From the first of its series in 1981 to the most recent one in 2008, the Hollywood blockbuster movie series Indiana Jones has been loved by many around the world. The love continues, with a fifth film expected to be released in 2019. There also are several other movie series—from Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, to National Treasure, starring Nicholas Cage—that depict and glorify the “Indiana Jones”-type character: a skilled and daring adventurer who explores the world in search of some mysterious ancient valuables, fights curses, booby traps, and aliens, escapes the crumbling temple, and finds love and of course, gets the golden treasure in the end.
None of the other movie characters, however, seem to have the same power as Indiana Jones when it comes to having the image of an archaeologist. Last year, when I told my friends that I was going to study archaeology and work at an archaeological digging site over the summer, nine out of ten of my friends mentioned the famed Mr. Jones in one way or another: I got enthusiastic comments like “you’re going to be like Indiana Jones!” or “what are you going to find, Ms. Indiana Jones?” I reply with a smile, but to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of those comments that link me to Mr. Jones. Don’t get me wrong Indiana Jones fans, I do like the movie series and the charming character; but archaeology as shown through the movie series is simply too misleading and plain wrong.
Let me just begin by saying, forget about the aliens, the curses, the booby traps, the action scenes, and the suspense of replacing the golden idol with a sack of sand that weighs exactly the same. The real trap of Indiana Jones is not in those discernable fantastical and cinematic elements. Rather, it hides implicitly behind the overarching theme of the plot. The misleading trap of Mr. Jones is in his focus on a single valuable artifact and the depiction of archaeology as a means to simply obtain that artifact.
Archaeology in real life is never about and never ends with a single treasure, nor is it a one-time adventure to obtain that valuable artifact. Rather, it is a long journey of an effort to understand history through contextual, physical, and material evidence. A “treasure” of course, can be a part of such evidence, but it can never stand on its own. Even when you are lucky enough to find something made out of gold, what is equally valuable and perhaps more important is the surrounding context of that artifact. Where was it found? What kind of culture characterizes this area? What does the context tell us about the purpose of the artifact? The artifact itself without these kinds of information cannot provide insight into history. That is why digging sites are often studied for years or even up to decades. Extensive scientific records about the site, the artifacts, and the context must be made and published. Without these records, even a golden artifact would be nothing more than a shiny decoration.
So yes, Mr. Jones has it all wrong, but I don’t blame him. After all, he is a movie character. But if you are one of those people (including myself) who developed an interest in archaeology through movie series like Indiana Jones, do remember that archaeology in real life has so much more to offer— other than aliens and shiny golden decorations that is!