Friday, January 23, 2015

Indiana Jones: What has our favorite Archaeologist done for Archaeology?!

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - Original Trailer/Teaser HD

First,  I apologize for the gap in posts.  Now on with the post.

I wanted to be a little light-hearted with this post since many current ethical and cultural property issues are sad to report (Crisis in Iraq/Syria destroying some of the oldest sites in the world).  In this post I would like to talk about my (and I am guessing many others) favorite fictional archaeologist, Indiana Jones.  I am one of those people who watched the Indiana Jones movies over and over as a child (and as an adult).  My favorite is Raiders of the Lost Ark (the first movie for those who happen to have never heard of the movies; see the original trailer above).  I love the first movie for a number of reasons:

  • Harrison Ford is awesome after Star Wars
  • Introduced many to the word Archaeology
  • Made history look cool (which I believe it is)
  • Shows many historic sites (Tanis, etc.)
  • And it is a classic
Okay, this is not a debate on which movie is better, although many would simply say that last one (which will remain unmentioned) was by far the worst.  There are many facts to Indiana Jones, mixed with a lot more fiction, so I would like to maybe break some of it down a little and maybe highlight how the movies have helped and damaged archaeology.

Some facts:

The Nazis were actually very much into archaeology and the occult.  Heinrich Himmler, one of the leading Nazis, and architect of Holocaust, was obsessed with finding artifacts of Aryan heritage.  He did this in order to promote the Nazi national identity that Germans come from a strong ancient race of Aryans, and to promote the superiority of the Germans.  "Hitler and The Occult" on NatGeo is an interesting show to watch if you are interested (

Okay, another fact, some archaeologists actually do face some dangers.  Take in consideration some of the places where archaeologists dig:

  • Egypt
  • Syria
  • Iraq
  • Afghanistan
  • El Salvador
  • Ukraine
  • Guatemala
  • Honduras
  • Libya
I only named a few (archaeologists did everywhere), and more than half of them are in the news right now for various reasons such as civil wars, Massacres, Invasions....  The others have had civil wars in the last 30 years.  Some of people I know had to leave Egypt when they had the coup, and I bet it isn't a good idea to conduct an archaeological dig right now in Syria and Iraq with ISIS (ISIL) running around and causing terror throughout the population.  I also personally know of people who have had guns pointed at them and/or accused of being spies.  So, maybe like Indiana Jones, we fight for our lives or research.

Speaking about research, archaeologists spend a lot of time conducting research and teaching undergrads and graduate students (I've spent 7 years sitting through lectures in obtaining my MA).  I can remember my professors dreaming about the field, but having to write proposals for grants, and writing their findings, and worst of all reading papers (thank you to my thesis advisors for reading all my papers!).  If you watch the clip above, Professor Jones has trouble spelling "Neolithic", this actually has a lot of truth to is.  Writing on a board and spelling while teaching is difficult, even if you do have a PhD!


There is plenty of fiction to Indiana Jones, of course it is technically a Science- Fiction movie!  I will only discuss some of the aspects of Indy that harm the view of archaeology, especially with concerns of ethics and archaeology.

Indiana Jones never really digs.  He just goes into greatly preserved temples, crashes through things and gets the treasure he was looking for.  The closest he comes to conducting a dig is in the first movie when he is in the city of Tanis using the artifacts that have no basis in history.  This is difficult for archaeologists to swallow because it perpetuates the idea that archaeologists are nothing more than tomb raiders and looters, and in a way justifies looting.  I do not need to go into why this is a bad thing, I have plenty of posts on this topic.

Aliens did not create the temples in Mesoamerica (thank you unnamed movie),  and those skulls were proven to be modern forgeries before that bad movie came out.

Also, a whip is not a standard archaeology tool.

It Belongs in a Museum

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, another high-ranking Indy film, Dr. Jones famously states "That belongs in a Museum" in reference to the Cross of Coronado, which does not exist.  The question is, does it belong in a museum.  Why dig up something to put it in a museum, why not repatriate it, or with other artifacts, why dig up a tomb for treasure?  I am assuming if someone was buried with something, it is meant to stay with that person's body. 

Anyway, many aspects of the debate on cultural property and heritage deals with that very quote "That belongs in a museum", and many of my posts and aspects of my thesis discuss this.  I would love to teach a whole class on the ethics of archaeology though the lens of Indiana Jones himself.

So this concludes my post on Indiana Jones, but does it really answer what he has brought to the field?  I saw he makes archaeology look cool, what about your thoughts?