Hero! Real archaeology and ”Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”

All three previous movies about Indiana Jones have become quintessential adventure films, together grossing more than $1 billion at the box office alone, not counting associated merchandise and spin-off products like computer games, novels and a TV series. The films were inspired by King Solomon’s Mines (1950) and Secret of the Incas (1954) but created something of their own genre. In recent rankings – two decades after the height of the cinematic Indiana Jones fever – the character still made no. 4 and 7 respectively among ”The 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time” (see also here). On May 22, Indy will be back!


The associations of archaeology with adventure are as old as archaeology itself. In a famous passage written more than three decades before Harrison Ford impersonated Indiana Jones, the American archaeologist Alfred Kidder (1949: XI) argued that

“In popular belief, and unfortunately to some extent in fact, there are two sorts of archaeologists, the hairy-chested and the hairy-chinned. [The hairy-chested variety appears] as a strong-jawed young man in a tropical helmet, pistol on hip, hacking his way through the jungle in search of lost cities and buried treasure. His boots, always highly polished, reach to his knees, presumably for protection against black mambas and other sorts of deadly serpents. The only concession he makes to the difficulties and dangers of his calling is to have his shirt enough unbuttoned to reveal the manliness of his bosom.”

In an American survey from 1994 only 10% of the respondents stated that they had not seen any of the Indiana Jones movies whereas 60% had seen all three (Mackinney 1994). Indiana Jones is the most widely recognised and most enduring image of an archaeologist.
Unfortunately these kinds of clichés and narratives are not always harmless entertainment but can have highly problematic colonial and imperial undertones (see also Hall 2004). Recalling “imperial adventure tales for boys”, the Indiana Jones films are premised on “an imperialized globe, in which archeology professors can ‘rescue’ artefacts from the colonized world for the greater benefit of science and civilization” (Shohat and Stam 1994: 124).
But how does Indy compare to real archaeology? In his review of the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the archaeologist John Gowlett (1990: 157) warned against over-reactions by his colleagues:

“I cannot think of anything worse than pontificating upon whether any archaeology in this fails to meet reality. That would be about as worthwhile as spotting the impossibilities of physics in Star Wars.”

Indy is entertainment, not a representation of archaeologists in real life. At the same time, it is clear that academic and professional have come a long way from adventurous expeditions exploring long lost sites (McGeough 2006).
Yet archaeologists have for a long time considered the pleasures of fieldwork, the harsh discipline it requires and the discovery of spectacular finds as the core of their discipline. A male archaeologist asked in an electronic discussion forum in 2004: “aren’t we all (deep down) hoping to find a lost civilization, treasure hoard, gold filled tomb, find of the century? I think there is a little ‘Carter’ or ‘Indy’ in us all.“ Paul Bahn (1989: 59) reported that it is not unusual among American archaeologists to find a bullwhip and a battered hat on the back of office-doors! Moreover, real archaeological fieldwork can indeed be something of an adventurous experience (Pachinko 1997; Holtorf 2005: chapter 3). A colleague of mine suspected that ”the real turn-on” for archaeologists to do what they do is precisely that experience: ”the finding of things, the smell of the site, the bossily-arranged lines of pegs, the sexual excitement of new people in the trench, the ’abroadness’ of the places…” In this sense, there probably is a bit of an adventurer and a bit of an Indiana Jones in every archaeologist (Welinder 2000: chapter 4; de Boer 2004).
When the Swedish archaeologists Richard Holmgren and Anders Kaliff started in their own initiative (and partly with their own money) a project in Jordan, they were most deliberately in for a very special adventure. The popular account of the research conducted refers to their own “childlike enthusiasm” and “thirst for adventure” in “exotic surroundings” as “necessary ingredients” and “important motivation” of their work (Holmgren and Kaliff 2003: 151, 205, my translations). Both text and images in this book bear witness to the thirst and enthusiasm of those two.
Nowadays, many archaeology students even choose their subject out of fascination for figures like Indiana Jones. For example, Jay Fancher, a student at Washington State University, wrote to me (e-mail comm. 2003) that ”Indy’s combination of intelligence and bravery were very appealing” to him and that the seeds of his career path were planted through the association of the word ’archaeology’ with adventure”.
The association of Indiana Jones with the academic world was explicitly fostered in 1990 by the Institute of Archaeology at University College London (David Harris, e-mail corresponence 2005). As part of a fundraising initiative to build new archaeological science laboratories at the Institute, Harrison Ford was approached and offered to donate one of Indiana Jones’ bullwhips. It was subsequently auctioned for a substantial sum and the famous actor’s name was recorded on a brass plaque at an entrance to the labs where it recalls his generosity and is seen by passing generations of staff and students.
Indiana Jones has certainly created a lot of attention and goodwill for archaeology in the real world. It has even attracted students to University courses in archaeology. But we also need to ask precisely which kind of additional students have been attracted to archaeology in this way. Meredith Fraser (email correspondence 2003) is rightly concerned that

”the portrayal of archaeologists in mainstream popular culture as primarily white, male, heterosexual, ’able-bodied’ individuals serves to alienate experiences, identities and individuals that do not conform to this model of the ’ideal archaeologist.’ Ultimately, such portrayals have a detrimental effect on both the real and perceived accessibility of archaeology to individuals and communities that are not represented by this ’ideal.’”

According to an American survey (Baxter 2002: 16), students got the impression that archaeology was not for them:

”they consistently stated that these images left them feeling alienated from archaeology as a discipline, that archaeology was an inaccessible discipline to the lay public, and that they themselves probably could never be archaeologists.”

Behind this lie important issues that must be addressed in order to broaden recruitment and provide opportunities for everybody choosing archaeology as a career (see also Joyce and Preucel 2002; McGeough 2006). In particular, the very masculine Indy image suggests that there may be a gender imbalance in recruitment. But at my University archaeology courses in fact attract consistently more women than men.
With film number four around the corner, is there more mileage for archaeology in Indy? As I argued in Archaeology is a brand! (Holtorf 2007), archaeologists will only be able to draw on the enormous appeal of their own ‘brand’ if they themselves stand behind it and embrace its various connotations in their work. It simply astonishes me that a fairly large proportion of archaeologists still seem to find nothing more urgent than to distance themselves from popular heroes like Indiana Jones or indeed Lara Croft. It is deeply ironic that nothing seems to be harder for archaeologists to get to grips with in their relations with non-archaeologists than their seemingly limitless and virtually untainted overall popularity that is unrivalled among academic disciplines.
I have given up counting the number of exhibitions, educational events and publications (e.g. Robinson and Aston 2002) that are shouting into the reader’s face that ”the real archaeologist works practically never like Indiana Jones.” Translated, that means as much as ”If you happen to be interested in archaeology because of Indiana Jones, then this is not for you!” Archaeology is thus suddenly outed as a different kind of ‘person’ than you thought and hoped it was; a person that lacks some of the traits you found most appealing. It is the equivalent to Greenpeace beginning a public presentation about its work by stating that ”the real Greenpeace activist works practically never in a small rubber-dinghy fighting illegal whalers.” Although true, this would achieve nothing except alienate an initially favourable audience before it has had an opportunity to hear what it is you actually want to convey.
Ironically, in many ways the reality of professional archaeology is not entirely different from the stereotypical clichés of archaeology that are so prominent in popular culture. As I argued earlier, these clichés have some affinity with what the professionals really do, as well as with how they see themselves — although there are also aspects of archaeological work that are not reflected in any of these stereotypes. But at the end of the day, from time to time archaeologists really do find exciting treasures, and their fieldwork often is exciting in many ways. Precisely that adventure aspect is central to how many archaeologists define themselves as professionals, and how they choose to remember their research. In short, archaeologists really love Indiana Jones, and chances are that many will run to the movie theatres this summer.
According to Lynne Sebastian (2003: 36), it is an ”awful truth” that archaeology “is exciting because it connects with the past in a way that nothing else can, and sometimes that connection can be stunningly immediate and personal.” Indiana Jones would agree!

Cornelius Holtorf teaches archaeology at the University of Kalmar in Southeast Sweden. The University’s programme in Heritage Studies (at this point taught through Swedish) is the basis for careers throughout the Swedish heritage sector including contract archaeology, various kinds of private consultancy work, public administration, museum employment and all sorts of tourism-related jobs.
Further links:
- Indiana Jones official site
- The Indy Experience
- Cornelius Holtorf, The A theme: the archaeologist as adventurer
References
Bahn, Paul (1989) Bluff your way in Archaeology. Horsham: Ravette.
Baxter, Jane (2002) Popular images and popular stereotypes. Images of archaeologists in popular and documentary film. The SAA Archaeological Record 2 (4), 16-17, 40.
de Boer, Trent (2004) Shovel Bum. Comix of Archaeological Field Life. Walnut Creek etc: Altamira.
Gowlett, John (1990) Indiana Jones: crusading for archaeology? Review of S. Spielberg (dir.), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Antiquity 64, 157.
Hall, Mark (2004) Romancing the stones: archaeology in popular cinema. European Journal of Archaeology 7, 159-76.
Holmgren, Richard and Anders Kaliff (2003) Arkeologer i Bibelns Sodom. Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand.
Holtorf, Cornelius (2005) From Stonehenge to Las Vegas. Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.
Holtorf, Cornelius (2007) Archaeology is a Brand! The Meaning of Archaeology in Contemporary Popular Culture. Oxford: Archaeopress, and Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
Joyce, Rosemary with Robert Preucel (2002) Writing the Field of Archaeology. In: R. Joyce, The Languages of Archaeology, pp. 18-38. Oxford: Blackwell.
Kidder, Alfred (1949) Introduction. In: C. Amsden, Prehistoric Southwesterners from Basketmaker to Pueblo, pp. XI-XIV. Los Angeles: Southwest Museum.
Mackinney, Lisa H. (1994) ”That Sense of Adventure”: Front-End Interviews about Archaeology and Indiana Jones with Visitors to the California Academy of Sciences. Unpublished report.
McGeougg, Kevin (2006) Heroes, mummies, and Treasure: Near Eastern Archaeology in the Movies. Near Eastern Archaeology 69: 174-185.
Pachinko, Joe (1997) Swamp! Berkeley: Superstition Street Press.
Robinson, Tony and Mick Aston (2002) Archaeology is Rubbish. A Beginner’s Guide. London: Channel 4 Books.
Sebastian, Lynne (2003) The awful truth about archaeology. The SAA Archaeological Record 3 (2), 35-37.
Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam (1994) Unthinking Eurocentrism. Multiculturalism and the media. London and New York: Routledge.
Welinder, Stig (2000) Arkeologisk yrkesidentitet. Universitet i Tromsø, Institutt for arkeologi.

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