How Crystal Skulls Work

By: Shanna Freeman  | 
A crystal skull is the focal point, with a black rose, on top of a book.
A skull made of crystal. Little Hand Images / Getty Images

To some people, crystal skulls might conjure up images of Indiana Jones and the hunt for an object carved from quartz crystal in the shape of a human skull. They can be clear or crystal colored, and they range from crudely carved to incredibly detailed. Some crystal skulls are just a few inches in diameter, while others are life-size.

Whether you find them beautiful or creepy, many crystal skulls are representations of amazing craftsmanship. That's part of why institutions like the Smithsonian, the British Museum and the Musée de l'Homme in Paris have acquired them for their museum collections and displayed or continue to display them.


Mixed Views on Crystal Skulls

According to believers in the supernatural and the occult, crystal skulls are more than just interesting artifacts. They may represent doom and destruction, or hope and healing.

Some people think that you can use crystal skulls like crystal balls to see visions of the past, present and future. They claim that the skulls emit psychic energy, auras or even sounds. Believers point to Maya creation myths that reference crystal skulls and a story that the Maya scattered 13 crystal skulls thousands of years ago in hopes that people would discover and reunite them in modern times.


The meaning of crystal skulls isn't the only thing up for debate; there's also a lot of mystery surrounding their history. Some think that they're thousands of years old and that ancient aliens are behind them; others think they are relics of lost civilizations like Atlantis or Lemuria.

Others call them "fakes," carved within the last few hundred years and sold with phony stories so they could bring better prices at auction. The controversy dates back to the mid-1930s and continues today, despite the assertions of both New Age believers and skeptics.

Read on to learn what both devotees of the supernatural and scientists have to say about these artifacts' origins.


The Mitchell-Hedges Skull

F. A. Mitchell-Hedges leaves for Central America to excavate the pre-Columbian Maya city of Lubaatun on January 6, 1926.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Of all of the crystal skulls, the Mitchell-Hedges skull is probably the most infamous. Anna Mitchell-Hedges, the adopted daughter of a British adventurer and traveler named F.A. Mitchell-Hedges, allegedly discovered the skull in the mid-1920s. Anna claimed she found the skull beneath the altar of a Maya temple in Lubaantun, a pre-Columbian Mesoamerica city in Belize, on her 17th birthday.

According to Anna, the Maya told her that the skull could "will death" [source: "Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World"]. When a priest became too old to continue with his duties, he and his replacement would lie in front of the altar with the skull. After a ceremony, all of the elderly priest's knowledge would transfer into the younger man. Then the old priest would die.


The Mitchell-Hedges skull is about 8 inches (20 cm) long, 5 inches (51 cm) wide and 5 inches (51 cm) high and made out of transparent quartz. It weighs around 12 pounds (5.4 kg) and has many of the details of a human skull, with ridges, cheekbones, a nose socket, a detached jawbone and deep eye sockets.

In 1936, a description of the skull appeared in the British journal "Man" (in comparison with another crystal skull that the British Museum owned), but the publication named art dealer Sydney Burney as the skull's owner. Anna explained that her father had actually left the skull in the keeping of Burney, who put it up for auction as payment for a debt in 1943. Mitchell-Hedges ended up paying Burney at Sotheby's auction house to get the skull back.

However, there's evidence that disputes Anna's claims and shows that Mitchell-Hedges bought the skull outright from Burney at Sotheby's.

In "Secrets of the Supernatural," author Joe Nickell quotes a letter written by Burney to the American Museum of Natural History and dated 1933, which states "the rock-crystal skull was for several years in the possession of the collector from whom I bought it and he in his turn had it from an Englishman in whose collection it had been also for several years, but beyond that I have not been able to go" [source: Nickell].

Anna and the Skull

©Photographer: Tose |

Strangely, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges only documented the skull once, in "Danger, My Ally," a book that he wrote describing his adventures. Near the end of the book, Mitchell-Hedges states that the crystal skull is a "skull of doom" that dates "back at least 3,600 years, and taking about 150 years to rub down with sand from a block of pure rock crystal."

He also goes on to say that "several people who have cynically laughed at it have died, others have been stricken and become seriously ill [...] How it came into my possession, I have reason for not revealing" [source: Mitchell-Hedges]. Mitchell-Hedges doesn't make any mention of his daughter's presence at Lubaantun in the book, nor does he give her credit as the finder of the skull.

Two friends of Mitchell-Hedges who came along on the excavation of Lubaantum, Lady Richmond Brown and Dr. Thomas Gann, never spoke or wrote of the skull. Anna isn't present in the many photographs of the dig at Lubaantun, either.

Mitchell-Hedges died in 1959, and Anna became the owner after. She toured with the skull and gave many talks and interviews. In many accounts, she gave the date of discovery as 1924 and 1927. These dates don't match her father's account of his time in Lubaantun, which he states "ended late in 1926" [source: Mitchell-Hedges].

After the Mitchell-Hedges Skull

Anna retired from touring with the skull and moved to the United States. However, she continued to give interviews about the skull and continued to uphold claims of the skull's discovery and magical properties.

In a 1983 letter to Joe Nickell, Anna stated that the skull had been "used for healing a number of times" and hoped it "will go to an institution where it will be used by mathmeticians [sic], weather people, surgeons, etc." [source: Nickell].


Other Crystal Skulls

Crystal skull from the British Museum.
Staff/AFP/Getty Images

The Mitchell-Hedges skull is arguably the most famous crystal skull, but people have discovered (or publicized, depending on what you believe) several others. Most of them do not have the same storied history as the Mitchell-Hedges skull, but each is still unique.

The British Museum's Crystal Skull

The British Museum crystal skull has existed at least as long as the Mitchell-Hedges skull. In 1936, G.M. Morant compared this crystal skull with the Mitchell-Hedges skull (then owned by Sydney Burney). It's also life-size, but the British Museum skull isn't as detailed. It has rounder eye sockets, and its jaw doesn't detach. It's also made of cloudy quartz. Morant believed that the skulls weren't made independently of each other, but he had no proof of this.


The British Museum purchased the skull from Tiffany & Co. in 1898. It supposedly came from Mexico and became the property of Eugène Boban, a French art dealer, before Tiffany's acquired it. In 1990, the museum displayed the skull in an exhibit called "Fake? The Art of Deception." Its label reads "possible of Aztec origin — the Colonial period at the earliest."

The British Museum also has a smaller, cruder crystal skull called the Aztec skull.

The Smithsonian's Crystal Skull

There are more purported Aztec crystal skulls. In 1992, a Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C., received a crystal skull in the mail. The anonymous donor claimed it was an Aztec artifact from ancient Mesoamerica. However, after an investigation, anthropologist Jane MacLaren Walsh found that the Smithsonian skull was a fake.

The Paris Crystal Skull

The Paris skull is in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. It's cruder than the British Museum skull and has a hole cut into the top, supposedly to hold a cross.

The Paris crystal skull is half the size of the Mitchell-Hedges and British Museum skulls. It weighs about 6 pounds (2.7 kg) and is about 4.5 inches (11 cm) high and 6 inches (15 cm) long [source: Henderson]. This skull was thought to be Aztec. Alphonse Pinart purchased it from Eugène Boban in 1878 and donated it to the museum. The museum also owns a very small crystal skull that's about 1.5 inches (4 cm) long.

More Crystal Skulls

In addition to these, there are several small (1 inch or 3 centimeters in diameter) crystal skulls in museums, thought to be Aztec or Mixtec, with holes drilled either vertically or horizontally. These small crystal skulls might have served as necklaces.

  • Max, the "Texas Crystal Skull," is a clear, one-piece skull reportedly from Guatemala. It belongs to Jo Ann Parks, who began exhibiting it in the 1980s.
  • Supposedly discovered in 1900 on a property owned by a Central American Family, "ET" is a smoky crystal skull. It has a pointed skull and an overbite. Joky van Dieten, who owns several other crystal skulls, is the skull's owner.
  • An amethyst crystal skull called "Ami" was supposedly found in the 1900s. It has a squiggly white line around its circumference and is allegedly Maya.
  • "Sha-na-ra" is a clear crystal skull weighing about 13 pounds (6 kg) and owned by Nick Nocerino, a self-described expert in crystal skull research who claims that it came from Mexico.


Crystal Skull Myth vs. Reality

A crystal skull.
Photographer: Webking

Believers in the power of crystal skulls have made some fantastic claims about their mystical properties and psychic abilities. Anna Mitchell-Hedges claimed that her skull had healing properties, though she never gave any specifics. The owner of “ET” believes that it helped to heal her brain tumor. Many people who have encountered the better-known crystal skulls describe them as giving off strong “psychic energy.”

Mitchell-Hedges only allowed her skull out of her possession once: in 1970. Art restorer Frank Dorland studied the skull for six years. He claimed that he heard ringing bells and the sound of a choir singing. Dorland also said that he saw an aura around the skull and could see images when gazing into it.


Some crystal skull devotees point to the piezoelectric properties of quartz crystal as evidence of the skulls' power. They say that the skulls might function like large computer chips that have recorded the history of the Earth or even messages from aliens or lost civilizations. We just have to discover the right way to “read” them.

Frank Dorland also made many other, less dubious, observations about the Mitchell-Hedges skull. He claimed that the skull showed signs of “mechanical grinding on the faces of the teeth” [source: Garvin]. Norman Hammond, a Maya expert who examined the skull while appearing on a TV show with Anna Mitchell-Hedges, stated that it also had holes that obviously came from a metal drill.

Dorland also claimed to have taken the Mitchell-Hedges skull to Hewlett-Packard Laboratories to learn more about its composition. Lowered into a vat of benzyl alcohol, it became nearly invisible. This proved that the skull was actually quartz crystal (alcohol and quartz have the same diffraction coefficient, they both bend light waves at the same angle).

Dorland stated that the Hewlett-Packard researchers also determined that it was carved from a single piece of crystal and that it was carved without taking its axes into consideration. However, Hewlett-Packard has no record of these tests.

While appearing with her on Arthur C. Clarke's 1980 TV show “Mysterious World,” gem expert Allan Jobbins told Anna Mitchell-Hedges that he thought the skull comprised crystal that originated in Brazil (which the Maya did not inhabit) and probably dated back to a time after 1700.


Making Crystal Skulls

A view of the British Museum.
Harold Cunningham/WireImage/Getty Images

The British Museum skull and the Paris skull were likely carved from Brazilian crystal as well. Researchers at the British Museum also believe that most crystal skulls came from Germany, where large quantities of Brazilian crystal were imported and worked in the late 19th century.

Because Eugène Boban dealt in the sale of both skulls as well as other pre-Columbian artifacts, he's likely the source of most of these crystal skulls. Whether he knew that they were fakes or not is a matter of debate [source: Henderson].


As for how the skulls were made, the Department of Scientific Research at the British Museum concluded that its skull:

...bears traces of the use of a jeweler's wheel, which was unknown in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. These traces and the high polish of its surface indicate that it was carved using traditional European techniques. [source: The British Museum]

In 2005, Jane Walsh, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian, took the Smithsonian's crystal skull for testing at the British Museum with an electron-scanning microscope. Rather than showing the uneven scratches one would expect from an object carved with pre-Columbian tools, all of the crystal skulls showed clean rows in arcs that would have been made by modern wheeled tools.

Walsh states, "All of the crystal skulls had been carved with modern coated lapidary wheels using industrial diamonds and polished with modern machinery" [source: Inside Smithsonian Research].

Attempts to test the Mitchell-Hedges skull further have not come to fruition. Some crystal skull believers say that more skulls, including "Max" and "Sha-na-ra" were part of the British Museum test. However, they state that the museum didn't release their findings on these skulls. Some even say that the museum denies testing them at all.

Why Would Someone 'Fake' Crystal Skulls?

In the 19th century, the "age of the museum," these types of artifacts were in high demand and could bring a lot of money. Because the origins of each skull are difficult to pinpoint, some still prefer to believe that they are ancient.

Skulls figure prominently in Mexican and Central American cultures, so it's possible that some crystal skulls truly are ancient artifacts. But the best-known, perfectly smooth and detailed skulls are likely a result of modern techniques.

Regardless of their origins, these skulls remain fascinating, even beautiful, works of art.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Adler, Shawn. ""Indy's 'Crystal Skull': What's the Title Mean?" MTV, September 12, 2007.
  • "Crystal Skulls, Central America and Southern Mexico." Top Ten Places of Mystery, The Travel Channel, November 22, 2006.
  • Digby, Adrian. "Comments on the Morphological Comparison of Two Crystal Skulls." Man, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, July 1936.
  • "The Crystal Skull." Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, Yorkshire Television, Trident Television, Inc, 1980.
  • Garvin, Richard. "The Crystal Skull." Doubleday, 1973.
  • ­Henderson, Amy and Adrienne L. Kaeppler. "Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian." Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.
  • Mitchell-Hedg­es, F.A. "Danger My Ally." Elek Books, 1954.
  • Morant, G.M. "A Morphological Comparison of Two Crystal Skulls." Man, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, July 1936.
  • Nickell, Joe. "Secrets of the Supernatural." Prometheus Books, 1988.
  • Rock Crystal Skull: The British Museum.
  • Shapiro, Joseph. "The Crystal Skulls," 1996.
  • Smith, Donald. "With a high-tech microscope, scientist exposes hoax of 'ancient' crystal skulls." Inside Smithsonian Research, Summer 2005.
  • The Skeptic's Dictionary: Crystal Skull.
  • Welfare, Simon and John Fairley. "Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World," A&W Publishers, 1980.