The Mitchell-Hedges Skull

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The Mitchell-Hedges Skull.[1]

Famously known as the “Skull of Doom”, the Mitchell-Hedges Skull was one of the most notable crystal skulls in history to garner the attention of the archaeological community and the public. Modeled after a human skull, the crystal skull is carved from a single block of clear quartz and measures 5 inches high, 7 inches long, and 5 inches wide, with a detached mandible[2]. The skull held importance for both archaeological and pseudoarchaeological communities. It was mistakenly believed to be a genuine pre-Columbian Mesoamerican artifact, which would’ve been a rare addition to the study of pre-Columbian history[3]. Pseudoarchaeologists, however, mistakenly believed the skull was proof of extraterrestrial life or the existence of a lost civilization like Atlantis[2]. Public knowledge of the skull today is primarily due to its popularization in the 2008 movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull which famously features a crystal skull modeled after the Mitchell-Hedges Skull.

History

Discovery

The skull was allegedly discovered in 1924 by Anna Mitchell-Hedges, after whom it was named. She claimed to find it under a collapsed altar of a Mayan temple (or in some accounts, within a Mayan pyramid) in Lubaantun, Belize while accompanying her father, British writer and adventurer F. A. Mitchell-Hedges, on his own excavation of the temple. While F. A. Mitchell-Hedges’ records show proof of excavation in Lubaantun, there are no records of a skull being found there or of Anna being there at the time. Additionally, Anna Mitchell-Hedges’ claims of finding a crystal skull only started in the mid-1940s, almost 20 years after the alleged discovery[2].

Pseudoarchaeological Narrative

The crystal skull was referred to as the “Skull of Doom" by the Mitchell-Hedges family as part of the pseudoarchaeological narrative they created around it. In his 1954 memoir Danger My Ally, F. A. Mitchell-Hedges first referenced the “Skull of Doom" as an ancient Mayan relic that brought death and misfortune upon those who doubted its origins. He did not reveal where he had gotten the skull[4]. Anna Mitchell-Hedges later refined this narrative to create the myth that the skull was an embodiment of evil that was over 3,600 years old and had once belonged to a Mayan priest who used its magic to will the death of others[2]. The skull was also claimed to emit glowing blue light from its eye sockets[3]. Anna Mitchell-Hedges spent her life spreading the story of the “Skull of Doom” through international tours, paid exhibitions, documentaries, interviews, and other forms of media. This fueled both the infamy of the skull and the belief that it was a magical item of esoteric origin[5]. Even against criticism of the skull’s authenticity, Anna Mitchell-Hedges maintained her story and her purported belief in the supernatural powers of the crystal skull. In a 2005 interview, Mitchell-Hedges, then 98 years old, attributed her long life to the skull[6]. After her death in 2007, the Mitchell-Hedges Skull was passed on to her husband, Bill Homann, who has dubbed the artifact the “Skull of Love" and maintains that the skull has supernatural powers. It should be noted that Homann’s representation of the skull is far more influenced by the 21st century ‘New Age’ movement than Mitchell-Hedge’s previous occult representation. Homann’s “Skull of Love" aligns its psychic powers with appropriations of Eastern spirituality and religion, further divorcing the skull from the initial mystical narrative while maintaining the ‘exotic’ appeal[6].

Context

The “Skull of Doom” was a creation of both Anna Mitchell-Hedges and her father. F. A. Mitchell-Hedges, originally a deep-sea fisher, wrote embellished accounts of his travels that often saw him discovering lost continents or battling never seen before sea monsters[7]. These works have a clear pseudoarchaeological influence, fueled by F. A. Mitchell-Hedges’ amateur archaeology. He specifically capitalized on Europe’s lack of knowledge of North America and even claimed to make contact with an “unknown race of Indians"[8] .He also believed that his study of ancient Mayan civilization would reveal a connection to the lost civilization of Atlantis, which supported later false accounts that the Mitchell-Hedges Skull wasn’t Mayan in origin, but a remaining artifact of Atlantis[6].

The Mitchell-Hedges Skull’s rise to fame was fueled by the infamy of previous crystal skull discoveries and the specific “skull of doom” curse narrative that followed the artifact. The British Museum Skull, which first appeared in 1881, set the stage for the public’s interest in crystal skulls and pre-Columbian history; it was found to be a fake in 2007[2]. The Mitchell-Hedges ‘cursed Mayan relic’ narrative sensationalized the history of crystal skulls and led to the “discovery” of dozens of other magical crystal skulls, all with their own esoteric origins and magical abilities[4].

Additionally, The Mitchell-Hedges Skull was “discovered” at a time when only limited Mesoamerican archaeological excavations had taken place and knowledge of real pre-Columbian artifacts was rare. The skull stirred great excitement in the archaeological community precisely for the potential it held in illuminating Mayan culture; the methods used to carve the skull with pre-Columbian tools specifically captivated archaeologists[3].

Pseudoarchaeological Impact

The Mitchell-Hedges Skull’s pseudoarchaeological impact is represented through the prevalence of its narrative throughout popular media, specifically within the creation of the 2008 movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The Indiana Jones movie represents the crystal skull, inspired by the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, as the skull of an alien whose comrades helped the local Indigenous population build their civilization[9]. The themes of the movie itself exemplify the underlying issues that the Mitchell-Hedges pseudoarchaeological narrative endorses: white saviorism, orientalism and ethnocentrism, and profit-driven exploitation of the public. The Indigenous people in this movie are depicted as a part of a primitive and exotic community who could not have built their society without extraterrestrial influence. Indiana Jones is represented as a hero for pursuing the crystal skull, with the initial desire to “save” it by taking the artifact to a museum. When he instead returns the skull, he is portrayed as the necessary white savior the locals needed[9]. These views are deeply ethnocentric and erase the actual contributions of pre-Columbian peoples, but the movie has only popularized this perspective. The original Mitchell-Hedges narrative’s influence, although missing an extraterrestrial twist, also perpetuates this view; it portrays ancient Mayan people as mystical and evil, with exotic and esoteric ceremonies and backward religious and moral beliefs. Additionally, Anna Mitchell-Hedges’ most recent 2005 account of her discovery of the skull claims that her father returned the skull to the local Mayan priest, who then gave the skull back to F. A. Mitchell-Hedges during a later expedition as a way of thanks for supplies and assistance supposedly provided to his tribe[6]. While this story was not a part of Mitchell-Hedges’ initial account, its addition lays the foundation of the white saviorism and ethnocentric themes in the later-filmed Indiana Jones movie. The rise in the popularity of crystal skulls led to increasing interest in these objects, as well as an increase in people who capitalized on this movement for fame and profit.

The existence of multiple crystal skulls, although none of them have been proven to be accurate to the description of their origins, has fueled pseudoarchaeological theories. Stories of prophecies or secret world-ending events that could occur usually involve multiple crystal skulls being brought together to unlock some sort of unknown power[4]. The most prevalent pseudoarchaeological theories influenced by the Mitchell-Hedges Skull are those concerning extraterrestrial life or the lost civilization of Atlantis. Those who believe in the skull’s supposed powers also believe that the skulls are advanced forms of technology whose true purposes are being misrepresented by academic institutions​​[10]. The distrust of scientific rhetoric this represents is deeply pseudoarchaeological and negatively impacts the study of actual pre-Columbian history.

Published works like the 1988 Mysteries of the Crystal Skull treat pseudoarchaeological theories of the crystal skull’s origin as legitimate science, furthering the degradation of archaeology as a field. This book contains the first mention of aliens in connection to the Mitchell-Hedges Skull and shaped the contemporary narrative that went on to become popularized by movies and media[10]. The Skull Speaks Through Carole Davis, a series of transcripts by self-proclaimed medium Carole Davis, delves deeper into the supposed Atlantean history of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull. These transcripts outline how the skull was made in Atlantis as one of many that must be protected by the believers of the skull. The appeal of power and knowledge has attracted many to this theory and integrated the skull into beliefs of Atlantis as a powerful yet ruined civilization that would one day rise again; this rhetoric is dangerously close to those of racial or moral supremacy, aligning itself with theories where only the “chosen” will inherit the future Earth[11].

Different retellings of the “Skull of Doom story demonstrate trends in pseudoarchaeology. Interpretations of crystal skulls being alien in origin often align with technological narratives and thus, accounts of alien crystal skulls can often be found together with accounts of UFO abductions or governmental cover-up conspiracies. Different ‘realms of reality’ can represent how the Mitchell-Hedges Skull is only one element within a larger web of pseudoarchaeological belief[11].

Disproving the "Skull of Doom"

In the late 1800s, European fascination with pre-Columbian civilizations and the establishment of Mexican dependence led to the creation of an antiquities market mostly centered around Mexico. Wealthy European collectors sought Mesoamerican artifacts to purchase, resulting in an increasing demand that local artisans fulfilled with artifact forgeries or original creations that were sold fraudulently as genuine pre-Columbian artifacts[3]. The Mitchell-Hedges Skull is one such fake artifact.

Records of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull reveal that the skull was not discovered in Belize but instead bought at a Sotheby’s auction in 1943 from London art dealer Sidney Burney by F. A. Mitchell-Hedges. The skull is now known to be a replica of the British Museum Skull, the Mitchell-Hedges Skull’s most famous predecessor. While it’s not known where exactly Burney got the skull, the story of its mythical powers was not established until the Mitchell-Hedges family gained ownership of it[3]. While the “Skull of Doom” may have been carved by actual descendants of the Maya, its history as a 3,600-year-old artifact has been disproven.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Archaeologist Jane MacLaren Walsh officially proved the Mitchell-Hedges Skull’s inauthenticity in 2008[12] . With a scanning electron microscope and X-ray diffraction analysis, Walsh found evidence that the Mitchell-Hedges Skull was carved with a 20th-century rotary tool likely coated in industrial-grade diamond abrasive[2]. This implies that the skull was not created by pre-Columbian Mayan people but by 20th-century artisans. Additionally, the Mitchell-Hedges Skull is not consistent with the artistic or stylistic characteristics of Mayan culture. Skulls were traditionally carved in relief in limestone, not as three-dimensional skulls made of quartz. These skulls were typically used to represent days on the Mayan calendar and were not involved in religious sacrifice or priests calling death upon others[3]. Skulls as motifs represented regeneration[10]; the representation of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull as Mayan in origin is an act of divorcing artifacts from their historical and cultural context, an unfortunate but common act in pseudoarchaeological accounts of older cultures or civilizations.

As a hyperdiffusionist, or someone who believed that all civilizations descended from one lost civilization, F. A. Mitchell-Hedges’ belief that the Mitchell-Hedges Skull may be a link to the lost civilization of Atlantis probably focused on the importance of skull motifs in Mayan culture, but failed to see how superficial this connection was or how this style of skull was not found in any other parts of Mayan, or otherwise, culture. This demonstrates how Mitchell-Hedges was likely inspired by the fame of the British Museum Skull rather than a legitimate archaeological connection to a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture. Other crystal skulls, like the British Museum Skull, are similarly attributed to pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, but the skulls also lack technical and stylistic similarities to the cultures they claim to hail from. None of the crystal skulls currently in museums came from documented excavations[3]. The final proof of the false cultural ancestry of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull came from forensic artist Gloria Nusse, whose facial reconstruction of the skull revealed female European features; this fortified the finding that the Mitchell-Hedges Skull was not Mayan in nature but a copy of the British Museum Skull, modeled off the skull of an actual European woman[2].

Sources

  1. Walsh, Jane MacLaren. “Legend of the Crystal Skulls.” Legend of the crystal skulls. Archaeology Archive Magazine, May 2008. https://archive.archaeology.org/0805/etc/indy.html.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Feagans, Carl. “Crystal Skulls: A Little Clarity.” Archaeology Review. Archaeology Review, May 15, 2019. https://ahotcupofjoe.net/2016/12/crystal-skulls-a-little-clarity/.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Walsh, Jane MacLaren. “Legend of the Crystal Skulls.” Legend of the crystal skulls. Archaeology Archive Magazine, May 2008. https://archive.archaeology.org/0805/etc/indy.html.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Rennie, Daniel. “The Truth about the Infamously 'Paranormal' Crystal Skulls of Native American Legend.” All That's Interesting. All That's Interesting, October 30, 2019. https://allthatsinteresting.com/crystal-skull.
  5. Laycock, Joseph P. "The controversial history of the crystal skulls: a case study in interpretive drift." Material Religion 11.2 (2015): 164-188.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Stelzer, C. D. “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Illinois Times. Illinois Times, June 11, 2008. https://www.illinoistimes.com/springfield/the-kingdom-of-the-crystal-skull/Content?oid=11440572.
  7. “The Skull of Doom.” The skull of doom - just the facts - archaeology magazine archive. Archaeological Institute of America, 2010. https://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/mitchell_hedges/facts.html.
  8. “F.A. Mitchell-Hedges.” F.A. Mitchell-Hedges | National Museum of the American Indian. Smithsonian Institution. Accessed December 10, 2021. https://americanindian.si.edu/collections-search/archives/components/sova-nmai-ac-001-ref15761.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Pyburn, K. Anne. "Public archaeology, Indiana Jones, and honesty." (2008): 201-204.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Lovett, Richard A., and Scot Hoffman. “Crystal Skulls Are Shrouded in Mystery and Fascination.” History. National Geographic, May 3, 2010. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/crystal-skulls.
  11. 11.0 11.1 De Jong, Wilhelmina Johanna. The Crystal Skull Narrative. Leiden University, June 25, 2015. ​​https://studenttheses.universiteitleiden.nl/access/item%3A2606051/view.
  12. Magazine, Smithsonian. “Why the Smithsonian Has a Fake Crystal Skull.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, May 29, 2008. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-smithsonians-crystal-skull-51638609/.