All archaeologists agree that Indiana Jones, while a dreamy professor, is a terrible archaeologist and is more akin to grave robbers than archaeologists. Although a majority of the actions in these films are fictional, they are based on real world facts. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is chased by the Chachapoyan Tribe. This was a real-life tribe who lived in Peru just prior to the Spanish invasion. They were conquered by the Inca in 1450. The temple Indiana Jones robbed was similar to the actual Chachapoyan temple of Kuelap. Like the fictional temple, Kuelap has a long narrow entrance way that was probably designed as a defensive measure. The biggest discrepancy is that Kuelap does not have a large rolling boulder that chases looter down the narrow hallway.
Now let’s talk a little about Nazis. I think it was one of archaeology’s proudest fake moments when Indy punched the Nazi. This iconic image has become a running meme for archaeologists and very few of us desire to argue against that image. So real world: Hitler did steal and hide many historically significant artifacts. There mostly consisted of highly valuable statues, paintings, and books that he stole from Jewish families and businesses and hid in caves across Europe. The actions of the Monuments Men returned some of these priceless treasures to the public. While many of the treasures Hitler’s men hunter were real-life works of art, they did pursue mythical artifacts such as the Spear of Destiny, The Holy Grail, and The Ark of the Covenant. The Raiders film could depict what might have happened if the Nazis did find the Ark.
Regardless of all his faults, the Indiana Jones franchise inspired many archaeologists. Statistics show an increase in archaeology students after the premiere of the first movie. As well, many famous archaeologists admit to being inspired by Indy. In 2015 the National Geographic Museum created an exhibit combining the thrills of Indiana Jones with actual artifacts and archaeological education material. Along with inspiring future archaeologists, George Lucas was inspired by real archaeologists including Hiram Bingham, Roy Chapman Andrews, and Sir Leonard Woolley. Lucas based the films off of the feeling of discovery we all experience. He did not include many of the necessary but admittedly boring paperwork, layer-by-layer excavation, and cataloging.
Even though these films portray archaeologists as gun toting, whip cracking, Nazi punching, action heroes, we must remember that we are even cooler than that because we take detailed field notes, photograph, map, and preserve the world’s past.