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From glass balls to ancient skulls, the transparent variety of the mineral quartz was for centuries ...
2023-01-30 09:00:00

Splendor and Magic
The Allure of Rock Crystal

Crystal skull from the collection of the British Museum, London (CC0 1.0)
Splendor and Magic
Splendor and Magic

The Romans believed in the power of divination dice made of rock crystal. The advisor to the British Queen Elizabeth I consulted important matters of state with a crystal ball. Belief in the extraordinary properties of this variety of quartz has persisted for centuries.

Read in 10 minutes

If a modern person could be transported for a moment to ancient Rome, they would be amazed at how much value rock crystal had for its inhabitants. It was considered a jewel worthy of emperors.

According to the Romans, the mineral’s fragility was proof of its uniqueness. A shattered crystal is irretrievably lost; as Pliny the Elder writes, “the precious pieces cannot be put back together by any means whatsoever.” In his Natural History, the historian known for his passion for precious stones devotes the most space to crystals. In two long chapters, he discusses in detail where they can be found, how they are sourced; he describes their structure and form, and reflects on their peculiar, somewhat opaque transparency.

In the same treaty, Pliny describes the largest rock crystal known to him, gifted by Livia, the wife of Emperor Augustus, to the Capitol—and weighing 150 pounds. The historian also mentions a transaction by a Roman woman who paid the enormous sum of 150,000 sesterces for a single crystal ladle. By comparison, the price of one modius of grain at the time was three sesterces. Pliny also recounts the fate of an unusual stone, an opal, which Mark Antony wanted to buy from the senator Nonius for his mistress, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt. The dignitary, however, preferred to renounce his family and flee the country with the gem rather than sell it. According to some modern scholars, the mineral, contrary to its name, may have been a rock crystal that refracted light in an unusual way—it was opalescent.

Another famous Roman historian, Suetonius, in his The Twelve Caesars, mentions Nero’s two favorite cups decorated with Homeric scenes—on hearing that the Senate had declared him a public enemy, he shattered the cups. Pliny, referring to this story, adds that the vessels were crystal and that the emperor broke them so that no one else could use them, thus exacting revenge for the sentence.

Water Turned to Stone

In ancient Rome, there was a widespread belief that rock crystal was a special variety of frozen water. This view was adopted from the Greeks, as reflected in the Greek name krystallos—“pure ice.” Pliny also supports this theory. In his Natural History, he states: “Rock crystal [...] is found only in places where the winter snows freeze most thoroughly; and that it is a kind of ice is certain.” According to the scholar, the mineral originates from pure snow—puraque nive—falling from the upper parts of the celestial body.

In his treatise Naturales quaestiones, Seneca pondered similar questions: 

Who could fail to suppose that the waters that form rock crystal are very dense? But the opposite is true: it involves very light waters, which cold can freeze very easily precisely because of their lightness. The origin of this kind of stone is obvious to Greeks from their word for it, for they give the name “crystallus” both to this transparent stone and to the ice from which the stone is believed to come. For celestial water contains very little earth, and, when it has gone solid, it is made more and more dense by persistent, long-lasting cold. Eventually all the air is excluded, the water becomes highly compressed, and what had been liquid is turned into stone.

Although both scholars agreed on the origins of rock crystal, Pliny was clearly troubled by its puzzling morphology: “Why it is formed with hexagonal faces cannot be readily explained; and any explanation is complicated by the fact that, on the one hand, its terminal points are not symmetrical and that, on the other, its faces are so perfectly smooth that no craftsmanship could achieve the same effect.” According to the historian, the structure of crystal, which eludes explanation, corresponds with the contradictions one can perceive when looking at the stone—it is perfectly transparent and yet cloudy; close to the earth and yet celestial.

Ask the Icosahedron

Belief in the transcendental nature and aquatic origins of rock crystal explains why so many Roman artifacts made from this mineral were objects intended for magical purposes and dedicated to water symbolism.

One kind of object associated with water were Amphoriskos—small crystal amphorae that held perfumed oils. Yet the most beautiful expression of the connection between crystal and water was in sculpture. This can be seen in the Late Antique crystal statue of Hercules with the Erymanthian boar. The statue alludes to the snow of Mount Erymanthos, where the hero captured the animal, concluding the fourth of his twelve labors. The transparency of another sculpture, made in the first century BCE and depicting Aphrodite, allegorically emphasizes the watery origin of the goddess. The sculptor probably intended for the transparent crystal to take on a flesh-coloured hue in the hand of the person holding it. This gave the impression of the tangible presence of the goddess, making the sculpture even more unusual.

The Romans were convinced that rock crystal made it possible to lift the veil behind which the future was hidden. A popular tool for divination at the time were crystal dice in the shape of an icosahedron. The icosahedron, called ikosaedr in Greek, is one of the Platonic geometric solids and symbolizes water. Letters, and sometimes numbers, are engraved on each triangular facet of the dice. It is assumed that the throw of the crystal dice determined the choice of oracle, i.e., to which temple—where the priestesses foretold the future—it was best to go.

Undoubtedly, the most famous divination device—not only among crystal artifacts—is the crystal ball, or crystallum orbis, also used in ancient Rome. The first author to write about looking for answers in a crystal ball was the aforementioned Pliny the Elder. Faith in the magical properties of these spheres outlasted the Roman Empire.

Mysticism in Service of Politics

In the early Middle Ages, crystal balls were used by the (female) inhabitants of Great Britain—this is known thanks to the archaeological fever that swept through 18th- and 19th-century England. During excavation work at seventh-century burial sites in South East England, particularly around Kent, several crystal balls were discovered. They were all found in the tombs of women, placed between their knees. Marks on the surface of the spheres suggest that they were often worn at the waist. It is believed that, hung on chains or ropes, they were used for healing rituals, during which they were dipped into a liquid—water or wine—with the intention of imbuing it with healing properties. After Christianity spread in the British Isles, the use of magical crystal artifacts disappeared, but not forever.

The first Protestant Queen of England, Elizabeth I, did not shy away from magic, and during her reign crystal balls became legitimate tools of gaining knowledge. This was primarily due to John Dee, the Queen’s famous advisor, who practiced divination using crystal spheres. In 1564, he was appointed “Royal Advisor on Mystical Secrets,” a sort of court astrologer. John Dee, who was also an astronomer, alchemist, and occultist, believed that he communicated with angels and demons through crystal balls. Drawing from his séances, he voiced his opinion on almost every issue of significance in the kingdom. The queen greatly valued his services, which helped to popularize crystallomancy during the Elizabethan era.

Two and a half centuries later, crystal ball owners no longer had it so easy in Britain. Monarchs did not employ court magicians, and offering to tell fortunes using a crystal ball was considered a criminal offense. A passage from the 1824 Vagrancy Act warned: “Every Person pretending or professing to tell Fortunes, or using any subtle Craft, Means, or Device, by Palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of His Majesty’s Subjects […] shall be deemed a Rogue and Vagabond.” Such transgression was punishable by imprisonment in a house of corrections with up to three months’ hard labor. Even so, belief in the power of crystals was well established in the 19th century. Telling fortunes using a crystal ball, among other things, was one of the most popular holiday pastimes in the countryside; occultists were celebrities in London salons. Belief in the existence of supernatural forces was widespread all around the world—it was held by both simple folk as well as the so-called upper classes. This, in turn, opened the gates to an infinite number of fraudsters.

Deceptive Skulls

Indeed, before archaeology attained the status of scientific discipline, it attracted a peculiar mix of intellectuals, eccentrics, antiquarians, and museum curators, for whom self-promotion, charlatanism, and even forgery, were often a way of life. One such figure was the French amateur archaeologist, adventurer, and antiques shop owner Eugène Boban. Relatively little-known today, the Mesoamerican researcher was probably behind the fabrication and popularization of several crystal skulls that are still famous today. The rumor, possibly fabricated by Boban, was that at the time of discovery, the local people told the archaeologists about the magical power these objects possessed.

As many as six skulls of various sizes made of rock crystal can be traced back to Boban. Towards the end of the 19th century, the antiquarian sold three of them, two of which ended up in the Paris Trocadéro Museum in 1878, right after the World’s Fair (Exposition Universelle) in the French capital, where they were exhibited as Aztec antiquities. When the Trocadéro Museum opened to the public in 1882, the artifacts (including the skulls) purchased from Boban served as the gallery’s first Pre-Columbian collection. The third skull was sold to New York’s Tiffany Museum in 1886 and then in 1898 it was acquired by the British Museum. Here it was given a further stamp of authenticity by being grouped with genuine Aztec, Mayan, and Olmec art.

Boban’s skulls long remained some of the most famous artifacts associated with Mesoamerica, although there were also a significant number of skeptics who sensed a forgery. Modern research has proved that the latter were right. All the skulls were made with modern rotary lapidary tools, not available to 15th-century Aztecs. However, it is hard to deny these objects a certain seductive power, a fact reflected in popular culture, where their legend lives on.

Crystal skull from the collection of the British Museum, London (CC0 1.0)
Crystal skull from the collection of the British Museum, London (CC0 1.0)

A Down-to-Earth Rarity

One must admit that Eugène Boban showed great cunning in choosing rock crystal as the material for his faked skulls. This fragile rock of exceptional beauty has always appeared to people as something mysterious, even otherworldly. In geological terms, it is nothing else than quartz: a common mineral, made up mainly of silicon dioxide, which makes up about 12 percent of the Earth’s crust weight. The reason for quartz’s abundance is its chemical composition: oxygen and silicon. These elements together produce silica, which, through a slow process, forms crystals.

The outer shape of rock crystal is formed when it grows under favorable conditions, such as in an open rock fracture. As saturation, pressure, and temperature change, oxygen and silicon atoms combine to form the crystal. The chemistry of quartz makes it very stable and resistant to erosion.

For instance, quartz is the main component of common sands and sandstones. The same mineral can also take on more spectacular forms, varying according to admixtures, impurities, and the conditions under which they were formed. The best-known varieties of quartz—sometimes referred to as semi-precious stones—are amethyst, citrine, tiger’s eye or hawk’s eye, as well as chalcedony, which comes in many forms such as agate, jasper, and chrysoprase.

Rock crystal is a colorless and transparent quartz. It is not only European culture that attributed exceptional powers to it. In the Muromachi period (during the 14th to 16th century) in Japan, it would often adorn the then-popular wall niches called tokonoma, which were used to display objects of mystical significance. Quartz was used as a hunting talisman by Indigenous North Americans. There are clues that suggest maban—the material known in Indigenous Australian mythology as mystical, the source of shamans’ magical powers—was, in fact, rock crystal.

One might even go as far as to say that the properties of quartz are even more remarkable than Pliny the Elder, Seneca, and John Dee suspected. The mineral has played a huge role in the development of human technology—from the earliest stone tools to the components of modern machines and appliances.

One of its varieties, piezo-quartz, was used in the early 20th century to build ultrasonic wave transmitters and receivers, and today it is widely used in electronics—wherever a constant electrical vibration frequency is needed. The future was indeed written in quartz.


Pliny the Elder, “Natural History,” Book 37, trans. D. E. Eichholz (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1962)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, “Natural Questions,” trans, Harry M. Hine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Vagrancy Act 1824, “IV Persons committing certain Offences to be deemed Rogues and Vagabonds,” accessed January 4, 2023,


Translated from the Polish by Adam Zdrodowski

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