Tucked away in the corner of a gallery of the British Museum in London is perhaps the most unusual object on display in any European museum. The object is one of the most famous the museum houses; for many it is right up there with the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, Lindow Man, the Sutton Hoo horde and the Egyptian Mummies. Yet it is not proudly displayed on the floor plans like many of the other more notable exhibits. In fact, if you are not paying attention and do not know where it is you will probably miss it as you are drawn into the centre of the room by a large statue from Easter Island. I am talking of the crystal skull.
In spite of its semi-hidden position, behind you and to the left, past the stairwell and large display case as you enter the Wellcome Trust gallery, the skull's display case is well lit and sports a surprisingly large information panel compared to most of the museums exhibits. The skull itself glistens and sparkles in the light, giving off an almost magical feel, and it is easy to see why so many people have attributed other-worldly properties to it. The skull was not made by the Aztecs, as was thought for many years, or by higher-dimensional beings as in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal skull (NOT aliens as people who didn't actually pay attention to the film say) but rather by a European jeweller in the 19th century.
There are several other crystal skulls dotted around the various museums of the world and belonging to private owners; the British Museum and the Mitchell-Hedges skull are the most ornately carved and spectacular examples, and all of them have been carved using modern techniques or using crystals that Aztec artisans would not have had access to and the item's discovery is typically unrecorded in any archaeological digs. The skull that would become known as the British Museum's crystal skull first appeared in 1881 in the Mexican antiquities shop of Eugène Boban (aka Boban-Duvergé) a Frenchman who was the official court archaeologist in Mexico during the short reign of Emperor Maximilian I. Boban sold two crystal skulls, for which he provided no information on how they had come into his posession. One skull was to eventually end up in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris and the other in British Museum. Boban attempted to sell the British Museum skull to several Mexican museums, claiming Aztec provenance for the object, but these attempts failed and it was eventually sold to American entrepreneur George H. Sisson in 1887. After being placed on public exhibition the skull was bought by Tiffany's of New York who sold it to a very eager British Museum. At the time it seemed like a good purchase as it was the most ornately carved and detailed example of what was thought to be a very rare Aztec artefact, and it took pride of place in the museum's Central and South American galleries.
However, by the 1960s and 70s the twin pressures of doubt in the archaeological world over the authenticity of crystal skulls, due in part to no finds ever having been properly documented and the vastly different artistic styles of the skulls, and the rise of proponents of New Age belief systems ascribing paranormal properties to the skulls, essentially forced the museum to hide the skull from public display for a while, only trotting it out for the occasional appearance on TV shows like Arthur C. Clark's Mysterious World. It was fast becoming evident to the museum that they had been fooled into buying a lemon and the final confirmation of this came when scientists from Cardiff University concluded that a wheeled cutting tool had been used in the skull's manufacture, which, because the Aztecs didn't even have wheels, meant it was certainly not Aztec in origin. The nature of the microscopic groves caused by the cutting implement was reminiscent of manufacturing processes used by mid-19th century German jewellers, and geologists also concluded it was doubtful that Mexicans would have had access to a large enough chunk of quartz to carve the skull before the arrival of Europeans.
Thankfully, though, despite lurking out of the way, the skull is on display in the museum along with a large display telling people of the hoax and how it was discovered. Not a lot of museums would come clean so readily to being duped and even display the object in such a beautiful manner so the British museum are to be commended for this. The crystal skull may have only limited historical value but its beauty and the part it has played in the history of hoaxes mean that this 19th century piece of art has certainly earned its place among the treasures housed in the world's greatest and most impressive historical museum.