The good and bad of the Indiana Jones franchise
Without a doubt, Indiana Jones is the most famous “archaeologist” of all time. That is just as true among real-world archaeologists as it is for the movie-going public. Step foot on just about any archaeological excavation and it is only a matter of time before you hear the references, quotes, and even debates surrounding the beloved character. Yet, archaeologists are also the first to point out the franchise’s many flaws, from Indy’s lack of proper record-keeping or equipment to his single-minded focus on only the most impressive artifacts.
So why is Indy—a character more aptly described as a treasure hunter than a scientist—so beloved by so many real archaeologists? Perhaps it is because many young archaeologists—and many not-so-young ones—can trace their first encounter with archaeology back to the titular hero. Or maybe it is because, despite all of Indy’s questionable practices and methodological shortcomings, the film franchise’s sense of adventure and discovery is still that same sensation that so many archaeologists experience every time their trowel hits dirt.
Beyond being the best-known “archaeologist” in the world, Indiana Jones also plays the important role of being the greatest archaeological ambassador the field has ever had. Indeed, an analysis of archaeology departments in German universities showed a dramatic rise in student enrollment during the period following the release of an Indiana Jones film. This is no surprise, given how many archaeologists, including the current editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, cite Indy as a contributing factor to their own early interest in the field.
I recently sat down to rewatch the original Indiana Jones trilogy (Raiders of the Lost Ark , Temple of Doom , The Last Crusade ) and tried to count the number of scenes that portrayed something that could reasonably be termed real archaeology. Needless to say, I gave up pretty quickly, not because the number was so high, but because it was so low. However, when talking about Indiana Jones as an ambassador of archaeology, that matters very little. Rather, the Indiana Jones franchise, aside from bringing in lots of money, has accomplished something that most archaeologists only dream—getting people exited and curious about the field of archaeology.
As stated by Aren Maeir, a professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, Indiana Jones’s contribution to the field “was not leading a bunch of stuffy academics to buy fedoras and bullwhips, ‘obtain’ South American fertility idols, get into bar fights in Nepal, hitch a ride on a moving submarine, or threaten to blow up one of the most important religious artifacts in the history of the world with a bazooka. Trust me. Rather, it was his bringing the very term ‘archaeology’ to the public’s awareness—across the globe and in numerous cultures and contexts.” Not only does this awareness lead many young people to degrees in archaeology, but it also leads to an increase in public and state funding for excavations and cultural heritage preservation.
However, the effect of the franchise on the public is not the only reason that so many archaeologists love it. They love it because, despite the quite extensive list of things that the franchise gets wrong about the field, there are still many less noticeable things that it gets right. No, I am not talking about the life-threatening dangers, mythical objects, or imposing villains, although those things are not completely absent from real archaeology. Instead, I am talking about the adventure. While modern archaeology largely takes place in the lab and library, the actual fieldwork itself frequently takes place in remote and exotic locations, can require physical labor in inhospitable environments, and, most of all, involves daily discovery.
No, digging up a 4,000-year-old lamp is not the same as finding the Holy Grail, but at that moment, you would not be able to tell the difference. The rush of your trowel hitting the earth, knowing that soon you will be uncovering clues to the daily life and activities of ancient people, is very much the same emotion of watching Indy unravel one of his ancient mysteries, discovering the lost object, and thwarting the villain. While no good archaeologist wants to mimic Indy’s shoddy fieldwork, in a way we are all chasing after that same feeling and rush that comes with solving the puzzle and connecting new discoveries to their ancient past and the people they represent.
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