Why Archeologists Hate Indiana Jones



The jungles of the Peten are hot and sweaty. Most of the best places for archeology are. Field seasons are especially hot, since they are always during the driest time of year so that the site doesn’t get flooded. Howler monkeys boom from the parched trees, which barely twitch during the windless days. Meanwhile, pasty grad students toil away in the hot sun, quietly picking away at a stucco relief or the markings on a stone pillar.

In this heat, it’s good to wear a hat, preferably something sturdy with a wide brim. Every archeology site in the world is littered with rugged people in wide-brimmed hats talking about long dead civilizations. Tulane archeologist Marcello Canuto, for instance, prefers the khaki, floppy variety. Walking back to camp with after a long day at one Northern Guatemalan site, I can’t help but make the obvious comparison.

“Oh God,” he groans, “Don’t even go there. Indiana Jones is not an archeologist.”

It’s not surprising that academics – hell bent on taking the fun out of everything – would hate our beloved and iconic movie version of them. But Canuto is no killjoy. His ironic tone and acerbic wit seem honed by long boring days in the sun. So I bite. I quickly learn that there’s a good reason why most every archeologist on Earth hates Indy. And that they might have a point. Because Jones isn’t an archeologist at all.

“That first scene, where he’s in the temple and he’s replacing that statue with a bag of sand – that’s what looters do,” Canuto says, grinning. “[The temple builders] are using these amazing mechanisms of engineering and all he wants to do is steal the stupid gold statue.”

CanutoThink about it. Here’s Indy, in some ancient tropical temple whose booby traps have miraculously not turned to dust with age and humidity. All the ropes, wooden blocks, gears, whatever – they still function. This is a treasure trove of information for an archeologist. How did their technology work? How did they get that giant rock to the top of that ramp? What powered their poison darts?

But no, he goes for the least interesting but most economically valuable thing in the temple – a golden statue. A real archeologist would have taken a photo of it, told the Nazis they could have the stupid thing, and spent the next 10 years studying the temple’s booby traps.

Or what about the part where he slips into a dig site in Egypt and tries to steal the Ark of the Covenant?

“True, the Nazis were trying to find the Ark of the Covenant so they could destroy the world,” Canuto says. “But methodologically and legally they were in the right.”

Whatever you may think of evil archeologists bent on world domination, they presumably had permits to be there. And while the early days of Egyptian archeology were corrupt and exploitative, it was far better than just allowing foreign looters to run wild. Looters like Indiana Jones.

“If someone was to come into my camp and dig up the site with some knowledge I didn’t have, and I was to catch them in the middle of the night, yeah, I might throw him in a snake pit too,” Canuto laughs.

Hollywood looter...
Hollywood looter…

Archeology is rife with tales of looters and researchers clashing over stolen artifacts whose proliferation is among the largest illegal markets in the world (behind, but often connected to, drugs and guns). People don’t talk much about it, but antiquity looting is a major source of cash for global criminals.

I know what you are going to say – Indy was just trying to put things in museums. When exactly did he ever actually succeed? And whose museums? Certainly not those of the countries where he was looting. He never documents or publishes his finds – meanwhile his collaborators are mostly monkeys and showgirls. In fact, we now know that Indy’s style of looting actually damages our understanding of culture and robs us of our history.

...real-life looters.
…real-life looters.

Last month I wrote a story for National Geographic about the history of looting in the Maya region that barely scratches the surface of the problem. The real life Indiana Joneses of the world are not wise-cracking professors with bullwhips. They are poor farmers and hooligans pushed by desperation and warfare to the fringes of society where they eke out an existence, destroying our only opportunities to understand ancient cultures.

Just like Indy, most looters are so consumed with getting something they can sell, they destroy the parts of a site that might actually inform scientists. Temples become craters in the ground and bones containing crucial genetic information are chucked aside. But worst of all, we lose the context of the artifact – where it was found and what that might mean. And just like Indy, they are happy to shoot anyone who gets in their way.

All of this, just so a wealthy foreign collector can put a stone panel on his wall or have a cool bowl to hold his keys at night.

“Their point of view is that it is my right to destroy your country, your past, to decorate my house,” says Karen Olsen Bruhns, an archaeologist at San Francisco State University.

It doesn't even look real.
It doesn’t even look real.

In this way – and please don’t hate me for saying it – Lara Croft is more honest than Indiana Jones. She doesn’t pretend to be an academic or make speeches about what belongs in a museum. She’s a wealthy, corrupt tomb raider and she doesn’t hide it.

This is not to say all collectors are bad – most are just ignorant of what was destroyed or who was killed to get their precious knick knack. A few I talk to for the story are genuinely trying to atone. But it still seems a silly reason to rob a people of their history.

Thankfully, Central American looting today is on the decline and, as Bruhns points out with delicious irony, most available Maya artifacts are fakes (including Jones’s crystal skulls). But looting in other places, like the conflict-ridden Middle East and North Africa is exploding.

Meanwhile, rumor has it, a fifth Indiana Jones movie is now in the works. Keep in mind that the last one was so bad, it coined a new phrase just to describe similarly awful movies.

In the end, despite being a terrible archeologist, Indiana Jones still holds a special place in the hearts of people like Canuto. He was twelve when he saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and discovered an enduring love of exotic adventure and wide-brimmed hats. And like most of us, he can overlook a few criminal acts as long as the movies are still good. Which, frankly, is why Jones might want to think about hanging up his whip.

Photo Credits: Paul E. Amaroli, Marcello A. Canuto, and Paramount Pictures

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52 thoughts on “Why Archeologists Hate Indiana Jones

  1. You mean a movie isn’t an accurate portrayal of a job next you’ll tell me there is no Santa Claus. Poor chap so bent out of shape.

  2. We should remember the time frame of Indiana Jones, it’s the 1930’s. The science and ethics of archaeology were just being formalized. True there have always been grave robbers, starting the day after a Pharaoh was buried. Hell, the Elgin marbles were stolen.

  3. Well he did deliver Coronado’s cross to Marcus Brody who said it would find a place of honor in his museum’s spanish collection…

  4. Couldn’t you argue that Indy was taking the artifacts before anyone else could so they could be studied/appreciated/etc versus ending up in someone’s private art collection…?

  5. To be fair to Indie, he may have been a grave robber, but in the context of the films, the whole field of archaeology seemed to be composed of grave robbers. Heck, he himself admitted that his methods weren’t proper in the classes he taught (though he glossed over the fact that those were his methods). In fact, I believe that in every instance shown of him plundering tombs and whatnot, it’s made clear that he’s only operating that way because it’s a life-or-death situation and he has no other options. Yeah, he breaks into a Nazi camp to try to steal the Ark, but only because it’s a magical superweapon that could help the Nazis win the war if they got ahold of it.

  6. Very good point, John. I think the history of archeology is littered with really questionable behavior. Which is something modern researchers are accutely aware of and try to distance themselves from. Then Indy keeps reminding them of our sorted [pretty sure Erik means “sordid.” — Ed.] past. No wonder they are so conflicted.

  7. [sentence deleted for civility — Ed.] I am an archaeologist, and in my years working with many other archaeologists, I’ve not encountered any great hatred for Indiana jones from any of my colleagues. it is just a movie. sure, he’s not a real archaeologist, but if I told people I mitigate damages to cultural resources for federal undertakings, their eyes would glaze over. so when people ask if I’m an archaeologist like Indiana jones, I say “yes, yes I am.” as for academics, I’m sure there’s some with a sense of humor, just not that you spoke with.

  8. The worst/funniest point is that Indy didn’t even matter to the plot of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The only reason the Nazis found the Ark was they discovered Indy digging the correct area; they could have spent the rest of WWII digging where they were an never found it. Even if they did find it, at the end the Nazis open the ark and get their faces melted off. This would have happened with or without Indy. All Indy really does is get beat-up, ride for hundreds of miles on the outside of a U-boat, and steal the gold idol at the beginning.

  9. PS: Karen Olsen Bruhns (quoted at the bottom) just let me know that she used to wear a fedora for many years until “my Ecuadorian crew foreman told me I looked more like Freddy Kruger than an archaeologist!” She now wears a “disasterous” $5 straw she bought in Sonsonate. I actually really like my straw fedora.

  10. Chris N.,

    That’s not true. If it were not for Indy knowing how to find Marian (and the headpiece to the staff of Ra), no one’s finding the Ark. Sure the Nazis found Tannis, but without Indy, they’re not doing anything, not even digging in the wrong place.

  11. Agreeing in the broadest sense that Indiana Jones is a pretty abysmal archaeologist, I am alarmed that you don’t seem to have actually watched the movie: the Nazis didn’t want the little gold statue from South America — that was René Belloq, his nemesis (and French), apparently freelancing — and they didn’t throw him into the snake pit, the Well of Souls. They threw Marion in there. Would they had succeeded and we’d never have had to deal with Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

  12. By these standards, wasn’t Howard Carter a little bit of a looter, too? Essentially, I think that ‘looter’ describes pretty much every 19th century archeologist at least a little bit. How else did the British Museum get so much cool stuff? Different times, different rules. It seems ironic that a bunch of archeologists don’t understand that.

  13. On the contrary, Indiana Jones could rightly be regarded as an admirable example for Archeologists. He showed how exciting and rewarding the historical knowledge and education he gained over his and his father’s life experiences could be. All that laborious study, research, and memorization could – when called upon – lead to new discoveries, understanding, and a lucrative career. Whereas leading contemporary figures, Zahi Hawass for example, can be so political, controversial, and worse, I’m not convinced Indy deserves so much “hate”.

  14. The Indiana Jones character was supposed to be a renegade archeologist from the outset. Lucas described him as an archeologist who had grown cynical and opportunistic with age and who had become, in Lucas’ own words, a “grave robber” for profit. Lucas very much wanted to portray the character as having this internal conflict, between being the professor and archeologist he originally was and the cynical opportunist he had become. There is an interesting transcript floating around the internet of one of the initial story conferences for the movie. In it, Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan spend a great deal of time defining the character – it’s worth a read for those who are interested.

  15. JD, that’s a really interesting point. He sounds like James Bond, who is one of my favorite literary characters butchered by movies. Canuto pointed out to me that the 1930’s was by no means an adolescent time for archeology (yes, I prefer this spelling). Indeed there were many very responsible, expert researchers and a few bad ones too. Keith, you bring up a great point – perhaps fodder for another post. In terms of Maya archeology, depending who you believe, there are only two museums in the US with legitimate rights to show Maya artifacts. But it’s a gray area and well worth some thought. I encourage you to read my NG piece that kicked off this post. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140808-maya-guatemala-looter-antiquities-archaeology-science/

  16. There are comments throughout Raiders that recognize Jones is outside the bounds of his profession. For example, Marcus says slyly “I’m sure everything you do for the museum conforms to the International Treaty for the Protection of Antiquities.” Belloq says “Archaelogy is our religion, but we have both fallen from the pure faith.”

  17. Can I just make the point that in every Indiana Jones movie, the archeological site itself is usually destroyed by the end of the film? It makes for a great movie ending but how would we feel if some real Indian Jones had managed to annihilate Pompei or King Tut’s tomb in the 1930’s? It would have been considered a major disaster in the history of archeology.

  18. ¤ I’m not an archæologist, but I’ve hung around them at field school. The quote about the Nazis being methodologically and legally in the right is a familiar type of dry humor from those days. BTW the wide-brimmed hat is a necessity, and I found bike gloves to be pretty useful as well.

  19. Pingback: Indy Was a Thief
  20. Has anyone who has ever watched an Indiana Jones movie been under the impression that they’re seeing a realistic depiction of archaeological research?
    And I just have to point this out because I’m amazed no one has but, seriously, no one’s going to mention the horror of the idea of the NAZIS possessing the greatest archeological treasure of ancient Judea? I mean even if it were just an archaeological find and not a magic superweapon, it’s the Ark of the Covenant between god and the Jews! Falling into the hands of the Nazis is literally the worst thing that could possibly happen to it. And I don’t know where they got that license, but I really doubt that the British Governor of what was then the mandate of palestine gave permission for an expedition of Nazis to dig up ancient Israel.
    Hm, come to think of it, for Nazis, the villains in these movies are awfully interested in Jewish artifacts. Between Raiders and Last Crusade they’ve gone after the ark and the grail. You’d think they’d be after supposedly magical Norse stuff, or something.

  21. In the interest of accuracy, let’s remember that Indy was after the Hovitos’ idol for the museum, while Belloq was the one who wanted to sell it in Marrakesh. The one movie in which he actually is presented as a mercenary grave-robber is Temple Of Doom, when he’s after “fortune and glory.” And let’s remember that A, that movie takes place before the others, and B, he has a change of heart by the end.

  22. My wife is an archaeologist.
    She loves RAIDERS. Her first dog was named Indiana.
    Many of her friends are archaeologists. They also love RAIDERS. Admittedly questionable practices aside, RAIDERS brings swagger to an otherwise unglamorous practice, and the archaeologists I know appreciate how it makes their profession seem just a bit cooler.

  23. So, what I’m hearing is a whole lot of pro-Nazi sentiment being bandied about, especially by Herr Canuto. Something Henry Jones, Jr. would not have stood for. To quote the imminent – pro-world/anti-Nazi – archeologist, Jones himself, “Nazis! I hate these guys.”

  24. I’m an archaeologist, and Indiana Jones is a really good example of what not to do. I’ve seen whole scale looting at El Brujo in Peru. Whatever his faults, Indy is nowhere near as bad. Believe me.

  25. Listen, archeologists, you should be delighted you got Indiana Jones. As an ichthyologist (fish biologist) I am stuck with Jaws, Sharknado, and Piranha 3D.

  26. In more serious news, even though it saddens me to say, I completely agree that Indy is a looter and not an archaeologist.

  27. How do we know that Indy never published his findings? Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. The movies do not address that point.

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