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What Archaeologists Think Indiana Jones Gets Wrong About Archaeology

The fictional character has divided opinion for years, but the final installment in his saga has brought its influence to the surface again.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

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A screen shot of Indiana Jones crossing a bridge. His image is silhouetted against a yellow light.

Indiana Jones is back for his last outing, so what do professional archaeologists make of this titular character?

 Image credit: © Disney

This summer, Indiana “Indy” Jones returns to the silver screen in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the final installment of this decades-long cinematic saga. Since his first outing in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy’s whip-cracking adventures have been a source of entertainment and inspiration for many people – there are few who cannot appreciate Harrison Ford punching, kicking, and defenestrating Nazis (and Communists in that movie we don’t speak of). But as exciting as these rough and tumble antics are, Dr Jones has also played a significant role in shaping the public view of archaeology as a field, and not all professional archaeologists are happy about it. 

“X never marks the spot!”

What’s the difference between an archaeologist and a treasure hunter? Generally speaking, archaeologists excavate sites of interest and examine all their surrounding features to gain greater insights into the past. It’s a scientific knowledge-making practice that pays attention to specific objects, as well as their surrounding context, to reconstruct the lives of historical people. Sometimes, a few artifacts are the only hint we have about an entire ancient civilization or community as there are no written records to learn from. As such, archaeologists have to interpret these disparate clues to reconstruct a picture of what life looked like at the time. 

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In contrast, a treasure hunter or salvager searches for intrinsically valuable objects for personal or private gain, often at the expense of the surrounding context. In this regard, their activities are not dissimilar to tomb robbers. Knowledge is of little concern in this situation and is nearly always sacrificed for material gain. In pop culture, true treasure hunters are embodied by the likes of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider series and Nathan Drake from Uncharted video games. But what about Indiana Jones? 

It is true that Jones’s stories invariably focus on obtaining a single artifact at the cost of everything else around it. More often than not, he is armed with all the information he needs about this particular object and just has to locate and obtain it. Then he sets off on the adventure – crashing, exploding, and often killing along the way. 

“Archaeology is never about the pursuit of a single object, particularly when that object is immediately removed from the context in which it's found,” Dr Christopher Lowman, Assistant Professor of Teaching in the anthropology department at the University of California, Irvine, told IFLScience.

Archaeology is the study of the material, human past. And through that, a way to try to understand people, cultures, individuals, and communities, in other times and places. And for Indiana Jones, the pursuit of a single treasure ends up becoming so much of the focus of his work, that we really don't find out that much about what life was like, in the past.”

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Outside of his exciting escapades, Jones is also a lecturer at a university, with a PhD. In fact, this feature of his background becomes more important as the film series progresses – increasingly, his adventures are contrasted with his academic role within a university where he lectures and discusses archaeological practices with adoring students. This makes him a little trickier to place on the archaeological/treasure hunter divide. 

“I think that particularly as the film series is going on, it's very clear that he leads a life that, at least from a seasonal perspective, is a lot like what many academic archaeologists do today”, Lowman, added. “They teach classes during the year, and then they go into the field and do research.”

However, this is where the similarities between Dr Jones and real-world archaeologists end. When Jones leaves the lecture hall, his fieldwork becomes somewhat suspect. “I think there are similarities”, Lowman added, but “once he gets to the field, what he's doing is probably worse than even most of his contemporaries in the 1930s in terms of site preservation. He's recognizable as an academic archaeologist, but he is terrible at being one.”

This matter of site preservation is a key distinction between what archaeologists seek to do and what fictional characters often make a mess of. For an archaeologist, locating sites and artifacts of interest is mixed up with the need to conserve and protect them to prevent deterioration. This ensures that future research can be carried out and allows others to examine them. 

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Unfortunately, many archaeologists probably wouldn't be able to follow Jones, Croft, or Drake into their sites of interest, given that most are destroyed or littered with bodies. 

“It belongs in a museum”

To be fair to Indy, it is not his fault. Not only is he not responsible for the narratives the writers give him, but he was never meant to be an established academic. When George Lucas first proposed the character, he resented him as a rogue figure who deliberately hunted for artifacts as a “grave robber, for hire”, rather than an archaeologist. “Essentially”, Lucas said in a story conference for Raiders of the Lost Ark, “he’s a bounty hunter” and “an outlaw archaeologist”. But over the years his PhD seems to have become more important to the character’s story as he takes up positions in academia. 

Jones may be a fictional character, but in many ways, he exemplifies an attitude toward archaeology that was common to some in the first half of the 20th century. 

Many of the earliest archaeologists originally worked in the service of invading armies. For instance, Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 was accompanied by artists, archaeologists, and historians who documented the conquest and excavated the country for artifacts. This is how the famous Rosetta Stone was discovered. 

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Throughout the 19th century, archaeologists were often amateurs who were passionate about the cultures they investigated, but their activities were tied up with colonialism and exploitation. Artifacts and sacred objects were spirited away from their homes to end up in museums or private collections. 

Later in the century, archaeology became a standardized discipline with established methods and practices for removing artifacts. This involved providing detailed drawings and drafts of the entire site, as well as individual objects. But there was still something of the old “heroic” approach that was not completely gone – and Dr Jones symbolizes a sliver of this romantic vision. 

“Indiana Jones very much represents the academic elites of the 1930s for whom some of this behavior is probably considered pretty interesting”, Lowman explained. 

But over the decades, the field has changed, with new approaches and frames of analysis coming into focus which moved away from traditional archaeology and focused more on science and experimentation. It is possible that we see a glimpse of this development in the aging Indy of the later films who feels a little more dated and out of touch. This representation of the character is set against a historical backdrop, in the 1950s and 60s, when archaeology students turned to generalities about human behavior, rather than object-focused analysis. 

Has Indiana Jones been a positive or negative force?

Opinions on the extent that Indy has been a positive or negative influence on the field of archaeology are pretty divided. There are plenty of academics who criticize the films for their unrealistic portrayals of archaeology, and even more who lament the overarching association with the supernatural. While much of this irritation is valid, the good Dr has had some beneficial impacts too. 

“I think that Indiana Jones has had a positive effect on the field of archaeology, in the same way that Jurassic Park has had an incredibly positive effect on the field of paleontology”, Lowman explained.

“In both cases, we have fun blockbuster movies that introduced a new generation, not only to the kind of old-fashioned adventure storytelling but also sparked kids' interests in the reality behind the story.” He added that “if the initial spark is 'Whoa, archaeology looks so cool,' then it can lead to figuring out what it's really like.”   

However, Lowman was quick to stress that it is time for us to let Indy hang up his hat. Just as his particular approach to archaeology has faded into the past, so should the type of representation he embodies. And there is plenty of new model archaeologists to showcase:

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“More recently, there has been much more emphasis on activism and attention to identity in both the past and the present”, Lowman added. Today, researchers practice more reflexivity and ask “how archaeology can be a service to stakeholders, to the communities who are most impacted by archaeological research. And I think that that kind of community impetus for research and service as a product is something that will really be a part of archaeology in the years to come.”


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