Do I like and approve of the Indiana Jones franchise?

I bet this will prove to be my most controversial Archaeodeath blog-post yet!

With a fifth (as yet untitled) Indiana Jones film forthcoming in 2023, and given that almost every other archaeologist on social media has pronounced their evaluations on the merits and flaws of the existing 4 films over the years, I thought I’d finally also present my Archaeodeath evaluation of the films charting the adventures of the most famous archaeologists of our era: a fictional one!

Let’s be reminded of the films and how they are popularly evaluated by critics:

Each film has explored the adventures of a fictional archaeologist, Dr Henry Jones Jr, and his conflicts with a range of antagonists including Nazis, religious fanatics and Soviet scientists in search of treasure before the Second World War (films 1-3) and in the Cold War (film 4).

Throughout, there are many out-moded and fantastical misconceptions of archaeology and archaeologists, even when the era in question is taken fully into account: a time when archaeology and archaeologists were far different from those today.

Archaeologists thus often find themselves both loving the films as fun and fictitious yet also hating them and the romantic and colonial tropes they embody and perpetuate in popular culture. Still, while many dismiss the films as a ‘hot take’ to make themselves look edgy and ‘in touch with what archaeology really is’, secretly many admire them as both fun and inspiring escapism and as a valuable medium for public conversations about the theories, aims, methods and practices of archaeology in the 21st century.

For me, I’ve long thought there is much that is positive in the fantastical representations of archaeology and archaeologists in the films that educators and researchers can profitably continue to utilise and reflect on. Notably, a positive theme of all the films is that treasure is illusory and not the financial or spiritual reward the antagonists imagine it might be. Likewise, often treasure fails to be the cultural reward that leads to the enrichments of the museums Indy and other protagonists strive to achieve. More broadly, there is always a twist and uncovering the ancient past punishes the greedy and the arrogant just as it offers elusive rewards for the archaeologists themselves. This is the core moral framing of archaeological endeavours as adventure and as detection. While the representations of archaeologists and archaeology may be fantastical and risk misleading the uncritical viewer, they promote a moral lesson that hate-mongers and treasure-hunters wishing to mobilise the past for monetary and/or political and military find that ‘treasure’ often draws them to their own downfall.

The themes of ‘archaeological treasure’ and ‘treasure hunting’ pervading the four films are connected to the spiritual dimensions of each story. The otherworld is near impossible to access but via perilous explorations of ancient temples and tombs, decoding ancient puzzles and riddles, and thus through the retrieval of items vested with magical power. Material cultures and built environments are spaces for adventure and potential intercession with otherwordly forces for good or ill. In two instances, this relates to the Judaeo-Christian God (the Ark in Raiders and the Holy Grail in Last Crusade), in one instance with Hindu belief and Shiva and Kali (the holy stone in Temple of Doom), and in a further instance with transdimensional hive-mind crystal skeletal aliens (Crystal Skull). In each case, treasure accessed via sacred places promises rich rewards but causes death and is a curse to those who disturb it.

Thus, linked to the treasure theme and concepts of sacred places, attitudes towards graves and tombs are a specific and sustained focus of the films: skulls and skeletons, mummies and catacombs are spaces of treasure, transgression and horror, as well as places of engagement with the past and the supernatural. These are liminal sites and objects where death is faced and the dead might be encountered. These funerary materials and spaces are pivotal and are worth reviewing from both theoretical and ethical standpoints in regards to what they reveal about popular portrayals of early and mid-20th-century archaeology and archaeologists.

So Archaeodeath dimensions are tangible in each story, but how do they relate to broader themes and issues in mortuary archaeology? Based on three foci, I will give them ratings out of 10 for each film as follows:

  1. Representations of mortuary archaeological theories, methods and practice;
  2. Representations of mortuary archaeological evidence in the field or in representations and discussions within the story;
  3. Representations of ethical practices surrounding the treatment of the archaeological dead, their material cultures and environments, and processes of repatriation and reburial.

I will then give each film an overall Archaeodeath total score as the sum of each of these three criteria.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Theory, Method and Practice: 5

Evidence: 5

Ethics: 1

Total: 11

There are three main Archaeodeath dimensions to my reckoning:

  • In the opening scene, a South American ‘temple’ full of death traps is the experience where a former investigator meets his demise on spikes, as does Indy’s turncoat guide. The temple is a place of death, but not a place of the archaeological dead.
  • We then encounter a funerary monument in the academic setting: a Neolithic tomb features in the classroom scene at a University: Turkdean near Hazelton, Gloucestershire. Indy also explains the misleading local folklore of a gold coffin buried in the barrow. This is a brief but prominent example of prehistoric mortuary archaeology in the history of film and sets Indy has seemingly opposed to, and critical of treasure hunting as much as superstitious beliefs!;
  • Actual human remains and tombs only appear in the context of the horror of mummies appearing and shocking Marion and Indy unexpectedly in the hidden space adjacent to the Well of Souls in the Egyptian city of Tanis. In contrast, most of the ruins being raided are temples and living spaces. Jones destroys them without consideration, although in ethical terms we can defend his actions ever-so-slightly in his desire for self-preservation and to escape to combat his Nazi rivals.
Turkdean
Mummies encountered whilst escaping the Well of Souls

Theory, method and practice: there is no engagement at all in how archaeologists worked, even in the mid-20th century. However, in the discussion of Turkdean, Indy does reflect on grave-robbing inspired by folklore and, despite this, the survival of one chamber intact. So, there is some context afforded to both looting and the ‘prizes’ of intact deposits aspired, and how the search for well-preserved archaeological remains is something very different from treasure hunting.

Evidence: representation of funerary spaces from ancient Egyptian are utterly implausible and contrived, with mummies upright and uncovered. Still, at least some funerary dimensions are present. Yet, via the classroom scene, funerary archaeology is represented as an integral part of mid-20th-century archaeology in the teaching context.

Ethics: Raiders is broadly ‘accurate’ in being an early 20th-century nightmare of poor practice: stealing an idol clearly still familiar and revered by local indigenous people and destroying vast numbers of human remains in Tanis. At least Indy was trying to stop the Nazis getting their hands on the Ark, so that is ‘ethical’ in one respect, even if not directly pertaining to mortuary contexts.

In Archaeodeath terms, this is poor but unsurprisingly so.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Theory, Method and Practice: 0

Evidence: 3

Ethics: 1

Total: 4

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is decidedly my least favourite film. Again, there are three principal Archaeodeath elements:

  • The opening sees Jones in Shanghai exchanging (selling) the cremated ashes of the first emperor of the Manchu Dynasty – Nurhachi – for a diamond: not exactly impressive behaviour from an archaeologist at all! Mortuary archaeology comes into the opening scene a second time when Indy has to correct Willie Scott who thought archaeologists were ‘funny little men looking for their mommys’ (‘mummies’ he replies).
  • Skulls and human body-parts adorn an idol en route to Pankot Palace. Situated beside the path to the palace: this is a rather ridiculous and needless example of human remains used for horror effect and nothing else, scaring away the guides. They primarily serve as a glaring hint to Indy and his entourage that Pankot Palace might not be all that it seems and his guides run away in blind terror.
  • There are bodies of chained victims inside the palace in the secret tunnel to the Thugee temple. Skulls and bodies of crushed and impaled victims of the trap are also encountered to horrific effect; none relate to mortuary contexts, and the same applies to the festoons of human skulls and representations of skulls (as well as skull masks worn) within the Temple of Doom. Death is everywhere but nothing of significant merit from an Archaeodeath perspective.
Selling the jade cinerary urn of a Manchu emperor

Human remains embody the human sacrifices of the Thuggee cult, and yet Jones himself is shown as a plunderer and trader in human cremated remains. The representation of the cinerary urn of a Chinese emperor constitutes one positive aspect of the representation of mortuary archaeological evidence. Unsurprisingly, there are no mortuary archaeology theory and method dimensions, and no positive ethical considerations. However, because Indy repatriate the Sankara Stone of Shiva to the village, so one ethical point should be awarded.

In Archaeodeath terms, this is dire in terms of theory, method and practice, evidence and ethics.

Last Crusade

Theory, Method and Practice: 1

Evidence: 6

Ethics: 0

Total: 7

This is a great film but in Archaeodeath terms it is also a mess in many regards. Again, three dimensions are worthy of mention:

  • A young Indiana Jones encounters looters in Utah, but it isn’t clear it is an Indigenous tomb or settlement. Hence, I’m not sure Indy’s actions in trying to save the Cross of Coronado recovered justify as countering the looting of mortuary sites (and in any case, he doesn’t care for the archaeological site itself!);
  • In search of the Holy Grail, a Venetian catacomb infested with rats and replete with skeletons in niches and littering the floor. The shield within the tomb which he ransacks contains clues to the location of the Grail. The tomb robbing is one thing. But the catacomb is then utterly destroyed by fire by an ancient Christian sect who have vowed to protect the Holy Grail (combined with Indy’s own actions). Indeed, Indy saves himself from the fire by emptying and hiding within the medieval sarcophagus, so perhaps his wanton destruction can be (partially) forgiven?
  • The tombs and temples of Al-Khazneh (Petra) are used as the filming location of the Hoy Grail, but in the film there is no mortuary dimension as such, only a site of trial and death and the failed promise of immortality.
Ransacking a medieval sarcophagus in Venice

While the medieval catacombs is evocative and has vaguely medieval themes on show – weaponed and armoured knightly graves and sarcophagi, poor mortuary theory and method displayed, and atrocious ethical practices exhibited during the disturbing and destroying of medieval mortuary remains. The present of Petra’s tombs as a filming location also deserves credit. The trail of destruction isn’t perhaps fully warranted by the saving of the Grail from the Nazis!

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Theory, Method and Practice: 0

Evidence: 5

Ethics: 7

Total: 12

Despite being the least liked Indiana Jones film by fans and audiences, and despite the outrage of many archaeologists upon its release for dealing with the pernicious ‘ancient aliens’ theme, I actually think it is underrated overall and deals in no more pseudoarchaeology in its storyline than any of the others (with the CGI animals taken out of the consideration). As a result, this is the best and most interesting representation of mortuary archaeology and also the most ethical by far (although I admit this doesn’t say much)! Vere Gordon Childe also gets a namecheck!

  • The first Archaeodeath dimension is actually the amusing and accidental destruction of a memorial statue of a university archaeologist. Whilst chasing Mutt Williams, the beloved but deceased Marcus Brody’s statue decapitated by the KGB agent crashing their car into it! This is a top moment for reflecting on memorial in the mid-20th century university landscape. This is very much ahead of its time: toppling statues is now all the rage…
  • Second, we find Peruvian Chauchilla tombs overlooking the Nazca Palin where the crystal skull has been returned by Oxley. While far from ‘accurate’, this is perhaps the first attempt to represent both a pre-Conquest mortuary site, and a site exposed and subject to grave-robbing. The sign says ‘grave robbers will be shot’ as read out loud by Mutt. Indy replies: ‘just as well we’re not grave-robbers!’. No matter how ludicrous, the agile blow-pipe-using skull-mask wearing defenders of the mortuary site at least allude to the idea that Indigenous people are not happy with these colonial looters! The mummified remains of Conquistadors as buried by the Indigenous people are encountered, but Jones refuses to take the chief Spaniard’s knife. This is thus fascinating in representing a South American mortuary complex – albeit inaccurately of course – and showing mummies therein. It is also interesting in revealing a more mature and sensitive respect for human remains by Jones;
  • Finally, it turns out the entire story is about cultural repatriation; the return of a crystal skull. How the skull was acquired in the first place is just not clear at all. And at least skulls are the focus – that’s gotta be Archaeodeath right there, even if they aren’t a real ancient artefact type!

While there is no theory or method of note, with some distinctive representations of a memorial statue and a cemetery, plus an implicit but pervasive ethical stance of repatriation, Crystal Skull deserves more credit than is often afforded to it.

Of course none of it makes any sense, but then why should it?

Summary

In conclusion, two films gain no marks for theory and method, although perhaps the crude act of investigation of a mortuary site in Last Crusade deserves a single mark and the brief discussion of robbing vs. excavation in the classroom in Raiders merits due credit.

The films all contain some vague attempts to represent past mortuary environments, although none are accurate. Still, I’m happy to give some modest credit here, especially Last Crusade, Raiders and Crystal Skull.

Raiders has little ethical content, and worse still, Last Crusade sees Jones wantonly destroy mortuary contexts and Temple of Doom portrayals outright Jones engaging in trading mortuary antiquities. For all its sins, Crystal Skull‘s entire story arc is one of cultural repatriation (albeit to aliens!) and thus deserves credit, cancelling out (to some extent) the gross pseudoarchaeological ancient aliens dimensions.

I hereby confirm the rigorous and detailed rating of the four Indiana Jones in the following order from best to worst in Archaeodeath terms:

  1. Crystal Skull – 12 Archaeodeath points
  2. Raiders – 11 Archaeodeath points
  3. Last Crusade – 7 Archaeodeath points
  4. Temple of Doom – 4 Archaeodeath points

Unsurprisingly, none of them do particularly well, but I think it is worth reflecting on how Crystal Skull, actually comes out on top!

How will Indiana Jones 5 be rated out of a total possible 30 Archaeodeath points?