Indiana Jones is the pop culture image of the archaeologist, gallivanting around the world in his trademark fedora and collecting artifacts that “belong in a museum.” The character of Indiana Jones shaped the way the world thinks about archaeology, but there is one problem with that: Indiana Jones is a terrible archaeologist.
Indiana Jones certainly doesn't represent the first or only time Hollywood has gotten something wrong (just look at the inaccuracies in Braveheart if you need more proof), since the film industry is notorious for blatantly ignoring facts in pursuit of captivating characters and narratives – and box office success. Although Indiana Jones introduced great stories and beloved characters, Jones’s image of the archaeologist is not always the best thing for real archaeologists and anthropologists whose work gets confused with his. Certainly, the 1930s, when the films are set, was a different decade for archaeology, and many of the professional techniques that are standard today weren't fully codified at the time. But Indy goes way beyond this discrepancy and, according to many archaeologists, is more of a looter than a scholar.
For your consideration: these are Indiana Jones's worst crimes against archaeology. (But that doesn't mean we hate archaeology movies.)
That Time He Looted A Temple For Gold And Ignored All The Other Significant Artifacts
At the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones takes a golden idol from the temple, setting off many booby traps along the way. Real archaeologists object to this portrayal of a "smash and grab" style of archaeology, where Jones drops in, grabs the most valuable object, and runs away.
Archaeologist Marcello Canuto explains, "That first scene, where he's in the temple and he's replacing that statue with a bag of sand – that's what looters do... [The temple builders] are using these amazing mechanisms of engineering and all he wants to do is steal the stupid gold statue."
It's clear Indy does not care about the actual site at all or else he'd probably be pretty interested in the ancient, still-in-existence booby trap mechanisms. He's just looking for a valuable score.
When He Destroyed An Entire Archaeological Site
When Indiana Jones goes after the golden idol in Raiders of The Lost Ark, he basically destroys the entire temple by haphazardly activating all the traps in his escape with the idol. In real archaeology, most information is gleaned from the site itself and not the valuables it contains. Here, Indy did the opposite thing of most real archeologists.
Smithsonian archaeologist Jane Walsh comments, "An academic would look at that whole scene and say, 'Well, he just destroyed the context of this site. And what can you learn from this golden idol?'"
Somewhere back at Dr. Jones's university, professors have a lot of questions about the technological genius of those Raiders booby traps, but unfortunately Indy has already ruined them.
That Time He Used A Human Corpse As A Torch
It's clear Indiana Jones believes that shiny objects are the only artifacts that matter, and that belief definitely shows in his treatment of human remains in The Last Crusade.
While in the catacombs under Venice, Italy, Jones decides he needs a better light source. In a scene sure to break the heart of any bioarchaeologist, he opts to source it from the ancient human remains in the catacombs. So, he rips off some of the body's remaining clothes, dumps the entire body, and detaches an arm bone from it to create his torch.
Real archaeologists face ethical questions about disturbing human remains and balk at this wanton destruction. Archaeologist Duncan Sayer says, “The destruction of human remains prevents future study; it is the forensic equivalent of book burning, the willful ruin of knowledge.”
When He Completely Failed To Work With The Locals
As Indiana Jones pursues the golden idol in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he's being followed by the local Hovitos tribe. When he finally acquires the idol, he's captured by the Hovitos, along with French archaeologist Dr. René Belloq. Belloq speaks their language and develops a relationship with them.
Archaeologists are commonly concerned with creating a considerate and mutually beneficial relationship with the local people whose cultural site they are working on.
Most archaeologists, at least. Not Indiana Jones, who breaks into their temple, steals their idol, and apparently never bothers to learn some of the local language to try to speak with them. In the end, he loses the idol to Belloq, who doesn't make these same mistakes.