Crystal skulls and the chronological superiority complex

As some of you may be aware, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, starring the kid from Transformers and Han Solo’s grandfather, comes out today. In order to prepare for seeing this movie with a group of friends I thought I’d do a little research into the phenomena of crystal skulls. You know, so I can haughtily scoff when the movie embellishes on the cold, hard facts: what exactly are crystal skulls? Where do they come from? And why do people prone to supernatural hysteria think they’re mysterious in the first place?

It turns out that, while there’s quite a number of crystal skulls currently in circulation, most originating in Central America and ranging in speculated age from 5,000 to 36,000 years, that the most famous is the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, seen above. The story goes that, while attending an archaeological dig in Belize with her father in 1924, then teenaged Anna Mitchell-Hedges found the crystal cranium in what might have been an ancient temple. A few months later, they found the matching jawbone. Great story, but it turns out that Poppa Mitchell-Hedges bought the skull at auction in 1943, trumping the British Museum’s bid.

Still, while the story is discredited by this bit of narrative embellishment, it doesn’t change the fact that the skull itself is an impressive piece of ingenuity. Sculpted from a solid hunk of quartz, the skull has three interesting features. First, its anatomical correctness. Prehistoric artists tended to be more figurative in their renderings, a la the cave paintings in Lascaux, yet the Mitchell-Hedges Skull is reportedly accurate enough that researchers are reasonably sure it’s a rendering of a female (human)’s skull. Second, is has apparently been carved ‘against the grain’, which I’ll just say increases it’s likelihood of breaking during the sculpting procedure, and leave to hardcore rock geeks to dig into further if they want. And third, it doesn’t show signs of having been carved, even under a microscope. When submitted to Hewlett-Packard Laboratories for study in the 1970’s, the team of crystal specialist researchers were at a loss for how people would be able to achieve that level of smoothness in under, say, 300 man-years of effort.

So. What we have here is a mystery that, even with super-sophisticated 1970’s forensic research techniques, we haven’t been able to reverse engineer. Which leads to this sort of thinking, as captured by world-mysteries.com:

Regardless of any unearthly properties the crystal skulls may or may not possess, the question remains: where did they come from? There are countless hypotheses that they are the legacy of some higher intelligence. Many believe they were created by extraterrestrials or beings in Atlantis or Lemuria. One elaborate theory maintains that the skulls were left behind by a sophisticated Inner Earth society which lives at the hollow center of our planet, and there are thirteen “master skulls” which contain the history of these people.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Chronological Superiority Complex: the belief that, as time has progressed, mankind has gotten better, stronger, and smarter. Today, we’re demonstrably more advanced than all who have come before us. We know now everything that has ever been known, quite possibly more. If we can’t figure out how to do it, there’s no way these primitive screwheads could have possibly done it. Obviously, they had help from extraterrestrials. Pyramids in Egypt? Stonehenge? Stone heads on the beachfront at Easter Island? Like the crystal skulls of Central America, ancient peoples could not have possibly done any of these without help.

I, for one, wish everyone would give our predecessors more credit. They figured out how to bring down woolly mammoths with rocks and pointy sticks, for crying out loud. They domesticated cats and dogs from animals that, undomesticated, ate them. They manipulated grass, transforming it into foods that could be stored, thus enabling them to spend more time looking at the sky and figuring out that all of those points of light didn’t behave the same way, and then figure out why.

Luckily for us modern people, we’ve retained a lot of that. But all of it? Certainly not. Secrets — even those widely known — get lost. During the Dark Ages, Europeans forgot all manner of vital knowhow: crop rotation, mathematics and science (such as it was actually science), and the importance of bathing all spring to mind. We recovered, sure; as the Dark Ages drew to a close, a lot of what had been lost was recovered. But all of it? Who can say. The problem with forgetting something is that you only remember you forgot it after you remember the something. Crystal skull sculpting techniques, sadly, would seem to be in the not-yet-remembered category.

Unless, of course, I’m wrong about this whole aliens did it angle.

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5 Responses to “Crystal skulls and the chronological superiority complex”

  1. Wikipedia, the first stop of all top researchers, indicates that Meso-American provenance for any crystal skull has yet to be demonstrated. Mostly, they seemed to have been made in Germany, much like the Stradivarius we have at home. A shame, really, but not entirely unexpected.

    I find your basic thesis (the Chronological Superiority Complex: the belief that, as time has progressed, mankind has gotten better, stronger, and smarter) to be very interesting. One of the fallacies of popular understanding of evolutionary biology mirrors this point; that modern life represents the pinnacle of development over time. T-rex actually existed as a species far longer that Homo sapiens, and as such represents a much more successful species than us. If it weren’t for that meteor in the Caribbean, there still might be saurians romping around the world. They might even have figured out how to reverse global warming.

  2. Of course, it could all be a fake. Their was an article in Archeology a while ago that said that all the crystal skulls were fakes based on one master fake.

  3. Eric S. Says:

    Hmmmm. Fakes, huh? Let’s take 2 facts reported from world-mysteries.com as granted, with the understanding that I’ve put zero effort into actual, thesis-defending quality fact checking (i.e., I’m taking them at their word, even though I scoff at other ‘facts’ reported in the same article).

    Exhibit A: The skulls showed up at auction in 1943 — so they may be as old as 36,000 years, or, if they went straight from the sculptor’s studio to the auction block, as young as 65.

    Exhibit B: Researchers from Hewlett-Packard in “a leading facility for crystal research,” — that is to say, with state-of-the-art 1970’s technology at their disposal — “…believe that successfully crafting a shape as complex as the Mitchell-Hedges skull is impossible.”

    Sure, there’s some ambiguity in world-mysteries.com’s report on the HP team’s findings (hopefully Archaeology’s article is a bit more straightforward), but the facts as reported imply that, worst case scenario, 1970’s technology was unable to reverse engineer an artifact from the 1940’s. I don’t know… this extraterrestrial angle is looking more and more promising.

  4. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Smashed.

  5. […] That was enough to get me to add their book to my Amazon list, read the whole site, and even toss the question of the theory’s validity to the braintrust over at the Straight Dope message boards. Sure there are a couple of facts that seem far fetched at first glance – the estimate of the ruins’ age from 75,000 (or twice as old as cave paintings at Chauvet) to 250,000 years old, that include a network of sites connected by roads comparable in size to the Egyptian empire – but one has resist the natural impulses of the chronological superiority complex. […]

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