Comment: Indiana Jones is no bad thing for science
14 May 2008
FEW scientific disciplines have a hero as charismatic as Indiana Jones. The whip-wielding character is the most widely recognised image of an archaeologist and largely due to this, the field enjoys huge and untainted popularity. Yet many archaeologists still seem desperate to distance themselves from the phenomenon. Since the height of the last Indy fever in the 1980s I have given up counting the number of exhibitions, educational events and publications that shout: "The real archaeologist practically never works like Indiana Jones."
Now, Indy is back. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is released on 22 May, and there is every sign that it will be just as popular as its predecessors. So should archaeologists again rush to point out the gaping chasm between fiction and fact?
It is of course true that the films do not accurately represent professional archaeology. Modern archaeologists are not treasure-hunting looters, they do not use force to gain access to artefacts, and they do not normally wear fedoras or carry bullwhips. But movies appealing to mass audiences can be afforded a little licence. After all, science-fiction films and medical dramas aren't expected to be entirely accurate portrayals of space travel and hospitals either.
What weighs far more seriously is the criticism that elements of the film scripts communicate highly objectionable values. The adventures of Indiana Jones are premised on an imperial world in which western archaeologists routinely travel to the far corners of the globe in order to retrieve precious artefacts and save the world from Evil, giving the impression that the world is dependent on intervention from the west. Moreover, the films draw on a long cinematic tradition of portraying archaeology as the domain of white, heterosexual, able-bodied and comprehensively talented men who live though action-packed adventures in foreign countries.
This stereotype becomes part of the cultural baggage of very large audiences, and colours their perceptions of archaeology outside the cinema. It may even discourage individuals who do not think they conform to this apparent ideal from making archaeology their career choice. The discipline is the worse for any resulting loss of diversity.
In Crystal Skull, a more realistic portrayal of archaeology has been promised: co-writer George Lucas has stated that he and director Steven Spielberg "really wanted to capture what archaeology is like". Even so, the film clearly still aims at global mass entertainment rather than nuanced representations of archaeologists in real life.
But the popularity of Indiana Jones owes more to his spirit of adventure and fortunate discoveries than to the fact that he happens to represent a stereotype that is terribly politically incorrect. The quintessential archaeologist might well roam in Yorkshire or Massachusetts, he might be gay or of Asian or African descent. In the latest film, Indy is in his sixties and self-consciously refers to his age. And the success of Lara Croft shows that the hero can equally well be a heroine.
Ultimately, archaeology has far more to gain from being associated with characters like Indiana Jones than it has to fear. Public enthusiasm for the films attracts many bright young students to the field, as well as creating goodwill and occasionally providing fund-raising opportunities. Shortly after the third Indiana Jones film was released, for example, the Institute of Archaeology at University College London was raising funds to build new laboratories. Harrison Ford donated one of his character's bullwhips, which was auctioned for a substantial sum.
Dismissing any connection, on the other hand, is like telling people: "If you are interested in archaeology because of Indiana Jones, then it is not for you!" It is the equivalent of Greenpeace warning every potential donor that real Greenpeace activists virtually never work in small rubber dinghies fighting illegal whalers. Although true, this achieves nothing except alienating an interested audience before it has had the opportunity to hear what it is that you actually want to convey.
The irony is that archaeologists do find their subject exciting and are often driven by the same spirit of adventure that epitomises Indiana Jones. Many students choose their subject out of a desire to travel and a fascination for discovering ancient artefacts. Indeed, just like their professors, they tend to consider fieldwork under tough conditions pleasurable, taking any opportunity to tell each other of hardships encountered and hazards lived through. Even for seasoned scholars, the best rewards for hard work are spectacular discoveries, and it helps when they are made of precious metal.
“Archaeologists are driven by the same spirit of adventure that epitomises Indiana Jones”
There is a little "Indy" in many archaeologists, even if in public contexts that persona is hidden behind the face of a serious scientist. We may hate to admit it, but Hollywood's depiction of archaeology may capture something of the spirit of the discipline after all.
Cornelius Holtorf teaches archaeology and heritage studies at the University of Kalmar in Sweden. His latest book is Archaeology is a Brand! The meaning of archaeology in contemporary popular culture (2007)
From issue 2656 of New Scientist magazine, 14 May 2008, page 20