The Enduring Myths of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’

Forty years later, archaeologists look back at what the first Indiana Jones movie got wrong about their profession

Indiana Jones and Stolen Idol
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, sizing up the idol, in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images

“That belongs in a museum!” Indiana Jones shouts at the man in the Panama hat, instantly creating the most memorable archaeological catch phrase of all time, though perhaps the competition isn’t all that fierce.

Forty years after Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered to the public on June 12, 1981, the outsized shadow of Indy still looms large over the field he ostensibly represented. Over three movies in the 1980s, plus a prequel television series and a fourth film that came out in 2008, Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr., became indelibly tied to American archaeology. Despite it being set in the 1930s, an homage to the popcorn serials of the 1940s, and a cinematic blockbuster of the 1980s, Raiders of the Lost Ark is still influential to aspiring and veteran archaeologists alike. Even in the 21st century, several outdated myths about archaeological practice have endured thanks to the “Indiana Jones effect.” And contemporary archaeologists, many of whom harbor a love/hate relationship with the films, would like to set the record straight.

Myth 1: Rugged, swashbuckling, fedora-wearing Indiana Jones is what most archaeologists are like.

Raiders was set in the 1930s, “a time when 99 percent of archaeologists were white men,” says Bill White of University of California, Berkeley. Casting Ford was true to the time, as was the portrayal of Indy’s “treatment of cultural materials, because that’s how archaeologists treated sites, women, and non-white people back then,” according to White, who partners with African American communities to do public archaeology on St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In the fictional Raiders world, White adds, Jones ignored safety precautions, did not listen to the wishes of Indigenous people, and broke every sort of ethical guideline about archaeological remains, such as destroying sites rather than preserving them.

The face of archaeology today is shifting away from those who look like Indiana Jones, albeit slowly. In a 2010 needs assessment survey of the membership of the Society for American Archaeology, 84 percent identified as being Caucasian. White cautions that the myth of Indiana Jones as the quintessential archaeologist means that “archaeology appeals to a certain demographic, and is a turn-off to most other demographics,” a theme he has elaborated on in his Sapiens essay, “Why the Whiteness of Archaeology Is a Problem.” This has not stopped some archaeologists from leaning into the stereotype, though. A simple Google news search reveals dozens of white male archaeologists being called the “real-life Indiana Jones.”

Gender diversity within archaeology has evolved much more quickly, however. “Archaeology is dominated by women—white women have taken over archaeology,” says Alexandra Jones, founder of Archaeology in the Community, a D.C.-area nonprofit that seeks to increase community awareness of archaeology through enrichment programs and public events. Even though Jones has run her organization for over a decade, she says that “people don’t usually expect me, as an African American female, to show up to these events.”

Jones emphasizes that she finds support from women and people of color who are empowered by seeing a representative of their communities doing archaeology. “We are the new iteration and the future of the field; we are very inclusive and diverse,” Jones (no relation, of course) notes.

She stresses the need for her field to be inclusive of a range of voices and life experiences, because archaeology needs a “polyvocal, intersectional view coming from the community in order to do the science of studying that community’s culture.” If archaeologists do not work towards welcoming a more diverse body of archaeological practitioners, they will miss out on advances in the field, she argues.

“Since archaeology is a humanistic science, it matters greatly who is doing the asking and generating the data,” White explains.

Myth 2: Archaeologists work primarily in universities and museums.

In the movies, Indiana Jones teaches archaeology at fictional Marshall College, and his close collaborator, Marcus Brody, is a museum curator who helps arrange and fund Indy’s treasure-hunting adventures. These job titles are reflective of the early 20th-century enterprise of archaeology, but today, up to 90 percent of American archaeologists work in a broad field known as cultural resource management (CRM). Also known as heritage management, CRM deals with the relationship between archaeology and everyday life. On its most bureaucratic level, CRM covers the broad and the specific regulations that govern historical, architectural, and archaeological interests and preservation in the U.S.

Driven by legislation passed in the 1970s, particularly the Archaeological and Historical Preservation Act, CRM work may be done by private companies, federal agencies such as the National Park Service, or preservation officers working with Indigenous communities. Rather than following treasure maps, trawling for clues in ancient texts, or digging where no one wants them to, CRM archaeologists often work wherever others are already digging. According to

Adrian Whittaker, an archaeologist with the CRM firm Far Western Anthropological Research Group, “Often our research is driven by the sites we happen to find rather than a targeted location or site type.”

Whereas Indiana Jones “is basically a solo operator with a small supporting cast and adversarial relationship with local people,” Whittaker notes that contemporary CRM relies on collaboration with the community “to identify and protect resources from destruction.”

Archaeologists today are much more likely to solve local mysteries, assisting in uncovering hidden histories. For example, this year’s centennial remembrance of the Tulsa Race Massacre has refocused archaeological efforts on locating and excavating mass graves of the roughly 300 Black Oklahomans who were killed in the violent riot that destroyed the city’s Greenwood neighborhood in 1921. On the occasion of the anniversary, the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey began an excavation expected to last months, in order to “bring about reconciliation in Tulsa… by seeking the truth honestly,” according to Mayor G.T. Bynum. Tulsa’s commitment to resurfacing its long-denied past, Bynum notes, will hopefully provide “healing and justice to our community.”

The Enduring Myths of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'
City workers digging at a cemetery of potential victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 City of Tulsa

CRM work is important and rewarding, but also involves the much-less cinematic act of filling out paperwork. Kassie Rippee, archaeologist and tribal historic preservation officer for the Coquille Indian Tribe, mentions that “archaeology-based work is only a portion of my job. I review and coordinate on laws and regulations. I monitor quite a bit of construction activity and make determinations as to how construction projects will affect tribal resources.”

“Some archaeologists didn’t even acknowledge that tribes still existed at the time,” Rippee says, so “the way that tribes are engaged and consulted with today is vastly improved compared to the Indiana Jones movies.”

When a community decides to invest in new infrastructure—a sewer, airport runway, HUD housing development—archaeologists have a role to play. “Most of us became archaeologists because we love people,” says Annalisa Heppner, an archaeologist with the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. “The work we do about the past can help create better lives for a community and their descendants.”

Myth 3: Archaeology is largely done in exotic places.

Showing Indiana Jones’s travels on a map is one of Steven Spielberg’s enduring visuals from Raiders. This colonialist cinematic trope harkens back to the adventurers he watched as a kid, keeping the Raiders watcher ensconced in Indy’s journey to exotic locales.

“The [movie’s] map route fade as we travel to sites would look a lot less impressive today,” Whittaker jokes, “since we usually work much closer to home.” Community-based archaeology is on the rise in the U.S., as people recognize that understanding of the human past starts in our own backyards. This type of archaeology emphasizes personal connections that collapse time and space and contribute to a more well-rounded type of archaeological practice.

Terry P. Brock, an archaeologist with the Montpelier Foundation, uses his research to shake up the historical record of life at President James Madison’s plantation in Virginia. Working in the local community “immediately brings relevance and importance to the work,” he says, “because the objects we are excavating together belonged to the community’s ancestors and are a direct link for the community to the people who came before them.”

The Enduring Myths of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'
Part of a cookpot found in 2019 at James Madison's Montpelier in Virginia Montpelier Foundation

Critical questions his team is tackling include: How did the African-Americans who lived at Montpelier survive, resist and live within the confines of their bondage, which was protected by the U.S. Constitution crafted by Madison himself? “I can’t think of anything more important than understanding how our nation got to where we are now,” Brock says, “because it’s hard to make things better if we don’t know what needs to be fixed.”

“Ordinary people in the past are often footnotes in historical records,” adds Stacey Camp of Michigan State University. “Some people’s histories have been intentionally erased or neglected because they were members of groups who were historically marginalized or discriminated against.”

Camp’s current research project explores the lives of Japanese-American men in a WWII internment camp in Idaho. Going beyond the U.S. government’s propaganda about the camps, archaeology is helping her generate a comprehensive account of the men’s medical care, daily activities and diets.

While Camp does not get flown around the world, bankrolled by Marcus Brody, she sees a key benefit to working locally. “I get to ‘live’ archaeology all year round,” Camp says, “and that means I get to go home to my children, my husband, and my dog at night—definitely not something you see in the Indiana Jones movies!”

Myth 4: That belongs in a museum!

By far, the most enduring and problematic myth to come from the Indiana Jones movies is the idea that all ancient and historic objects belong in a museum. While he’s correct that private collectors contribute to looting and other heritage crimes, “there isn’t a single object that belongs in a museum,” says Heppner. “Objects belong with their communities.”

Heppner is one of many anthropologists and museum professionals engaged in ongoing discussions about decolonization, repatriation and presentation of museum collections. “Most museums don’t do enough to help visitors examine their pop-culture influences,” she says. “When you walk into a gallery or exhibition space and you see an object all lit up in a pedestal case—it looks like Indy picking up the crystal skull.”

Even using the term “artifact” to refer to objects in museum collections is fraught, according to Rippee. The word “creates a false narrative that the object is only valuable for its scientific value or because it looks cool,” she says. Rather, these materials are “belongings,” a term that centers the relationship between the object and its community.

Sven Haakanson, curator of Native American anthropology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, Washington, suggests that museums should flip their historic role as owners of others’ cultural patrimony and instead put knowledge back into a living context. “I could be angry that this object is in a museum and not owned by the original people,” Haakanson says. “I’m grateful it’s been taken care of, but we need to bring belongings and knowledge back to the communities.”

The last shot of Raiders, where the Ark of the Covenant is placed indiscriminately in a large government warehouse, is still a very real possibility today. “The ‘it belongs in a museum’ mentality has resulted in archaeological repositories being overrun with artifacts, and [ceasing to] accept collections,” Camp explains. To ameliorate this, some archaeologists today employ a no-collection or repatriation strategy.

Rethinking traditional museum and excavation practices is an important step towards jettisoning the inaccurate idea of the archaeologist as treasure-hunter.

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In reflecting on the 40 years that have passed since Raiders first hit the silver screen, archaeologists want people to know that it is important to see the ways that our field has changed, but also important to enjoy the films.

White admits that the Indiana Jones movies made him want to become an archaeologist as a child. “These movies are an escape for many of us, including archaeologists,” he says. “I want non-archaeologists to know that’s not really how archaeology is, but I don’t want them to lose the value of these movies as fantasy, action, and adventure.”

Heppner points out that much of the focus of these movies—individual objects — is realistic to a degree but also misleads viewers on what makes archaeology rewarding in real life. “You can learn a lot from the Holy Grail,” she says, referencing the third movie in the series, “but you might learn more when you see the rest of the table setting!”

What would Indiana Jones, professor at Marshall College, think about archaeology in 2021?

“I like to think that Indy would be excited about how the field has grown,” Rippee concludes. “And that he would be disappointed in some of the ways it hasn’t.”