Today’s Guest Geek is M. Ravenwood, and she is an actual, real life archaeologist.
Indiana Jones is (c) Lucasfilms
Hello, I am an archaeologist. “Really? Like Indiana Jones?” This line is usually delivered with the slow spread of a smile and spark of excited eyes, the realization of a long-held fantasy. While I admit I am not really much like the esteemed Professor Jones in either appearance or adventurous accomplishments, I do know a little about the public face of archaeology from my work in museums, having interacted with people of all ages and backgrounds. The opening quote spoken to many of my colleagues would provoke a strained smile at best and outright derision at worst.
The field is polarized on the issue of Indy—either he’s a total travesty or adopted as a figurehead while attempts to uncover the “real life” inspiration abound. They’re all missing the point. The Indy films are really about the mythology of archaeology, not about realism.
Harrison Ford is an expert at glamorizing dirt and sweat and rough living. None of us mere mortals can carry it as well as him after a day in the field, but even pre-Indy archaeology has always held a certain swashbuckling glamour. No matter how hard you try, this is not a career that can happen indoors from the safety of your office chair. Indy says as much himself in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The story is also a period piece, set in the first half of the twentieth century, an era that frequently conjures images of decaying empires, pith helmets, and vast sociopolitical upheavals. Critics like to tell you that Indy is a terrible archaeologist, nothing more than a relic hunter, but they neglect to qualify their analyses by remembering that it is a period piece. Yes, Indy is a terrible archaeologist…by today’s standards. In the 1930s, Indy’s adventures and practices were not implausible.
James Henry Breasted, who famously founded the Oriental Institute and is cited as a probable influence for the Indiana Jones character, rode in a crop duster to do a photographic survey of Egypt’s Giza plateau. Unfriendly groups attacked expedition caravans, particularly in areas plagued by political turmoil. Decade-long excavation projects hired hundreds of local people to uncover entire cities over field seasons that lasted six months rather than six weeks. Activists like Gertrude Bell literally drew boundaries of modern nations. These situations should sound vaguely familiar, as they are all incorporated into the series to some extent.
And yes, sometimes archaeologists really did fight Nazis—young American men that enlisted during World War II potentially had experience with WPA and CCC projects during the Depression, went to college for archaeology, or became interested in it when the returned. Indy himself fought in the Mexican Revolution and WWI before being recruited by OSS during WWII.
Accusations of looting and poor heritage management are a bit of an anachronism in the Indiana Jones series. According to contemporary laws already in place when the movies were created he definitely participates in looting (though archaeologists of all people should know better than to judge the past by the values of the present).
However, Indy also professes some views that would have been progressive for the period portrayed in the films, such as his stance against private sale of artifacts in The Last Crusade. Condemn his methods as archaic, if you will, but his unselfish view that archaeological findings belong to all of humanity is admirable. Indiana Jones does for the field of archaeology what any good mythological hero should do—he’s a little ridiculous, a lot of fun, and a total bad ass, but he also reminds us some more sobering truths of our past.