Indiana Jones is a terrible example of an archaeologist. There, I said it. Not only does he promote the notion that his shenanigans are perfectly normal activities for an archaeologist, Indiana Jones is pretty much a glorified looter. Yes, I realize I’m lambasting a fictional character, but this character has generated interest in archaeology while also being destructive to the field. Last week was the start of a new semester and I had my students go around the room and relate why they wanted to take the course and what they hoped to learn. Roughly 80 to 90 percent of my students cited Indiana Jones as the reason for taking Introduction to Archaeology. A part of me is grateful that so many young people are interested in learning about archaeology, but I fear disappointing them when they discover it’s not quite as swashbuckling and Nazi-punching a field as depicted in the movies. And trust me, I wouldn’t mind punching a Nazi.
George Lucas had a specific vision for Indiana Jones, stating that “He really started being a grave robber, for hire, is what it really came down to. And the museums would hire him to steal things out of tombs and stuff” (Metz 2014). And we see that vision throughout the movies as he takes artifacts from temples, crying out “this belongs in a museum!” But does it? At what cost to the indigenous communities that held that artifact as sacred? According to Jacobs (2017), the “Jones franchise conceals a far more contentious — and often racist — past than is alluded to in the films. In other words, when Harrison Ford delivers the phrase, “That belongs in a museum!” what Dr. Jones really means is: “That belongs in my museum!””
And at what cost the archaeological record? Taking one artifact from an archaeological site can change the story of what happened in the past—every article of the past matters, as does everything within it’s own context (i.e. everything left in place where it was discarded). Furthermore, Jones makes archaeology about treasure hunting, instead of the process and everything involved in building the material record.
After one student sheepishly admitted his admiration of Indiana Jones, I launched into my often repeated lecture on Indiana Jones: he can be a great starting point to get people interested in archaeology, but there are so many better examples out there of amazing archaeologists doing fascinating work! Just look at Gertrude Bell, an early 20th century adventurer and pioneer of Middle Eastern archaeology (Troweltales.com). Not only was she the first Director of Antiquities in Iraq, she fought hard for artifacts to remain in the country where they were found instead of treasure hunting.
So, at the end of the day, what can be said for this Nazi-punching, artifact taking adventurer? At least the lure of Indiana Jones get students into archaeology courses. Then it’s up to all of us archaeologists to teach them about the scientific side of the field, as well as it’s long history as a practice (i.e. the good, the bad, and the ugly). The field is not some kind of crazy free-for-all and there are real consequences for destroying archaeological sites, stealing artifacts, and not including the communities that have a connection to the past. Describing archaeological theory, survey and excavation methods, and the intense amount of paperwork involved in the practice may not seem as exciting, but it’s where Indiana Jones ends and real science begins.
Jacobs, Justin M.
2017 “Indiana Jones and the big lie: here’s what the franchise gets wrong about the hunt for lost treasures.” The Washington Post. Electronic resource, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/12/11/indiana-jones-and-the-big-lie/?utm_term=.241cb7f34f04
2014 “What Indiana Jones gets wrong (and right) about archaeology.” Chicago Tribute. Electronic resource, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/movies/ct-chicago-closeup-indiana-jones-20141106-column.html