“Sue” was and is the most complete T. rex skeleton in existence, a paleontological find of such importance and with such far-ranging consequences that she changed science and American legal precedent, and not just the lives of those who stumbled across this “find of the (last) century.”
Sue was the 13th Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered, and was found by amateur fossil hunter Susan Hendrickson, thus her name and the title of the new documentary Dinosaur 13. Todd Douglas Miller’s film is a tale of plucky, underdog success, “the stuff that dreams are made of,” undercut by murky land boundaries, double-dealing and an absurdly heavy-handed federal justice system.
Peter L. Larson and Neal L. Larson are professional commercial fossil hunters who, with employee Hendrickson, discovered and extracted Sue from the Badlands of South Dakota. With their Black Hills Institute, they had hopes of making her the centerpiece of a small-town museum that they’d fill with the fossils they’d collected over their decades in the business — the ones they hadn’t sold, anyway.
Then the Native American owner of the land (where they found Sue and paid $5,000 to haul her away), the federal government (which actually held the deed to the land in trust) and a federal prosecutor nixed all that. The skeleton was seized and the feds started looking into an “antiquities” business that sits outside of academic respectability for possible law violations.
Miller lets the Larsons, their partner Bob Farrar, journalist-writer (and Peter Larson’s wife) Kristin Donnan, academics, IRS officials, U.S. Park Service experts and others tell this complex tale of tribal land ownership and prosecutorial reprisals that tied up Sue in courts for years after her 1990 uncovering near Hill City, S.D.
Did Sue belong to the Larsons and their Black Hills Institute and museum, to the federal government, which believed she might fall under the Federal Antiquities Act, or to landowner Maurice Williams, who wanted to auction off the skeleton to the highest bidder?
Miller’s strikingly photographed film uses the Larsons’ home video, old news footage of the celebrated case and fresh interviews with such eyewitnesses as National Geographic photographer and later Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Louis Psihoyos ( The Cove) to tell a story of small-town Western folks wronged by Big Government, Big Money and a Native American villain who, in an earlier and less politically correct age, would have been referred to by a phrase that ends with “giver.”
Williams is one of a couple of bad guys in this documentary, whose point of view mirrors that of the chanting school kids who protested the scores of federal agents and National Guardsmen (providing transport) yelling “Save Sue, shame on you!” as the collection was crated up and removed from Hill City.
But there are moments when you wonder if this CNN-produced documentary is telling the whole story, if there was cherry picking in points of view chosen. Referring to the prosecutor as “controversial,” a loaded word that means nothing, or the judge as bent out of shape by leaks that supposedly revealed how flimsy the government’s case was, demands more proof, or explanation. And while there is brief discussion of the conflict between academic-credentialed and institutionally backed paleontologists and commercial fossil hunters, however well-trained and well-intentioned, that begs for deeper exploration.
What’s on the screen is pretty damning, from the moment the feds swoop in, to the finale, which smacks of the heavy tread of big-money museums and their big-money backers. This much is certain: After Dinosaur 13, commercial fossil finders and sellers aren’t the only ones who get to place a value on what they dig up. And landowners who allow digging on their land will join the ranks of those who see dollar signs in those sun-bleached bones half-buried in the buttes of the American West.
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