As avid an Indiana Jones fan as they come (I still wear his brown fedora- courtesy of Disney world -, and listen to the John Williams theme song whenever my cell phone rings), nevertheless, I must reluctantly admit: Indiana Jones is bad for archaeology. As a historian, I have worked closely with a number of archaeologists and based on what I have learned, Indiana Jones gives a skewed perception of the practice if not entirely the philosophy of archaeology.
Our State Archaeologist once commented to me that any archaeologist worth his salt would actually seek to prevent archaeological excavation of a site. Why? No matter what it may unearth, excavation destroys the site. In the future technology may permit non-invasive excavation, preserving rather than destroying the resource.
BUT . . .Said State Archaeologist once confessed to me that HE himself had conducted a number of personal excavations on Native American sites on the Southeastern coast!. Is there an Indiana Jones complex among archaeologists? A Jekyll and Hyde dilemma of “to dig or not to dig, that is the question.’?
Then again, physical digging is what archaeologists seldom do. Perhaps 95% of archaeology takes place in the library where archaeologists dig through records and research to identify every shred of possible information before ever setting a spade into the earth. Why? Of course, there is the concern to preserve the site for future generations. More practically, it is a matter of money. Like everything else in this country except opinions, archaeology costs. Actual excavation – even philanthropically and copiously funded, which most is not is limited severely by time and money.
But Heaven forbid that we should ever take the mystery and adventure out of archaeology! No Howard Carter and the supposed mummy’s curse? No Troy and Mycenae without the better than life adventures of Heinrich Schliemann? No Agatha Christie’s archaeology-based mysteries? No Michael Crichton’s Timeline? No more of Clive Cussler’s archaeologist adventurers wandering from the sands of Sahara to sunset searching for. . .Or does it matter what they are seeking – or what we are seeking – just so long as we are?
Let’s be honest. As a young college student, would you rather take Archaeology 101 under Indiana Jones or his academically-correct father (never mind that it’s Sean Connery inside the tweed suit)? I suspected so. Sorry. Students entering the profession expecting Nazi/Soviet/terrorist villains, beautiful young temptresses riding elephants, riveting rides on back-beneath-and-inside trucks rimming a depth-less canyon. . .can expect just a little less disappointment than Indiana himself felt feeling the Holy Grail slip through his fingers, seeing it just inches away inches that might have been miles. More prosaically, these students will be switching majors in short order.
Not that archaeologically can’t be riveting and spine-tingling. . .if you love learning about the past. So, if the Indiana Jones movies spawn true interest in history and concern about our cultural resources, then, yes, Indiana Jones is good for archaeology. But. . .if they spawn half-truths that lead to the actual destruction of these cultural resources, then Indiana Jones is decidedly bad for archaeology. For then these New Archaeologists are destroying what archaeology itself stands for (knowledge of the past). How much are we going to learn at the price of ultimate destruction? We can’t rebuild the walls of Troy in Tuscon, Arizona. We cannot make the Mask of Agamemnon talk to us when it is removed it from the context and culture in which it was created.
Archaeology is, unfortunately, destructive when excavation is undertaken. Ideally, excavation should be the last resort of archaeologists. Yet, with construction destroying cultural resources right and left, excavation has become the last resort far too soon. Nor is it a last resort allowing the luxury of time and money necessary to do it properly. If it comes down to unearthing a burial tomb by archaeologists at the expense of a Department of Transportation road crew doing it with a back-hoe. . .excavate! For, to quote Indiana, the cultural finds belong in a museum.
Let’s not to too hasty.
All these arks and crosses and grails and crystal skulls belong in most cases where they were found. The context site is often just as critical to the interpretation as is the artifact.
Nor is archaeology simply a matter of the high-ticket glamor items (particularly modern archaeology). For all the crystal skulls and crosses of Coronado and Arks and Grails, there is far more of the simple tools of everyday life of the masses. Face it, folks, most of life today and yesterday focuses on far more practical matters. So does archaeology today. Today’s archaeological “treasure trove” will inevitably be much more mundane. Making meaning out of the artifacts takes far more skill and time and patience than it does to learn how to use a bull whip. The best I can recall, patience was never one of Indian Jones’ virtues.
Ever recall Indiana tediously brushing away at a piece of pottery? Attempting to restructure fragments of a vase or bowl? Spending hours in a lab attempting to make sense out of what he had found?
I didn’t think so.
Professional archaeology and Hollywood rarely go together.
Years ago,two brothers used their private money and means to begin salvage diving on the CSS Nashville, an ironclad sunk in the Ogeechee River near Richmond Hill, Georgia. Professional archaeologists raised Hell not the CSS Nashville. It took me some time, listening to the archaeologists, to begin to understand their point of view. Mine? Hey. If these brothers don’t do it, the ironclad will continue deteriorating and everyone loses.
Archaeologists use the argument of time. In time, technology may allow us to do it less destructively to do it professionally. Sometime we don’t have time.
Thanks to what the brothers did on their own, Fort McAllister State Park now has relics from a Confederate ironclad that had been lost for over a century. Everything? No. And while the archaeology the brothers performed may have been exciting, the professional archaeology undertaken by the State was something less. Lacking the money to conduct its own investigation, the State purchased artifacts salvaged by the brothers and took it to the Laboratory at West Georgia College to be analyzed, stabilized, desalinated. The process took years (as is the current treatment of the CSS Hunley in Charleston).
If Hollywood showed what true archaeology was like, who would stay awake long enough to watch it? Oh, perhaps myself and a few other history fanatics. But professional archaeology and Indiana Jones do not the twain meet.
That said, archaeology and history provide a profound adventure too few of us today can begin to grasp. . .except in the context of an Indiana Jones. Speaking of which, let me put on my Indiana Jones hat, jump on the John Deere, and drive into the sunset dreaming of what’s waiting around the bend. You never know. . .