Ancient crystal skulls: bones of contention

SOUTH TAMPA — For more than a thousand years it lay 9,000 feet above sea level, deep within a cavern in the Guatemalan highlands. It took hundreds of years to create and even longer to find. But today it sits right here, in Tampa, one of the world's few real crystal skulls.

Well, maybe.

And that's a big maybe.

While Harrison Ford pushes his way through the jungles of Peru in the blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we have our own tale to contend with here.

It began about nine years ago when South Tampa businessman Rick Spitz was in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, donating medical equipment to indigenous tribes. Spitz, now 62, had visited the area quite regularly, having devoted himself to helping the disadvantaged.

He bought all kinds of artifacts from an Indian digger, who would sell treasures, like elongated human skulls and jade.

There, mysteriously on a shelf, sat a skull covered in clay. Spitz wasn't sure what it was at first, but figured it intriguing enough to haggle over the price. The two reached an agreement: $2,000.

Heads butt

Lots of theories surround crystal skulls, like the fictitious one sought after in the movie or the one Spitz and, likely, others believe they have in their living rooms. And the film is boosting their popularity.

Believers say the Mayans and Aztecs made the skulls from various kinds of crystal thousands of years ago, and that 13 still exist on earth.

Joshua Shapiro, co-author of Mysteries of the Crystal Skulls Revealed, says the skull may possess healing or psychic powers.

But Christian Wells, an associate professor of anthropology who lectures on crystal skulls at the University of South Florida, says there is no proof that the ancient skulls ever existed and that many modern "findings" have been proved fakes. The Mayans and Aztecs were not known to make skulls for any purpose, he said.

Still, the skulls started to grab attention in the early 1900s when Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, a British explorer who some say is the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character, shed light on them. His daughter traveled the world, touting their healing powers, according to a Web site for the Sci Fi Channel. Today, the legend continues.

A recent special on the National Geographic Channel included theories that the original skulls could be relics from the legendary island of Atlantis or remains from extraterrestrials who visited the Aztec before the Spanish conquest.

Spitz thinks the Mayans created his skull from a solid piece of quartz sometime between 500 and 800 A.D. Natural abrasions, such as the constant grinding of sand, smoothed the skull over time. He says it's tied in with Dec. 21, 2012 — the last day of the Mayan calendar and what some believe will be the end of the world.

"You just have to have an open mind with these kind of things," Spitz said.

Age is elusive

Thousands of "crystal skulls" are made every year in Brazil, China and Germany, some out of crystal, jade and even wood.

Carbon dating and electron microscopes are the only tools used to trace their origin, but even they can be inconclusive.

Spitz says it's nearly impossible to verify the age of his crystal skull, although you can get some idea of its authenticity by examining the quartz.

He has looked at it under various microscopes and says he hasn't seen signs that modern tools were used to create it.

"I've taken it to archaeologists who say they can't tell," he said.

Wells hasn't seen Spitz's skull but says that if Spitz thinks it's real, he should share it with the Smithsonian Institution or British Museum.

Both museums have been duped by fake skulls.

In May, BBC News reported that the two best-known crystal skulls displayed for years in the British Museum and the Smithsonian were fakes. An electron microscope revealed that the skulls were made from materials not available to Aztecs or Mayans.

Even Spitz admits to buying an imitation about six years before his current find.

On eBay, dozens of "crystal skulls" have popped up for sale as of late, likely riding the coattails of Indiana Jones.

'Weird' proprietor

It should be said that Spitz isn't your normal guy. His condo is littered with animal skins, shrunken heads, shark teeth and a macabre skeleton sitting cross-legged in a chair — things you might expect from a man who owned a defunct bric-a-brac business called the Weird Shoppe.

There, he sold strange items hauled back from Central and South America and planned to build an orphanage outside Guatemala City with the proceeds. The idea went south when Spitz got tired of the paperwork.

Today, he is divorced and lives mostly off money he made from a medical supply company he sold in 1997.

He's thinking about reopening the Weird Shoppe in Tampa someday. But even if he did, he wouldn't put a price tag on his crystal skull.

He says it saved his life.

In 2006, he says he was diagnosed with cirrhosis, and doctors told him he was close to death. Spitz says he stopped drinking alcohol, hoping he wouldn't need a liver transplant. Last year, he put the skull's healing myth to the test by placing it next to his bed.

He'll tell you that he hates to look like a nut but that a few weeks ago, an ultrasound showed his liver was back to normal.

He's not saying the skull had anything to do with it, but he's not saying it didn't, either.

"If that's the case," he said, "it would be some kind of story."

Eric Smithers can be reached at esmithers@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3339.

A phenomenon goes Hollywood

What's a crystal skull?

Believers say they are 13 relics of human skulls made from various kinds of crystal by the Mayans and Aztecs thousands of years ago. Some say they have healing and psychic powers. But in some parts of the world, they have become a modern art form.

Did the original 13 really exist?

No, says Christian Wells, associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida. He says the modern archaeological community generally acknowledges that they're all fake.

Then where did those today come from?

Many are made with modern materials, including thousands made every year in Brazil, China and Germany.

Can we know for sure?

No. Archaeologists say it's unlikely that the Mayans and Aztecs could have created something so elaborate, but modern tests can't totally rule out the possibility.

Sources: National Geographic Channel, Christian Wells, Sci Fi Channel

Ancient crystal skulls: bones of contention 06/04/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 12:08pm]

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