June 17, 2024

What Archaeologists Think Indiana Jones Is Wrong About Archaeology

This summer, Indiana “Indy” Jones returns to the silver screen in Indiana Jones and the Dial Destiny, the final installment of this decades-long cinematic saga. From his first trip in Raiders of the Lost ArkIndy’s whip-cracking adventures have been a source of entertainment and inspiration for many – few can appreciate Harrison Ford punching, kicking, and fending off Nazis (and Communists in that film). we are not talking about). But as exciting as these archaeologists are, Dr Jones has also played a significant role in shaping the public’s perception of archeology as a field, and not all professional archaeologists are happy about it.

“X never marks the spot!”

What is the difference between an archaeologist and a treasure hunter? In general, archaeologists excavate interesting sites and examine all the surrounding features to gain a better insight into the past. It is a scientific knowledge-making practice that pays attention to specific objects, as well as their surrounding context, to reconstruct the lives of historical people. Sometimes, a few artifacts are the only clue we have to an entire ancient civilization or people because there are no written records to learn from. Therefore, archaeologists must interpret these various clues to reconstruct a picture of what life was like at the time.

In contrast, a treasure hunter or rescuer searches for intrinsically valuable objects for personal or private gain, often at the expense of the surrounding context. In this respect, their activities are not unlike tomb robbers. Knowledge is of little concern in this situation and is almost always sacrificed for material gain. In pop culture, real treasure hunters are embodied by the likes of them Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider series and Nathan Drake from Uncharted Computer games. But what about Indiana Jones?

It’s true that Jones’ stories always focus on getting one artifact at the expense of everything else around it. More often than not, he is armed with all the information he needs about this particular object and all he has to do is find it and get it. Then he sets out on an adventure – crashing, exploding, and often killing on the way.

“Archaeology is never about exploiting a single object, especially when that object is immediately removed from the context in which it was found,” Dr. Christopher LowmanTeaching Assistant Professor in the anthropology department at the University of California, Irvine, told IFLScience.

“Archaeology is the study of material, human history. And through that, a way to try to understand people, cultures, individuals and communities, in other times and places. And in the case of Indiana Jones, his work will be so focused on one treasure hunt, that we don’t get much information about what life was like in the past.”

Apart from his exciting escapades, Jones is also a university lecturer, holding a PhD. Indeed, this aspect of his background becomes more important as the film series progresses – increasingly contrasting his adventures with his academic role at a university where he lectures and discusses archaeological practices with students who love him. This makes it harder to place him on the archeology/treasure hunter divide.

“I think especially as the film series goes on, it’s very clear that he has a life that, at least seasonally, is quite similar to many academic archaeologists today”, said Lowman. “They teach classes throughout the year, and then they go into the field and do research.”

However, this is where the similarities between Dr Jones and real-life archaeologists end. When Jones leaves the lecture hall, his fieldwork becomes suspect. “I think there are similarities”, Lowman said, but “once he gets to the park, what he’s doing is probably worse than even most of his contemporaries in the 1930s in terms of site preservation. He is known as an academic archaeologist, but he is terrible at being a person.”

This matter of site conservation is a key distinction between what archaeologists try to do and what fictional characters often mess with. For an archaeologist, finding a site and interesting artefacts is mixed with the need conservation and protect them to prevent deterioration. This ensures that future research can be carried out and allows others to examine them.

Unfortunately, many archaeologists probably wouldn’t be able to follow Jones, Croft, or Drake into their sites of interest, since most of them are destroyed or littered with bodies.

“It belongs in a museum”

To be fair to Indy, it’s not his fault. Not only is he not responsible for the narrative the writers give him, but he was never meant to be an established academic. When George Lucas first recommended with the character, he resented him as a rogue who deliberately hunted for artifacts as a “grave robber, for hire”, rather than an archaeologist. “Basically”, said Lucas in a story conference for Raiders of the Lost Ark, “he’s a bounty hunter” and “an outlaw archaeologist”. But over the years his PhD seems to have become more important in the character’s story as he takes up a position in academia.

Jones may be a fictional character, but in many ways, he represents an attitude towards archeology that was common to some people in the first half of the 20th century.

Many of the earliest archaeologists were originally in the service of invading armies. For example, Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 was accompanied by artists, archaeologists, and historians who documented the conquest and excavated the country for artifacts. This is how the famous Rosetta Stone was discovered.

During the 19th century, archaeologists were often amateurs who were passionate about the cultures they investigated, but their activities were intertwined with colonialism and exploitation. Artifacts and sacred objects were sent away from their homes to be in museums or private collections.

Later in the century, archeology became a standardized discipline with established methods and practices for extracting artefacts. This included providing detailed drawings and drafts of the entire site, as well as individual objects. But still there was something of the old “hero” approach that had not entirely disappeared – and Dr Jones is a symbol of this romantic vision.

“Indiana Jones plays a lot with the academic elites of the 1930s who find some of this behavior quite interesting”, explained Lowman.

But over the years, this field has changed, with new approaches and analytical frames emerging that have moved away from traditional archeology and focused more on science and experimentation. We may see a glimpse of this development in the aging Indy of the later who films feels a little more dated and out of touch. This interpretation of the character is placed in a historical context, in the 1950s and 60s, when archeology scholars turned to generalizations about human behavior, rather than an analysis that was focused on objects.

Was Indiana Jones a positive or negative force?

There are some opinions regarding the degree of positive or negative impact of the Indy on the field of archeology is quite divided. There are plenty of academics who criticize the films for their unrealistic depictions of archaeology, and even more lamenting the overarching association with the supernatural. While much of this irritation is valid, the good Dr. has also had some beneficial effects.

“I think Indiana Jones had a positive impact on the field of archaeology, in the same way Jurassic Park He had an extremely positive impact on the field of paleontology”, explained Lowman.

“In both cases, we have exciting and fun films that introduced a new generation, not only to the old-fashioned type of adventure storytelling but also piqued children’s interests in the reality behind the story.” He added, “if the first spark is ‘Whoa, archeology looks so cool,’ it can lead to what it really is.”

However, Lowman was quick to point out that it’s time to let Indy hang up its hat. Just as his particular approach to archeology has faded in the past, so should the type of representation it embodies. And there are plenty of new model archeologists to show off:

“Recently, there’s been a lot more emphasis on activism and attention to past and present identity”, said Lowman. Today, researchers practice more reflection and ask “how archeology can be of service to interested parties, to the communities most affected by archaeological research. And I think that kind of community encouragement of research and service as a product is something that will be part of archeology in the years to come.”

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