Advert for the new National Museum of Wales ‘Adventures in Archaeology’ exhibition on Arriva Trains Wales service from Bidston to Wrexham

Ok, here it goes and please don’t send me hate-mail for my views!

This post is a double-header. First it is simply to state quite clearly some of my views on archaeology in the Indiana Jones films. I discuss this in the light of the fact that a 5th movie is being planned. Second, it is to discuss the new Cardiff ‘Adventures in Archaeology’ exhibition at the National Museum of Wales combining props from the Indiana Jones films with archaeological ‘treasures’.

Indiana Jones and the Whinge of Doom

Many people see archaeology and Indian Jones as synonymous in popular culture. Here’s what I think.

Harrison Ford and many of the other actors are great throughout the four films thus far even if the ‘archaeology’ is painful to watch.

The first movie Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was ok and I loved it as a kid. I saw it when I was 10 or 11. The opening scenes, the Nepalese bar fight, the Egyptian crowd scenes, so many epic moments. Spiders. Snakes. Great fun and inspired a generation of wannabe archaeologists.

The second was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). It had the best title but was largely rubbish after the great opening in a Shanghai club. The lead female was beyond annoying (and is only beaten in my desire to see her character killed off by the annoying kids in Jurassic Park). Chilled monkey brains!? Vampire bats!? Some cool adventure scenes but largely it was racist crap. I cannot watch it any more.

The third film – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) was better; it had to be. As a teenager, I tried really hard to like and I knew I was ‘supposed’ to like it. It did have some solid bits. However,  even on first viewing the awesome Sean Connery was dire and the plot was terrible. Scaring birds to down a German fighter plane? Meeting Hitler!? Woeful! The ending was pseudo-Christian nonsense that was more Monty Python than anything else.

And yet despite these horrors, archaeologists and archaeology students I have talked to treat the first three films now as ‘authentic’ archaeological fiction. In contrast, everyone I talk to within the archaeological community seems to reserve their vitriol for the fourth film that attempted to revive the franchise after 19 years: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). But you know what? I really liked it and all its silliness, from Area 51 to Cate Blanchett’s crazy Russian bad girl performance. The Crystal Skull revels in pseudo-archaeology and conspiracy theories, condenses them and makes them the core of the story.

Whatever you think of them as entertainment, let’s be clear about something: they have had a profound effect on archaeology’s popular perception and engagement. It also introduces many to the various ancient civilizations of the Americas and Africa, albeit in jaundiced fashions.

Set against this background, I would suggest it is fundamentally ridiculous (from an archaeological perspective) to ‘complain’ about the fourth film for using overt pseudo-archaeology and yet hold high a torch for the first three films without judging them on similar grounds. This standpoint just doesn’t make sense on any grounds whatsoever.

First film has Nazis seeking the Ark of the Covenant, second has Thuggee cult worshippers conducting human sacrifices, while the third  you meet a medieval knight protecting the Holy Grail. But somehow crystal skulls and aliens is too far? Too much pseudo-science? Don’t make me laugh!

I just don’t get it, it smacks of archaeologists who forget that they liked the first film mainly because they were 8 or 12 when they first saw it. They also just don’t realise they are just fun films that play off fantasy and heroic imaginings of archaeologists as adventurers and off various inherently 19th-century racist and colonialist visions of ancient civilizations. Indeed, one could make a stronger argument for the fact that the fourth film hardly touches archaeological sites and past societies and as such is therefore the most harmless of all of them. The fourth film is so decidedly ‘fringe’ that it is an exploration of many of the great false archaeologies of the 20th century.

In summary, archaeologists please stop whining about the fourth film being crap: the first three are at least just as ‘bad’ but you are willing to forget how bad they were/are because you were a kid when you saw them! It is so funny listening to archaeology students worship them as some kind of ‘authentic’ and safe delusion of archaeology, while Lara Croft and other adventurer/archaeologists in popular culture are held in contempt.

Indiana Jones comes to Cardiff

Anyway, this is but an intro. On the train yesterday, I saw an advert for a new exhibition at the National Museum in Cardiff in which props from the fourth movie are on display as well as real archaeological finds from Welsh prehistory and early history and from elsewhere worldwide under the banner Treasures: Adventures in Archaeology.  

The exhibition promises to celebrate the Year of Adventure in Wales which sounds exactly like what it probably is: a dismal attempt to brand a random selection of tourist activities. That aside, the exhibition promises to combine individual fantastic items from world civilizations ‘never been seen in Wales’ with the stories of real archaeological adventurers, juxtaposed with the props from the film: including the hat, whip and jacket.

I haven’t yet been to this exhibition, but it leaves me wondering one thing: why has no-one ever done this before? I do hope there is a strong message regarding the illicit trade in antiquities to underpin the immorality of trading and collecting unprovenanced archaeological artefacts. As I have blogged about elsewhere, ‘treasure hunting’ and celebrating ‘treasure finds’ is simply not what archaeology is about.

Yet I also hope that the interplay between fact and fiction, real archaeology and pseudo-archaeology, helps visitors reflect on how artefacts and human remains from past cultures are of great significance to many many contemporary people, including indigenous communities across the world. And yes, archaeology is an adventure! Moreover, I hope the relationship between ‘real’ archaeology and pseudo-archaeology can develop in a dialectical relationship with each other, since the passion for the study of the past (as Cornelius Holtorf has written about) is all about the adventure and discovery as much as what is actually being found. It is through this dialectic that we can hope to engage the public in what archaeology is all about.