When Wilfried Rosendahl, an archeologist from Mannheim, embarked on a secret mission to the somewhat isolated town of Idar-Oberstein, he felt uncomfortable. "Apparently some people vacation there voluntarily," he says with a noticeable shudder.
Rosendahl went to the workshop of lapidary Michael Peuster to view the results of a special order. Peuster had cut and polished a 14-kilogram (31-lb.) block of crystal to make a life-sized replica of a human skull.
The project took Peuster over a year to finish. This Sunday the skull goes on display at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, mysteriously lit and displayed in a glass case. Rosendahl will ceremoniously pull a black cloth from the case to open the "Skull Cult" exhibit, and he's looking forward to the astonished looks on the faces of museum visitors.
He won't hide the fact that the transparent skull is not an archeological artifact. On the contrary, says Rosendahl, "this is the first time that the manufacture of this type of skull has been documented from the very beginning."
A 19th-Century Cult
There are plenty of crystal skulls, and the legends that surround them are fueled by their mysterious origins. To this day, doomsday believers and fans of esotericism assume the transparent heads are indeed products of Mayan or Aztec culture.
Until recently, many scholars held the same erroneous belief. Respected institutions, like the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, purchased the skulls from dubious dealers and displayed them in their collections. Only in recent years have the specimens quietly disappeared into museum storerooms.
Fanatical believers, however, remain unshaken in their faith that the skulls actually contain extraterrestrial information. Many fear the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012, at the end of the old Mayan calendar -- and that the apocalpyse can be prevented only if all 13 crystal skulls supposedly in existence are displayed in a specific form on that day.
Eccentrics and collectors paid large sums for the relics, and promptly locked them away in safes. SS leader Heinrich Himmler reportedly owned a particularly opulent specimen, which weighed 9.2 kilograms and was 17.5 centimeters (seven inches) tall.
By comparison, Rosendahl's museum specimen weighs a modest four kilograms. The fact that he had it made in Idar-Oberstein is a tribute to the great craftsmen who have been working in obscurity there for centuries. Most archeologists now believe that all of the earlier crystal skulls were made in the gloomy Hunsrück Mountains, near the French border -- not in the sunny realm of the Mayans.
With tools made of stone and wood, copper and tin, pre-Columbian artists in Central America would hardly have managed to create such detailed sculptures out of crystal chunks. Studies a few years ago with a scanning microscope showed, in fact, that the skulls exhibit traces of a processing method which lapidaries have used only for the last 150 years.
Rosendahl finds it surprising that the skulls became so popular only in the late 19th century. Even then there was no evidence at all that they were authentic artifacts from Mexico.