- Museum number
- Object: The Crystal Skull
Skull figure made of rock crystal.
- Production date
- 1881 (before)
Height: 25 centimetres
- Curator's comments
- Jones 1990
Although of spectacular appearance and representing considerable craftsmanship, the origins of this large carving of a skull in rock-crystal are most uncertain. Purchased from Tiffany of New York in the late 1890s, the skull had passed through many hands and was said by G. F. Kunz in 1890 to have originally been brought from Mexico by a Spanish officer 'sometime before the French occupation of Mexico'. Past speculation has suggested that the skull is in fact of Far Eastern origin, but at the time of its entry into the collections of the British Museum it had generally come to be accepted as being from pre-Hispanic Mexico. Attempts to verify this on technological grounds have not proved successful. Although the stylisation of the features of the skull is in general accord with other examples accepted as genuine Aztec or Mixtec carvings, the overall appearance does not present an obvious example of Aztec or any other Mesoamerican art style. When last examined by the British Museum Research Laboratory the conclusion was that some of the incised lines forming the teeth seemed more likely to have been cut with a jeweller's wheel than to have been produced by the techniques available to Aztec lapidaries.
The best suggestion as to the origin of the rock-crystal itself is that it is Brazilian, and this makes a pre-Hispanic date for the skull unlikely, even if it does come from Mesoamerica. Sources of rock-crystal are known in Mesoamerica, and it is also possible that pre-Hispanic craftsmen had access to rock-crystal traded from North America, but there is no archaeological evidence of trade with South America, and the Brazilian sources have apparently been exploited only in recent times.
It has further been suggested that the British Museum skull may be an example of colonial Mexican art, perhaps for use in a Spanish-American church or cathedral. In this case it is assumed that the work would have been produced by a native Amerindian, influenced by European style and taste. There is indeed a most interesting example of a Mexican rock-crystal skull incorporated into a crucifix by a European craftsman, but this is clearly of pre-Hispanic date and style.
Other speculations as to the origins and possible use of the crystal skull are legion. The question remains open.
Literature: G. F. Kunz, 'Gems and Precious Stones of North America', New York 1890.
- On display (G24)
- Exhibition history
1990 20 Oct-9 Dec, Japan, Tokyo, Setagaya Art Museum, Treasures of the British Museum, cat. no.205
1991 5 Jan-20 Feb, Japan, Yamaguchi, Prefectural Museum of Art, Treasures of the British Museum, cat. no.205
1991 9 Mar-7 May, Japan, Osaka, National Museum of Art, Treasures of the British Museum, cat. no.205
2000-2001 6 Dec-11 Feb, London, BM Room 35; Human Image
- Acquisition date
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
CDMS number: Am1898C3.1 (old CDMS no.)