Was there a real Indiana Jones?
How far does the Hollywood hero reflect the reality of archaeology? Many were inspired by Indiana Jones, but he was a terrible archaeologist, says Professor Michael Scott
Indiana Jones is right there in the story of archaeology, and at heart of the idea that we have of the archaeologist.
Yet most modern archaeologists have an absolute love-hate relationship with Indiana Jones. Many were inspired by the character to get into the field.
And then, of course, the more you get into the field, the more you realise that Indiana Jones, as a character, is the worst possible kind of archaeologist, not least because he destroys every archaeological site he walks into.
The films are very much set in a particular period of time, in the 1940s and 1950s, when the idea that something should be grabbed and taken back to a museum (in America in his case) was absolutely accepted. Those are attitudes that we would completely shy away from now. So he is of a place and time and indeed of Hollywood fiction.
The real Indiana Jones?
Indian Jones has his origins as a character in the real stories of discovery of the past.
Hiram Bingham III, the discoverer of Machu Picchu, ignited public interest in the world of the Incas in South America when he published his final book in 1948 on the story of Machu Picchu and his discovery of it.
That was picked up by Hollywood very, very quickly, so that in the early 1950s, there was a Hollywood film called Secret of the Incas, which starred Charlton Heston.
The character that Charlton Heston played in this film was of an explorer, and he was wearing a brown leather jacket, a white shirt, a fedora hat and khaki trousers.
I has been acknowledged that the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones comes from that Charlton Heston figure. Secret of the Incas came out in 1953 with the first Indiana Jones film (Raiders of the Lost Ark) coming out in 1981, just under three decades later.
Indiana Jones’ place in real history
There is a link back from Indiana Jones into the stories of real discovery and real archaeology, although we have to understand that he is a completely fictional character and as far distant from what we would want a modern archaeologist to be as is possible.
But at the same time, I find it extraordinary that even in the 20th or the 21st century, we still can't quite lose that love affair with Indiana Jones.
In 2008, when the last instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise came out, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Harrison Ford, the actor was actually elected to the board of the Archaeological Institute of America. So he was given an honorary kind of membership on the governing board of the main institute of all professional archaeologists in America as a recognition of his status as an archaeologist through this character that he had played.
We clearly, even in the 21st century, still want Indiana Jones to be part of the story of archaeology. But I think as long as that comes with an understanding of quite how much Indiana Jones as a character is the antithesis of what we think and understand and want archaeology to be in the 21st century, then that love affair can continue, as long as we understand the limitations of it.
- Read next | The real archealogical object that inspires the Archimedes Dial from Indian Jones and The Dial of Destiny
Professor Michael Scott was speaking to David Musgrove on the HistoryExtra podcast, in an episode exploring real archaeological discoveries that trounce those made by Indiana Jones. Hear more from this conversation in the full audio episode or explore more of our bitesize history videos.
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