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Kingdom of the Quartz Skull

Izok, 2010
Harold Van Pelt (American, 1925-)
Quartz and izoklakeite
Loan courtesy of Harold and Erica Van Pelt
© 2010 Harold and Erica Van Pelt
Van Pelt
One need not be an explorer-archaeologist to come across incredible artifacts. For experts like Harold Van Pelt they can be made in the workshop. Van Pelt has spent the last 45 years mastering lapidary, the art of gemstone carving. Over this time, he has created over 80 intricate and beautiful pieces from gemstone, and become a self-taught expert in one of the most difficult artistic disciplines. After a lifetime of boning up on carving, in the early 2000s Van Pelt created perhaps his most famous rock crystal sculpture: a life-sized carved quartz skull titled Izok. Named for the trace amounts of the rare izoklakeite found suspended in its quartz medium by mineral analysis, the hollow skull is fantastically elaborate.
Izok's original 250 lb. block. Cat for scale.
© 2010 Harold and Erica Van Pelt
Cut from Rock
Though they look like glass, each of Van Pelt’s works are painstakingly rendered from solid rock. Lapidary requires an entirely different set of sculptural tools, and because Van Pelt began as a self-taught outsider, he has had to make many of these himself. An old 1925 metal lathe repurposed to work with gemstone is just one of the many examples of this. The precision of the carving tools which Van Pelt uses are of the utmost necessity. Complex, fragile sculptures like Izok can take hundreds of hours to complete. The two-part skull and interlocking mandible were carved and bored down to 6.5-pounds from a 250-pound block. For much of this process even the smallest error in drilling can irreparably shatter the delicate surfaces, sometimes as narrow as 3 millimeters. One of Van Pelt’s most tragic losses was hundreds of hours into his first hollow quartz skull. While drilling out the interior, the top of the skull fractured. Unlike with glass, stone cannot simply be repaired by melting.
Alas, Poor Yorick, He Was an Alien
Izok is hardly a random creation on the part of Van Pelt. Crystal skulls have a fascinating relationship with pre-Columbian art, though not necessarily a long one. Whereas in European fine art imagery skulls were often placed alongside a timepiece and flowers to function as a reminder of the inevitability of death (memento mori)—in pre-Columbian society it is a representation of the life the deceased has lived. Quartz-crystal skulls occupy a very peculiar place in Mesoamerican art. In the middle of the 1860s they began to appear in Europe and the United States, hailed as the archeological discoveries from Mexico and Central America. There was always a degree of skepticism around these objects and in the late 20thCentury, after many of the world’s largest museums had accepted them into their collections, it was proven by microscopic examination that every tested skull had marks which could only have been made by Western tools. Fortunately for those interested in far-fetched theories, by the time these 19thCentury crystal skulls had been debunked wild beliefs about their origins had already began to circulate. Some even posited that they were made by aliens. Incredibly, this conjecture is perpetuated to this day. The 2008 film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, haphazardly tackles this subject, but pseudoscientists like Joshua Shapiro confirm that “Crystal Skulls are a form of computer which are able to record energy and vibration that occur around them… The skull will pictorially replay all events or images of the people who have come into contact with them.”
Izok in its separate components.
© 2010 Harold and Erica Van Pelt
Skull in us All
Van Pelt’s skull lies somewhere amid this scientifically rigorous narrative. At odds with the inauthenticity of the 19thCentury’s supposedly mystical crystal skulls, Izok claims to be nothing more than a genuine and masterful work of art. Despite fake cultural artifacts being made, genuine skulls remain a vital part of Mexican culture today. Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) takes place on November 1, and finds its origins in the same Aztec, Mayan, and Toltec cultures that the fake crystal skulls were purported to come from. On the holiday,Calaveras, representations of skulls made of clay or sugar, along with many other offerings are placed on ofrendas in a show of love and support for the departed's spiritual journeys. 
Calaveras at the Bowers Museum's Day of the Dead ofrenda.
Photograph by Alyssa Jorgensen.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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Comments 2

Guest - Anonymous on Thursday, 02 November 2017 05:37

The cat was my favorite part.

The cat was my favorite part.
Guest - k h on Monday, 21 June 2021 10:54

The different veins of black within the clear quartz is absolutely beautiful. The artistry of this piece is mesmerizing!!

The different veins of black within the clear quartz is absolutely beautiful. The artistry of this piece is mesmerizing!!
Thursday, 23 May 2024

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