BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Indiana Jones and Archaeology

The good and bad of the Indiana Jones franchise

Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones: Bullwhip and hat. Gary Stewart Gary2880, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Indiana Jones and the “Indy-Effect”

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 [1981], Temple of Doom [1984], The Last Crusade [1989]) 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.

 

Indiana Jones and the Search for Adventure

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.


Read more in Bible History Daily:

Excruciating Exodus Movie Exudes Errors

The ‘Gods of Egypt’ Movie: A Mess of Anachronisms and Exoticization

All-access members, read more in the BAS Library:

In Praise of Indiana Jones!

Jesus in the Movies

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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6 Responses

  1. TR Farmer says:

    Nathan Steinmeyer is completely incorrect as most archaeology these days is done in accordance with cultural resource management and not something mostly done in labs and libraries. They are looking to locate, evaluate and collect data on resources that could be affected by modern construction. I saw the first movie in 1981 in a theater in Casper, Wyoming with my crew as we were about to start an inventory for a proposed coal mine. I’ve been doing this for nearly 50 years and real archaeologists know Indiana Jones is a figure of fun and fantasy and has only tangential connections to reality. Laugh and enjoy. I have yet to meet any archaeologist, professional or student, who claimed that they got into the field due to watching one of these movies. Most TV & movie depictions of police & detectives (which are legion) bear about as much resemblance to reality as Dr. Jones is to archaeology, but over the decades I can’t recall reading a single piece (like this one) lamenting the bad effects of TV cop shows. Lighten up and enjoy like the rest of us and don’t waste your time writing thumb-sucking articles like this one.

  2. Jeremy Bullard says:

    While I appreciate the spirit in which you wrote this, I think you missed an opportunity in your article to point out that the movies themselves often poked fun at the fantastical nature of Indy’s adventures. To quote him from The Last Crusade…

    “Archaeology is the search for fact … not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall. So forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and “X” never, ever, marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library.”

    Henry Jones Sr would go on to echo this sentiment just a short time later while riding in a Mark VII tank — “You call this archeology?!?”

  3. Jeffrey R. Zorn says:

    Before Indy, many film portrayals of archaeologists depicted them as buffoons who unwittingly unleash some horror that almost immediately destroys them (before the real hero saves the day). Indy made archaeologists themselves into exciting heroes, if not always following sound methodological principles (even at 80 years old he can still destroy a store room full of antiquities). Just think what a boost the plumbing profession would have seen if Indy had been a plumber!

  4. RS says:

    It was hard to miss Spielberg’s minions at work in the 1970’s , harrowing Peabody Museums and such for expeditionary horror stories to condense into the script,

    The first episode disposed many to view Indiana Jones as Miltonian avatar unleashed to do unto Biblical Archaeology what Satan did for Paradise Lost. Whatever irony attended the first episode evaporated in a flash of brimstone when viewed in the light of Steve Williams’ Fantastic Archaeology

    vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2023/06/iowa-john-and-heartland-conference-of

  5. J.T. Smith says:

    One thing to remember about Indiana Jones is that the three original movies all took place in the 1930s, a time when “root, loot, and scoot” passed for archaeology. Obviously it isn’t proper archaeology. His “class” in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade was far closer to proper archaeology than the rest of the movie was. For all the flaws, the franchise is what inspired generations of archaeologists (including myself) to become an archaeologist, never once lamenting how different the movies are from modern reality.

    1. Henry Jay Watkin says:

      Simply not true. Since Schliemann (much reviled, but one of the first to take stratigraphy and context seriously) in the 1860s to 1890s no organized expedition has been conducted in a manner which one could describe as “root, loot, and scoot” Woolley’s excavations at Carchemish (1912-14), Ur (1922-34), and Alalakh (1937-1949) were hardly plundering raids. Was William Foxwell Albright merely conducting a treasure hunt at Tell Beit Mirsim (1926-1932)? Sir Arthur Evans’ work at Cnossus for a quarter of a century (beginning in 1900) was painstaking science, whether or not one agrees with the conclusions he drew. And the lesser known work of Einar Gjerstad and the Swedish Cyprus Expedition (1927-31) was nothing short of a revolution in the historiography of that island.

      The list could be extended indefinitely. What is puzzling to me is how the character of Indiana Jones could possibly attract anyone to the study of archaeology. If a young person aspiring to a career in the field expects a life of spectacular discoveries punctuated by bar brawls and chances to foil the aims of the Nazi war effort I fear nothing but disappointment looms ahead.

      Time was when archaeologists could be excited, and make others excited, by the prospect of uncovering new dimensions of man’s past. Current practitioners should likewise be able experience (and convey to others) the excitement inherent in the new information they discover, without relying on tales of hair-raising adventures and mystical finds.

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6 Responses

  1. TR Farmer says:

    Nathan Steinmeyer is completely incorrect as most archaeology these days is done in accordance with cultural resource management and not something mostly done in labs and libraries. They are looking to locate, evaluate and collect data on resources that could be affected by modern construction. I saw the first movie in 1981 in a theater in Casper, Wyoming with my crew as we were about to start an inventory for a proposed coal mine. I’ve been doing this for nearly 50 years and real archaeologists know Indiana Jones is a figure of fun and fantasy and has only tangential connections to reality. Laugh and enjoy. I have yet to meet any archaeologist, professional or student, who claimed that they got into the field due to watching one of these movies. Most TV & movie depictions of police & detectives (which are legion) bear about as much resemblance to reality as Dr. Jones is to archaeology, but over the decades I can’t recall reading a single piece (like this one) lamenting the bad effects of TV cop shows. Lighten up and enjoy like the rest of us and don’t waste your time writing thumb-sucking articles like this one.

  2. Jeremy Bullard says:

    While I appreciate the spirit in which you wrote this, I think you missed an opportunity in your article to point out that the movies themselves often poked fun at the fantastical nature of Indy’s adventures. To quote him from The Last Crusade…

    “Archaeology is the search for fact … not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall. So forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and “X” never, ever, marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library.”

    Henry Jones Sr would go on to echo this sentiment just a short time later while riding in a Mark VII tank — “You call this archeology?!?”

  3. Jeffrey R. Zorn says:

    Before Indy, many film portrayals of archaeologists depicted them as buffoons who unwittingly unleash some horror that almost immediately destroys them (before the real hero saves the day). Indy made archaeologists themselves into exciting heroes, if not always following sound methodological principles (even at 80 years old he can still destroy a store room full of antiquities). Just think what a boost the plumbing profession would have seen if Indy had been a plumber!

  4. RS says:

    It was hard to miss Spielberg’s minions at work in the 1970’s , harrowing Peabody Museums and such for expeditionary horror stories to condense into the script,

    The first episode disposed many to view Indiana Jones as Miltonian avatar unleashed to do unto Biblical Archaeology what Satan did for Paradise Lost. Whatever irony attended the first episode evaporated in a flash of brimstone when viewed in the light of Steve Williams’ Fantastic Archaeology

    vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2023/06/iowa-john-and-heartland-conference-of

  5. J.T. Smith says:

    One thing to remember about Indiana Jones is that the three original movies all took place in the 1930s, a time when “root, loot, and scoot” passed for archaeology. Obviously it isn’t proper archaeology. His “class” in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade was far closer to proper archaeology than the rest of the movie was. For all the flaws, the franchise is what inspired generations of archaeologists (including myself) to become an archaeologist, never once lamenting how different the movies are from modern reality.

    1. Henry Jay Watkin says:

      Simply not true. Since Schliemann (much reviled, but one of the first to take stratigraphy and context seriously) in the 1860s to 1890s no organized expedition has been conducted in a manner which one could describe as “root, loot, and scoot” Woolley’s excavations at Carchemish (1912-14), Ur (1922-34), and Alalakh (1937-1949) were hardly plundering raids. Was William Foxwell Albright merely conducting a treasure hunt at Tell Beit Mirsim (1926-1932)? Sir Arthur Evans’ work at Cnossus for a quarter of a century (beginning in 1900) was painstaking science, whether or not one agrees with the conclusions he drew. And the lesser known work of Einar Gjerstad and the Swedish Cyprus Expedition (1927-31) was nothing short of a revolution in the historiography of that island.

      The list could be extended indefinitely. What is puzzling to me is how the character of Indiana Jones could possibly attract anyone to the study of archaeology. If a young person aspiring to a career in the field expects a life of spectacular discoveries punctuated by bar brawls and chances to foil the aims of the Nazi war effort I fear nothing but disappointment looms ahead.

      Time was when archaeologists could be excited, and make others excited, by the prospect of uncovering new dimensions of man’s past. Current practitioners should likewise be able experience (and convey to others) the excitement inherent in the new information they discover, without relying on tales of hair-raising adventures and mystical finds.

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