What It’s Like In The Movies: Archeology studies history by analyzing artifacts and other remains often by excavation. Hollywood blockbusters like the Indiana Jones series, The Mummy series, National Treasure, and the Tomb Raider series make it appear like all archaeologists are out to discover some long-lost treasure.
Movie archeologists are often seen polishing off these treasures carefully with a brush. These digs are always exciting. Most of these stories are adventure movies loaded with conflict and sexy characters in leather hats.
They always take place in exotic locales around the world. For example, the Indiana Jones movies are set in Peru, Egypt, Paris, India, and China.
What It’s Like In Real Life: Believe it or not, archaeology isn't about traveling to some exotic place halfway around the world in search of treasure. "Since Indiana Jones, people will ask, 'What are you finding?'" said Dr. Bill Kelso, who is the director of research and interpretation at Historic Jamestowne.
In fact, archaeology is rarely about finding artifacts. "I think that they think archaeology is finding objects that you can pick up and hold," Kelso said. "It takes a while before they understand that, 'Hey, this post hole is the most exciting thing I've seen, and you can't put it in a bag and put it in a museum.'"
As for archeologists only traveling to places like India and Egypt, that's a movie myth as well. There are plenty of sites around the United States where archaeologists can go to explore.
"Anytime there's development, like if they're going to build a new road, they'll send archaeologists in to make sure there's nothing of cultural significance there, like Native American sites or an old homestead that could be important," said Chelsea Rose, who is a member of the Southern Oregon University research faculty. "In fact, most archaeology in America just happens on the roadsides."
When archeologists do their digging, it's not all about using tiny brushes to clean the dirt off their finds. "It's not unusual for some archaeological excavations to look more like a construction site than this so meticulous brushing off with paintbrushes," said Tony Boudreaux, a sociology and anthropology professor at the University of Mississippi and director of the University's Center for Archaeological Research. "You're just as likely to have heavy equipment moving dirt and people walking around wearing hard hats. But, in some cases, the excavations that you're doing very much require you to go very slowly when you're dealing with delicate, sensitive remains."
As for the constant excitement level, movies get that wrong as well. Yes, of course, there are aspects of archaeology that have moments of excitement. But, it can also get pretty dull. The excavation itself is typically a long process. Archeologists are tasked with putting together a complicated back story. They have to figure out how long an artifact has been around and how it got there.