Belize, the Maya and Indiana Jones – a 2012 Saga

As international attention focuses on the Maya during 2012, it is important for the world to realise that the Maya people are still battling to preserve their culture, Brion Young, assistant manager at the Chaa Creek Natural History Museum in Belize said today.

Mr Young was speaking in response the news that one of the world’s most highly respected Mayanists, Belizean archaeologist Dr Jaime Awe, has launched a lawsuit against the makers of a blockbuster Indiana Jones film for exploiting a stolen Belizean artefact.

“With everyone from filmmakers, video game producers and even actor and comedian Dan Aykroyd making money from the Crystal Skull, with nothing going to the Maya or Belize, it’s easy to understand the frustration,” Mr Young said.

Dr Awe, who is also Director of the Institute of Archaeology of Belize,  is suing the producers of the 2008 film “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” for use without permission of one of Belize’s most iconic images, the Crystal Skull.

The legal action also includes LucasFilm, the Walt Disney Co. and Paramount Pictures who released the Steven Spielberg film.

The December 5 2012 suit is part of a legal action to recover the Crystal Skull, which was allegedly stolen from Belize in 1930 by F.A. Mitchell-Hedges, an adventurer who claimed his daughter found the artefact on her birthday at the Maya archaeological site of Lubaantun in Belize.

The Mitchell-Hedges said that they then took the skull from Belize and exhibited it in the United States and other countries, and action that would have been in violation of the law at that time. It is currently said to be housed in Canada.

Dr Awe’s complaint cites a 1928 “Antiquities Ordinance” which expressly prohibited the removal of artefacts from Belize without government permission. Such laws continue to be current in Belize.

“Belize was … an epicentre for 19th and early 20th-century treasure hunters plundering the nation’s Maya ruins under the guise of ‘archaeology,’” Dr Awe said.

Since the Mitchell-Hedges have admitted to finding the crystal skull in Belize and stealing it from there, it has long been argued that it should be returned as part of the nation’s natural heritage, and Dr Awe is taking the stance that as it is Belizean property and a national icon, the small Caribbean nation should be compensated for its use.

A copy of the lawsuit, published by the Hollywood Reporter, states that “LucasFilm never sought, nor was given permission to utilize the Mitchell-Hedges Skull or its likeness in the film,” and, “To date, Belize has not participated in any of the profits derived from the sale of the film or the rights thereto,” it added. The film is said to have grossed approimatelyUS$786 million worldwide.

Mr Young said that while it would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing, unresolved legal action, he feels the suit is important for drawing attention to what he called the “misappropriation of Maya culture, and cultural icons, since the days of the conquistadors.”

“Chaa Creek sits in the heartland of the Maya civilisation. Our 365 acre private reserve is full of ancient Maya archaeological sites and temples and many of our neighbours and staff are Maya or of Maya descent, so we’re particularly sensitive to these issues. With the approach of the 2012 Maya Winter Solstice we’re concerned that this rich, fascinating civilisation is presented respectfully and authentically.

“Even before the Hollywood Blockbuster film, 2012, and all the internet speculation, anticipation about what will happen on December 21, 2012 has been building, and we think this is a golden opportunity to let the world learn more about the Maya, and what an amazing, highly advanced civilisation they represent,” Mr Young said, and noted that Chaa Creek is hosting Belize’s weeklong Maya cultural exposition and celebration around that date.

Mr Young said that actor and former Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd using a likeness of the crystal skull and mentioning Mitchell-Hedges in spruiking his “Crystal Head” vodka is just one more example of the use of the Maya icon for marketing purposes. “I guess that’s all well and good, but I take Dr Awe’s point that the Maya, and Belize, should be compensated for its use. It’s bad enough to have such an important part of your heritage stolen, and only rubs salt in the wounds to see others continue to profit from it,” Mr Young said.

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