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Stranger than Fiction: The Tale of the Crystal Skulls

Skullduggery: This crystal skull didn't turn out to be quite what the British Museum bargained for.
AFP / Getty Images
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Skullduggery: This crystal skull didn't turn out to be quite what the British Museum bargained for.

The Indiana Jones franchise continues in May with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As the title suggests, the mystical artifacts Indy is chasing this time are crystal skulls.

It turns out there really are such things. Not in the South American jungles, where part of the film's story reportedly takes place, but in London and Paris.

And Washington. There's one in a drawer at the Smithsonian Institution.

Smithsonian archaeologist Jane Walsh says there are dozens of crystal skulls around the world — maybe more. One of those at the Smithsonian weighs 31 pounds.

"I know because I carried it to London," Walsh says.

It's beautiful, the Smithsonian's skull: milky-white quartz, the size of a bowling ball, with hollow eye sockets.

The skulls started appearing in the mid-19th century. They were touted as ancient relics, crafted by Aztec or Mayan artisans; some were said by some to have mystic powers.

But there's an irony in the fictional Indiana Jones' pursuit of a crystal skull. Says Walsh: "It's essentially an invented category of artifact."

Invented by counterfeiters, that is — not Aztec at all. Though they were sold to collectors and museums as authentic, the tool marks on them turn out to be modern.

But then archaeology, as Walsh points out, isn't really about objects anyway. It's about their context.

Take, for example, that famous scene in which Indy grabs the golden statuette in the South American temple.

"An academic would look at that whole scene and say, 'Well, he just destroyed the context of this site,'" Walsh says. "And what can you learn from this golden idol?"

-- Christopher Joyce

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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