Mysterious Crystal Skull on Exhibit for the First Time at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

July 2, 2008
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Smithsonian Channel

For centuries the legend of the crystal skull has captivated explorers, adventurers and even scientists. Were the crystal skulls handmade by ancient Aztecs? Are they the work of supernatural powers? Or are they carefully crafted fakes? New light will be shed on the myths surrounding these fascinating objects when the Smithsonian’s own crystal skull goes on public display for the first time, ever. “The Truth About Crystal Skulls” exhibit will open July 10 and continue through Sept. 1 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The Smithsonian Channel will premiere a new documentary film, “The Legend of the Crystal Skulls” July 10 at 8 p.m., which will feature the Smithsonian’s crystal skull and one of the world’s pre-eminent experts on crystal skulls, Smithsonian anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh.

“Crystal skulls are a fascinating example of artifacts that have made their way into museums with no scientific evidence to prove their rumored pre-Columbian origins,” said Walsh. “Crystal skulls provide an intriguing commentary on how certain cultures and objects were considered valuable to 19th- and 20th-century collectors.”

Crystal skulls are sculptures of the human skull carved from blocks of clear or milky quartz, often called rock crystal. Claimed to be pre-Columbian Mesoamerican artifacts, identified as Aztec, Toltec, Mixtec or occasionally Maya, the truth is that none of the specimens made available for scientific study have been authenticated as pre-Columbian in origin or were ever recovered from an archaeological site; that is, no archaeologist has ever dug one of these skulls out of the ground. Scientists theorize that they were manufactured in the mid-19th century or later, in Mexico and Europe. The skulls are claimed to exhibit paranormal phenomena by some people and have been depicted as such in fiction and films. Perhaps the most widely known of such portrayals is the film “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” that premiered in theaters in May.

The Smithsonian’s crystal skull arrived in the mail with an unsigned letter in 1992, stating that it was purchased in Mexico in 1960 and that it was Aztec. In comparison with the earlier crystal skulls collected in the 19th century, the Smithsonian skull is enormous; at 31 pounds and nearly 10 inches high it dwarfs all others. Walsh and her British Museum colleague Margaret Sax believe it was manufactured in Mexico shortly before it was sold.

The arrival of the crystal skull at the Smithsonian instigated Walsh’s research into determining the artifact’s origin and establishing its authenticity. With the assistance of Scott Whittaker, the manager of the museum’s Scanning Electron Microscope laboratory, Walsh has carefully studied the lapidary (stone-cutting) techniques on crystal skulls and other hard-stone carvings of purported pre-Columbian origins. Modern stone-carving tool marks have been identified, meaning that the skulls could not have been carved before the mid-19th century and therefore cannot be pre-Columbian. “The Truth About Crystal Skulls” will include scanning-electron-microscope photos at 50 to 500x magnification.

Walsh and her British Museum colleagues conducted joint research on tool marks found on crystal skulls that was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Smithsonian Magazine will highlight crystal skulls in its July issue.

Two other famous crystal skulls are on public view at the British Museum in London and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.

Additional information on crystal skulls can be found on the museum’s Web site at

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, located at 10th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W. in Washington, D.C., is the most visited natural history museum in the world. Opened in 1910, the green-domed museum on the National Mall is dedicated to maintaining and preserving the world’s most extensive collection of natural history specimens and cultural artifacts. It fosters significant scientific research and educational programs and exhibitions that present the work of its scientists to the public. Special summer hours are from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. through Aug. 31. For more information about the museum, visit

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