Indiana Jones Trilogy (Review by Jay Fancher)

The Indiana Jones Trilogy

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

“I don’t know...I’m making this up as I go”
- Indiana Jones

Most archaeologists will tell you that there are days when they can relate to the above quote from the film Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Archaeological fieldwork requires extensive planning, but also a degree of flexibility.  Sometimes the most carefully devised plans change rapidly due to weather, funding, acts of God, etc.  Those are the times when Indy’s words have the greatest meaning for real-life archaeologists.  Beyond that, there are very few similarities between modern archaeology and the events depicted in the Indiana Jones trilogy, but this doesn’t mean that the films have nothing to offer archaeologists and educators.  Given the immense popularity of these movies, they can be a valuable educational tool; an entertaining illustration of what archaeology is and what it is not.  A particularly worthwhile classroom activity would be to watch clips from Raiders of the Lost Ark and consider the following questions.  Most of these questions can be addressed by watching the introductory scenes, titled “South America 1936”, “The Man in the Hat”, “The Golden Idol”, and “Belloq and the Hovitos” on the DVD version of the film (approx. 15 minutes).

What does a professional archaeologist look like?  You can’t identify an archaeologist by the presence of a fedora on their head, or a bullwhip and holster on their belt.  In this day and age, archaeologists are more likely to work with computers, maps, compasses, trowels, and brushes than bullwhips and pistols.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dr. Jones (the rare action hero who is also a college professor) always works alone or, in one scene, with a team of obviously subordinate diggers.  Contemporary archaeological research is not conducted entirely by individuals, and certainly not always by European or Euro-American men, like Indy and Belloq.  It’s conducted by teams of specialists - men and women of all ethnic backgrounds - who each focus on understanding some piece of the puzzle.  With their combined knowledge, research teams construct a more complete picture of the past.  Since all of the archaeologists in Raiders of the Lost Ark are men, it may, unfortunately, leave audiences with the impression that archaeology is an all-male profession.  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade does include the character of Dr. Elsa Schneider, a female archaeologist from Austria (sadly, she’s primarily a love interest for Dr. Jones and turns out to be a villain in the end).  The major characters identified as archaeologists in Raiders of the Lost Ark are an American and a Frenchman.  The Egyptian, Sallah, is simply referred to as a “digger”.  It’s important to remind students that you don’t have to look like Indiana Jones to participate in archaeological research or even pursue it as a career.

How adventurous or dangerous is archaeology?  Adventure is the defining characteristic of the Indiana Jones trilogy.  Remember the advertisement that boldly proclaimed “If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones!”?  Archaeology can definitely be exciting, but the occupational hazards of actual archaeology are much less extreme than they appear to be in the cinematic world of Indiana Jones.  Field archaeologists do often have to “rough it”.  Thankfully, however, they don’t have to worry about Nazis, enormous boulders, booby traps, human sacrifice or skilled swordsmen.  Sometimes archaeologists work in places where poisonous snakes or spiders are a danger, but nothing like the thousands of snakes and spiders Indiana Jones confronts in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Just as with anyone who works outdoors, archaeologists certainly have to deal with bugs, but, again, nothing like the wall-to-wall bugs we see in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  Try discussing what difficulties or challenges an archaeologist might face in reality.   

What do archaeologists try to discover?  Another major difference between real archaeology and the Indiana Jones trilogy is that archaeologists in the real world are not treasure hunters or grave robbers. Most are genuinely more interested in knowledge than gold or jewels.  In these movies, Dr. Jones just snatches a single treasured object, makes his escape, and sells it to the museum.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opens with Dr. Jones bargaining to obtain an ancient diamond in a Chinese nightclub.  Indy is much more ethical in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when he demands that the golden Cross of Coronado belongs in a museum rather than the hands of a black market antiquities dealer.  In reality, archaeologists don’t get rich by selling the artifacts that they discover.  The artifacts that they prize are usually fragments of stone tools, animal bones, and ceramics, not golden idols or the Ark of the Covenant.  To an archaeologist, artifacts are not treasures to be sold, but clues that provide information about the lives of people of the past.  They rarely seek a single glorious item such as the Holy Grail.  Sometimes the “junk” can tell us more about the past than the really fancy stuff.  As far as I can tell, Indiana Jones never risked his life for a cluster of ceramic fragments or obsidian flakes.

What methods do archaeologists use?  A large portion of archaeological research is done in libraries and laboratories.  The recovery of artifacts in the field is a very meticulous, systematic, and time-consuming process.  Modern archaeologists are scientists of the past, and usually have specific questions that they try to answer with excavated materials.  It’s important to record the location of every artifact and its relation to other artifacts and features of a site.  To achieve this, archaeological teams map the entire site, make sketches and take photographs, sift dirt through screens to make sure nothing is lost, and put all artifacts in carefully labeled bags.  How does Indy’s recovery of the golden idol in the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark compare to the reality?  Also, how often do these films show Indy in libraries or laboratories?  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade does include a scene in a library.  Unfortunately, Indy doesn’t do any reading there - he just smashes through the library floor to access the catacombs where he discovers countless rats and the tomb of Sir Richard. 

Is there any value to the Indiana Jones trilogy beyond entertainment?  In 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark set the tone for virtually every action blockbuster that has been produced since, and it is easily the most well-known fictional film with archaeological content.  Its sequels Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) were also very popular and commercially successful.  These films were so well-received that an untitled Indiana Jones 4 is supposedly in the works – presumably with Harrison Ford starring as a much older and wiser Indiana Jones.  Despite the differences I’ve outlined (and there are many more), a large segment of the general public associates archaeology with the now legendary character of Indiana Jones.  When people find out you’re an archaeologist, their first question is often “Is it really like Indiana Jones?”  As a result, Indy gets a lot of criticism from professional archaeologists who may get tired of explaining that archaeology is rewarding, is often full of adventure and excitement, but it’s not very much like Indiana Jones.  On the other hand, archaeologists and educators can use the popularity of the Indiana Jones trilogy to their advantage.  These films, by depicting what archaeology isn’t, provide an entertaining opportunity for teachers and students to make comparisons and discuss what archaeology is

Many of us, especially children and adolescents, are first exposed to the field of archaeology by viewing fictional archaeologists like Indiana Jones or, more recently, Lara Croft.  Personally, I first heard the word “archaeology” when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark as a kid.  While sitting in that darkened theater, I was so impressed by Indy’s intelligence and determination that I resolved to go to the school library and read more about this mysterious thing called archaeology.  Despite my initial disappointment that archaeologists didn’t carry bullwhips, I quickly became fascinated with real archaeology.  That was 23 years ago and I’m still fascinated.  The Indy movies don’t accurately reflect real archaeology, but their popularity has the potential to spark public interest in finding out more about archaeology – the facts behind the fiction.  The archaeologists of tomorrow might very well be sitting at home or in class watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on DVD today.  In that sense, Indiana Jones is a hero to movie-goers, educators, and archaeologists alike. 

– Jay Fancher