It Belongs In A Museum: Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology Review

By Emma Louise Backe

Although Indiana Jones is a beloved cinematic figure—the consummate swashbuckling archaeologist—his representation of archaeological theories and methodologies has been a point of contention among the anthropological community ever since the first film was released. Capitalizing off of Indy’s enduring fame, the National Geographic Museum, located in Washington D.C., launched the “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology” exhibit in May 2015. Set to run until January 2016, the exhibit contains a number of props, set pieces and costumes from the films to frame a larger discussion about the “science and history of the field of anthropology” (National Geographic 2015). Visitors to the museum receive miniature technological devices similar to iPads that provide a self-guided tour of the exhibit, which unfolds in four sections: quest for treasure, dig into the past, investigate, and solve the mystery. Though initially skeptical about the archaeological rigor of the exhibit yet intrigued by the opportunity to connect with a figure who has very much been a cultural role model for my own anthropological journey, I found the exhibit to be a useful primer for museum visitors to dispel the misconceptions of archaeological practices, inform viewers about the history and evolution of archaeology, and clarify the differences between speculation and empirically grounded theories about human culture.

Fact or Fiction: Francisco de Orellana's Death Mask, Creative Commons, Flickr,

Fact or Fiction: Francisco de Orellana’s Death Mask, Creative Commons, Flickr,

The exhibition moves chronologically through the four movies, beginning with Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) when Dr. Henry Walton first burst onto the scene. Numbers are placed throughout the exhibit, which can then be keyed into the tour device, unlocking additional footage, commentary and visuals. Some of the glass cases contain costumes, such as Indy’s iconic bullwhip, leather jacket and hat, with the option of behind the scenes footage and commentary. Other interactive options include movie clips from key scenes. From an educational perspective, one of the most important elements of the exhibition are the “Fact or Fiction” segments triggered by the various prestigious artifacts Indy sought throughout the movies. These movie props (“artifacts”) include the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol, the Headpiece to the Staff of Ra, Nurhachi’s remains, the Sankara Stones, the Cross of Coronado, and the Holy Grail, among others. The museum’s curators use these props to discuss what historical grounding or cultural significance the objects represented, highlighting which props were based on real artifacts, and which were an amalgam of cultural myths and discoveries of ritual significance. For example, the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol was inspired by the Dumbarton Oaks Birthing figure, whereas the Sankara Stones were inspired by the Hindu god Shiva, a reference to the phallic symbols of Shiva Linga often associated with the deity.

These educational components explicate on the nature of an artifact, and why artifacts are useful in understanding human history and culture. The narrators of each of these segments continually reiterate the significance of archaeological discoveries, emphasizing that our cultural present needs to be contextualized through a nuanced appreciation of our collective past. While the exhibition does not overtly indict Indy for grave robbing—one ethnocentric practice among many he has been accused of, even though it was an unfortunately common practice among anthropologists in the early 1900’s—the exposition on material culture is framed around an exchange between Indiana and Belloq, a fellow anthropologist working for the Nazi’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Taunting Indy with a simple pocket watch, Belloq says, “Look at this. It’s worthless – ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless” (Spielberg 1981). In the same way, even though the exhibition has a number of actual gold artifacts, the museum’s narrative attempts to demystify, while also complicating, the value conferred to certain artifacts by explaining that artifacts can be more useful in what they tell about a community’s culture, rituals or traditional practices—the significance a society imbued the object with. Subsequently, without attacking the methods of the very hero that draws an audience to the museum, the curators did a subtle yet graceful job of illuminating what drives an archaeologist’s work and why we should care about watches or urns buried in the sand for thousands of years.

The second part of the exhibition moves into a history of famous archaeological discoveries, covering the golden age of archaeological excavations and the beginning of academic fame and prestige for the discipline. This portion of the exhibit spotlights archaeologists who would have been Indiana’s predecessors, including Hiram Bingham and Matthew Stirling’s excavation of Machu Pichu and Leonard Woolley’s discovery of the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq in the 1920’s. Woolley’s excavation captivated the nation and even inspired Agatha Christie, upon visiting the site, to write Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). Indeed, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was responsible for many of the key excavations and collections cited in the exhibit, and my place of work the summer of 2012. The basement of the museum where I worked to document, photograph and conserve a number of artifacts did inspire some of my own murder mystery novel ideas, but I was surprised and thrilled to note the Sitio Conte section of the exhibit, a Panamanian Pre-Columbian discovery made in the 1940’s by a group of Penn archaeologists. I spent most of my summer at the Penn Museum shifting through Sitio Conte pot sherds, occasionally finding almost perfectly intact bowls or pottery that had been nestled away in the bowels of the museum for so long the plastic bags had even begun to disintegrate. Although the scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark may seem melodramatic, museums often suffer from a surplus of artifacts and inefficient filing systems, meaning that valuable cultural items can sometimes be left to collect dust on a shelf before someone locates the correct item number. Often times, the thrill of archaeological work comes from the rediscovery and interpretation of an artifact already in a museum’s collection. Diverting from the androcentric history of the discipline, the curators also feature the groundbreaking work of two female archaeologists, Tatiana Prokouriakoff and Annie Hunter, who helped to translate the Mayan language.

Crystal Skull, photograph by author

Crystal Skull, photograph by author

Considering the critical reviews of the fourth installment in the series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), I thought that the curators would rather treat the movie as if it had never been made. But the final segment of the exhibition titled “The Interpretation—Explaining the Unexplained” confronts the problem of Ancient Astronaut theory in the archaeological study of ancient civilizations. As the climax of the exhibit, this thematic focus makes sense—the curators have strived to provide sufficient background on the practice of excavation, the procedures of artifact conservation, and the delicate process of analysis and interpretation through a combination of sociocultural and biological models grounded in empirical, scientifically rigorous research. The problem of aliens in archaeology provides a perfect case to reiterate some of the foundational tenants of the discipline and underscore the difference between speculation and fact. Released around the initial Ancient Aliens hype, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull perpetrates the same fallacies as the History Channel show, attributing elongated skulls, elaborate infrastructure and architecture, and technological prowess to extraterrestrial intervention. The educational modules provide useful archaeological counterpoints to these theories by providing the necessary historical and cultural contexts to explain phenomena that are ostensibly unexplainable. The alien crystal skull prop is compared to the head binding rituals that have been practiced by a number of cultures around the world.

The most evocative and canny example given is that of the Nazca lines, geoglyphs that  Ancient Aliens participants have often compared to crop circles or postulated as intergalactic road maps. Instead, the Indiana Jones exhibit explains the connection between the symbolism found on Nazca pottery and the animalistic designs represented in the lines that can only be seen from the sky, and goes so far as to demonstrate the meticulous mapping methods used by the Nazca to create these figures. Seemingly inexplicable phenomena can therefore often be explained through systematic research and analysis. Indeed, the choice to include the fourth movie, which stands out as a distinct misfit from the original trilogy, is an apt metaphor for the history of archaeology, and anthropology more generally. Practitioners within the discipline strive to grapple with and atone for the problematic paradigms archaeologist have employed in the past, often to the detriment of the very indigenous communities they claimed to serve. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull could therefore be understood as a broader educational opportunity to examine how archaeology should and should not be used, a conscious effort to separate contemporary practice from a history of colonial affiliation.

If you’ll pardon the tangent, the aliens explanation posited in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may not seem like that much of a departure from the supernatural spirits of the Ark of the Covenant released at the end of the first movie. Yet the two phenomena represent very different archaeological perspectives or problems. Whereas the aliens in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are used to explain away the innovations and technical prowess of the inhabitants of Akator, the fictional civilization where the movie takes place, and thereby undermine the achievements of the culture, the ghosts released from the Ark of the Covenant lend validity to the spiritual beliefs of the cultures that worshipped the artifact. On the one hand, a culture’s contributions to modern society are minimized, while on the other, the filmmakers, whether intentionally or unintentionally, attend to the potential actuality of supranatural occurrences or beliefs. This, for me, sits at the base of anthropological inquiry—how to examine seemingly otherworldly or paranormal phenomena objectively and logically, while remaining culturally sensitive and acknowledging the truth of the people who believe in such occurrences. As an exhibition geared toward introductory archaeology, this concept was perhaps too sophisticated to be addressed fully in the museum.

Overall, the National Geographic’s Indiana Jones exhibit, like the movies, offers a useful introduction to archaeology, complicating Indy’s approach and reiterating archaeology’s significance as an academic and an applied field. Fans of the franchise will value the opportunity to relive the thrill of the movies. The curators offer a good balance of movie facts and archaeological tidbits, and while I walked away wanting a little bit more of both, it was an undeniably fun way to spend the afternoon, especially to see the glint of adventure in some of the younger visitors’ eyes. Remember kids, x never ever marks the spot.


Works Cited 

Backe, Emma Louise (2014). “Anthropologists: Ethnographic Heroes? Emma’s Response.” The Geek Anthropologist.

Christie, Agatha (1936). Murder in Mesopotamia. United Kingdom: Collins Crime Club.

Kelly, John (2014). “Intriguing story behind a stone figure at Dumbarton Oaks.” The Washington Post.

National Geographic (2015). “The Exhibition: Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology.”

Penn Museum (2015). “Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, and Gold in Ancient Panama: Press Release.”

Penn Museum (2015). “Iraq’s Ancient Past.”

Spielberg, Steven (1981). Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Paramount Pictures & Lucasfilm.

Spielberg, Steven (1984). Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Paramount Pictures & Lucasfilm.

Spielberg, Steven (1989). Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Paramount Pictures & Lucasfilm.

Spielberg, Steven (2008). Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Paramount Pictures & Lucasfilm.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

There are 2 comments

  1. Around the Web Digest: Week of August 16 | Savage Minds

    […] An exhibit at the National Geographic Museum uses Indiana Jones as an entry point to dispel myths about archaeology… it even uses the arguably non-canonical fourth installment (#notmyindy) to explore alien astronaut pseudoscience. The Geek Anthropologist’s review: “It Belongs in a Museum”: Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology Review  […]


Join the conversation! Share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s