Belize Demands Treasure Hunters Return Skull | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Belize Demands Treasure Hunters Return Skull

CHICAGO (CN) - Belize claims LucasFilm and Disney profited from an ancient Mayan crystal skull looted from an archaeological site in 1924 and used as the basis for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull;" it wants money and it wants the skull.

Jamie Awe, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Archeology of Belize, sued William Homann, the Estates of Anna and F.A. Mitchell-Hedges, LucasFilm, Walt Disney Co., and Paramount Pictures, in Federal Court.

The museum director claims Mitchell-Hedges and his daughter looted the artifact from the temple of Lubaantun in 1924.

"While steeped in Maya culture, the nation of Belize is often overlooked as a source of antiquities of this ancient civilization," the complaint states. "Nonetheless, much like the widely noted experiences involving Mexico and artifacts from its pre-Columbian Aztecan history, Belize was also an epicenter for nineteenth and early twentieth-century treasure hunters plundering the nation's Maya ruins under the guise of 'archaeology.' Most notable among the artifacts stolen from Belize are the 'Crystal Skulls' and the Maya 'Codices.' This cause of action seeks the return of Belize's most notable Crystal Skull."

Known as British Honduras until 1963, Belize is the only Central American country whose primary language is English. It has been a pirate hangout for centuries.

"The one constant throughout Belize's history, however, has been its Maya heritage and indigenous people," the complaint states. "The country is littered with Maya archaeological sites. Most notable among them are Xunantunich, which served as an ancient civic center and is one of the few major archaeological ruins accessible by modern roads, Lubaantun, Caracol, Altun Ha, Cahal Pech and Lamanai. Heavily dependent upon its fledgling tourism industry as a major part of its economy, Belize has an immense interest in the preservation of such sites and the artifacts associated therewith.

"And while today archaeologists, anthropologists and tourists alike are drawn to destinations such as Xunantunich in the name of discovery, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Belize was coveted for entirely different reasons. Among the countless individuals who came to Belize in order to exploit its natural resources and to discover 'treasures' such as artifacts and remove them from the country in the pursuit of monetary gain, each often funded by governments such as Spain and Great Britain, one of the most well-known of them was F.A. Mitchell-Hedges. A self-proclaimed "adventurer", Mitchell-Hedges is believed to have first arrived in Belize in the early 1920's. It was on one of Mitchell-Hedges' initial forays into Belize that he would come into possession of a 'Crystal Skull.' A Crystal Skull is a hardstone carving resembling a human skull and is usually carved from clear or milky quartz. These artifacts are attributed to Maya origin. Associated in today's popular culture with having magical or other supernatural powers, each of the four known Crystal Skulls holds tremendous value not only for its rarity but also as a semi-precious stone. There are only three Crystal Skulls on public display worldwide: the British Museum in London, England; the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, France; and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C."

F.A. Mitchell-Hedges's adopted daughter, Anna Le Guillon Mitchell-Hedges, found a crystal skull buried under a collapsed altar in the temple ruins of Lubaantun in 1924, "a fact she would disclose in a documentary produced by NBC Peacock Productions in


2007 and aired on the 'SciFi' cable network in 2008. The Mitchell-Hedges Skull is carved from a single crystal of clear quartz measuring approximately 5 inches high, 7 inches long and 5 inches wide. The lower jaw of the skull is separated from the major part of the artifact, but originates from the same single quartz crystal," the complaint states. (Citation omitted.)

"F.A. Mitchell-Hedges took the Mitchell-Hedges Skull to the United States from Belize sometime in 1930 and is believed to have been in possession of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull until his death in London, England in June, 1959. During his life, upon information and belief, F.A. Mitchell- Hedges would profit from therefrom by earning fees for its use and/or display. Upon his death, Anna Mitchell-Hedges would take possession of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull and keep it in her home in Indiana. Upon information and belief, Anna Mitchell-Hedges would likewise profit from her possession of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull by earning fees for its use and/or display.

"Anna Mitchell-Hedges died on April 11, 2007. Upon her death, her husband, whom she married in 2000, William Homann, would take possession of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull and today keeps it in his home in Chesterton, Indiana. Upon information and belief, William Homann profits from his possession of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull by earning fees for its use and/or display."

Enter Hollywood.

"In large part because of the mythology surrounding the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, the artifact has been popularized in global media. Most notably, in the 2008 LucasFilm, Ltd ('LucasFilm') production, 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' (the 'Film'), the Mitchell-Hedges Skull is featured as the object of treasure-hunter Indiana Jones' latest quest. Distributed by Paramount Pictures Corporation ('Paramount'), the film grossed over $786 million worldwide.

"While specifically referring to the 'Mitchell-Hedges Skull,' the film utilizes a replica that clearly resembles the skull-shaped block of clear quartz that is the actual artifact. The film alleges that the Mitchell-Hedges Skull was found in 'Peru' and was of unspecified Native American heritage. LucasFilm never sought, nor was given permission to utilize the Mitchell-Hedges Skull or its likeness in the Film.

"Driven by its success in theaters, both LucasFilm and Paramount continue to profit from the continued distribution of the film on home media and online video sources. To date, Belize has not participated in any of the profits derived from the sale of the film or the rights thereto. In 2012, LucasFilm was purchased by The Walt Disney Company."

The museum director claims Belize/British Honduras has tried to protect its cultural artifacts, by legislations, since 1894, when the colonial government enacted an Ancient Monuments Protection Ordinance. He claims that the crystal skull was then, and always has been, the property of Belize or its predecessor government.

"In 1924, shortly before Anna Mitchell-Hedges found the Mitchell-Hedges Skull, Belize passed the 'Ancient Monuments and Relics Ordinance.' The ordinance created a framework for conducting archaeological research within the country. This included certain prohibitions against conducting archaeological endeavors upon government-owned monuments without prior approval of the Belizean government. F.A. Mitchell-Hedges and Anna Mitchell-Hedges were exploring the temple at Lubaantum without government approval.

"In 1928, the 'Antiquities Ordinance' was passed which provided for an overall prohibition of removal of artifacts from Belize without express government approval. Neither F.A. Mitchell-Hedges nor Anna Mitchell-Hedges obtained approval for removal of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull before bringing it to the United States in 1930," the complaint states.

The complaint spells the site both Lubaantun and Lubaantum. It is a Lowland Maya site from the Classic Period, ca. 600-900.

The museum director seeks declaratory judgment that the skull belongs to Belize, and punitive damages for trespass to chattel, constructive trust, tortious interference, and conspiracy.

He is represented by Adam Tracy, of Naperville, Ill.

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