Crystal skulls figure prominently among UFO and psychic aficionados. However, there is nothing ancient or supernatural about their origin. As this National Geographic article explains:
Crystal skulls are not uncommon or terribly mysterious. Thousands are produced every year in Brazil, China, and Germany. But there are a handful of these rather macabre objects that have fueled intense interest and controversy among archaeologists, scientists, spiritualists, and museum officials for more than a century.The National Geographic article cited above generally notes that these skulls were produced in the 19th Century in Europe. However, this 2011 article from Der Spiegel asserts a more specific source--Idar-Oberstein, Germany.
There are perhaps a dozen of these rare crystal skulls in private and public collections. Some are crystal clear, others of smoky or colored quartz. Some are actual human size and of very fine detail, while others are smaller and less refined. All are believed to originate from Mexico and Central America.
Many believe these skulls were carved thousands or even tens of thousands of years ago by an ancient Mesoamerican civilization. Others think they may be relics from the legendary island of Atlantis or proof that extraterrestrials visited the Aztec sometime before the Spanish conquest.
... Stories about the skulls focus heavily on their perceived supernatural powers.
Joshua Shapiro, coauthor of Mysteries of the Crystal Skulls Revealed, on his Web site cites claims of healings and expanded psychic abilities from people who have been in the presence of such skulls.
"We believe the Crystal Skulls are a form of computer which are able to record energy and vibration that occur around them," he writes. " The skull will pictorially replay all events or images of the people who have come into contact with them (i.e. they contain the history of our world)."
There are plenty of crystal skulls, and the legends that surround them are fueled by their mysterious origins. To this day, doomsday believers and fans of esotericism assume the transparent heads are indeed products of Mayan or Aztec culture.
Until recently, many scholars held the same erroneous belief. Respected institutions, like the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, purchased the skulls from dubious dealers and displayed them in their collections. Only in recent years have the specimens quietly disappeared into museum storerooms.
... Most archeologists now believe that all of the earlier crystal skulls were made in the gloomy Hunsrück Mountains, near the French border -- not in the sunny realm of the Mayans.
With tools made of stone and wood, copper and tin, pre-Columbian artists in Central America would hardly have managed to create such detailed sculptures out of crystal chunks. Studies a few years ago with a scanning microscope showed, in fact, that the skulls exhibit traces of a processing method which lapidaries have used only for the last 150 years.
Rosendahl finds it surprising that the skulls became so popular only in the late 19th century. Even then there was no evidence at all that they were authentic artifacts from Mexico.
The skulls were brought into circulation by shrewd figures like the Paris antique dealer Eugène Boban. Sinister characters like Boban profited handsomely from the story -- at a time when Western museums were furiously buying up treasures and artwork from the advanced civilization of the Mayans, which had recently become the focus of attention. "But they had very little knowledge about real artifacts," says Rosendahl.
It was a rich seam for crooks and frauds. The British writer Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges claimed he had personally excavated a skull in the Mayan city of Lubantuun in Belize in the 1920s. Mitchell-Hedges was a writer of shady heroic epics, but with this cock-and-bull story he solidified his reputation as an adventurer. He advertised his alleged find as the "Skull of Damnation."
... Peuster, the lapidary, and his godfather Manfred Wild reconstructed the true story of these artifacts. In the past, a number of engravers and polishers from Idar-Oberstein received their training in the two centers of the rock-crystal industry, Milan and Paris. When they returned, they brought additional training to the technicians who had learned their trade in the German hinterlands. Around the end of the 19th century, the Hunsrück region had a reputation among insiders as an El Dorado for the crystal-cutting trade.
Documents confirm that crystal nodules from Brazil and Madagascar were being cut in Idar-Oberstein at the time in question. "And geochemical analyses show that the raw material for the legendary crystal skulls probably did in fact come from these two areas," says Rosendahl.
The isolated town must have attracted traders with fraudulent intentions. "The people here have always been a secretive bunch," says Wild. "When someone showed up and ordered a crystal skull, our ancestors made it -- and it was good."
Even today the success of the local lapidaries stems from this tradition of secrecy. Inexpensive products are displayed in shop cases for tourists. "The really good pieces are traded behind closed doors," says Wild.
He and his fellow lapidaries work anonymously for jewelers like Cartier. Wild understands why he's remained anonymous as an artist: "I can't tell these sorts of clients that their jewelry was made in a backwater in the Hunsrück Mountains."
In some ways, however, this is an even more interesting story than the made-up tales concerning the skulls. The careful craftsmanship, concocting a mysterious back story, and then trying to sell the piece to gullible buyers. What a con!