Prompted by the annual Indiana Jones movie repeats on Channel 4 the other day, I was reminded that the British Museum owns a Crystal Skull, and it’s on display.
The skulls, and there are a fair number of them, are generally crafted from Brazilian rock crystal and often attributed to long lost South American cultures imbued with mystical powers — but in truth, most of them are likely to be mid 19th-century and made in Germany.
The reason that they were made was likely a surge of interest in the 19th century in pre-Columbian cultures, and unsurprisingly, an associated trade in fake artefacts boomed.
Although museums had acquired skulls earlier, it was Eugène Boban, an antiquities dealer who opened his shop in Paris in 1870, who is most associated with 19th-century museum collections of crystal skulls. The British Museum’s skull was bought from this dealer, initially bought by an American who later sold it to Tiffany, who sold it to the British Museum a decade later, in 1897.
Although sold to them as a possible pre-Hispanic Mexico, over the decades, research on the British Museum’s skull found that the carving of the skull could only have done with jewellery tools and polished with abrasives that didn’t exist before the 19th-century.
The museum’s label next to the skull now describes it as “Late 19th century AD”, and that it “was originally thought to have been Aztec, but recent research proves it to be European”.
Of course, mere science won’t overcome the new age beliefs and people will still tell tales of how the skulls have mystical powers. But whatever the beliefs, in science or not, it’s still a very impressive work of craftmanship and worth seeing.
You can find the Crystal Skull in the British Museum’s room 24, which is the large room on the ground floor at the back of the Great Court, and the skull is on the left wall as you walk inside.
If you bend right down, you can also just about, get your own face reflected in the glass lining up with the skull. Doesn’t really come out in photos, but it’s fun to do it.
Considering that it’s made from rock crystal, putting it in a clear box doesn’t really help it stand out though, and maybe a darkened box with lighting could help it to glow more ethereally. It certainly looks a lot better in photos against a black background.
A fifth Indiana Jones movie is coming out this summer, and fans of the movies will hope that it upholds the informal rule for the series that even number movies are the bad ones, and the odd numbers are the good ones.