Indiana Jones: Not Real After All!

[Peter Suderman]

Truly shocking news about the new Indiana Jones film from an archaeologist writing in the Washington Post:

[B]elieve me, it totally misrepresents who archaeologists are and what goals we pursue. It's filled with exaggerated and inaccurate nonsense. Even the centerpiece of the new movie -- the "crystal skull" -- is a phony.

My faith in, well... pretty much everything is now totally ruined!

Somewhat more seriously, the column's author is almost certainly correct that the Jones films are responsible for a bevy of public misperceptions about the field of archaeology -- a sort of CSI effect for professional seekers of civilizational remains. No doubt the field is considerably more boring than Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, and a gajillion dollars worth of special effects would make it seem. There are (and I'm just guessing) probably fewer snakes, fewer guns, and fewer encounters with mystical death cults and Biblical relics that make your face melt off.

But to that I say: So what? Pop culture portrayals of, well, pretty much everything tend to be inaccurate. Sex and the City wasn't really a documentary about single life in New York. The Shield wasn't a textbook on police corruption. The West Wing wasn't C-SPAN, but instead an idealized portrait of Washington politics. Fiction isn't history, sociology, or news reporting -- and thank goodness. I promise you that while the White House can be an interesting place to work from time to time, the vast majority of what goes on there does not have the makings of great drama, or even a moderately diverting 42 minutes of network television. Drama, entertainment, and pop culture rearrange, reshape, and reimagine the real world, or even just discard it entirely. Sometimes this is done to inform, sometimes to question, and sometimes, heaven forbid, just to entertain.

Worse, though, is the author's follow-up complaint that the Jones films don't project the modern archaeologist's carefully honed global sensibilities:

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.

The sensitivity on display is touching, really, but somehow I don't think any Jones film is all that likely to lead to an international incident (unless maybe you're worried about riots sparked by foreign box-office numbers). If anything, archaeologists ought to be thrilled to have a public representative who's obviously much more fun than some of his cranky real-life counterparts.