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Is Indiana a Real Archaeologist? Prof. Jones Captures the Thrill of the Hunt

Written by Julia A. King, Coordinator, Museum Studies Program and Associate Professor of Anthropology

For copies of this article with original artwork, contact Barbara Geehan, Editor.

 A little more than a year ago, when the fourth Indiana Jones movie “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” hit the theaters, archaeologists were all a-twitter about what exactly these movies mean for our profession. Is Jones, we asked, good for us or is he bad?

One archaeologist, Neil Asher Silberman, is convinced that Jones is bad, very bad. He argued this point at length in “Real Archaeologists Don’t Wear Fedoras” in the Outlook section of The Washington Post, where he bemoaned the fact that Indiana Jones acts nothing like a “real” archaeologist. Indeed, Silberman argued, the four movies’ portrayals of archaeology are “misguided,” “phony,” and “filled with destructive stereotypes” and “exaggerated and inaccurate nonsense.” And, puh-leeze, Silberman implored in his closing, “don’t ever ask me about my fedora and bullwhip again.”

Silberman, an internationally known archaeologist who built his career in the Middle East, is overwrought and whiny in this essay, and Post readers let him know it in no uncertain terms. More than 200 people weighed in over the course of two days with comments on the web page, running 25-1 against Silberman and for Indiana Jones. Some went on at length, and most were quite amusing.

One commentator, an accountant, openly wished for the accountant’s version of an Indiana Jones so that his profession might get a little Hollywood notice. “For heaven’s sake,” recommended another, “chill out!” A third beseeched Silberman to “go find something real to worry about.”

And I have to agree. The first Jones movie – “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – is a GREAT movie, and you can find it on most lists of the “greatest movies ever,” including the lists of archaeologists. Sure, there’s much to be said about the representation of archaeology in these four movies, but for those who think audiences would mistake Jones’ adventures for my experiences or my colleagues’ in any literal sense, well, then, I have some oceanfront property for you in Utah. And that goes for you, too, Neil.

Indeed, my take is that Professor Henry Jones and his representation of archaeology provide us with a perfect opportunity to talk about representation in archaeology. These days, my colleagues and I are far more concerned with the perpetuation of “destructive stereotypes” by “real” archaeologists than we are with those perpetuated by Indiana Jones.

Look no farther than some archaeology textbooks, which still depict North America’s earliest humans (those here 10,000 years ago) as … all men. All healthy, young antelope skin-clad men, wielding spears, often literally face-to-face with a mammoth or a giant bear. No women. No boys. No girls. No middle-aged men, no old men.

You know the picture. But was this the way life really was?

“It never happened,” says James Adovasio, St. Mary’s Department of Anthropology’s 2009 Distinguished Scholar and an expert on Paleo-InIndian cultures. For one, the animals would have made short work of the far-too-close man-humans; and two, women’s food-collecting activities, absent from nearly all these representations, provided the real bulk of the Paleo-Indian diet. Stone tools and mammoth bones, however, survive, while baskets, nets, and nuts do not. The absence of women from these representations is, most archaeologists would agree, far more troubling than anything Indiana Jones might do.

Perhaps what I appreciate most about the Indiana Jones movies is their focus on the stuff of lore and legend and the relentless search for the objects of these legends: crystal skulls, the lost Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, the city of El Dorado, and even the alien visitors who crashed at Roswell back in 1947. It’s the thrill of the hunt, isn’t it, and the quest for adventure through which we come to know and love Indy.

And what archaeologist has not experienced the thrills, the joys, and (all too often) the frustrations of the hunt? Here, in Southern Maryland, we have our own share of lore and legend, based on the real-world events of the last 10,000 years. I have spent the better part of my career in the region
literally and figuratively “digging up” the evidence of these ancient stories, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

Nowhere are the legends as fascinating as those of the Zekiah Swamp in Charles County, a 20-mile-long, half-mile-wide bottomland swamp where my students and I have been spending our summers searching for long forgotten and lost settlements.

Who would have suspected, for example, that, at the base of the Zekiah, a homeowner would unexpectedly unearth thousands of 17th-century artifacts, many unseen before. Or that, somewhere along the west side of the swamp, there still lies hidden a Piscataway Indian fort more than three centuries old? Who would suspect that Indians had been visiting this area a thousand years before the birth of Christ? That a Franciscan mission lies buried in a cornfi eld? That Charles Calvert, third Lord Baltimore, built a “summer house” deep in the Zekiah, retreating there when pirates appeared in Maryland waters in the 1670s?

The secrets of the Zekiah are not easily divulged. Older than the Chesapeake Bay, the swamp remains almost impenetrable in some parts. Steep terrain, heavy vegetation, high humidity, and endless ticks complicate the search. Along the way, we gain an appreciation for the diverse cultures that came this way hundreds or thousands of years before.

Julie King (photo illustration by B. Woodel)In the final scenes of “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” Indiana Jones acknowledges that the “treasure of archaeology” isn’t gold at all but knowledge and understanding. The work of the archaeologist, Indy would surely agree, provides an eloquent metaphor about the pursuit of understanding. All of us, whether with or without trowel, seek forms of understanding in the journey that is life.

As “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was hitting theaters in May 2008, Dr. Jones’ real-life alter ego, Harrison Ford, was elected to the Board of Directors of the Archaeological Institute of America. In his new role, Ford works to raise awareness about archaeology, and he is committed to the notion that the past is critical to the future.

Does Indiana Jones look like an archaeologist? Let’s just say, he can join my crew any day.