Why archaeologists hate (and love) Indiana Jones

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With a fifth movie featuring Harrison Ford’s iconic hero in the works, it’s time to look closer look at the irreverent adventurer.

After years of rumours, it’s now official! The Disney studio recently announced that the next Indiana Jones film is in the making, and will be released in 2019.

The entire saga began on a beach in Hawaii in 1977 with a conversation between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Lucas apparently asked Spielberg what he planned to do next. Spielberg replied that what he really wanted to do was to direct a James Bond movie, but that the producers had turned him down, twice.

That conversation eventually ended up with the creation of the bull whip-wielding, leather-jacketed archaeologist Indiana Jones and the film franchise that owes more than a little to James Bond. In fact, Indiana Jones was listed by the American Film Institute as the second-greatest hero in cinema history (after Atticus Finch, the lawyer hero of To Kill a Mockingbird but, ironically, ahead of Bond himself at #3).

Indiana Jones is a character with whom archaeologists have a love-hate relationship. On the one hand Indy, with his tough-guy persona, exotic adventures and cynical wisecracks, has probably done more to popularise archaeology as a career than any other single factor. In fact, John Rhys-Davies, one of the regular Indiana Jones crew, claims that he must have met over a hundred young archaeologists who confessed to him that one key reason for their career choice was the fact that they had watched an Indiana Jones movie in their childhood.

On the other hand, archaeologists are embarrassed by Indy’s knuckle-dusting heroics, his lack of scholarship and – most of all – the fact that today he would be described as a “tomb robber” rather than an archaeologist. As an archaeologist once observed about the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark: There is Indiana Jones, surrounded by all the engineering marvels of an ancient civilisation, and all he can think of is how he can get his hands on that golden idol. For a proper archaeologist, it would be the least interesting thing around; but for a tomb-robber like him, of course, it was the most important.

So who was the real Indiana Jones? And was he based on any real-life archeologist?

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg say no. According to them, the inspiration for Indy came from a variety of explorers in the action movies of their childhood. But members of their scriptwriting teams have admitted that they researched some real-life personalities and blended their elements into the final Indiana Jones mix – some of the names mentioned being Otto Wilhelm Rahn and paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews. In fact, these are just two of the dozen-odd historical models who are believed to have been the real-life Indiana Jones.

Otto Wilhelm Rahn was a German medieval scholar of the 1930s who searched for the Holy Grail – the mythical cup that was used to hold Jesus’s blood when he died – based on cues he had discovered in medieval texts. When Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi leader, read about his quest, he funded Rahn’s expeditions to bring back the Holy Grail, with its occult powers for himself (shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade). But Rahn’s quest didn’t lead him anywhere. Persecuted by the vengeful Himmler, he committed suicide.

Roy Chapman Andrews was not an archaeologist, but a paleontologist (or, loosely, a “dinosaur hunter”). He was, like Indiana Jones, not just a college professor, but a rugged, two-fisted adventurer. In the 1930s, he went on expeditions to remote corners of the planet, including Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, where he discovered the first-known fossil dinosaur eggs. Andrews, like Indiana Jones, habitually carried a gun, which he used to hunt for food as well as to protect his party from bandits. And, interestingly, like Indy, he also habitually wore a broad-brimmed fedora hat.

While both the men might have contributed to the colourful amalgam that is Indiana Jones, a more likely historical model is believed to be the swashbuckling archaeologist Hiram Bingham III. Leading a Yale University expedition to Peru in 1911, Bingham discovered the lost Inca city of Machu Pichu and became an overnight celebrity, returning home with a hoard of 40,000 priceless Inca relics, and writing a best-selling book about his adventures. (And he too, like Indy, habitually wore a broad-brimmed fedora hat.)

The more convincing piece of evidence connecting Bingham with Indiana Jones, however, is the 1954 film Lost City of the Incas, based on Bingham’s adventures and featuring Charlton Heston in the lead role. It’s interesting to note that, when preparing for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg’s team studied Lost City of the Incas very carefully, and “borrowed” various important elements, including Indy’s costume (down to that hat). But, more than that, they lifted from the Jerry Hopper movie the entire iconic scene of the scale model of the lost city, where Indy uses an ancient reflector to catch the beam of sunlight and thereby reveal the location of the Biblical treasure (the only difference between the two films being that in the 1954 original, the scene is set in South America instead of Egypt).

In recent times, Hiram Bingham III’s reputation has been tarnished: he has been accused by the Peruvian government of looting its treasures, which Peru is trying to recover from the US. And so that is perhaps another similarity between him and Indy: they were both, at the end of the day, just “tomb-robbers”.

So does all this mean that today the romance has gone out of archaeology and that today’s archaeologists are just a bunch of dry-as-dust academics? Not really. One contemporary archaeologist whose adventures have been in the Indiana Jones tradition (well, almost) is Ivan Sprajc, who has made a career of finding ancient Mayan cities lost in the jungles of Mexico, doing Indy kind of things like hacking his way through the dense foliage with a machete and dealing with poisonous snakes, jaguars and local bandits. According to his photographs, he even dresses like Indy, in khaki safari gear, leather boots and, yes, that good old broad-brimmed fedora hat.

Yet, as somebody once succinctly put it, the Indiana Jones theme music gives the game away: instead of the existing adrenaline-pumping brass-and-percussion march, a slow, introspective cello piece would have been much more appropriate to the world of archaeology. The rule of thumb for an archaeologist, after all, being that for every hour of on-site excavation, you spend four hours in the lab analysing and documenting your finds.

All this brings us back to the new Indiana Jones movie, tentatively referred to as Indy 5. All we know for sure about it so far is that Harrison Ford will star, Steven Spielberg will direct, David Koepp will write the script, Janusz Kaminski will be the cinematographer, and the film will be released in July 2019.

But there’s obviously a great deal of speculation. First of all, this will clearly be Ford’s last Indiana Jones movie (he’ll be 77 when it’s released). So how will the series be kept alive after his departure?

Who knows? Perhaps the film will begin with Ford, and then go into a flashback of a fresh new star who will play a younger version of Indiana Jones for now, and the future.

And if there is to be a new star, who will it be?

The names that are being mentioned are Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper and Robert Pattinson. River Phoenix, Sean Patrick Flanery and Corey Carrier have also played younger versions of Indy in the past.

Well, just as long as it’s not Shia LeBoeuf, who played Indy’s son in the supremely awful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it should be okay.

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