Empty Noggin: The Crystal Skull of the British Museum

January 13, 2018 – Today, the mention of these artifacts conjures images of Shia LaBeouf and Harrison Ford sharing a motorcycle seat or Dan Aykroyd touting the Herkimer diamond-filtered purity of his vodka. But once upon a time, crystal skulls were up there with Stonehenge itself as icons of the mysterious and strange.

And I finally got to see one. Under glass at the British Museum in London. An institution, which, honestly, seems to be a little embarrassed by its artifact.

Quick primer on crystal skulls. Legend has it that these life-sized quartz sculptures of human head bone are from South America and date back to the Aztecs and Mayans. Also that they have mystical properties on both the healing and hurting ends of the spectrum, as well as being scions of esoteric information. Like skull-shaped computer servers. And once you’ve gone that far, it’s only a skip and a hyperjump to attributing their origin to aliens. We want to believe.

The most famous of the crystal skulls is the Mitchell-Hedges skull, aka, the Skull of Doom. F.A. Mitchell-Hedges was one of those British adventurers we love to lionize. Exploring the world, calling people Old Boy, smoking pipes and having tea on folding tables in deserts and jungles. He started showing off his macabre find sometime around 1943.

But it was his daughter Anna who really stoked its myth after his death. She claimed that they found it in an ancient temple ruin in Belize. Also claimed that it…could…kill. You just kind of held it in your hand and willed the person’s death. Very handy. She toured the dangerous piece of quartz around for most of her life. After her death in 2007, it was left to her husband of five years, who continues to bear its strange legacy, which has been made stranger by rebranding the crystal as the Skull of Love.

But the truth of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull…and of every other contemporary crystal skull, is that they were all made in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Europe because everyone who had the cash and a collection wanted ancient South American artifacts around that time. It was a fad. A very cool fad, but a fad nonetheless. Mitchell-Hedges himself wrote in a letter that he bought it at Sotheby’s in London.

Regardless of all that exciting buildup and disappointing conclusion, crystal skulls are some of the coolest things on the planet, like, just intrinsically, and I’ve wanted to see one in person ever since I was a weirdo kid reading every weirdo book that I could find at the library. It took me a few decades to finally align my eyeballs with the crystal sockets of one of these things, though, and it was at London’s British Museum.

Heck, once inside, it took me almost as long to find the thing. And not because it’s almost invisible. Because the British Museum is a bit ho-hum about its quartz cabeza. I mean, I knew it was displayed in the Americas section. And that was pretty easy to find. But I had to wander through that entire gallery before I found the skull itself.

And that was because the crystal skull was displayed all alone, far away from the other exhibits, by a bench in the corner of a large atrium. Almost hidden. Kind of where I would have put a water fountain if my job was placing water fountains in august European institutions.

The placard stated simply and apologetically:

Rock Crystal Skull
Late 19th century AD 
It was originally thought to have 
been Aztec, but recent research 
proves it’s European.

And yet, they keep displaying it in the Americas wing. And when I say keep, I mean for like more than a hundred years.

The British Museum’s crystal skull rolled onto the record in 1881, where it was logged at an antiquities shop in Paris. That shop then moved to New York, taking the skull with it, where it was bought by a collector and then sold again, to Tiffany’s. The British Museum slinks into the chain of custody next, in 1897. The museum almost immediately put it out on the floor, where it’s been, off and on, ever since.

Even better, this skull is believed to be the model on which the Mitchell-Hedges Skull was based. The only real difference between the two is that the British Museum’s is all one piece, while the Mitchell-Hedges Skull has a removable jaw.

I kind of saddened me to see the skull displayed in such a boring corner of such an exciting museum. Backdropped by beige walls and used as a side table by visitors exhausted by the wonders of the world, in an unadorned case straight out of a museum catalog. None of it is intended to highlight the beauty of the piece. I was hoping for a more reverent presentation, like the time I saw the diamond-encrusted skull that is Damien Hurst’s goddy/gaudy For the Love of God.

Of course, these days, you can buy crystal skulls of various sizes and hues and materials anywhere online. I haven’t done so yet, somehow, but it will just take one drunken midnight in front of the computer. Until then, I’ll just stick with my Crystal Skull Vodka bottle. Thanks, Dan!