Weekend to do: Sci Fi's 'Mysteries of the Crystal Skulls' interview with Lester Holt
By April MacIntyre May 13, 2008, 16:20 GMT
The Sci Fi Channel has taken the mythology of the latest Indiana Jones film and examined the kernel of truth that lay behind the yarn.
On Sunday, May 18th at 9:00pm EST, "Mystery of the Crystal Skulls with Lester Holt" premieres and examines the real artifacts behind the new Jones film.
The Sci Fi special will follow the three previously released Indy films, shown back to back.
Mystery of the Crystal Skulls follows Lester, a seasoned investigative reporter, as he searches the historical home and lore of the 13 quartz perfectly rendered crystal human skulls.
These ancient Mayan and Aztec pieces are the worlds largest finished gemstones. They are rumored to unleash ďuntold energyĒ and secrets of mankindís survival here on Earth.
The Crystal Skulls are the sought-after objects in the newest Indy movie, and their real-life story is as compelling as the dressed-up version we get from screenwriter David Koepp and George Lucas, who co-wrote the script.
The skulls were discovered by British man of action, explorer Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges, and his daughter Anna Mitchell-Hedges, who died in 2007 at age 100. Many feel the Indy character is based on Mitchell-Hedges colorful life of exploration and adventure, which he retold during the ďRadio DaysĒ of the 1930ís on Sunday nights, with jungle music in the background.
Mystery of the Crystal Skulls with Lester Holt premiers Sunday, May 18th at 9:00pm.
Monsters and Critics spoke to reporter Lester Holt yesterday:
Iíve followed Anna Mitchell-Hedges, his daughter and this story for a few years. Have you 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 part of Maya culture.
Frankly, he was afraid that it might be seized. So in this case, he brought a replica. Iíve never seen the real thing. Iíve read so many accounts of it and when I was approached with this documentary, Iíd heard - just vaguely I knew about it and I did some reading.
After I read it, I became intrigued, this sounded like something that would be fun to do. And it was.
Will you ever make a point to go see one in person?
Lester Holt: I might. Bill - heís a really nice guy. I got to know him a little bit and we exchanged cards. And heís there in Indiana, and we kind of have a loose date that if Iím in that neighborhood.
I donít know that Iíd make a special trip, to be quite honest. But if I had an opportunity, if it was convenient, I would love to see one.
The Egyptians go all over the world to yank all of their treasures back to Egypt
as do the Greeks, How did they get away with seizing and keeping these skulls which should probably be in their original country?
Lester Holt: Well the Anna Mitchell-Hedges one is in the United StatesÖ
with Bill Homann. It was taken so many years ago. Iím guessing it was before those kinds of antiquities commissions and sort of things had been put together.
So it wasnít clear if it was going to be seized. He had just some concerns about bringing it in the country because for many, it - they really believe it is part of Maya culture.
Did Homann give you an insight as to the properties of the skull? Iíve read that some people felt it was evil - the particular one that she found on her 17th birthday that she had in her possession. I was reading that it absorbed the aura colors of whoever was holding it.
Lester Holt: Thatís one of the things he said. And he says people - he speaks around the country and around the world about it.
He has shown it to other people and talked about how theyíre all kind of affected and it creates this aura. And for some people, itís a different feeling.
We shot it for the story and unfortunately I wasnít there. And, back to the earlier question I wasnít - didnít get a chance to see it for myself and experience it.
So thatís my one regret in this because of the time constraints of my other responsibilities. I didnít get to really have that impression that I could share with you.
But yeah, he gets a kick out of how people react when theyíre in the room with it.
A newsman always has to keep some skepticism - what was in your mind 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. Thatís 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 all the evidence that would point to this possibly being a fraud.
We did that. Bill Homann who has it now - I tried to shake him. I asked him a lot of pointed questions and I came away at least with the conclusion that heís a true believer.
Heíd lived with Anna Mitchell-Hedges, he knows the skull and has heard her story, has asked her many of the same questions that I asked him. And heís a true believer.
Now, that leaves the obvious question what do I think now?
I still donít know is the answer. But I also approach journalism from the standpoint that thereís a lot of things that we donít know and may never know.
Our obligation is to ask the right questions and explore all the potential avenues. I came away feeling this is a pretty interesting mystery because there have been tests suggesting that this couldnít have been machine made.
There have been the stories, as you mentioned, of it being put up for auction. So thereís a lot of different stories out there. And it was kind of fun to explore all the avenues.
At the end of the day, you kind of walk away and as I often like to do with stories, with - assuming we canít get to the bottom is to 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.
There was talk of sending the skull to Hewlett Packard in 1970 and their tests revealed that it would have taken 300 years to make, has there been any update on that?
Lester Holt: No, thatís the information that is in the documentary. And that was one of the things that I read that I was like hmm, I guess as a journalist you approach everything naturally as a skeptic.
Especially when it comes to things that border in the supernatural. Iím always like okay, you got to give me something here.
That was one of the pieces that I said this is really worth exploring. Itís made of this quartz and we discovered that quartz is available nearby.
We learned a lot about the Mayan culture. You walk away thinking, 'hey, maybe.'
Is there any evidence that there are other sets of 13 skulls in other parts of the world?
Lester Holt: The legend if you will has been that there are 13. Iím trying to
remember how many off the top of my head, I canít remember how many now have been identified in various locations.
But one of the legends is that if theyíre brought together that they have some kind of a significant power. And thatís where it gets a little sketchy.
The origins of it in either the story of it coming from the - thereís a Maya ruin - it has some legitimacy. I came away from it with some sense that it was quite possibly an explanation.
Has anyone ever tried to recreate what the actual person would look like from the skull?
Lester Holt: I donít have an answer to that. We didnít deal with that in the program. I donít think so.
How did this project come about for you, and what was going through your mind as you heard that they wanted you to come do this special?
Lester Holt: The 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 - a similar kind of a program.
Itís 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, letís be perfectly honest. Iím a journalist and fiction is a work - itís kind of - it doesnít always sit right with a journalist.
Iím very choosy about the things that Iím 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. Weíve got this project weíre 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.
Then they followed up a few weeks later and said what do you think? And I said that it met that bar that the Bermuda Triangle did in my mind in terms of, thereís definitely something there and there are a lot of people who have a real interest in this.
I always try to hold myself to the sense of, donít be a news snob, 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 moving 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, Iím willing and would like to be involved with.
What was the most interesting or fascinating thing that you experienced doing this special?
Lester Holt: Well I think it was standing amid the Mayan ruin. I just hadnít - Iíd never been to Belize and didnít know that there were so many. And I didnít realize that there were so many unanswered questions about them.
One of the things that we do in this documentary is we take you up what looks like a mountain. But what youíre really standing on is a pyramid. Itís entirely covered in dirt and jungle foliage.
A lot of these have really never been fully explored. There were countless Mayan ruins that archaeologists have not gotten to, which of course, leaves out there what else havenít we found and what else might offer credence to the story of the legend.
Which theory of the origins of the skulls do you think are the most convincing? Are they extraterrestrials, Mayan or just a hoax?
Lester Holt: Well, if I had to take a guess -- and donít take this to the bank Ė I
would buy into the Maya story. But having said that -- and this is an important caveat -- to me thereís not enough evidence to really walk away and say this is what I believe.
To answer to your question of the potential theories out there, of the Mayan story that Anna Mitchell-Hedges tells, is perhaps the most likely. Assuming it was made by humans. it would require obviously a great amount of patience over a great amount of time.
Obviously too, a fair amount of skill since they would not have had the machinery to do it the way we would do today.
Was there any new research done on the skull for - like laboratory research for this program?
Lester Holt: Other than the Hewlett Packard tests, no new testing. No.
Do you think thereís any sort of physical research that could definitively say where the skulls are from since quartz is kind of inert?
Lester Holt: Iím sure that it could be looked at again in terms of whether it was machine made or handmade. Iím not an expert in that kind of technology.
But clearly I think you could continue to subject it to test after test, after test.
There is buzz about the end of the world by a cataclysm at the end of the Mayan calendar cycle.
Lester Holt: Right.
Do you know if thereís anything to that or it will review anything about that?
Lester Holt: Well I donít know. We went to an area where we actually walk - itís a giant Mayan calendar and itís made of these standing stones. Youíll see it in the story. And we talk about the fact that there is this legend of the apocalypse event that would occur.
Thatís an area frankly where weíre exploring the what-ifs and the possibilities, and, Iíd leave that to the viewer to decide. We put it out there, but thatís a hard thing to, you know, to offer conclusive evidence. I guess weíll find out in 2012.
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 - just a little cursory research.
I read about this guy and I thought wow, 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 donít know. But I think Indiana Jones is clearly modeled after real-life characters that existed.
Lester, in light of 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. As a newsman, of course, sometimes, youíre afraid you almost take life too seriously. And as I said before, Iím one of those guys that - I never try to portray myself as one of those journalists who knows it all.
I think that what makes the job fun is continuing to keep your mind open and to explore new possibilities, and frankly a lot of things we donít know.
My feeling is if itís something that people are talking about, if itís something that intrigues them that theyíre maybe talking about in their living rooms - they probably will after the movie comes out. And itís worth exploring.
And it was kind of a nice change of pace because it got me away from the politics for awhile which seems to be dominating all of our lives.
It was really fun to interview Bill Homann because as I said - I definitely believe that he was a true believer. It was fun to see someone who has that sense of discovery and of imagination, and of possibilities. And so yes.
But it was a nice departure from the regular part of what I do. I wear a lot of hats at NBC, between Nightly News and Today Show. So fortunately 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 keeps the job fresh and interesting.
Would you say youíre 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, that wasÖI really liked that one. I thought Sean Connery was a fun addition. I guess heís not in this next one. But yeah, Iím a big fan of those movies. And I have said for years, why donít they make any more? And finally they did.
What was the most compelling story in your career youíve ever covered?
Lester Holt: Yeah, Iíve covered so - I think itís clear - itís watching someone die. I mean, I was a witness to an execution once and I donít think it gets any more - I mean, thatís a story that covers a lot of gamuts not only from human emotions, but certainly it is and it will remain one of the most debated topics in our society - the death penalty.
So I think clearly that was a story thatíll stand out in my mind. And then covering suffering and famine in Somalia back in the early Nineties.
And again, watching people die. And that was a difficult and compelling story that stayed with me.
Were you impresed by the Mayan civilization, history and accomplishments?
Lester Holt: It is pretty impressive. And I think what - and this is what really fascinates me about these kinds of things. We like to think that we in our culture are the most modern and technically advanced.
But then you go back and you look at things like the Mayan culture and you realize that they had their day. And, what happened between then and now, thatís a long story.
But we know that these ancient cultures did some extraordinary things. Anybody who has walked inside one of the great pyramids, anybody who has walked around Stonehenge - these kinds of places.
We know that these cultures had employed some enormously sophisticated technologies, even compared to what we do because the pulleys and lifts, and that sort of thing.
So thatís what kind of intrigues me. Itís like, I canít 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 thatís why I kind of walked away after standing amid these ruins and these pyramids. There were so many of them. So this was a vast culture. This was an area that was inhabited by millions during their heyday.
Standing there Iím thinking these would have been some interesting people to know at that time. The sky might have been the limit for them, including making these skulls.
How significant in South America are the skulls today?
Lester Holt: I think itís a growing significance. I think the fact that theyíve received a lot of attention from other parts of the world, I think that theyíre - 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.
I think thereís a fair amount of pride that they were - they had this link to this culture. In terms of the broader population, I canít answer that.
But I do know that there are prominent members of the Mayan 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 donít think he says itís not possible. Itís just that he says archaeologically they have not proven it to be the real deal.
Did you feel a little bit like Indiana himself doing this?
Lester Holt: I have to say there were a couple of moments, as Iím 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.
Yes, I had those little fantasy flashes like oh, this must have been - what it would have been like. At the same time, Iím 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 to stand there in these jungles.
And just the thought, 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.
It really kind of gave you a flash of wow, these globetrotting explorers and weíre exploring the legacy of one of them.
With this assignment, what questions were answered? What sparked more questions for you when you left?
Lester Holt: I think it would have been very easy for me to like walk away from this, with a big smirk on my face if we could have definitively proved that this thing was made in some machine shop in lower Manhattan.
But thatís not the case. And so thatís what kind of kept my interest in this thing was
that we donít know where this came from and whether it was machine made, or how many years it was made.
Then we knew that they had the materials, at least the quartz in Belize to do it.
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 thereís 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 youíll see the results. But that, more than anything, really left me wanting more because in that area we didnít do less of a, you know, potential supernatural to just a plain old treasure hunt.