Anyone intrigued by the crystal skulls in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will want to check out the Smithsonian Networks and Infinity Entertainment Group’s latest release. The Legend of the Crystal Skulls examines the authenticity of four crystal skulls thought to be either Mayan or Aztec artifacts and, to some, part of an ancient Mayan legend referred to in the Indiana Jones movie.
The Smithsonian Network’s mandate is to showcase cultural and historical programming, largely based on Smithsonian assets, and this does seem a wise way to promote the Smithsonian. The documentary is a combination of ripping yarn, as we learn about swashbuckling archeologists, ancient legends, and devious plans, and scientific examination, as we learn how ancient objects are dated and the providence of objects determined. The ripping yarn is the most gripping part of the program — tool marks don’t have the panache of hidden skulls and legends of doom — but the whole program holds together well and is an interesting exploration of how a legend was born.
The Mayan legend of the crystal skulls (which formed the basis of the latest Indiana Jones) says that extraterrestrial beings gave thirteen crystal skulls to the Mayans, and when those thirteen skulls come together, they will give human beings knowledge from other civilizations. In the 1970s, Anna Mitchell-Hedges, the owner of a crystal skull rather wonderfully named The Skull of Doom, brought the legend into the popular consciousness and gave it more colour in the process.
The 1970s was fertile ground for ancient objects of power, as new age spiritualism was growing by leaps and bounds. The apparently ancient Skull of Doom was embraced by many people seeking spiritual growth, and the skull was imbued with many magical qualities. Other crystal skulls were also seen to have spiritual powers and be of alien origin, and a whole cult grew up about crystal skulls, gathering the lost civilisation of Atlantis in as part of the legend. And Anna Mitchell-Hedges was at the centre of the publicity around the skulls.
The documentary really gets going when it examines Anna’s story. Her father, Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, was a swashbuckling adventurer and amateur archeologist, rather in the mould of Indiana Jones, though perhaps less professional in terms of proper excavation techniques and documentation of finds. He adopted Anna when she was ten, and the two of them were apparently in the ancient Mayan site of Lubataan in what is now modern Belize when they came across a pyramid on Anna’s seventeenth birthday. According to Anna, she found a beautiful crystal skull in the pyramid, but oddly, her father made no public announcement of the find, despite how unique it is. No mention was made of what would be called The Skull of Doom until Anna began to publicise it after her father’s death.
The crystal skull raised a lot of questions, as it is so highly polished that no instruments in the 1970s could detect tool marks, and because crystal contains no carbon, no other method of dating it could be found. It is carved out of one piece of crystal quartz and has magnetic qualities as all crystal quartz does. It is a very intriguing object. And not the only one: three other crystal skulls were also thought to be ancient, though of Aztec origin: one in the British Museum, one in the Louvre, and one in the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian crystal skull became the focus of curator Jane MacLaren Walsh’s interest, as she tried to establish its authenticity as an ancient object.
Walsh’s part of the story is a little less gripping than the one Anna Mitchell-Hedges spins, but it is interesting to see how much detective work is instrumental in archeology. Walsh soon established that the skulls in the Louvre and British Museum came from the same French dealer in antiquities, and, with the aid of the British Museum and an electron microscope not available in the 1970s, that both skulls have modern tool marks which place their manufacture in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The crystal probably was carved in Europe. The Smithsonian skull proved to be of even more recent manufacture.
In a gesture of goodwill, The Skull of Doom’s owner, Bill Homann, companion to the late Anna Mitchell-Hedges, allowed Walsh to test it under the electron microscope. By this point in the show, it is no surprise that this skull too shows modern tool marks that place it around the 1930s in origin, several years after Anna said she found it.
However, the documentary wisely does not strip the skull of all its mystery. Homann continues to believe in its alien origin, as he does not think the technology of its manufacture was available at the time Walsh believes it was made. And Walsh is happy to point out we still don’t know who made the skulls or why, and probably never will.
The Legend of the Crystal Skulls is a pleasing blend of legend, detective story, and scientific investigation, and it manages to look behind the myth without stripping the skull of its mystery. The program runs 46 minutes, retails for $14.98 and was released on October 14.