’s skulls.

The crystal skull at the British Museum (ID Am1898C3.1 ), similar in dimensions to the more detailed Mitchell-Hedges skull. (Wiki Commons)

So what about the Skulls themselves? Dr.  Jane MacLaren Walsh has spent a great deal of her time answering those questions. She breaks the Skulls down into generations  describing the small bead skulls as the first generation. Usually they are small, no bigger than 1.5 inches and are drilled through from top to bottom, like a bead (Walsh 2008). The holes possibly are reminiscent of their bead’s pre-Colombian origin, but the beads were probably carved after the fact to be sold to European antiquarians or as mementos mori, objects meant to remind of the eventuality of death (Walsh 2008). The earliest of these seems to be a British Museum crystal skull acquired in 1856 by British banker Henry Christy (Walsh 2008).

The second-generation skulls appear as life-size representations of human skulls and don’t a bead hole, as they are too large to wear. The first of these appeared in 1881 in the Paris shop of Boban where he exhibited it alongside actual human skulls (Walsh 2008).

The third generation of skulls  started showing up around 1934. Sidney Burney, a London art dealer, purchased a crystal skull of proportions almost identical to the one in the British Museum (Walsh 2008). We don’t know where he got it, but it’s almost identical to the British Museum skull but with more detailed modeling of the eyes and the teeth, and a separate mandible (Walsh 2008). This skull has acquired a Mayan origin and a number of supernatural powers, it has nicknames like Skull of Doom, the Skull of Love, or simply the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, it is said to emit blue lights from its eyes, and for some unknown reason has a vendetta against computer hard drives (Walsh 2008)

The Mitchell-Hedges skull, (Walsh 2008)

There have been a few other possible candidates for crystal skulls sent anonymously to various museums, including the Smithsonian in recent years. None with any real documentation towards their authenticity.  The most recent was a skull sent about 16 years ago, according to its unnamed donor, was purchased in Mexico in 1960. It dwarfs the other skulls in collections at 31 pounds and 10 inches in height (Walsh 2008). but like the others, is indeed a modern hoax.

 All the skulls in both the British Museum and the Smithsonian have been examined under light and scanning electron microscope  by Dr. Margaret Sax and Dr. Walsh (Walsh 2008). They have conclusively determined that the skulls were carved with modern lapidary equipment (Walsh 2008). Pre-Colombian lapidaries used stone, bone, wooden, and possibly copper tools with abrasive sand to carve stone, and the skulls are too perfectly carved and polished to be made in this manner (Walsh 2008). Dr. Walsh also believes that the first generation of skulls were made in Mexico between 1856 and 1880, around the time they were sold (Walsh 2008). She believes that this 24-year period represents the work of a single artisan or workshop (Walsh 2008). 

Despite the fact that all of the known skulls are fakes, they are interesting compelling fakes. They are really cool to look at and I’m sure they make great conversations starters. I know I wouldn’t mind one in my room.

So there you have it, a great way to wrap up World Digger’s Day! A bit of love to Harrison Ford and a bit of debunking on the actual Crystal Skulls.


Walsh, Jane MacLaren

2008    “Legend of the Crystal Skulls”. Archaeological Institute of America
archive. Volume 61 Number 3, May/June 2008http://archive.archaeology.org/0805/etc/indy.html. Retrieved February 1, 2013

2 thoughts on “Happy World Digger’s Day 2013! aka Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones, and the Real Crystal Skulls.

Add yours

  1. It’s about time someone publicly said they liked the fourth movie! I thought it was right in line with the other three. How are giant ants and aliens any different that spirits coming out of the Ark of the Covenant or pulling still beating hearts out of people that are still alive? It’s just the way the movies are and I was not disappointed when I saw it. Great write up on the Crystal Skulls too.


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