An Archaeologist’s Take on What Indiana Jones Gets Right—and Wrong—About the Field

The movie franchise speaks to ethical issues at the very heart of anthropological thinking

Phoebe Waller Bridge (left) and Harrison Ford (right) in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny​​​​​​​
Phoebe Waller-Bridge (left) and Harrison Ford (right) in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny Disney

Pop culture’s most famous archaeologist, Indiana “Indy” Jones, returns to the big screen this summer. In this fifth installment, The Dial of Destiny, Harrison Ford once again stars as the titular character who defined public perceptions of archaeology.

Producers have confirmed this will be the final chapter in Indy’s story. It’s also the first and only film in the series not directed by Steven Spielberg, though he remains an executive producer. Now directed by James Mangold, the flick premiered at the Cannes Film Festival with lackluster initial reviews.

The movie will certainly elicit grumblings from Indy’s real-life colleagues. Many professional archaeologists love to hate on the franchise. Critics often bemoan the unrealistic representation of archaeology and the mystification of historical facts. Some find it demeaning to the serious research undertaken in the field.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny | Official Trailer

But at the same time, many archaeologists appreciate that Indy raises the profile of archaeology in the popular imagination. As an archaeologist and frequent moviegoer, I want to highlight another merit of the franchise: the cinematic expression of ethical issues at the very heart of anthropological thinking.

Of course, these issues are embellished and reinvented; we’re watching action blockbusters, after all. Nevertheless, the Indy movies reflect fundamental challenges in the field—real concerns to real archaeologists.

As a warning, this essay contains spoilers from the first three Indiana Jones movies. But you have had more than 30 years to watch them.

Archaeology is destructive

From Egyptian tombs to medieval churches, archaeological sites suffer damage throughout the movies. Often, this is the first objection raised when it comes to archaeology’s depiction on screen.

Let us recall Indy’s cinematic debut in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. The opening sequence shows Indy in South America, searching for a Golden Idol worshipped and protected by the (fictional) Indigenous Hovitos people. Following in the footsteps of previous expeditions, he reaches a temple hidden in the jungle. After unsuccessfully replacing the idol on an altar with a bag of sand, he has to escape as an ancient trap causes the entire hall to crumble.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark - The Golden Idol

While this is definitely not the proper way to conduct fieldwork, the underlying premise is accurate: Archaeological excavations often destroy the context they seek to understand.

Though not as cinematic as a booby trap’s wreckage, excavations are controlled, systematic destruction. That is why contemporary archaeologists meticulously document sites and use less invasive techniques such as ground-penetrating radar, which probes below ground without digging. Field archaeologists create detailed, written descriptions accompanied by drawings, photography and 3D scanning.

Archaeology’s destructive nature isn’t limited to remains beneath the surface. For instance, since the 19th century, conservators have tried to reconstruct the Athenian Acropolis to its classical Greek style. In the process, they have removed medieval and Ottoman structures, including houses, fortifications such as the so-called Frankish Tower and a mosque inside the Parthenon.

The Athenian Acropolis' Frankish Tower prior to its removal
The Athenian Acropolis' Frankish Tower prior to its removal Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists can punch Nazis … metaphorically

In the third movie, The Last Crusade, Indy searches for his kidnapped father, an eccentric medievalist played by Sean Connery. The senior Jones disappeared while looking for the Holy Grail, the cup Christ used during the Last Supper. During the journey, set in 1938, Indy discovers a Nazi lair in a castle and whispers, “Nazis. I hate these guys.” And indeed, brawling with the Nazis becomes a recurring activity for Indy on his pursuits.

As the trailer for Dial of Destiny reveals, these old villains return in a new revanchist form. Mads Mikkelsen’s Nazi character says, “Hitler made mistakes, and with this, I will correct them all.”

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE | Official Trailer | Paramount Movies

In reality, historical sites and artifacts are often misused for political purposes. Representations of the past have been manipulated by leaders across political and ideological spectrums. But nationalist and far-right ideologies have been especially active in this regard due to their tendency to idealize an imagined past.

The intellectual and ideological training apparatus in the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (more commonly known as the Nazi Party) contained a specialized group for German prehistory. It was later incorporated into the interior ministry. The notorious SS also had a research and teaching unit for German heritage under the direct supervision of Heinrich Himmler, the man who later oversaw the Holocaust. The unit’s point was to subdue research and cultural policy. (Adolf Hitler himself was not concerned with the wartime destruction of monuments because, in his view, this opened an opportunity to erect new ones.)

The communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc are intriguing in this respect. According to the official ideological stance of the party, Marxism was the sole acceptable reading of the past. Archaeology was tasked with the promotion of cultural unity among the communist nations, leading to an explosion of studies into Slavic heritage.

Heinrich Himmler and other Nazi officials visit the Mauthausen concentration camp.
Heinrich Himmler and other Nazi officials visit the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1941. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In my home country, Bulgaria, former leaders expected archaeologists to find fodder for nativist propaganda. During the first decades of communism, the government emphasized Bulgaria’s Slavic ethnic background to blend its citizens with other nations under Soviet domination. Archaeologists were tasked with finding evidence that most of the medieval population was Slavic. Then, starting in the 1970s, the leadership reappropriated a nomadic Bulgar heritage. They thought that because Bulgars migrated from the Eastern European steppe, this origin could showcase the close ties between Bulgaria and the USSR.

History was also exploited in the political preparation for Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. Seven months prior to the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally published an essay arguing for the historical unity of Russia and Ukraine.

As even Indy becomes the target of persecution at some point (in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), the films allude to the complex realities of scholarship in unfree societies. To metaphorically punch Nazis and other extremists, archaeology must understand the field’s political implications and expose the biases encoded in representations of the past.

Not everything belongs in a museum

In 1984’s The Temple of Doom, Indy finds himself searching for a sacred stone stolen from the shrine of a village in India. The trio of Indy; his romantic interest, Wilhelmina “Willie” Scott; and his self-appointed assistant, Short Round, must face the evil Thuggee cult to retrieve the valuable item.

Eventually, Indiana returns the Sivalinga stone to the village residents. Their religious leader says, “Now you see the merit of the rock you bring back.”

The protagonist agrees: “Yes. I understand its power now.”

A minute later, Willie asks why he did not keep it, to which Indiana replies, “What for? They’d just put it in a museum, and it’d be another rock collecting dust.”

INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM | Official Trailer | Paramount Movies

This may seem like quite the step for a character who has said other items considered antiquities belong in museums. His seemingly inconsistent stance reflects the often fraught relationship among archaeologists, museum collections and communities.

Yes, museums are key institutions for heritage management and protection. But protecting and promoting heritage requires the inclusion of broader communities.

This is not a new idea in academic archaeology. In the 1950s, archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler expressed “the moral and academic necessity of sharing scientific work to the fullest possible extent with the man in the street and in the field.”

Considering the problematic origins of many museum collections and the ongoing repatriation requests made by various nations and Indigenous groups, Indy’s realization conveys the fundamental concerns of public archaeology. Controversial collections store sacred objects such as the Mijikenda vigango statues and the human remains of Indigenous ancestors.

The fictional Indian village presents a very real situation. The local community holds the knowledge for the protection of its culture. Archaeologists and anthropologists, being cross-cultural communicators by craft, have a role to play and can support such communal efforts. Indy seems to get this when he returns the Sivalinga. (Though in a more critical take, I, like writer Cathleen Luo, would discuss the underlying white savior trope in the movie.)

There are many nuances to the Indiana Jones story. As I see it, the films express the important role and responsibilities granted to archaeology by the public. Despite some misrepresentations, the movies show that, at its best, archaeology can be community-oriented work that unites people and heritage.

At the very least, the real field and the films can be a lot of fun.

This story was originally published on Sapiens, an anthropology magazine.

Petar Parvanov is an archaeologist specializing in funerary practices. He received his PhD from the Central European University, Vienna, and is currently an assistant professor at the National Archaeological Institute With Museum in Sofia, Bulgaria.

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