June 12th is the 30th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones remains the world’s most famous archaeologist. How many real-life archaeologists are household names? In honor of Indy‘s birthday, I’m posting a revised excerpt of an essay I wrote for the Society for American Archaeology’s Archaeology for the Public website several years ago (see this link for the complete version):
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), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) were also very commercially successful. 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 professionals who get tired of explaining that archaeology is rewarding, is often full of adventure and excitement, but it’s not very much like Indiana Jones. But archaeologists and educators can use the popularity of the Indiana Jones movies 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 adventurers like Indiana Jones. 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 30 years ago and I’m still fascinated. The Indy movies don’t accurately reflect 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 today. In that sense, Indiana Jones is a hero to movie-goers, educators, and archaeologists alike.
So I argued then, and still believe, that Indiana Jones can help popularize real archaeology. Evidently, the Archaeological Institute of America shares this belief since Harrison Ford is a member of their governing board. What do you think? Is Indiana Jones good for archaeology? Please share your thoughts and memories of Raiders of the Lost Ark in the comments.
– Jay Fancher