Did Indiana Jones help or hurt archaeology?

Harrison Ford and archaeologists weigh in on the impact Dr. Jones has had on the discipline for more than 40 years.

On June 30, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny will mark the final cinematic installment of the saga that began with 1981’s Raiders of the Lost ArkOnce again, the world’s most famous archaeologist—real or otherwise—may have many of his authentic counterparts rolling their eyes. The question worth asking is how many of the rest will be first in line for tickets?

First, here’s a parallel worth noting. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg has stated that he deeply regrets the demonisation of sharks following his 1975 movie Jaws. Many were hunted, and prejudices born. A 2015 study by academic Christopher Pepin-Neff described the public’s tendency to make impactful, fiction-informed assumptions about that film’s real-life counterpart as “The Jaws Effect.” But it’s a complex legacy: many shark scientists and conservationists credit the film with igniting a more benign fascination.

Spielberg may have more reasons to be sheepish. Thanks to the public response to his movies, geneticists have had to answer saucer-eyed questions about dinosaurs, DeLorean drivers all sit at the wheel of a time machine—and every archaeologist probably has a hat and a bullwhip tucked away somewhere.

‘Obtainer of rare antiquities’

However reminiscent his style is of early 20th century archaeologists such as Hiram Bingham, Henry Field, and Earl Halstead Morris, Indiana Jones doesn’t hang his hat on one historical figure. Designed in homage to TV action serials beloved of creator George Lucas—and with a lead character named after his dog—the franchise’s brand of roughshackle adventure won audience’s hearts to the tune of almost a billion dollars worldwide. It just so happened that its protagonist was a part-time professor of archaeology with a sideline in chasing ancient artifacts drenched in mystique—often, against a backdrop of brewing war, pursued by others with less museum-centred intentions.

(Related: A look at explorer Hiram Bingham, a real-life Indiana Jones.)

Those artifacts—amongst them the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, ‘good luck’ rocks crafted by Shiva, crystal skulls and the mysterious Dial of Destiny—occupy a grey area where history, religious mystique and creative license meet. Nevertheless, Indiana Jones accidentally seduced moviegoers to archaeology—and made more than a few think “gee, I’d like to do that.” Some are now all grown up and making discoveries around the world. But in a profession generally free of Nazis, booby traps and inter-dimensional civilizations, but newly awake to its colonial legacy—and with a lead character often likened to a profiteering grave-robber—is that a good thing?

Related: From royal rings to humble rocks, these mystical objects were believed to shape human history. 

‘You call this archaeology?’

Indiana Jones himself isn’t convinced. “I… I don’t know. I guess we made archaeology look like fun,” Harrison Ford, 80, tells National Geographic down a bad phoneline when asked how he feels about his character inspiring a generation of archaeologists. “They’re great romps. Great adventures. But—and I mean this in the nicest possible way—I don’t take any personal [credit]. When I’m approached by someone who is an archaeologist, I’m always interested to hear what their experience was. I’m happy people have found work that fulfills them. But I think it’s a little bizarre.”

It's a sensible viewpoint; as an archaeologist “Dr. Jones” is a curious role model. He has questionable excavation methods. Turns up at digs packing a revolver and a whip. He rarely returns with the goods and is habitually caught up in all manner of chaos—from simple tank pileups to the detonation of nuclear weapons—despite his assertion that most archaeology is “done in a library.”

And yet, as Ford well knows, the character he has brought to life onscreen for more than 40 years has become quite the mascot. In 2008, the actor was even honored by the venerable  Archaeological Institute of America with the Bandelier Award—with then-president Brian Rose, a professor of archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, praising Ford’s “significant role in stimulating the public’s interest in archaeological exploration.”

Despite Indiana Jones’s evident real-word resonance, Ford is maybe a little reluctant to place any greater depth on his character than was ever intended. “I think in the original film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, we were working with the notion that we were making a B-movie. It was fun, it was bold. But there wasn’t a terrible sophistication to it all,” he says. “I’ve always said these films are more about movies than they are about anything else. These are adventures, they’re imaginations. What I like most about him is the pleasure we’re able to give the audience.”

Ford admits he does personally “like antiquities, things that inform us of the past, things that are beautifully made.” Of the conversation around artefact restitution, he says he’s “aware of the issues… [that] there have been some inequities [around] how items are collected, and who they belong to. I’m pleased to see the movement now to return these artifacts to their original cultures.”

When asked what the most precious thing he’s ever held is, however, he says simply: “a newborn baby.”

‘X never, ever marks the spot’

As journalist Marilyn Johnson wrote in her book Lives in Ruins, “every archaeologist I interviewed worked Indiana Jones into the conversation, usually with affection, as if mentioning a daredevil older brother.”

However, “there is a real distinction between the archaeologists’ embrace of Indiana Jones’s style—and all the priceless publicity that character gave the profession—and of his methodology,” Johnson tells National Geographic in an email. “It’s astonishing that a profession dedicated to mostly painstaking field and lab work has such a swashbuckling image.”

Thanks to this, modern archaeologists often find themselves shoehorned into an Indiana Jones-shaped frame of reference. Johnson mentions classical archaeologist Joan Breton Connelly, known as ‘Indiana Joan’ at the Explorer’s Club; biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern is ubiquitously known as the ‘Indiana Jones of ancient ales, wines, and extreme beverages.’ There is also an Indiana Jones of the art world, of deep sea exploration, economics and photography—suggesting any occupation can have its “Indiana Jones Effect.”

Plus, as with sharks and Jaws, before people saw a fictional archaeologist in action most didn’t really have an opinion at all.

“When the films were first released there was a disconnect between what the public perceived as the work of archaeologists and the actual work they were undertaking,” says Janina Ramirez, a Research Fellow in history of art at the University of Oxford and presenter of BBC series Raiders of the Lost Past. “I’m sure some students signed up to study the subject thinking it would involve glamorous travel, potential wealth and excitement.”

Ramirez remembers after seeing the first Indiana Jones movie she “immediately tracked down my local archaeology club, and a lifelong obsession with the past was born,” adding that the influence of the franchise on a generation cannot be underestimated. “The films tapped into the intrinsic thrill that discovery brings,” she says. “I have been fortunate enough to be on digs where major finds are made. That these moments still grab headlines and generate fascination in the public is what underlines the success of Indiana Jones.”

(Related: 13 pictures that capture the wonder and thrill of archaeology.)

But does the association do it any harm? As Ramirez says, “while archaeology attempts to be a scientific and fact-based discipline, it requires imagination, storytelling, and world-building. If a film character can bring the subject to life through similar techniques, then it can't be all bad.”

‘It belongs in a museum!’

That said, what we see of Jones’s work isn’t hugely successful. The idol of the Chachapoyan warriors is pilfered by a rival; the Holy Grail is swallowed by the Earth, the crystal skull disappears back ‘into the space between spaces.’ The Ark of the Covenant, meanwhile, is spirited away by the U.S. government—the ancient relic from a faraway land wheeled into a temple-sized warehouse stockpiled high with anonymous boxes of God-knows-what from who-knows-where. This, the sprawling final shot from 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark hits somewhat differently these days. But still, the colonial-smelling attitude hasn’t aged well in today’s climate of awareness concerning the provenance of antiquities. You could argue that’s down to the period in which the films are set—Johnson says that “setting the [earlier] Indiana Jones movies in the 1930s gave Indy license to be bad.” But as far as the character’s personal fortune and glory goes the results rarely justify the means.

So, if it’s not his methods, or his motivations, is the appeal of Indiana Jones something less obvious—and more portable through changing times?

“Stories through all cultures have profound impacts on how we see the world, and our possibilities,” says Albert Lin, a scientist, explorer and presenter of National Geographic’s Lost Cities with Albert Lin. “For me, growing up with stories like Indiana Jones, or Dances with Wolves, even reading National Geographic… those stories were a window into a bigger world. This belief in wonder, in adventure. That out there’s some hidden city in the jungles, or some story of a mythical land. It wasn’t until I got to my Ph.D and someone said to me ‘hey—there actually is a lot of unknown.’ Ever since then, my life has felt like it’s a weird mirror to Indiana Jones.”

Speaking to National Geographic over Zoom, Lin is covered with bites from his latest expedition to Guatemala, where he found himself climbing into the tomb of an ancient Mayan king and being confronted with ancient glyphs revealing clues to an origin city that has never been found. There were crocodiles and scorpions involved, along with local rumors of a massive anaconda. But his own parallels aside, Lin—whose work with technologies such as Lidar has earned him the moniker ‘Indiana Jones 2.0’—is convinced the appeal resonates beyond the literal. “The fact that Indiana Jones makes anyone who watches it feels like there’s wonder and adventure to be had out there is a very good thing. Because that’s a deep part of who we are as humans. We are explorers. And there is a frontier of exploration that still exists. And as fantastical as those stories may be, there are realities—various tracks of reality—where they can become real.”

Harrison Ford and the climate crusade

For Ford, who in The Dial of Destiny is rounding off one of the longest tenures one actor has played a character on the big screen, becoming Dr. Jones isn’t hard. “I put on the clothes. The character just comes with it,” he says. “It’s an easy fit for me. I understand him, his relationship to the stories that we tell. And I like those stories.”The treasure at the end of Ford’s own adventure story isn’t in doubt. “I found it. It’s nature. With all its mystery and complexity. That’s the thing we should be protecting. Healthy nature is the greatest treasure of all and the one we’re most in danger of losing.”

It’s a sentiment he can back up. Ford has held the position of Vice Chair of Conservation International since 1991—and contributed to the documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, which saw the actor harangue Indonesia’s Minister for Forestry after witnessing illegal palm oil operations. The ‘confrontation’ became a diplomatic incident and the actor was threatened with deportation. In 2018, his thunderous speech at the UN Global Climate Action summit—in which he pleaded the assembled changemakers to ‘stop, for God’s sake, the denigration of science’—practically shook the floor.

“I suppose I did get wound up. I’m passionate about it,” Ford says. Predictably, many articles concerning Ford’s philanthropy on the global stage namechecked a certain unconventional archaeologist—though none took the bait to suggest that the ‘Indiana Jones of conservation’ may actually be Indiana Jones.

“I think there’s a lot of me in every character I play,” Ford says, on whether he feels any kinship with his fictional alter ego. “We have some things in common, Indy and I. An interest in how the world works. A love of puzzles and mysteries. A belief in the goodness of humankind.”

The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Media.

Read This Next

Egypt’s new billion-dollar museum is fit for a pharaoh
Inside the Titanic wreck's lucrative tourism industry
How did England’s ‘lost king’ end up beneath a parking lot?

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet