Archeology in the Movies: What Hollywood Gets Right and Wrong

Indiana Jones is a terrible archeologist. Yet, despite the films having next to nothing to do with actual archeological work, he is somehow the most famous icon of the field. Those within the field might perhaps be able to console themselves with the hollow comfort that “all press is good press.” But when the primary poster child of one’s field has dedicated their life to being an ethical and moral nightmare gussied up under the mask of a heartthrob’s charming smile, the sentiment rings a bit too dissonantly.
 

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade poster.

Part of the Indiana Jones problem is that he is the most, if not the only famous archeologist in mainstream media. Thus, he represents the bulk of most people’s exposure to archeologists and what the job supposedly entails. As an archeologist, this author has observed that the most common responses one hears upon sharing one’s profession fluctuate between, “Oh, like Indiana Jones!” and “Isn’t that studying dinosaurs?” Both of these, one could argue, are similarly incorrect.

Archeology is an interdisciplinary study that encompasses any material aspect of human cultures and societies, both past and present. There is no one way to be an archeologist and research can span a wide realm of topics from the Neolithic remnants of early human settlements to the trash and refuse of modern cities. Some archeologists work in labs, some in museums, and some in the field. 

No matter where archeologists work, they adhere to scholarly moralities of recording findings and to the knowledge that what they study does not belong to them (nor does it always belong in a museum).  

This is where Indiana Jones begins to lose credibility. Throughout the entire franchise, it seems impossible that anyone could find an instance in which the man makes a note of any kind for the purposes of preserving data rather than for fueling his own treasure hunt. And no, the rubbing of the shield in Last Crusade doesn’t count.

Further, Indiana Jones follows an extremely antiquated form of “archeology” that operated on a general ‘finders keepers’-based principle. Such practices were popular amongst the armchair archeologists and Grand Tour travelers of the 1800s and early 1900s, but even by Indie’s time (the 1940s and beyond) the idea of scientifically approaching archeological inquiries had taken root.

Thus, despite the fact that he goes anywhere he pleases and takes what he wants, permits be damned, there is no adherence to any kind of scientific or methodological approach to how Indiana Jones operates. Now, this author will grant him that taking notes and making documentation while on the run from Nazis and giant boulders might be tough, but the entire premise that this man is a serious archeologist is laughable. Very clearly, Spielberg never met a true archeologist.

If credit were to be given to any aspect of the Indiana Jones franchise, it should be directed towards his wardrobe. Throughout, he is dressed quite accurately—though this author has never come across a colleague who carries a whip. Overall, however, the films are more harmful than helpful, and they have created a gross misunderstanding within mainstream media consumers about what it is archeologists actually do.

SIMON STONE, RALPH FIENNES as BASIL BROWN in THE DIG.
Courtesy NETFLIX © 2021. Photo by LARRY HORRICKS.

SIMON STONE, RALPH FIENNES as BASIL BROWN in The Dig.

THE DIG (L-R)- CAREY MULLIGAN as EDITH PRETTY, RALPH FIENNES as BASIL BROWN. cast and crew are pictured standing in their excavation pit
Courtesy NETFLIX © 2021. Photo by LARRY HORRICKS.

(L-R)- CAREY MULLIGAN as EDITH PRETTY, RALPH FIENNES as BASIL BROWN in The Dig.

More recent films such as The Dig (2021) cast a much more accurate light on the field as a whole and actually bring to the fore important issues such as the valuation of local knowledge and the gender inequalities that are still keenly present in much fieldwork (both of which are issues that pervade the Indie franchise but in much more problematic rather than contemplative ways).

The Dig poster.

Though The Dig is a period piece set in the 1930s, the methodological approaches taken by the archeologists portrayed in the film are much more representative of how things actually operate even today: careful excavation of soil and the removal of artifacts, accompanied by thorough documentation and interpretation.

Now, to be completely honest, most archeological fieldwork is just not that sexy and the day-to-day findings and workflow of a field project are not the earth-shattering kind that make for thrilling Hollywood adaptations. The appeal of Indiana Jones is not that he is an archeologist but that he is an adventurer. He very well could have been a paleontologist and the film could have found a way to work. The realities on the ground are much more scientific than movies would have you believe. This is not to say that exciting archeological finds are not made. Rather that, when they are, they are done so (hopefully) through careful and thoroughly documented work.

At the end of the day, it seems that no press would be better press at this point. With the recent announcement of a fifth installment in the Indiana Jones franchise, perhaps James Mangold (who has taken the reigns from Spielberg) should consider reading a book or two on what archeology actually is.

This archeologist would be happy to provide a list.

About the Author

Danielle Vander Horst

Dani is a Ph.D. student in Classical Archaeology at Duke University. She has excavated with multiple projects in Italy and predominately researches ancient identities in the northwestern Roman provinces.

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