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Posted at 2:58 PM ET, 07/ 9/2008

Birth and Death of a Myth

By Stephanie Merry

Even though the crystal skull at the Museum of Natural History turned out to be a fake, some mysteries remain. (Jim DiLoreto, Smithsonian Institution)

The Smithsonian's new crystal skull exhibit, which opens tomorrow, serves the added purpose of a public service announcement: Don't believe everything you see in an Indiana Jones movie.

As it turns out, the quartz crystal skull donated to the Museum of Natural History in 1992 is not, in fact, an Aztec relic; nor is the one on display in the British Museum; nor is the skull in France's Musée du Quai Branly. And finally, the Skull of Doom, revered by some for its ancient magical powers, was actually crafted sometime in the late 1800s, based on tests conducted by the Natural History Museum's Jane Walsh.

Despite the skulls' apparent lack of mystical abilities, their rise to fame is both an interesting story and a good lesson in how rumors get started.

To simplify a complicated tale, let's just say that the adopted daughter of an Indiana Jones-like adventurer claimed to have found a crystal skull within the Mayan ruins of Lubaantun in modern-day Belize in the mid-1920s. She also alleged that this Skull of Doom miraculously sweat when a natural disaster was about to occur; this claim was the kernel around which a snowball began to form and grow. Before long the skull was of alien origin (as in aliens from outer space) and had been delivered to Atlantis as a means of communication. Others claimed the skull had Google-like powers, transmitting all kinds of information, silently answering every question posed to it. Others feared the immense energy the skull contained.

Yet when scientists took a closer look at the skull, they realized it was actually a modern creation. Since crystal contains no carbon, that type of dating wasn't an option, but extremely close looks at the object revealed what tools were used to make it. And for the Skull of Doom, the tools weren't available until the 19th century.

So the 31-pound milky skull on display at the Natural History Museum isn't just a "real fake," as Walsh says; it was the impetus for research that debunked a fantastic myth. And even though the skull on display isn't a relic, the complete history of crystal skull mythology warrants a trip to the exhibit or a look at the new movie "Legend of the Crystal Skulls" on the Smithsonian Channel.

--Stephanie

By Stephanie Merry  | July 9, 2008; 2:58 PM ET
Categories:  Museums  
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That is good stuff. Thanks for the lesson in the supernatural and clarification of the Crystal Skulls powers (or lack there of).

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