Height: 15.000 cm
Purchased through Mr G.F. Kunz at Tiffany & Co, N.Y.
Room 24: Living and Dying
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Rock crystal skull
Probably European, 19th century AD
Large quartz crystal skulls have generated great interest and fascination since they began to surface in public and private collections, during the second half of the nineteenth century. Some of them have been attributed to the work of ancient Mexica*, Mixtec or even Maya stone workers in Mexico. Others are said to be examples of colonial Mexican art, for use in churches, perhaps as bases for crucifixes.
Scientists at the British Museum studied traces of tool marks preserved in the highly polished surfaces of this crystal skull. These show that it was extensively worked using rotary cutting wheels, unknown in Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish in 1519. Furthermore, analysis of inclusions in the quartz crystal indicates that the large block of material was obtained in the nineteenth century from a source far beyond ancient Mexican trade links, probably Brazil or Madagascar.
Although the crystal skull was said to have come from ancient Mexico, in fact it was acquired shortly before 1881 by the French antiquities dealer, Eugène Boban, when he was based in Paris. Five years later, having failed to sell the carving in Paris or Mexico City, Boban sold the skull to the New York jewellers Tiffany and Co, from whom more than a decade later, it was acquired by the British Museum.
*The people and culture we know as 'Aztec' referred to themselves as the Mexica (pronounced Me-shee-ka).
M. Jones (ed.), Fake?: the art of deception, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)
J. M. Walsh, 'Crystal skulls and other problems' in Exhibiting dilemmas: issues of (Washington and London, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997)