Indiana Jones: Saving History or Stealing It?

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Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones

Women want him, men want to be him. Not James Bond, but America's ultimate fist-fighting, adventure-seeking hero — Indiana Jones. Lucasfilm Ltd. hide caption

itoggle caption Lucasfilm Ltd.
Harrison Ford in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' i

Gently ... Gently ... Indiana Jones tempts his fate, switching a sack of sand for a priceless gold idol in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Lucasfilm Ltd. hide caption

itoggle caption Lucasfilm Ltd.
Harrison Ford in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'

Gently ... Gently ... Indiana Jones tempts his fate, switching a sack of sand for a priceless gold idol in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lucasfilm Ltd.
Harrison Ford, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' i

In a tweed suit, tie and glasses, Professor Jones easily passes as an elite member of the Ivory Tower — especially without the bullwhip. Lucasfilm Ltd. hide caption

itoggle caption Lucasfilm Ltd.
Harrison Ford, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'

In a tweed suit, tie and glasses, Professor Jones easily passes as an elite member of the Ivory Tower — especially without the bullwhip.

Lucasfilm Ltd.

Stranger than Fiction

Harrison Ford in 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' i

Indiana Jones is focused on historical artifacts, but he never misses a chance to give the Nazis what's coming to them. Lucasfilm Ltd. hide caption

itoggle caption Lucasfilm Ltd.
Harrison Ford in 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'

Indiana Jones is focused on historical artifacts, but he never misses a chance to give the Nazis what's coming to them.

Lucasfilm Ltd.

"Forget any ideas you've got about lost cities, exotic travel and digging up the world," the professor tells his adoring students. "We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and X never, ever marks the spot."

True enough, at least in that professor's day job. Teaching at a swanky college, Indiana Jones wears tweed and a bow tie.

During his "field work," however, it's leather jackets, a pistol, a fedora, and of course, the bullwhip.

Jones is no James Bond. He can be goofy. He doesn't drink martinis. Beautiful women are OK, as long as they don't get in the way. He reads textbooks.

Still, he's handsome, and he can beat up most anybody. He's definitely a stud — with tenure.

So what about that classroom speech? What about real archaeologists? How do their lives compare to Indy's?

Archeology's Worst Nightmare

"We're standing in a ditch which may or may not fill with water," says Winifred Creamer, a Northern Illinois University archeology professor on a dig in Peru. "The area right behind where we're working is where people throw trash. So it's not really the romance of archeology, is it? No, old Indy would be flying over in a helicopter or something."

Creamer's team is digging under 20 years worth of trash — and 5,000 years worth of Peruvian dirt. Indiana Jones would not dig here. No treasure.

But it's not all dust and cactus. Creamer's team lives in a big house right next to the ocean. And yes, everybody there knows everything about Indy.

"Indiana Jones is adventurous and brave and problem-solving," says Creamer. "He has all these great characteristics."

But, she adds:

"You could say Indiana Jones is the worst thing to happen to archeology, because Indiana Jones has no respect for anybody and anything. Indiana Jones walks a fine line between what's an archaeologist and what's a professional looter."

Indy does take stuff, and it does seem that the character, created by producer George Lucas, can't quite decide where he stands on that. As a teenager in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he chases after tomb raiders and manages — albeit briefly — to recover what they were stealing: the Cross of Coronado. Indy insists it should be in a museum.

So the young Indy believes artifacts should be studied by scientists, not stolen by treasure hunters. But as an adult in the Temple of Doom movie, he says he wants "fame and fortune." And in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he swipes an idol from a South American temple — which leads to that famous escape from the rolling boulder.

The history of archeology is replete with real characters who would now be considered looters. Creamer sees a bit of Indy in people like Heinrich Schleimann — the 1870s adventurer who excavated many ancient sites, including the city of Troy, and "appropriated" countless artifacts for European museums.

On the other hand, George Lucas, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is widely quoted as saying he based the character on heroes of the movie serials of the 1950s, such as Zorro and Flash Gordon.

Heroic and Inspiring

Whoever he's based on, Indiana Jones does give archeology some sizzle. Creamer says students love it, even if in the end there's no steak.

"They come in thinking that they are going to talk about pyramids and gold and serious cool stuff," says Creamer. "Instead, people want to talk about tree-ring dating and radiocarbon dating and the atmosphere, so some are really turned off by it. Others are intrigued by puzzling out an answer and the problem-solving aspect of it, and some of them stick around."

Among those who did stick around is 17-year-old Dylan Breternitz, who works with Creamer in Peru.

Dylan's father, like Indy's, is an archaeologist. So was his grandfather. He was six when he saw his first Indiana Jones movie. He still watches with his dad.

"I thought it was damn cool," he says. "I wanted to do that. We have all the boxed sets. Probably about once a month we'll bust out an Indiana Jones movie."

Bredernitz is known around the dig as having a knack for finding things — and for wearing a hat that looks like Indy's.

"(Indy) does everything that all archaeologists would like to do," says Bredernitz. "Go on crazy adventures, fight bad people, not steal stuff but save it from being destroyed by the bad guys."

Yet these archaeologists know that Indiana Jones isn't about science. His character is about adventure. He's a very cool guy who just happens to have a Ph. D.

Stranger than Fiction: The Tale of the Crystal Skulls

Crystal Skull from British Museum i

Skullduggery: This crystal skull didn't turn out to be quite what the British Museum bargained for. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
Crystal Skull from British Museum

Skullduggery: This crystal skull didn't turn out to be quite what the British Museum bargained for.

AFP/Getty Images

Read More

Jane Walsh in Archaeology magazine:

Smithsonian Crystal Skull i

The Smithsonian Institution received a crystal skull 15 years ago; it came in the mail, from an anonymous donor. James DiLoreto/Smithsonian Institute hide caption

itoggle caption James DiLoreto/Smithsonian Institute
Smithsonian Crystal Skull

The Smithsonian Institution received a crystal skull 15 years ago; it came in the mail, from an anonymous donor.

James DiLoreto/Smithsonian Institute

Walsh on Indy

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The Indiana Jones franchise continues in May with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As the title suggests, the mystical artifacts Indy is chasing this time are crystal skulls.

It turns out there really are such things. Not in the South American jungles, where part of the film's story reportedly takes place, but in London and Paris.

And Washington. There's one in a drawer at the Smithsonian Institution.

Smithsonian archaeologist Jane Walsh says there are dozens of crystal skulls around the world — maybe more. One of those at the Smithsonian weighs 31 pounds.

"I know because I carried it to London," Walsh says.

It's beautiful, the Smithsonian's skull: milky-white quartz, the size of a bowling ball, with hollow eye sockets.

The skulls started appearing in the mid-19th century. They were touted as ancient relics, crafted by Aztec or Mayan artisans; some were said by some to have mystic powers.

But there's an irony in the fictional Indiana Jones' pursuit of a crystal skull. Says Walsh: "It's essentially an invented category of artifact."

Invented by counterfeiters, that is — not Aztec at all. Though they were sold to collectors and museums as authentic, the tool marks on them turn out to be modern.

But then archaeology, as Walsh points out, isn't really about objects anyway. It's about their context.

Take, for example, that famous scene in which Indy grabs the golden statuette in the South American temple.

"An academic would look at that whole scene and say, 'Well, he just destroyed the context of this site,'" Walsh says. "And what can you learn from this golden idol?"

— Christopher Joyce

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