Is Indiana Jones Bad for Archaeology?:
Archaeology is the search for facts…forget about lost cities and exotic travel…’ so said Indiana Jones in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Yet the last part of that sentence typifies Indiana Jones and the facts get left by the wayside. His is the life of adventure, where skulduggery, quests and secret societies haunt the world. Yes, these may only be films, but what impression does it give about archaeology, when any self-respected and professional archaeologist is always compared to a fictional adventurer, rather than being appreciated for their real work.
It all started early for Indiana Jones, enjoying adventures that school boys and adults could only dream about. Later, his most famous adventures involved quests for supernatural objects, the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. You can’t afford to take mythology at face value,’ he says, but off he goes gallivanting around the world; adventure over archaeology. His every adventure has a conspiracy, whether it’s Nazis or evil temple worshippers, and there are secret societies such as the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword who are sworn to protect the secret of the Holy Grail. Even for an Inter-War period film, there is also a lack of proper procedures and often destruction of viable property is used to reach artefacts. Who can forget that scene in the church in Venice when Indiana Jones discovers that the tomb of Sir Richard lies beneath the ‘X’ marked on the floor and proceeds to hammer a hole into it, in what is a scene of comic relief. This was an irresponsible action and prejudices people to the way archaeologists behave.
Indiana Jones is driven by a passion to find things. Many of his colleagues and rivals have obsessions and personal ambitions leading to deceit and double-crosses. Even his own father, a historian, is obsessed with finding the Holy Grail and bizarrely states The search for the Grail is not archaeology, but a race against evil.’; more supernatural clap-trap and definitely not the words of a devoted professional. The life of Indiana Jones is more adventure than work. Nothing is learned, nor nothing gained through or about archaeology. Through the films, archaeologists are trivialised as treasure hunters, so archaeology is also trivialised. Archaeologists are seen as glory seekers with maps to lost lands, as greedy grave robbers intent on outwitting the ‘savage natives’, and enduring all sorts of creepy-crawlies and booby-traps to find their treasure. Belief in archaeological truth and evidence is stretched as the implausibility of the storylines slights the profession, which in turn causes people to become wary of archaeological claims.
The films have also stirred controversy, alienating audiences in Asia in the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which they saw as depicting Asians as untrustworthy, child-enslavers and sacrificers. It also gives credible Biblical Archaeology a bashing in Raiders of the Lost Ark, again making archaeologists seem either ultra pious or completely sceptical of heavenly powers. In both cases it could serve to confuse the public with myth and innuendo interwoven into history. Indiana Jones is such a cult figure with his trademark fedora and rugged character that such things are overlooked in favour of action and box office dollars.
A real-life Indiana Jones had been unearthed. He was the late explorer Gene Savoy. He discovered a lost civilisation deep in the Amazon jungle. Now, the mythical Cloud People have emerged from history, but Savoy was marginalised as more coverage was given to scientists who examined the mummified bodies discovered at the site. The archaeological community was more interested in the scientists’ research than in Savoy’s exploits and he continued to be ignored. There was and is no place for an Indiana Jones in the real world.
Is it a coincidence that because of the Indiana Jones films, there has been a rise in maverick adventurers claiming to have found the secrets of ancient civilisations? These non-archaeologists roam the world, professing great knowledge, and write popular new-age books. It seems that the films broke the mould, allowing discussion and literature to appear about the Ark and the Grail outside of the biblical stories and the Arthur legends. Before the Indiana Jones films, Hollywood archaeologists dealt with untold treasures and haunted tombs, but the arrival of Indiana Jones has added the esoteric factor and now everyone has joined in. This has caused controversy between new age writers and professional archaeologists. Do the faux Indiana Jones’ know more than the dedicated archaeologists? I think not, they only offer creative stories, but no archaeological proofs.
The Indiana Jones factor has made adventurism in archaeology desirable, but upon closer inspection, many of the public and would-be archaeologists are disillusioned by the actual reality of archaeology, which is academically based and hard physical work. And that is when they see that Indiana Jones has failed them; his life the stuff of Hollywood myth. And that is why Indiana Jones is bad for archaeology.