How Crystal Skulls Work

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, a crystal skull is simply an object carved from quartz crystal in the shape of a human skull. They can be clear or colored crystal, 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 some of them have been (and still are) exhibited in the Smithsonian, the British Museum and the Musee de l'Homme in Paris.

But 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 crystal skulls can be used 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 Mayan creation myths that reference crystal skulls and a story that 13 crystal skulls were scattered by the Mayans thousands of years ago to be discovered and reunited 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 could have been placed by aliens, or 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.

In this article, we'll take a look at the stories behind the most well known crystal skulls. We'll also learn what both devotees of the supernatural and scientists have to say about their origins. Let's start with the Mitchell-Hedges skull, possibly the most discussed crystal skull of the past 70 years.


The Mitchell-Hedges Skull

F. A. Mitchell-Hedges leaves for Central America to excavate the Mayan city of Lubaatun on January 6, 1926.
F. A. Mitchell-Hedges leaves for Central America to excavate the Mayan 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. The skull was allegedly discovered in the mid-1920s by Anna Mitchell-Hedges, the adopted daughter of a British adventurer and traveler named F.A. Mitchell-Hedges. Anna claims that she found the skull beneath the altar of a Mayan temple in Lubaantun, a ruined city in Belize, on her 17th birthday.

According to Anna, the Mayans told her that the skull was used to "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 be transferred into the younger man. Then the old priest would die.


The Mitchell-Hedges skull is about 8 inches long, 5 inches wide and 5 inches high and made out of transparent quartz. It weighs around 12 pounds 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 owned by the British Museum), but its ownership was attributed to an art dealer named Sydney Burney. 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 has kept the skull ever since. 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].


Next, we'll look at the history of some other crystal skulls.

Other Crystal Skulls

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

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

The British Museum crystal skull has been around 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 had no proof of this.


This skull was purchased by the British Museum 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 Paris skull is kept 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 and is about 4.5 inches high and 6 inches 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 long.

In 1992, the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution received a crystal skull in the mail. This skull is bigger than life-size, weighing a little over 30 pounds at 9 inches high and about 8 inches long [Source: Henderson]. The anonymous note accompanying the skull stated that it was an "Aztec crystal skull" and "purchased in Mexico City in 1960" [Source: Henderson]. It's made of milky white crystal and is crudely carved compared to some of the other skulls. It's also hollow.

In the next section, we'll examine the supernatural claims about crystal skulls, as well as what scientists and researchers have determined.


Crystal Skull Myth vs. Reality

A crystal skull
A crystal skull
Photographer: Webking

Believers in the power of crystal skulls have made some fantastic claims about their abilities. Anna Mitchell-Hedges claims that her skull was used for healing but has never been specific. The owner of “ET” believes that it helped to heal her brain tumor. Many people who have encountered the more well known crystal skulls describe them as giving off strong “psychic energy.”

Mitchell-Hedges has 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 Mayan expert who examined the skull while appearing on a TV show with Anna Mitchell-Hedges, stated that it also had holes that were obviously drilled using a metal drill.

Dorland also claims to have taken the Mitchell-Hedges skull to Hewlett-Packard Laboratories to learn more about its composition. It was lowered into a vat of benzyl alcohol, where 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 states 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 (not known to have been inhabited by Mayans) and was probably worked after 1700.


Making Crystal Skulls

The British Museum
The British Museum
Harold Cunningham/WireImage/Getty Images

The British Museum skull and the Paris skull were also likely carved from Brazilian crystal. Researchers at the British Museum also believe that most crystal skulls were carved in Germany, where large quantities of Brazilian crystal was imported and worked in the late 19th century. Because Eugène Boban is known to have been involved 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 to be tested at the British Museum with an electron-scanning microscope. Rather than showing the uneven scratches that 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 been refused. Some crystal skull believers say that more skulls, including "Max" and "Sha-na-ra" were part of the British Museum test. They state that the museum didn't release their findings on these skulls, however. 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 can't be perfectly established, some still prefer to believe that they are ancient. Skulls figure prominently in Mexican and Central American culture, so it's possible that some crystal skulls truly are ancient artifacts. But the most well-known, perfectly smooth and detailed skulls must have been carved using 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.