March 01, 2011

Maya artifacts in The Mentalist

Last week's episode of The Mentalist, titled Red Queen (airdate: 2/24/11), had a Native-themed subplot. Here's the story:

The Mentalist--Recap & Review--Red Queen

By LizAt the Northern California Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Manuel Montero is dead from multiple stab wounds and a Mayan pendant worth $200,000 is missing. Jane observes a rib on a dinosaur skeleton has been broken off, either for cloning or breaking thick glass.

Rigsby speaks with a heavily accented man from the museum, who speaks glowingly about Montero as an honest antiquities dealer. He traveled a lot to South America, and had a key and security codes to the museum in order to show private buyers artifacts. Examining the body, Montero is wearing a calculator watch which reads ’6078′—or, upside down, it reads ‘blog.’

Grace found Montero’s blog, “I Dig Dead People” (get it, ’cause he’s an archaeologist?) and finds that he blogged about the pendant three weeks ago which came back with him on his most recent trip. An anonymous e-mailer had contacted him to set up a viewing. More bad news follows when there are multiple partial prints on the triceratops rib, and while more intriguing than bad, the news that Montero’s business had flourished while other antiquities dealers were shutting down or losing money is certainly of note.

Rigsby and Cho have been sent to check out Montero’s warehouse. While Rigsby is more excited about the taco truck just off the highway at first, that changes quickly as they check out the back and people are working there, loading things into a truck. A good old fashioned shoot out ensues, but they get one of the guys and find out that guns are their cargo, not precious antiques.

The man they have in custody, Salvador, reveals Montero was trafficking guns for cartels, gangs, private armies, in exchange black market antiquities. Lisbon and Jane are listening in, but he’s not fooled and knows they are being led to believe one way. He slides in to the interrogation and about the location of the body, asks if someone who was in trouble with a cartel would be found stabbed in a public museum. Salvador answers of course not, it’s too high risk.
Comment:  The story goes in another direction after the police rule out arms smuggling as the motive for Montero's murder. So we're dealing with half an episode.

A few minor problems with the museum scenario:

  • The Northern California Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is fictitious. In reality, the location is the Museum of Natural History here in Los Angeles, a few miles from my home.

    I presume the show called it a museum of archaeology and anthropology to explain the presence of Mesoamerican artifacts. That doesn't work because we see tyrannosaurus and triceratops skeletons and a hall of animals with stuffed African elephants at the end. Archaeology and anthropology aren't the same as paleontology and zoology.

    The LA museum does have a hall of Mesoamerican artifacts, for which I've criticized it. As many have noted, museums shouldn't lump indigenous people with lions and tigers and bears as part of the natural world. For more on the subject, see "Native American Dioramas in Transition" and Indians in Natural History Museums.

    So the show tries to correct the problem by renaming the museum, then undoes the effort by displaying dead animal bodies. Nice try, but no cigar.

  • I guess a part-time professor could work in a museum rather than a university. I doubt he'd also be an antiquities dealer. My impression is that the Indiana Jones day of museum officials wheeling and dealing for artifacts is long over. There are too many laws and too much potential for conflict of interest.

    These days, I think most museums acquire artifacts from other museums, private collectors, or estates. They don't dig them up themselves and steal take them from their home countries.

  • The gold pendant is a winged figure about six inches wide. I don't think such a pendant exists. If it did, I bet it would be worth more than $200,000. And it certainly would have more protection than an unguarded glass case at night.

  • The show's best point was claiming that the antiquities market has dried up because of repatriation laws. I don't know if that's true; returning old artifacts and acquiring new ones aren't necessarily connected. Yale has agreed to return its Machu Picchu artifacts to Peru, but I doubt Yale is actively seeking items from Inca ruins.

    Anyway, no one on the show explained what repatriation meant. It was just good to hear it on network TV in a somewhat correct context.

  • All in all, Red Queen was another average attempt to portray Native issues. It didn't include any Indians on-screen. But at least The Mentalist is trying. Last spring it gave us the Aingavite Baa story featuring Indians.

    For a similar TV episode, see Maya Mummy in Castle.

    1 comment:

    Jaine said...

    There's a made for tv movie in New Zealand called "The Man who lost his head" about the repatriation of a Maori artifact from a British museum - it was written by an English guy and aside from painting the township New Zealand as rather 'quaint' and eccentric (which we probably are) it deals with the issue quite well (and humourously). The film is fairly predictable and some of the characters are stereotyped (none more than Martin Clune as the stiff upperlip Englishman) but as a light hearted film that deals with a serious issue it is enjoyable.