The Legend of Crystal Skulls Emerges From the Mayan Jungle

Crystal Skull.

Fighting the jungle heat, insects, oppressing humidity, and twisted vines, British adventurer Frederick Mitchell-Hedges wended through the Yucatan in 1924, with the rest of his expedition trailing behind, headed for an ancient Mayan city in what is now modern-day Belize.

Suddenly, the team stopped dead in its tracks and beheld an ancient Mayan pyramid. The adventurers slowly made their way inside. What came next is reminiscent of a scene from an Indiana Jones movie: Mitchell-Hedges’ daughter, Anna, came across a gleaming crystal skull, reflecting the sparsity of light.

The skull seemed so out of place, so advanced in its design and craftsmanship, juxtaposed against the Mayan ruins of ancient stone and earth. Fashioned out of a single solid piece of clear quartz, the adventurer and his daughter immediately realized that they had stumbled upon one of the most mysterious objects in the history of archaeology.

This was how the legend of the crystal skull began. 

Capturing the Minds of Speculators

Mitchell-Hedges’ discovery seems like a once-in-a-lifetime find, and yet it was but one of many crystal skulls now on display in private and public collections worldwide. While all vary in size and are carved from either clear, cloudy, or colored quartz, somehow the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull remains the most romantic in the minds of those who first hear of it. 

Reporting on this story, Daniel Rennie noted that Mitchell-Hedges had written about the crystal skull in his 1954 memoir Danger My Ally, in which he claimed it was a relic of the Mayan ruins. He called it the “skull of doom” and made the outrageous, yet unprovable, claims that “several people who have cynically laughed at it have died, others have been stricken and become seriously ill.” Mitchell-Hedges then wrote that he had no reason for revealing how it came into his possession (even though he did so in a private letter to his brother).

The Great British Adventurer

Unfortunately, Frederick Mitchell-Hedges lost some credibility when he cast doubt upon his own claims. While he fit the image of a heroic character one might see in a silent 1920s movie, his stories were a combination of truths, partial truths, and unverified exploits. 

In one of his real-life adventures in Central America, Mitchell-Hedges reported that he had been captured by the famous Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa, and that he had spent some time as a spy. Whether true or not, these sorts of claims added more mystery and panache to his self-promoted persona. And when he recounted his adventures on his weekly Sunday evening radio show, over the sound of rhythmic jungle drums, he told of narrow escapes from death at the hands of so-called savages or from exotic, man-eating animals.

The explorer boasted of discovering Indian tribes and lost cities, despite the fact that they had been documented years or centuries before. In 1925, a year after he and his daughter supposedly presented their find of the crystal skull, the Daily Mail sponsored Mitchell-Hedges’ expedition to the Mayan city of Lubaantun. There he discovered a stone-built amphitheater — the first ever found on the American continent — as well as an aboriginal stone building covering nearly eight acres.

There were so many stories of his exploits that his integrity was brought into question — and for good reason, because the explorer’s accounts were often overexaggerated or found to be completely fabricated. And this brings into question the veracity of his claims about the crystal skull.

Was the Famed Explorer Authentic?

The deeper one looks into the life and times of Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, the shadier a character he seems. 

Curiously though, Mitchell-Hedges said he had stumbled upon his crystal artifact in 1924, it wasn’t until 1936 that the skull was made public. This discrepancy has been explained by researchers quite plainly. 

Enter a London art dealer named Sydney Burney, who obtained the skull in early 1933. There are no details on how this came about, but Burney appeared as an item of interest, along with a photo of his artifact in the journal “Man.” This was just after he brought the crystal skull to the British Museum for study. 

The Archaeological Institute of America reported that experts in the museum photographed, measured, and compared the artifact with a similar, Aztec crystal skull that they had in their possession. For 10 years, Burney struggled to find a buyer, and in 1943, the skull was finally sold at Sotheby’s in London on October 15 — to Frederick A. Mitchell-Hedges, who possessed it until 1959. After he died, his daughter Anna kept it until her death in 2007.

And this leads to the next question: Since it appears that Mitchell-Hedges fabricated the story about finding the ancient crystal skull, does this mean it was a fake?

The Authenticity of the Artifact

In December 1943, Frederick Mitchell-Hedges wrote a letter to his brother, mentioning a date for the skull’s manufacture. And then he contradicted his own account of how he had gotten hold of it.

His letter announced, “You possibly saw in the papers that I acquired that amazing Crystal Skull that was formerly in the ‘Sydney Burney Collection.’ It is fashioned from a single block of transparent rock crystal, exactly life-size; scientists put the date at pre-1800 B.C., and they estimate it took five generations passing from Father to son, to complete. It is anthropologically perfect in every detail, a superb piece of craftsmanship. There is only one other in the world known like it, which is in the British Museum and it is acknowledged to be not so fine as this.” 

The explorer’s letter shows that, although he did not discover the Mayan crystal skull in the way he had claimed to, he did have scientists verify that it was quite ancient. 

Dan Akroyd’s Take on the Crystal Skull Legend

Actor and UFO enthusiast Dan Akroyd speaks eagerly of the mystery and supernatural powers of the crystal skull artifacts. 

Akroyd, who has apparently studied the legend of crystal skulls around the world, repeated Mitchell-Hedges’ contentious story and then suggested that the explorer’s crystal skull had been tested by engineers at Hewlett-Packard in the 1960s.

The result, according to Akroyd, showed that the skull “could not have been carved by a lapidary, by tools…It had to have been polished over hundreds of years…to get to the shape it was [in].” Akroyd then discussed that eight crystal skulls have been found around the world, with five that had gone missing over the decades. The question, suggested Akroyd, is whether all the various skulls are of tribal ancestry and whether they were polished or carved.

Few Definitive Conclusions on the Crystal Skulls

Legends of crystal skulls have persisted for nearly a century. And there has been a stream of curious claims as to how some of them ended up in the hands of adventurists notorious for dominating headlines.

National Geographic reported, “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.”

But in stark opposition to the claims of Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, the British Museum and Smithsonian Institution state that electron microscope analyses have revealed markings that could only have been made with high-tech modern carving implements. And both museums estimate that the skulls in their possession were created sometime between the mid- to late-1800s when there was a peak in public interest in spiritualism, ancient cultures, and world travel. This was a time when museums were eager for pieces to display to those who wanted to feed their supernatural and adventurous spirit.

Yet there is no resolution to the mystery. Even National Geographic admits that no one still knows for certain who carved these skulls and when. “And since there is currently no way to accurately determine the age of such inorganic objects, the mystery will likely continue.”



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