Indiana Jones – The Most Famous Archaeologist

Neil Asher Silberman complains that Indiana Jones misrepresents archaeology. He says the movies are filled with exaggerations and inaccuracies, and that archaeologists are scientists and not adventurers in fedoras.

Even worse, the picture of the vine-swinging, revolver-toting archaeological treasure hunter is all wrong. Gone are the days when all that mattered was museum-quality treasure, and the “natives” didn’t matter at all. Certainly in the age of the great colonial empires, archaeologists were often solitary adventurers who could count on the prestige and power of their nations to claim the ruins and relics of ancient empires for themselves. Even without a fedora and a bullwhip, Lord Elgin shipped the famous Parthenon marbles home to England, Heinrich Schliemann smuggled away Troy’s golden treasures, and Howard Carter managed to spirit away precious artifacts from King Tutankhamen‘s tomb in Egypt.

But today, the rules are different, and the professional attitude of archaeologists has changed. In place of loners acting on hunches have come teams of specialists in anthropology and the natural sciences who work closely with local scholars and administrators to excavate and painstakingly document their sites centimeter by centimeter. Individual objects are now less important than contexts; the goal is not to collect exotic or mystical artworks but to fit pieces together to form new ideas about history.

In my own work in Israel, I’ve traced the early archaeologists’ attempts to discover relics that would provide proof of the historical reliability of the Scriptures — not too different from Indy’s search for the biblical Ark of the Covenant. But in the last generation, archaeological teams at sites throughout the Middle East — working to analyze everything from ancient plant remains to distributions of animal bones to ancient metallurgy and environmental data gathered from satellite imagery — have begun to understand the social and cultural background to the rise of the biblical tradition. In the process, they’ve revealed that many of the taken-for-granteds of biblical history, such as the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of the Promised Land by Joshua and even the vast kingdom of David and Solomon, were mostly literary tall tales and exaggerations of the historical reality.

Today, the typical archaeological site is a combination laboratory, field school, campground and open-air classroom, inhabited by professional archaeologists, their students and eager volunteers from all over the world. The dust still rises and the landscapes are often still exotic, but the problems of research, rather than threatening natives and enemy agents, are the main obstacles to archaeological success.

Silberman does admit that the Indiana Jones movies raise awareness of archaeology and occasionally even funds for support of excavations. He just wants us to know the difference between science and fiction. Oh – and if you meet him in the street, please don’t ask him where he left his fedora.

HT to Jim West.

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