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The Mystery Behind the Crystal Skulls

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The Mystery Behind the Crystal Skulls

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The Mystery Behind the Crystal Skulls

The Mystery Behind the Crystal Skulls

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Indiana Jones is back on the big screen with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But what exactly is a "crystal skull"? Archaeologist Jane McLaren Walsh explains.

(Soundbite of song "The Raiders March"

IRA FLATOW, host

This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. This week, here it comes, after a decade-long absence. Adventure archaeologist Indiana Jones is back on the big screen. This time he's hunting for a crystal skull stolen from a mythical lost city in the Amazon, and if he finds this skull and returned it to the city's temple, he'll be able to control its power.

I don't know about you, I haven't seen the movie, but my money is on Indy. What about that crystal skull? Is there any archaeological truth to the legend behind the movie? For the rest of the hour, we're going to look at the film and whether Indiana Jones' quest for the missing crystal skull has any basis in fact, or is it all just a movie fiction?

Well, who cares if it is a good movie? But I'd like to talk about the science behind it. And if you'd like to talk about it, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Jane McLaren Walsh is an anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington. She has also contributed to Archeology Magazine and she wrote the cover story in the current issue on crystal skulls. And she joins us today from her office at the museum. Welcome to Science Friday

Dr. JANE MCLAREN WALSH (Anthropologist, Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History): Thank you

FLATOW: Have you seen the movie

Dr. WALSH: No, not yet

FLATOW. It just opened yesterday, I think, or today or something like that. So it's hard, it's hard to have seen it. But I think many of us have never heard about the crystal skulls until the movie came out. But they are something that's wrapped up in history, in mythology, lore, things like that. Tell us a little bit about them. What are they

Dr. WALSH: They're essentially human skulls carved out of quartz

FLATOW: Rocks

Dr. WALSH: Yes

FLATOW: Quartz crystal. And how - where do they ostensibly come from

Dr. WALSH: Up until recently, there maybe have been 10 or 12 in museum collections and most of them are small but there are too large ones, one in the British Museum and one in Paris. And they all are also - were supposed to have come from Mexico and the Aztec in origin

FLATOW: When you say supposed to, I see a little bit of skepticism

Dr. WALSH: Just a bit

(Soundbite of laughter

FLATOW: Just a bit. They're more like trinkets than actual worth, you know, very, very valuable crystal skulls.

Dr. WALSH: Well, my theory is that the small ones that are about an inch or an inch and a half in diameter, probably were made in Mexico, but in the 19th century, and were made to sell to European and North American tourists

FLATOW: Oh, my goodness

Dr. WALSH: And those eventually wind up in museum collections

FLATOW: So, they're not ancient like..

Dr. WALSH: No, I don't think so

FLATOW: No, they're..

Dr. WALSH: These stolen ones that I've looked at closely, they were all carved with modern tools

FLATOW: Tourist tchachkes we might..

Dr. WALSH: Sort of early airport art

FLATOW: And what about the big one

Dr. WALSH: Well, the big ones sort of appear in Europe, in Paris, and both of them are sold by the same French antiquities dealer which sort of aroused some suspicion in me

FLATOW: Now, were the little ones, did they start out as skulls? Or where they something else, because they have holes drilled in them, don't they

Dr. WALSH: Yes, my - I think and I'm not sure about this, but I think some of them may have been found by local people and may actually be pre-Columbian beads, not as skulls, but just as smooth round beads with holes drilled in them

FLATOW: And then someone in the tourist industry said, yeah, pick them up and..

Dr. WALSH: Improved upon them in the 19th century

FLATOW: Good choice of words, improved for the tourist trade. And so, there really is no basis in fact of these being ancient Aztec, Mayan or whatever

Dr. WALSH: Not that I know. I mean, the Aztecs and the Mayans did carve crystal, but essentially because crystal, rock crystal or quartz, is so hard, it's very difficult to carve. So most of what we find in archaeological contexts are beads or small lip plugs that are basically just ground into shape.

FLATOW: Are there any on display, you know, in museums as the real thing

Dr. WALSH: Yes, there are

FLATOW: Where can we - where - you're afraid to say so. I can see that

Dr. WALSH: Thank you. I may not be allowed back in. But yes, there are a few. A few museums still consider them to be actual pre-Colombian objects, or some think that maybe they're colonial objects

FLATOW: Isn't there one in a past museum that's on display during the world premiere of the movie

Dr. WALSH: Yes. But they - the French have been doing some very interesting research on their skull

FLATOW: Really

Dr. WALSH: And they believe it to be 19th century also. The people in the movie who have been doing some scientific research think that they're able to date the crystal. So I don't want to sort of jump ahead on them, because they plan to publish this

FLATOW: But they're not going to - they predate it back to Aztec time

Dr. WALSH: No

FLATOW: No, they - maybe a store on the West Side in 1928, or something

(Soundbite of laughter

FLATOW: Something

Dr. WALSH: No, they purchased their skull in 1878. So it is - it's at least that old

FLATOW: Right. That was the time where all these antiquities were rolling around the world, weren't they

Dr. WALSH: Yes. Yeah

FLATOW: The Egyptians and everything else were getting shuffled around

Dr. WALSH: Yeah

FLATOW: Let's see if we can get a phone call in or two, 1-800-989-8255. Tom in Baltimore

TOM (Caller): Yeah. Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call

FLATOW: You're welcome

TOM: Love your show. I'm the owner of the Senator Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland, and for the weekend of the 30th through June 1st, we're going to have Joan Parks and her crystal skull. That is the thing of fable called Max. And the owner, Joan, acknowledges readily that most of the crystal skulls, if not all of the other ones that she'd seen, are modern. But it appears Max has so far held up to scrutiny, with regards to tool marks or modern carving techniques, and it may very well be ancient. I'd just like to see what your expert has to say

FLATOW: Can you take the truth

TOM: Sure

FLATOW: Jane

Dr. WALSH: Well, I haven't examined Max closely. But I have been in proximity to him, and I think Max is a modern carving from what's called milky quartz, which is essentially what the Smithsonian skull is made from, and these seem to be appearing in Mexico and kind of - perhaps even Northern Mexico or the American Southwest, starting in the 1970s and '80s

TOM: Well, you know, the - well, I've seen this object, and it's made out of different types of quartz that have been fused down in the Earth, and supposedly, the crystal carvers have looked at this, and told Joan on numerous occasions that you can't carve that kind of crystal with modern tools. It will shatter

FLATOW: You think they had better tools than we have

TOM: Well, they may have sanded it down over. There's - isn't there some theories about that

Dr. WALSH: I don't think so

FLATOW: All right, Tom. Good luck on your premiere

TOM: Thank you

FLATOW: Don't tell us how it ends

TOM: All right

FLATOW: Take care. 1-800-989-8255. How can you tell? Can you give (unintelligible) people an idea of how you can tell if - how old it is, and whether the carving is new or ancient

Dr. WALSH: Well, one of the things I did when I first got interested in the skull, principally when it sort of arrived on our doorstep was, I did a lot of historical research, and I discovered this fact that the same person sold most of the skulls. So when I contacted the British Museum, I discovered that they were already in the process of doing a series of scientific tests on their skull.

So we formed a partnership, and did a joint study of the British Museum skull, the Smithsonian skull, and we borrowed the only large quartz - carved quartz object from Mexico, that has ever really come out of an archaeological context. So we wanted to compare the tool marks and the methods of manufacture.

And this was really - initial work was really done by Margaret Sax in free stone, looking at tool marks under a light microscope, and also scanning electron microscope. And then Andrew Rankin and Nigel Miggs (ph) looked at the inclusions in the quartz, trying to decide perhaps what the source was

FLATOW: Right

Dr. WALSH: And strangely enough, the skull may have had something to do with this. But this is the paper that has been in the works for nearly a decade. And today, I received a pdf of it from the Journal of Archaeological Science. So, it's about to come out

FLATOW: Saying what

Dr. WALSH: Saying what? Saying that - well, the title of it is, "The Origin of Two Purportedly Pre-Colombian Mexican Crystals Skulls.

FLATOW: Purportedly

Dr. WALSH: Yes.

FLATOW: That tells us the answer to the - that's the abstract, right

Dr. WALSH: Yes, fair enough

FLATOW: Yeah. Can you date the rock? I mean, is there any way to date the rock to see even if the quartz is that old, which is very old, you know

Dr. WALSH: Well, according to date the - yeah, I suppose you can date the rock. But that wouldn't..

FLATOW: Yeah

Dr. WALSH: That would just tell you how old the rock is

FLATOW: Right

Dr. WALSH: But the French think they're able to date the carving..

FLATOW: Ah

Dr. WALSH: So - and that paper is about to come out also. I think it's coming out in Nature. So it's wonderful that all this work is sort of finally seeing the light of day

FLATOW: And what a coincidence.

Dr. WALSH: Yes

(Soundbite of laughter

FLATOW: That it's coming out at this time. Sarah in Portland, welcome to Science Friday. Sarah, are you there

SARAH (Caller): Yes, I'm here

FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead

SARAH: Hi. Well, I was just wondering if just a presence of these skulls kindles in, you know, context of our - the world of anthropology for the time that they were thought original, if there's been any damage to the historical record with them in existence

FLATOW: What do you mean by damage

SARAH: Well, if there's been - well, with the historical record, a lot of avid anthropologists - myself, we, you know, a lot of research is based from that record, and I was just kind of curious if it's kind of either - there have been archaeological digs that shouldn't have taken place because of these skulls, if there's been research that shouldn't have been done in a certain way, because of these skulls, if there's been any kind of lingering damage that they've done to the historical record

FLATOW: Before we go, let me remind everybody, this is Talk of The Nation Science Friday, from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow with Jane McLaren Walsh. Dr. Walsh, any damage to the historical record

Dr. WALSH: I don't think so. I suspect that a lot of people who say they've dug these crystal skulls up have actually purchased them, and the amount of research I've done on skulls in private collections is not very great, but most of the information that comes out of their so-called documentation is really just anecdotal

FLATOW: Let me go to one quick question from Kevin in Chicago. Hi, Kevin

KEVIN (caller): Hey, how you doing, Ira

FLATOW: Hi there

KEVIN: Yeah, hey, I was just wondering if there's some frustration with the pseudo documentaries that Lester Hall just did, one on skulls that would legitimize the magical powers of these skulls, or even the authenticity

FLATOW: Yeah

Dr. WALSH: Yes, yes. There is a great deal of frustration

FLATOW: Well, even if these skulls are fake, are they still worth displaying at all

Dr. WALSH: Yeah, well, I'm - as an artifact, I think they're legitimate artifacts. They're just not what they're purported to be. But they tell us a story, and oftentimes the story is more about ourselves than anything else

FLATOW: Mm-hm. So, you expecting now to be inundated

(Soundbite of laughter

Dr. WALSH: I've already been inundated

FLATOW: By us, if not all people

Dr. WALSH: I don't know. I'm hoping that once the movie is out, this will all die down

FLATOW: And not get worse, huh

(Soundbite of laugher

Dr. WALSH: And I can get back to work

FLATOW: What do you work on

Dr. WALSH: Mostly I do research in Mexican archaeological collections

FLATOW: Mm-hm

Dr. WALSH: And I'm very interested in 19th-century collections, because I think they tell us a lot about how we, sort of, absorb knowledge and how expertise evolves and..

FLATOW: Mm-hm

Dr. WALSH: They're very interesting to me

FLATOW: But a film like this, even though, you know, it causes a lot of chatter, it also picks people's interest in archeology

Dr. WALSH: Yes. That's true

FLATOW: You know, it reminds us that there are archaeologists out there. There are interesting and exciting things to discover, and maybe they will do some - in doing research on the skulls, they might learn something

Dr. WALSH: Yes, they will

FLATOW: That's a positive thing that comes out of, you know..

Dr. WALSH: Yeah

FLATOW: Culture in the films

Dr. WALSH: Oh, yeah, I'm definitely a fan of "Indiana Jones.

(Soundbite of laughter

FLATOW: Are people, real archaeologists, really like him

Dr. WALSH: No

(Soundbite of laughter

Dr. WALSH: Hardly any of those scary bullwhips

FLATOW: Well, how about the hat

Dr. WALSH: Well, actually a friend of mine recently gave me a hat. So, but I hate - but it's too small. So, I'm not wearing it

FLATOW: Do you have the whip, too? You don't have the whip

Dr. WALSH: No. No

FLATOW: How about the six-shooter

(Soundbite of laughter

Dr. WALSH: No

FLATOW: Can you run as fast as he does at 60 years old

Dr. WALSH: Well, I'm 60 years old, and probably I can

FLATOW: Probably you can. Are there places that you dig up, as dangerous as the places he goes into, physically? You know, crawling in spaces and..

Dr. WALSH: Mostly I do indoor archeology

FLATOW: Oh

Dr. WALSH: So, no, they're not dangerous

FLATOW: All right. Well, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us, Dr. Walsh

Dr. WALSH: Oh, you're very welcome

FLATOW: Dr. Jane McLaren Walsh is an arc - anthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and contributed to Archeology Magazine, which has on its cover all kinds of stuff about these crystal skulls, and of course, she's going to be inundated with stuff and our phone calls about the movie, which opens up this week.

Maybe we'll take a look at the movie, and come back and have a critique about some other parts of the film. Lot of "Indiana Jones" things that seemed kind of wacky, a lot of science films - a lot of films that have science in it, I say, are - purport to have science in it. We'll be trying to critique them as we go along the way and find these science films.

And if you have any ideas, send us an idea for what film you'd like us to critique. What kind of science might be in them? And we'll get our science and arts teams on it, and see what we can come up with. This program is produced by Karin Vergoth, senior producer Annette Heist. Charles Bergquist is our director. Flora Lichtman is our producer for digital media, Schumann Mao (ph), our Metcalfe Fellow, our interns Christopher (ph) and Talyata (ph)

Josh Rogosin is our technical director and he's also at the controls here in New York with help today from Glen Alexander (ph) at WBUR in Boston. We also had help at Second Life from Lynn Collins (ph), Dave Andrews (ph), Jeff Corbin (ph) at the University of Denver, and if you have questions or comments, surf over to our website, ScienceFriday.com.

You can also log into Second Life where we have a bunch of folks there you can talk with, and also get a Science Friday t-shirt. Also, we are podcasting and blogging, and looking for your videos. Maybe you're an archeologist. You got to - we're looking for videos of digs. You have a dig? You've been on as an archeologist? You have a video you want to send it to us? We'll put it together, put it up with the dozens of other videos we have on our website. They get distributed to science museums and public radio stations around the country, so we hope to do that for you and create more videos. I'm Ira Flatow in New York

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Who's the Brain Behind 'Aztec' Crystal Skulls?

Who's the Brain Behind 'Aztec' Crystal Skulls?

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Smithsonian crystal skull i

This crystal skull was anonymously mailed to the Smithsonian Institution in 1992. A letter included with the artifact said it was from the Aztec empire. Jim DiLoreto/Smithsonian Institution hide caption

toggle caption Jim DiLoreto/Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian crystal skull

This crystal skull was anonymously mailed to the Smithsonian Institution in 1992. A letter included with the artifact said it was from the Aztec empire.

Jim DiLoreto/Smithsonian Institution
Researchers inspect a crystal skull under the microscope. i

Anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh and Scott Whittaker from the Smithsonian Institution examine a smaller crystal skull under the microscope. Jim DiLoreto/Smithsonian Institution hide caption

toggle caption Jim DiLoreto/Smithsonian Institution
Researchers inspect a crystal skull under the microscope.

Anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh and Scott Whittaker from the Smithsonian Institution examine a smaller crystal skull under the microscope.

Jim DiLoreto/Smithsonian Institution

A swashbuckling archaeologist returns to the big screen next week, in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As the title suggests, the precious artifact this time around is a crystal skull. In reality, crystal skulls are immersed in intrigue — and not just the kind Hollywood would have you believe.

Some of the skulls are in museums; others are held by private collectors. The largest known specimen can be found at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. But you won't see it on display. You have to wend your way down a long hallway lined with ceiling-high cabinets filled with human bones. In a back office, inside a locked filing cabinet, the skull is in the care of anthropologist Jane Walsh.

"This is actually called milky quartz," Walsh explains as she gingerly lifts the carved quartz skull out of a drawer. It's the size of a bowling ball, smooth as ice, with hollow eye sockets. "It weighs 31 pounds," she says. "I know because I carried it to London."

This skull was mailed to the Smithsonian in 1992. The anonymous donor said it was a genuine artifact of the Aztec empire, which collapsed in the 1500s.

Walsh wondered if her skull was the real McCoy.

She did some reading and discovered that there are dozens of crystal skulls around the world. Most are quite small, the size of golf balls. They started to appear in the antiquities trade in the 1860s. Several were sold from Mexico by a French collector named Eugene Boban.

Revealing Origins

But Walsh's studies didn't shed light on the big question: Could the Aztecs have carved these pieces? Walsh studied the kinds of tools the Aztecs used to carve stone, such as the pump drill, a wood-and-rope contraption that spins a wooden rod with a stone tip. Such tools left distinctive marks, different from those left by modern tools such as fast-spinning rotary wheels.

Walsh needed someone to help analyze the skull, so she took it to Margaret Sax at the British Museum in London. Sax is an expert on markings from carving and polishing. She examined the tool marks under a powerful scanning electron microscope, just as she had done with another big crystal skull her museum had owned for over a century. It, too, was supposed to be ancient Mexican.

But just like the British specimen, Walsh's artifact wasn't authentic.

"The tool marks on both the Smithsonian skull and the British Museum skull were clearly produced by wheel cutting," she says, "and so we are able to say they are of post-Columbian date." The marks' shape, depth and surface texture indicated the skulls had been made by rotary tools, and no one in Central or South America was known to have those until Europeans arrived.

Now Walsh and Sax are looking at the type of quartz from which the skulls are made. Small imperfections could help identify where it came from. They say neither of the two skulls is likely from Mexico, home of the Aztecs.

An Invented Artifact

One thing the scientists have figured out is that the British Museum's skull came from Boban, that mysterious French collector. In the late 1800s, he first described it as a piece of artwork. Then he began calling it an Aztec artifact, in an attempt, Sax says, to make it "more appealing in order to sell it."

So, what are these things? Walsh says they're not exactly "fakes" because they aren't copies of anything.

"I don't think there are any real ones," she explains. "They're really a kind of invented artifact. ... Some person or some workshop was cranking them out and selling them to a European or North American audience, which is where they all wind up."

Eventually, they wind up locked away in the bowels of a museum.

Walsh returns the skull to its place in the drawer. "We should have him face out," she says, and then laughs. "People keep telling me not to look it in the eye."

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