The phenomena of "crystal skulls" is about to be enhanced with the upcoming film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but a new special is about to dig a little deeper with Mystery of the Crystal Skulls, which will air on the Sci-Fi Channel on May 18 at 9 PM ET. I was in on a conference call with the host of this special, Lester Holt, and here's what he had to say.
I'm really intrigued by this. I've followed Anna Mitchell-Hedges, the daughter, and I've actually kind of followed this for a few years. Have you, yourself, held or seen in person any of these crystal skulls?
Lester Holt: No. Bill Homann, who had married Anna and is featured prominently in the documentary, brought with him a replica of the crystal skull. He had real concerns about bringing the real thing to Belize because many there think it is sacred and that it is, you know, part of Maya culture. And frankly, he was afraid that it might be seized. So in this case, he brought a replica. So no, I've never seen the real thing. I've read so many accounts of it and I had - I mean, when I was approached with this documentary, I'd heard - just vaguely I knew about it and I did some reading. And after I read it, I became intrigued. And I said, you know, this sounds like something that would be fun to do. And it was.
How did they get away with seizing these treasures of Belize and the Mayan people? You know, the Egyptians now come over to the United States and yank all of their treasures back to Egypt and as do the Greeks and what not. How do they get away with seizing and keeping in Britain these skulls which should probably be in their original country?
Lester Holt: Well the Anna Mitchell-Hedges one is in the United States with Bill Homann. And Bill Homann - it was taken so many years ago. I'm only guessing and I don't - I can't tell you for sure. I'm guessing it was before, you know, those kinds of, you know, antiquities commissions and sort of things had been put together. So, you know, there was no - it wasn't clear if it was going to be seized. He had just some concerns about bringing it in the country because for many, it - you know, they really believe it is part of Maya culture.
A newsman always has to be kind of skeptical and so forth. So I'm wondering, as you're following the story and all of a sudden you hear someone say they've got the actual thing where the guy bought it from Sotheby's -- the skull -- and then you ask and they say well sure, but it's still the real skull and someone accidentally put it on sale at Sotheby's, so he had to buy it back. At some point in there, do you start to get real skeptical or what was your mind doing when you were hearing this story?
Lester Holt: Oh my skepticism meter was clicking the whole way. Even from the time I got into the project. You know, that's what a journalist does and there was no way I was going to even work on this unless I made sure we were going to explore all these different avenues and, you know, all the evidence that would point, you know, to this possibly being a fraud. And we did that. And yeah, there were points - in fact, Bill Homann who has it now - you know, I tried to shake him. I asked him a lot of pointed questions and I came away at least with the conclusion that he's a true believer. You know, he'd lived with Anna Mitchell-Hedges, you know, knows the skull and has heard her story, has asked her many of the same questions that I asked him. And he's a true believer. Now, you know, that leaves the obvious question what do I think now? I still don't know is the answer. But, you know, I also approach journalism from the standpoint that there's a lot of things that we don't know and may never know. And, you know, our obligation is to ask the right questions and explore all the potential avenues. And I came away feeling, you know, this is a pretty interesting mystery because there have been tests suggesting that this, you know, couldn't have been machine made. And there have been the stories, as you mentioned, of it being put up for auction. So there's a lot of different stories out there. And it was kind of fun to explore all the avenues. And at the end of the day, you kind of walk away and as I often like to do with stories, you know, with - assuming we can't, you know, get to the bottom is let viewers decide - put enough information out there that they can at least, in their own mind aside, or perhaps explore further for the answers.
I read somewhere that they sent it to Hewlett Packard in 1970 and their tests revealed that it would have taken 300 years to make. You know, do you know - has there been any update on that?
Lester Holt: No, that's the information that is in the documentary. And that was one of the things that I read that I was like hm, you know, that - it's - you know, you - I guess as a journalist you approach everything naturally as a skeptic. And especially when it comes to things that, you know, border in the supernatural. It's like - and I'm always like okay, you got to give me something here. And that was one of the pieces that, you know, I said okay, this is really worth exploring. You know, it's made of this quartz and we, on this expedition, you know, discovered that, you know, quartz is available nearby. And, you know, we learned a lot about the Maya culture. And, you know, you walk away thinking hey, maybe. Maybe.
Is there any evidence that there are other sets of 13 skulls in other parts of the world?
Lester Holt: Yeah, the legend if you will has been that there are 13. I'm trying to remember how many - you know, off the top of my head, I can't remember how many now have been identified in various locations. But the - one of the legends is that if they're brought together that they have some kind of a significant power. And that's where, you know, it gets a little sketchy. But the origins of it, you know, in either the story of it coming from the - there's a Maya ruin - you know, it has some legitimacy. I came away from it with some sense that it was quite possibly an explanation.
I wanted to ask was kind of how this project came about or how your involvement in the project came about, and how they approached you? And just maybe what you - what was going through your mind as you heard that they wanted you to come do this special?
Lester Holt: Well just for a little background - I mean, Sci-Fi Channel is part of the NBC/Universal family and they had come to me a couple of years ago to work on a project about the Bermuda Triangle - similar kind of a program. And, you know, it's funny because that was one - when I was a kid, I was always intrigued reading about the Bermuda Triangle. So that was an easy one. I said yeah, that sounds like fun and that was an interesting one. So we had a relationship and they have talked to me about other projects in the past. But I mean, let's be perfectly honest. I'm a journalist and fiction is a work - it's kind of - you know, it doesn't always sit right with a journalist. So I'm very choosy about the things that, you know, that I'm able to go forward with. But I was actually in LA on assignment and - at the hotel ran into some folks from Sci-Fi. And they said hey, we were going to call you. We've got this project we're working on. So they kind of planted the seed and I went back to my room. And I logged onto the Internet, and just read a little bit about the crystal skull. And then they followed up a few weeks later and said what do you think? And I said, you know, it's really - you know, it met that bar that the Bermuda Triangle did in my mind in terms of, you know, there's definitely something there and there are a lot of people who have a real interest in this. And, you know, and I always try to, you know, hold myself to the sense of, you know, don't be a news snob, you know. Be - you know, ask the tough questions and have healthy skepticism. But at the same time, this is something that a lot of people are hearing about and reading about. I knew the movie - Indiana Jones movie was coming out, so that was going to increase talk about these skulls. So everything came together and I said yeah, this was a project, you you had to say one thing, what was the most interesting or fascinatingknow, I'm willing and would like to be involved with.
So what is your personal opinion? Which theory of the origins of the skulls do you think are the most convincing? Are they extraterrestrials, are they Maya or just a hoax?
Lester Holt: Well, you know, if I had to take a guess -- and don't take this to the bank -- I would buy into the Maya story. But having said that -- and this is an important caveat -- you know, to me there's not enough evidence to really walk away and say this is what I believe. But of the - in answer to your question of the potential theories out there, of the Maya story that Anna Mitchell-Hedges tells, is perhaps the most likely. I mean, it would require obviously a great amount of patience, assuming it was made by humans - a great amount of patience over a great amount of time. And obviously, a fair amount of skill since they would not have had the machinery to do it the way we would do today.
So do you think there's any sort of physical research that could definitively say where the skulls are from since quartz is kind of inert?
Lester Holt: Yeah. I think it could be - I'm sure that it could be looked at again in terms of the - whether it was machine made or handmade. You know, I'm not an expert in that kind of technology. But clearly I think we, you know, you could continue to subject it to test after test, after test.
Well there's some, I guess, buzz about the end of the worldwide - a worldwide cataclysm at the end of the Mayan calendar cycle. Do you know if there's anything to that or it will review anything about that?
Lester Holt: Well I don't know. We went to an area where we actually walk - it's a giant Maya calendar and it's made of these standing stones. You'll see it in the story. And we talk about the fact that there is this legend of the apocalypse event that would occur. You know, that's an area, you know, frankly where we're exploring the what-ifs and the possibilities, and, you know, I'd leave that to the viewer to decide. I mean, that was - we put it out there, but that's a hard thing to, you know, to offer conclusive evidence. I guess we'll find out in 2012.
Where do you plan on being on December 21, 2012?
Lester Holt: You never know. You know, I'm usually on the road somewhere. Maybe I'll be doing a live shot in Belize for the Today Show.
Do you think Frederick Mitchell-Hedges was the inspiration for Indiana Jones?
Lester Holt: You know, if not him, somebody like him. The more - as I said, when they scheduled me with this project I went into a little - you know, just a little cursory research. I read about this guy and I thought wow, it looks like kind of - you know, this kind of sounds like the same type of guy, always going for the treasure and the mystery. But whether he was the actual inspiration, I don't know. But I think Indiana Jones is clearly modeled after real-life characters that existed.
Lester, in light of, you know, sort of some of the heavier news stories that you have to cover on a regular basis, is an assignment like this sort of a welcome change from reality?
Lester Holt: It is. It is, because, you know, as a newsman, of course, sometimes, you know, you're taking - you're afraid you almost take life too seriously. And as I said before, I'm one of those guys that - I never try to portray myself as one of those journalists who knows it all. And I think that what makes the job fun is continuing to keep your mind open and to explore new possibilities, and, you know, frankly a lot of things we don't know. And my feeling is if it's something that people are talking about, if it's something that intrigues them that, you know, they're maybe talking about in their living rooms - they probably will after the movie comes out. And it's worth exploring. And it was kind of a nice change of pace because a, it was - it got me away from the politics for awhile which seems to be dominating our - all of our lives. And it was really fun to interview Bill Homann because as I said, you know, whether I believe him or you believe him, I definitely believe that he was a true believer. Boy that's a mouthful. And it was fun. It was fun to see someone who has that sense of discovery and of imagination, and of possibilities. And so yes, it's a long answer to your question. But it was a nice departure from the regular part of what I do. I wear a lot of hats at NBC, you know, between Nightly News and Today Show. So fortunately, you know, I get to cover a wide range of stories. I call it kind of the buffet line of news that I get to take part in which, you know, keeps the job fresh and interesting.
Would you say you're a fan of the Indiana Jones series? And if you are, do you have sort of a favorite movie in the franchise?
Lester Holt: I am a fan. I really liked - I guess it was the third one with Sean Connery. Yeah. I really liked that one. I thought Sean Connery was a fun addition. I guess he's not in this next one. But yeah, I'm a big fan of those movies. And I have said for years, why don't they make any more? And finally they did.
Did Homann give you an insight as to the properties of the skull? I've read that some people felt it was evil - the particular one that she found on her 17th birthday, that she had in her possession. Was it, you know, I was reading that it absorbed the aura colors of whoever was holding it.
Lester Holt: That's one of the things he said. And he says, you know, people - he talks about - he gets - he speaks around the country and around the world about it. And has shown it to other people and talked about how they're all kind of affected and it creates this aura. And for some people, you know, it's a different feeling. I would - you know, we shot it for the story and unfortunately I wasn't there. And, you know, back to the earlier question I wasn't - didn't get a chance to see it for myself and experience it. So that's my one regret in this because of the, you know, the time constraints of my other responsibilities. I didn't get to really, you know, have that impression that I could share with you. But yeah, he loves the - he gets a kick out of how, you know, people react when they're in the room with it.
Will you ever make a point to go see one in person?
Lester Holt: I might. You know, Bill and I - you know, he's a really nice guy. I got to know him a little bit and we exchanged cards. And he's there in Indiana, and we kind of have a loose date that if I'm in that neighborhood. I don't know that I'd make a special trip, to be quite honest. But if I had an opportunity, if it was convenient, I would love to see one.
Because - erasing the whole supernatural part because people can argue either way on that, just the notion of being around some of these things that the Mayan's definitely accomplished, some of the things that they built and so forth - just kind of give us more of a feeling of what it is that strikes you about being around what must have been a pretty impressive civilization at one point.
Lester Holt: It is pretty impressive. And I think what - and this is what really, you know, fascinates me about these kinds of things. We like to think that, you know, we in our culture are the most modern and technically advanced. But then you go back and you look at things like the Maya culture and you realize that, you know, they had their day. And, you know, what happened between, you know, then and now, you know, that's a long story. But we know that, you know, these ancient cultures did some extraordinary things. Anybody who has walked inside, you know, one of the great pyramids, anybody who has walked around Stonehenge - these kinds of places. So we know that these cultures had some, you know, had employed some enormously sophisticated technologies, even compared to what we do because, you know, the pulleys and lifts, and that sort of thing. So that's what kind of intrigues me. It's like, you know, I can't measure it based on today. These are people that did do some extraordinary things. So who am I to say, you know, what their limiting point was? And that's why I kind of walked away after, you know, standing amid these ruins and these pyramids. And there were so many of them. So this was a vast culture. This was an area that was inhabited by millions, you know, during their heyday. And so standing there I'm thinking oh, this - these would have been some interesting people to know at that time. And I kind of walked away - you know, they - I don't know, the sky might have been the limit for them, including, you know, making these skulls.
I'm just curious, how significant in South America are the skulls today?
Lester Holt: I think it's a growing significance. I think the fact that they've received a lot of attention from other parts of the world, I think that they're - certainly among local Maya there in Belize -- and in fact, one of them we introduce to you in the story -- the story is quite known. And I think there is a - you know, there's a fair amount of pride that they were - they had this link to this culture. In terms of the broader population, I can't answer that. But I do know that there are, you know, prominent members of the Maya community today who know about them and clearly, even archeologists who we interviewed - local archaeologists -- one of whom was clearly a skeptic. I mean, they knew all about it. And when I say a skeptic, the gentleman we interviewed - I don't think he says it's not possible. It's just that he says archaeologically they have not proven it to be the real deal.
So you already mentioned that you were a fan of the movies. Do you feel - did you get to - you know, did you feel a little bit like Indiana himself doing this?
Lester Holt: Yeah, there were - I have to say there were a couple of moments. You know, as I'm in my khaki and climbing through some of the jungle settings. And at one point, we did a little diving off of Roatan Island in Honduras. And I - yes, I had those little fantasy flashes like oh, this must have been - what it would have been like. At the same time, I'm thinking you have to be pretty brave to do this. These are jungles that have a lot of critters and they have, you know, their fair amount of danger. But it was exciting. It really was to stand there in these jungles. And just the thought, you know, anything else - you didn't want to think about this - you know, we know that this Mitchell-Hedges did these kinds of expeditions and we saw some old pictures of some of the things he had done. And it really kind of gave you a flash of wow, there really are these, you know, these globetrotting explorers and, you know, we're exploring the legacy of one of them.
I wanted to ask - you know, you mentioned earlier, you know, just the fact of being a journalist you kind of go in with a lot of questions. And I'm interested to know, you know, for you in doing this, what questions were answered? And also, what kind of sparked more questions for you when you left? What were some of the impressions that really, you know, struck you by the end?
Lester Holt: Well the biggest question was, you know, I think it would have been very easy for me to like walk away from this, you know, with a big smirk on my face if we could have definitively proved that this thing was made in some machine shop, you know, in lower Manhattan. But that's not the case. And so that's what kind of, you know, kept my interest in this thing was that we don't know where this came from and whether it was machine made, or how many years it was made. And then we knew that they had the materials, at least the quartz in Belize to do it. I'm sorry, what was the rest of your question?
I was just, you know, curious about, you know, what questions kind of have stuck around with you after leaving this project.
Lester Holt: Oh yeah, the other - I'm sorry. Yeah, the other question was - it was the things we explore. You know, this is not totally on the crystal skull. We also get into the life of Mitchell-Hedges and some of the things he had done in this harbor around this Roatan Island in Honduras. And I had a lot of questions about what he left behind because one of the stories we deal with is that he dumped some treasure overboard in this harbor. Now this was a harbor where we know that pirates were quite active - Captain Morgan. I guess there's a whiskey named after him now. But we know that from the hillside, they would have lookouts and they would send the pirate ships out after the merchant ships. So we know there was a colorful history there. And I was a little reluctant to leave that area. We did some diving there and Bill Homann, you know, thought he had a track on where some of these treasures were. And we explored some of those and you'll see the results. But that, more than anything, really kind of left me, you know, like kind of wanting more because in that area we didn't do less of a, you know, potential supernatural to just a plain old treasure hunt.
Mystery of the Crystal Skulls will premiere on the Sci-Fi Channel on May 18 at 9 PM ET.