When is a fake a fake?


 Humans it appears have long held a macabre fascination toward skulls. As a powerful symbolic icon within many cultures around the world, it is closely associated with death. Interestingly though, the fascination for such objects, despite the negative associations, has from the nineteenth century, only become more pronounced. A little before 1863, the first of dozens of skull sculptures, purporting to be pre-Columbian, Mesoamerica artifacts surfaced on the open market for trade or purchase. Typically these, according to Jane McLaren Walsh are “small, not taller than 1.5 inches… The earliest specimen …in the British Museum, about an inch high. Three such skulls appear in the extensive collections of artifacts housed in the collections of major museums on both sides of the Atlantic. The first exists in the British Museum in London, whose skull may have been acquired in 1865 by the British banker Henry Christy. The second in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, from the collection of Eugène Boban, a controversial antique dealer who sold the piece to Alphonse Pinart before it was donated it to the Museum of Ethnography at Trocadéro, Paris. There is some suggestion that either the British or French skull may be a copy of the other. The third example belongs to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., who bought a small crystal skull from Augustine Fisher, who had been Emperor Maximilian’s secretary in Mexico. The Smithsonian skull, it was noted, had been carved with a modern lapidary wheel, and between the 1950s and 1973 was exhibited as an archaeological fake when it disappeared from the collection completely. Another skull was delivered anonymously to the Smithsonian during the 1990s.

 As early as the 1930s, some experts began to have doubts about the authenticity of the skulls, quite probably on the grounds that a) the skulls didn’t come from documented archaeological sites and b) that the skulls’ teeth were linear and perfect, in contrast to the teeth depicted in other Aztec art which reflected a lack of Aztec dentistry. Researchers however, didn’t have the scientific means to scientifically test, or prove their suspicions. This has changed over the past two decades and now researchers’ at all three museums have capitalized on analytical science innovations to show that these peculiar skulls are not unusual Aztec artifacts but post-Columbian fakes. Margaret Sax, a British Museum scientist examined both the British and the Smithsonian skulls under light and scanning electron microscopes. Following the discovery of traces of tooling preserved in the highly polished surfaces of the skull, she conclusively determined that both were carved with relatively modern equipment, which for obvious reasons, was unavailable to pre-Columbian Mesoamerican carvers. Furthermore Spectroscopic analysis of skulls showed that the rock crystal possessed “green, wormlike inclusions” characteristically suggestive of rock crystal materials sourced from Brazil or Madagascar crystal during the nineteenth century (Sax, 2008) The final piece of evidence uncovered through X-ray diffraction, revealed a coating silicon carbide residue, a synthetic abrasive used in stone-carving workshops only starting in the mid-20th century, affixed to the surface.

Is this fake in any way harmful? Are fakes ever interesting in their own right? These questions pose more difficulty in answering and really it depends on what you are looking for by viewing them. Though they are no longer truly harmful, not now that they are understood as fakes and are no longer attached to the archaeological or cultural record of a particular civilization, they are interesting in their own right for the craftsmanship and beauty of the item. They are also interesting in that they trace back a period of modern human history when such things were in high demand and the lengths and prices people would pay to be in possession of such an item. Is there any ‘truth’ to this fake? Sadly, the most likely answer to this is no.


Walsh, JM. 2012, ‘Crystal Skulls: The real story behind the world’s most mysterious fakes’, Archaeology Magazine, The Maya Special edn., Long Island, NY

Sax, M., Walsh, JM., Freestone, IC., Rankin, AH. & Meeks, ND. 2008, “The origin of two purportedly pre-Columbian Mexican crystal skull” Journal of Archaeological Science

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