Sunday, May 25, 2008

Crystal Skulls' Murky Tale

An 'Aztec' Artifact Is As Fictional As Indiana Jones
Write to Christina Passariello at

PARIS -- Ever since the Quai Branly Museum placed its crystal skull in a glass display case a week ago, visitors have been swarming around the spooky artifact.
The museum's directors brought it out of storage to coincide with the release of the movie "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," opening this weekend. The film's plot is loosely based on the legend that 13 crystal skulls, dating from the Aztec period more than 500 years ago, must be reunited by 2012 to prevent the end of the world
But the Quai Branly's skull, along with others in prestigious museums such as the Smithsonian Institution and the British Museum, are all phonies. The museum concedes that it knows little about the skull. Explanatory text next to the skull's display case doesn't explain much: "19th century? Europe?"
The bigger question: Why is a museum promoting an artifact it knows isn't authentic?
Partly because the public doesn't really care, notes Esther Pasztory, an art-history professor at Columbia University. "People want to see Aztec art," she notes, even if it isn't really Aztec art. Museums should clearly disclose counterfeit artifacts, she says, adding that known fakes still have their fans.
Fakes were once a source of embarrassment for museums. But more recently, they have become objects of fascination. In 1990, the British Museum put its most famous examples on display, including a sarcophagus that once was thought to be from the sixth century but was actually made in the 19th century.
Some fakes grow so notorious that they have taken on a significance of their own, becoming part of counterfeit lore. In 1896, the Louvre was duped into buying a rare gold tiara that it believed was a Greek treasure from the third century B.C. A German archaeologist soon proved it was a forgery, made by a Russian craftsman only a few years before it was sold. Humiliated by the affair, the Louvre locked it away for decades until the museum allowed the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to feature the tiara in a 1997 exhibition on the Russian craftsman.
"The crystal skulls are legitimate artifacts, just not what they purport to be," says Jane Walsh, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, who has studied 10 skulls since the Smithsonian received one as an anonymous donation in 1992. "We have to think of a new way of describing them. It's hard to call them fakes; sometimes I call them inventions," she says.
Museums are full of imitations, experts say. More than 600 were shown at the British Museum's exhibition. Many museum fakes were acquired during the rush to create large national collections in the late 19th century. "All museums have extraordinary fakes," says Stéphane Martin, the president of the Quai Branly, which opened two years ago to house France's national African, American, Asian and Oceanic collections.
Mr. Martin recalls being awed by the crystal skull as a boy when it was housed at Paris's Musée de l'Homme. But it wasn't until decades later, when preparing for the Quai Branly's opening, that he learned that the skull's Aztec origin was concocted. The British Museum and the Smithsonian shared the research they had done on their respective skulls. In the 1990s, Ms. Walsh of the Smithsonian had pored over excavation documents from pre-Columbian digs. No one had ever claimed to unearth a crystal skull.
Technological advances, which are unearthing previously undetected fakes, also let experts at the British Museum to go further in their study. In 1996, they analyzed the way holes were bored into the rock crystal for eyes, and into the top of the head. These were far too precise to have been done by hand. Using high-powered microscopes and scanners, the researchers concluded the tool marks left on the British and American skulls came from rotary machines. The Aztecs didn't possess such drills.
The British Museum informed Mr. Martin that it thought the French skull also wasn't genuine: Both the British and the French skulls had passed through the hands of a disreputable French antiquarian from the late 1800s, Eugène Boban. He peddled crystal skulls said to be from Mexico, beginning in the 1860s. Experts say he was well aware of their fraudulent origins -- and helped stoke the apocalyptic legend that surrounds them today.
Skulls -- carved out of volcanic rock -- were used in Aztec culture to commemorate human sacrifice. By claiming the crystal skulls were Aztec, which at the time conferred a mystical aura, Mr. Boban cloaked them in enigma. The myth of their significance snowballed for a century.
Mr. Martin decided not to include the French skull in the Quai Branly's permanent display because of space constraints. But the crystal sculpture had already attracted groups of fans and believers. He says he received letters from disgruntled devotees accusing him of not showing the skull out of fear of its curse. That's when he realized there was strong interest in the skull -- despite its dubious origins.
Over the past year, French researchers conducted a new investigation into the skull and reached the same conclusion as the British Museum and the Smithsonian. "Its story is strange and people like to talk about it," he says.
When Mr. Martin learned the title of the new Indiana Jones movie, he saw the opportunity to wheel the crystal skull out of storage. He doesn't deny that he thought the skull would drive visitors to the museum, despite its fake provenance. "We're riding a pop-culture wave, and we're trying to exploit it to our advantage," says Mr. Martin.
"But of course it's fake," said Yvane Hardy Riotte, a tattooed visitor who had come to see the skull. "The real ones are so powerful that no museum would dare to bring them out."
Fausto Intilla -

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