28 April 2013

"Explorers," Crystal Skulls, and Lawsuits Aplenty

A crystal skull at the British Museum (ID Am1898C3.1 ),
similar in dimensions to the more detailed Mitchell-Hedges skull.
Society for the History of Discoveries member Raymond John Howgego is collecting sources for a definitive biography of Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges, the stockbroker turned amateur archaeologist and explorer best known for his supposed discovery of an ancient Mesoamerican crystal skull that he called the "Skull of Doom."

The "crystal skulls" are the central plot element for the blockbuster 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where the intrepid archaeologist/adventurer Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr., hunts down the mystery behind the artifacts.  Mitchell-Hedges is even mentioned in the film.

But in late 2012 Belizean archaeologist Jaimie Awe, director of the Institute of Archaeology of Belize, sued Paramount Pictures, Lucasfilm, and Lucasfilm's new owner Disney for illegally profiting from the skull's likeness.  Awe considers the skull a Belizean national treasure, and the use of the skull as a plot device exploitative.  Awe is also suing the Mitchell-Hedges family's heirs for the return of the skull.

The Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull, which the self-promoting adventurer Mitchell-Hedges claimed he unearthed from a 1924 dig at the Maya city of  Lubaantun, in then British Honduras.  Howgego's research, however, has poked holes in many of the claimed explorations and stories of Mitchell-Hedges's life, while scientific research into the skull has concluded it is probably a twentieth-century forgery, made with modern tools.

Nineteenth-century colonial adventurism, early twentieth-century archaeology, late twentieth-century New Ageism, and twenty-first-century movie magic are all mixed up in the interesting story of the crystal skulls.

20 April 2013

500th Anniversary of the Piri Reis map

Surviving fragment of the Piri Reis map (1513) showing Central and South America shores.
UNESCO has declared 2013 the five hundredth anniversary of the "Piri Reis map," the name for the map of the New World by Ottoman admiral Piri Reis (full name: Hacı Ahmed Muhiddin Piri; Reis was an Ottoman military rank akin to that of captain).

The 1513 map shows the Caribbean and the coast of South America soon after the European discovery of the Americas.  One written inscription on the map tells of its sources, one "a map drawn by Qulūnbū in the western region."  Qulūnbū is Columbus, and scholars such as Gregory McIntosh note that the map's features are similar to the geographical notions of Christopher Columbus.

The Piri Reis map has also served as fodder for "alternative historians" who claim it depicts evidence of Atlantis, an ice-free Antarctica, unknown Chinese voyages around the globe, or even extraterrestrial mapping of the globe.

Turkey is celebrating the anniversary with exhibitions around the country.  Ankara University hosted the International Piri Reis Symposium on April 12, 2013, with speakers from Turkey and around the world.  Even Google got into the act with a Piri Reis map Google Doodle on April 7.