Of Skulls and Stories


Mosaic skull
The mosaic-decorated human skull at the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, The Netherlands. Photo courtesy of Martin Berger.

Before I knew Martin Berger’s name, I called him “the skulls guy.” Berger, a PhD student in Latin American Archaeology at the University of Leiden, is indeed spending his summer studying human skulls. But his work is less about the macabre mystique of human heads and more about a long epic of art, history and deceit.

A summer fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard’s research library and collection in Washington, D.C, Berger aims “to study the appearance of turquoise mosaics from Mexico on the art market in the 20th century.” Among the Dumbarton Oaks collection of pre-Columbian objects (that is, objects from Latin America before the time of Spanish colonization) are three turquoise mosaics decorating human skulls, and a fourth ornamenting a wooden disk. But there’s a twist: the objects are probably fakes. Berger explained that Javier Urcid, an anthropology professor at Brandeis University, determined that the skulls’ materials and iconography didn’t match those of real art from the Pre-Columbian time period. Though the skulls and their mosaics separately appear to date from Pre-Columbian times, the combination is likely new. “I come at it with a kind of different angle, because I’m already prepared to accept that [the artifacts] are fake, and now I’m looking at who faked them, and when and where and why,” Berger said. “It was for money, that’s quite clear.”

Berger thinks that real Mesoamerican skull art, of the kind found in a 1932 archaeological investigation in Oaxaca, Mexico, could have formed the inspiration for the fakes. A curator at the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands, Berger had previously done research on such probable fakes in his own museum’s collection. He hopes to compare them with those at Dumbarton Oaks to determine whether the same art dealer could have faked both collections. “I’m comparing them in terms of styles and materials and techniques,” Berger said. “And at the same time I’m doing literature study, trying to locate similar items in different museums and reading up on actual Mesoamerican practices relating to the decoration of skulls, the use of mosaic, the use of turquoise and the meaning of turquoise.”

So why are these old fakes of interest to contemporary scholars? “These artifacts are really powerful,” Berger said. “This was somebody’s father or child…and their skulls were dug up and decorated with mosaics. That’s… mind-boggling.” According to Berger, Mesoamerica, an area defined by similar cultural attributes that stretches roughly from the US border to El Salvador, is often portrayed by popular culture as savage and uncivilized. The fact that a faker of artifacts from this region chose to make art out of human skulls demonstrates the prevalence of that stereotype. “Mesoamerican peoples are almost always portrayed as bloodthirsty, very savage, sacrificing people whenever they have the chance,” Berger said. “This kind of artifact…resonates well with how Mesoamerica has been portrayed.”

This was somebody’s father or child…and their skulls were dug up and decorated with mosaics.”

Berger explained that the international art market in the 1950s is itself an exciting area of study. “People go into a tomb, dig up some stuff, put it back together; they sell it to some dodgy art dealer in Mexico…it’s almost like a detective story,” Berger said.  He described the experience of finding a letter from a man who had sold one of the skulls to the founders of Dumbarton Oaks. The man had journeyed to a Mexican village to obtain a skull, had his wallet and ID stolen, and been forced to walk 16 miles back. “I…see it in my head, how this guy’s in a village walking around with this Mesoamerican mask, and his wallet’s stolen, and he’s like, ‘I have to walk 16 miles!’” Berger said. “You get these…cool stories.”

Berger’s fascination with great stories is his motivation in his other studies, too. At the University of Leiden, he is working on a dissertation about the Mesoamerican ball game, which has been played continuously in some form from before Spanish colonization until today. “My PhD is not really hardcore archaeology,” Berger said. “I really like working with people, not just being in a site and excavating… but actually talking to people about what they feel, what they think, about their life histories.” The type of game play that exists today, Berger said, is probably European in origin. “It’s an indigenous ball game in the sense that it was assimilated by indigenous peoples, but the way of playing was originally European, so it’s really a symbiosis between the two,” Berger said.

For Berger, the ball game represents another kind of symbiosis: one between archaeology and anthropology, between the past and the present. “I think it’s the kind of topic which has both an archaeological and anthropological side, because it’s still being played,” Berger said. “It’s this continuity which really appealed to me.”

Jessi Glueck is the Brevia managing editor. She can be reached at jessicaglueck@college.harvard.edu.