Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fake rock-crystal skulls: the legend

To continue my post “Acerca de las famosas calaveras de crystal” , here are excerpts from Jane Mc Laren’s article for Archaeology magazine “Legend of the Crystal Skulls”. She claims they are all fake:
“ Museums began collecting rock-crystal skulls during the second half of the nineteenth century, when no scientific archaeological excavations had been undertaken in Mexico and knowledge of real pre-Columbian artifacts was scarce. It was also a period that saw a burgeoning industry in faking pre-Columbian objects. When Smithsonian archaeologist W. H. Holmes visited Mexico City in 1884, he saw "relic shops" on every corner filled with fake ceramic vessels, whistles, and figurines. Two years later, Holmes warned about the abundance of fake pre-Columbian artifacts in museum collections in an article for the journal Science titled "The Trade in Spurious Mexican Antiquities."
The first Mexican crystal skulls made their debut just before the 1863 French intervention, when Louis Napoleon's army invaded the country and installed Maximilian von Hapsburg of Austria as emperor. Usually they are small, not taller than 1.5 inches. The earliest specimen seems to be a British Museum crystal skull about an inch high that may have been acquired in 1856 by British banker Henry Christy.
Two other examples were exhibited in 1867 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris as part of the collection of Eugène Boban, perhaps the most mysterious figure in the history of the crystal skulls. A Frenchman who served as the official "archaeologist" of the Mexican court of Maximilian, Boban was also a member of the French Scientific Commission in Mexico, whose work the Paris Exposition was designed to highlight. (The exhibition was not entirely successful in showcasing Louis Napoleon's second empire, since its opening coincided with the execution of Maximilian by the forces of Mexican president Benito Juárez.)
One small crystal skull was purchased in 1874 for 28 pesos by Mexico City's national museum from the Mexican collector Luis Costantino, and another for 30 pesos in 1880. In 1886, the Smithsonian bought a small crystal skull, this one from the collection of Augustin Fischer, who had been Emperor Maximilian's secretary in Mexico. But it disappeared mysteriously from the collection some time after 1973. It had been on display in an exhibit of archaeological fakes after William Foshag, a Smithsonian mineralogist, realized in the 1950s that it had been carved with a modern lapidary wheel.
These small objects represent the "first generation" of crystal skulls, and they are all drilled through from top to bottom. The drill holes may in fact be pre-Columbian in origin, and the skulls may have been simple Mesoamerican quartz crystal beads, later re-carved for the European market as little mementos mori, or objects meant to remind their owners of the eventuality of death.

Although nearly all of the crystal skulls have at times been identified as Aztec, Toltec, Mixtec, or occasionally Maya, they do not reflect the artistic or stylistic characteristics of any of these cultures. The Aztec and Toltec versions of death heads were nearly always carved in basalt, occasionally were covered with stucco, and were probably all painted. They were usually either attached to walls or altars, or depicted in bas reliefs of deities as ornaments worn on belts. They are comparatively crudely carved, but are more naturalistic than the crystal skulls, particularly in the depiction of the teeth. The Mixtec occasionally fabricated skulls in gold, but these representations are more precisely described as skull-like faces with intact eyes, noses, and ears. The Maya also carved skulls, but in relief on limestone. Often these skulls, depicted in profile, represent days of their calendars.
French and other European buyers imagined they were buying skillful pre-Columbian carvings, partially convinced perhaps by their own fascinated horror with Aztec human sacrifice. But the Aztecs didn't hang crystal skulls around their necks. Instead, they displayed the skulls of sacrificial victims on racks, impaling them horizontally through the sides (the parietal-temporal region), not vertically.
Ultimately, the truth behind the skulls may have gone to the grave with Boban, a masterful dealer of many thousands of pre-Columbian artifacts--including at least five different crystal skulls--now safely ensconced in museums worldwide. He managed to confound a great many people for a very long time and has left an intriguing legacy, one that continues to puzzle us a century after his death. Boban confidently sold museums and private collectors some of the most intriguing fakes known, and perhaps many more yet to be recognized. It sounds like a great premise for a movie.”

Read the full article
Previous post about crystal skulls:
The pictures were downloaded from the article

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