From Nazis To The Ark: Five Surprising Truths From The Indiana Jones Films

7 months ago

So, there is to be a fifth Indiana Jones movie. Sadly, the much-loved movies dont represent the average day at work for most archaeologists, but there is more truth to Indys swashbuckling escapades than you may think. Crystal skulls do exist, the Nazis actually were( very) keen on archaeology, and the worlds museums are full of artefacts taken from unsuspecting tribal peoples. Here are some of the more surprising things the films got right.

A raidin’ well run .

1) Crystal skulls and holy grails

Some of the artefacts featured in Indiana Jones are not as ridiculous as you might think. Crystal skulls( made from Quartz ), as featured in the fourth cinema, do exist theres even one in the British Museum. Unfortunately, they are probably 19 th-century forgeries, rather than original pre-Colombian or alien artefacts.

And while we have never discovered it, at the least nine countries, including Ethiopia and Egypt, are rumoured to be the location of the lost Ark of the Covenant, the timber and gold chest central to Raiders of The Lost Ark and rumoured to contain the stone slab etched with the Ten Commandments.

William Morriss vision of the Holy Grail. Art Gallery ErgsArt/ flickr

The Holy Grail, featured in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and which supposedly featured at the Last Supper and caught the blood of Christ during the crucifixion, is even more of a mystery. It does not actually was contained in literature until the early 12 th century, in a legendary tale of Joseph of Arimathea, in which the grail is sent for safe-keeping in Britain.

Real or not, however, all of these legendary artefacts do uncover a truth: that many archaeologists have a personal holy grail. It is probably not an actual artefact it is objects’ its relation with other things, people or structures that actually allow us to interpret the well-being of past cultures. We do not aim to collect objects, we aim to answer questions about how and why human societies change. That is our Grail quest.

This style to the Grail .

2) Nazis and nationalists

Nazis were the scoundrels of both Raiders of The Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, which again isnt far away from the truth. For the Nazis, archaeology was central to demonstrating their arguments for Aryan superiority. Nazi research missions under the guise of the Ahnenerbe were dispatched to a surprising variety of places in order to demonstrate the influence of Aryan migrants in prehistory, including Poland, the Andes and Tibet.

Perhaps most telling are the works of Gustaf Kossinna, whose volume German Prehistory: A Pre-eminently National Discipline set out the archaeological justification for the annexation of Poland. Kossinna based it on the supposed presence of Germanic people there during prehistory, and while he died before Hitler came to power, he was active while the territory negotiations at the Versailles seminar after World War I were taking place.

So Indiana Jones opposing Nazis is an honourable and historically accurate portraying, even if the modern battleground against nationalist pseudo-archaeology has now shifted to Twitter.

3) The Thuggees and the cult of Kali

A real Temple of Doom ?

A rather strange mish-mash of ideas in the Temple of Doom did have some basis in fact, although very loosely construed. The Thuggees, led in the film by the sinister Mola Ram, were a notorious criminal frat, repressed by the British in colonial India. The films mistreatment of Kali is rather more obvious, however. Despite popular iconography the fangs, red eyes and penchant for blood this Hindu goddess is generally idolized as more than merely a destroyer and is a rather more nuanced force-out than the one represented in the film.

4) That belongs in a museum

This quote, from The Last Crusade, maybe is the most famous line spoken by Indy and the most problematic for archaeologists and museums. It strengthens the idea that Western academics have a right to excavate and display the worlds culture gems. Indeed, major national museum collections, from the British Museum to the Louvre were founded on this very faith but, in a post-colonial world, this attitude has become hotly contested.

What would Indy have said? The Elgin Marbles. michael kooiman/ flickr, CC BY-SA

Do artefacts belong in museums? Or do they belong to the people from whom they were taken? What if those artefacts were removed more than a century ago, from a mausoleum constructed 4,000 years ago, from a place now occupied by people who have no relationship with the original inhabitants? These are the ethical questions museums must struggle with. For example, debates over the return of the Parthenon( or Elgin) Marbles to Athens from the British Museum are long running; Cambridge students recently voted to return to Nigeria a bronze cockerel which was removed in 1897; and artefacts even became embroiled in geopolitics when Egypt severed ties with the Louvre Museum over the return of Ancient Egyptian remains.

What is certain is that each claim for repatriation must carefully be weighed on its own merits. Indiana Jones didnt always appreciate this.

5) A life of romance and adventure

Archaeology actually can be adventurous. Maybe not adventure of the poisoned darts and leap over chasms range, but the moment when you unearth something really exciting, anything from a sarcophagus to a 10,000 -year-old worked flint nodule( depending on your interest ), is the reason archaeologists stay in the business.

Snakes! Whyd it have to be snakes? Elroy Serrao/ flickr, CC BY-SA

Of course, occasionally it can be dangerous, too. Just hold Lord Carnarvon and the Curse of Tutankhamun practically an Indiana Jones plot device.

Personally, I am still waiting to be offered a course in basic whip-handling, and I own a trilby rather than a fedora perhaps a bit more Time Team than Indiana Jones. But while we now avoid sacrificing our students to angry sun gods even if merely because of the health and safety paperwork if a new major Hollywood movie is a reflection of the central place of archaeology in our culture consciousness, then I think we should all be pleased.

One final phase. The drinking competitor in Nepal in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Maybe not in the Himalayas, but from personal experience that was dead accurate.

Main image Credit: Eva Rinaldi/ flickr, CC BY-SA

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