'Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull': What's The Title Mean?

Harvard lecturer explains possible role of fictional skulls in fourth Indy flick.

He rediscovered love by finding the Ark of the Covenant, redeemed himself by rescuing the Sankara Stones and tasted illumination the second he sipped from the Holy Grail, but what sort of fortune and glory await Indiana Jones in his next adventure, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"?

"Dawning consciousness, free brotherly love, sex with multiple partners without consequence, drug use," Harvard lecturer Marc Zender joked of the supposed powers of crystal skulls. "You know, tons of stuff."

Professor of archeology, expert on Mesoamerican cultures (particularly Mayan civilization), scholar of Aztec writing, and, shall we say, obtainer of rare antiquities, Dr. Zender is something of an authority on the skulls — and has a lot more insight into the meaning of the film's title than his comment above might indicate.

Although crystal skulls were once displayed in museums across the globe (including the Smithsonian) as proof of ancient Mayan grinding technology, they're actually all fakes, most likely manufactured in late 19th-century Germany. Zender said this makes the artifacts "as perfectly legitimate a subject for Indy's fictional adventures as either the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail."

Fictional or not, New Age believers do ascribe powers to these hauntingly beautiful artifacts. At the very least, they have the power to reveal something about the plot of the upcoming movie (due out May 22, 2008), which has been a hot topic of speculation since the title was made public at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards (see "Shia LaBeouf Leaks 'Indiana Jones' Fourth Title At VMAs").

"It is said that when [High Priest of the Maya] willed death with the help of the skull, death invariably followed," Zender said. "For anyone who believed this story, then, the crystal skull was a grim and deadly artifact, exactly the kind of thing that Indy would go searching for.

"But a funny thing happened on the way to the present New Age movement," Zender laughed, saying the artifact somehow morphed from a device of doom into "an airy-fairy vehicle for harmonic convergence," which can amplify and focus psychic abilities. "People are able to gaze into the eyes of the crystal skull and see these scenes — to either read the past with great clarity or predict the future."

More interesting, perhaps — given recent rumors that the film would place Indy into direct conflict with aliens (or at least the bureaucrats at Area 51, where some of the film supposedly takes place) — is Zender's explanation of another one of the crystal skulls most flouted powers.

"These things are big crystals, and people started thinking of them as these super computers of past civilizations. If a silicon chip can hold tons of information and data, imagine what a gigantic 11-pound crystal can hold," Zender said. "So maybe this skull has stored all of the lost knowledge of the Mayans or Atlantians, or ET."

Recent online speculation seems to focus on this explanation, with scuttlebutt centered mostly on Indy's rumored otherworldly foes. But if Dr. Jones wants to phone home, it's going to be hard work.

"When all seven, nine, 13 — pick your number — when these skulls appear together, then a brand new age blossoms," he said of devotees' beliefs, with a tone of incredulity in his voice. "True believers believe that each skull has its own specific property, and bringing them all together makes all those abilities available to everybody all at once."

Indiana will probably find one (or more) of these skulls where they supposedly originated, in Central America, which means a pretty rad trip back to "Raiders" territory for fans. The story could even be based on the skulls' real-life discovery.

"Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, the adventurer, explorer and Atlantis aficionado, claimed to have discovered a crystal skull at the Mayan city of Lubaantun, in southern Belize (then British Honduras) in the early 1920s. He knew very well that he bought it at Sotheby's in the '40s," Zender said of the true beginning of the legend of the crystal skulls. "This skull was supposedly found by his adoptive daughter Anna on her birthday, when he let her into the dig site to search out a birthday keepsake."

A young girl with a somewhat oddball archeologist father known to keep some of his artifacts? While pure speculation, adapting this story would seem, at least, to provide a plausible means of reintroducing Marion Ravenwood (played again by Karen Allen).

The Holy Grail is an obvious quest for eternal life, the Ark for power. With so many divergent theories on crystal skulls, however (and given the fact that the legend itself is only 70 years old), Zender's assessment is that there is just no way to tell where this adventure will ultimately take Indy.

"They're not attached to any real ancient tradition. Every true believer has a slightly different take on them," Zender sighed. "As with most romances, by the end of it, the skull will have to be destroyed and the [ancient] civilization will pass away. But we'll just have to wait and see how."

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