Sunday, May 25, 2008

SOME ARCHAEOLOGISTS are not pleased with Indy either:
Real Archaeologists Don't Wear Fedoras

By Neil Asher Silberman (Washington Post)
Sunday, May 25, 2008; Page B01

After 17 years, Hollywood's most famous archaeologist is back in action. Now grayer and a bit creakier, Indiana Jones is again hacking his way through thick jungles, careering wildly in car chases and scrambling through dark tunnels to snatch a precious artifact from the clutches of an evil empire (Soviet, this time).

And I'm thinking, oh no. Here we go again. Get ready for another long, twisting jump off the cliff of respectability for the image of archaeology.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a fan of pop culture. But I have a problem with the entertainment tail wagging the archaeological dog. As someone who's been involved in archaeology for the past 35 years, I can tell you that Indiana Jones is not the world's most famous fictional archaeologist; he's the world's most famous archaeologist, period. How many people can name another? Whether I'm sitting on a plane, waiting in an office or milling around at a cocktail party, the casual mention that I'm an archaeologist inevitably brings up Indiana Jones. People conjure up images of gold, adventure and narrow escapes from hostile natives. And while "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" will almost certainly break worldwide box office records, it will also spread another wave of viral disinformation about what archaeologists actually do.


Of course, archaeologists have to reach out to the public to raise funds and gain attention for their efforts, but I'm convinced that there's something misguided and destructive in this academic love affair with IndianaJones. It's not just that the films are harmlessly caricatured visions of old-fashioned archaeology; they are filled with destructive and dangerous stereotypes that undermine American archaeology's changing identity and goals. At a time when our national political debates are centered on our relationships with other cultures, when the question of talking to rather than attacking perceived enemies has become a contentious presidential campaign issue and when claims for the repatriation of looted relics are being seriously addressed by courts and professional archaeological organizations, the thrill-a-minute adventures of Indiana Jones are potentially dangerous and dysfunctional models for both modern archaeology and American behavior in the world.

I have a lot of respect for Neil Asher Silberman and he makes good points. The films do perpetuate many destructive and grossly inaccurate stereotypes. But nothing archaeologists say is going to stop this sort of film being made (not just Indiana Jones, but The Mummy series and the like). Moreover, the films, notably the latest film, are so absurd that I can't believe that anyone is going to take anything in them seriously unless they are already beyond the reach of reason. But the films also fire up interest in archaeology, which can lead to many teachable moments for those still teachable. I dare say some good academics are in the field of archaeology today due to these movies and that there is more interest in and sympathy for archaeology as well.