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Indiana Jones: Saving History or Stealing It?


"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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.