Indiana Jones and the Last Movie: Why archaeologists say he’s ancient history

As the world’s best-known fictional archaeologist goes after what may be his last ancient mystery in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” new generations of real-life archaeologists are ready to dig in with 21st-century technologies and sensibilities.

Harrison Ford, the 80-year-old actor who’s played Indiana Jones for 42 years, has said “Dial of Destiny” will be his last sequel in the series. And this one is a doozy: The dial-like gizmo that gives the movie its name is the Antikythera Mechanism, a real-life device that ancient Greeks used to predict eclipses and other astronomical events. The Lance of Longinus, the Tomb of Archimedes and the Ear of Dionysius figure in the plot as well.

Indy and his mysteries will be missed. Sara Gonzalez, a curator of archaeology at Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, says her favorite movie about her own field is “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the 1981 film in which Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) made his debut. But that’s not because it’s true to life.

Gonzalez said researchers from the University of Washington’s Department of Anthropology, where she’s an associate professor, recently took a field trip to a local cinema where “Raiders” was playing.

“They have something called HeckleVision, where you can text onto the screen and see it,” she said. “There was this great, fun discussion, happening virtually live, with a whole bunch of anthropologists sitting and watching a movie that we love to deride. But we still kind of love the story and the angle, and we also love educating people about what’s real and what’s fictional about archaeology.”

That’s the subject of the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, focusing on the intersection of science and fiction.

Some of the tools available to modern archaeologists would have seemed like science fiction to Indiana Jones’ real-life contemporaries in the 1930s. Researchers are using satellite images, muon detectors and bug-sized cameras to identify and explore ancient ruins in Egypt. Underwater archaeologists employ side-scan sonar, remotely operated vehicles and 3-D imaging to check out shipwrecks in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Canadian Arctic. And X-ray scans helped scientists figure out how the Antikythera Mechanism worked.

Closer to home, Gonzalez and her students use magnetometers, ground-penetrating radar and laser-equipped drones to check out sites of archaeological interest, in partnership with indigenous peoples like the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon and the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians in California.

“In ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ you have hundreds if not thousands of people excavating everything,” she said. “That’s really not what we like to do in contemporary archaeology, and it’s certainly not very consistent with the values of indigenous nations.”

Her team developed a new technique for doing a minimally invasive excavations, called “catch and release.” The technique involves carefully peeling back the sod on a square meter’s worth of land, removing and cataloging material layer by layer to a depth of 10 centimeters (4 inches), then replacing everything where it was and closing up the hole.

“We were talking about the method, and I was like, ‘So it’s kind of like catch and release,’ and we all joked, because a lot of us really love fishing,” Gonzalez recalled. “It just stuck, and it’s evocative of exactly what we’re doing.”

Gonzalez has found that digging a hole and flying a drone (or cracking a bullwhip, for that matter) aren’t the most important skills that an archaeologist must master.

“I think the No. 1 rule of doing archaeology and becoming an archaeologist is that you really have to like people … and not just working with other archaeologists, but people within the local communities where you’re working,” she said.

The Burke Museum has had a lot of experience working with the tribes of the Pacific Northwest — most notably in the case of the Ancient One, a.k.a. Kennewick Man, whose 9,000-year-old remains were laid to rest in 2017 after more than two decades of legal wrangling. The Burke Museum was the caretaker of the remains for most of that time, and facilitated their handover to a coalition of five tribes.

Gonzalez noted that she joined the museum’s staff years after the Ancient One was repatriated, but she said the case illustrates how archaeology has evolved since the era depicted in the Indiana Jones movies.

“When the Ancient One comes up, usually I try to focus on another case, such as all the other cases that involve very ancient native ancestors who didn’t end up in the courts,” she said. As an example, she cited the process that followed the discovery of 10,000-year-old human remains in Alaska’s On Your Knees Cave in 1996.

“Archaeologists and community members were able to find a pathway forward that recognized the sovereignty of those nations to make decisions about their ancestors,” Gonzalez said.

The $99 million retooling that resulted in a brand-new Burke Museum building in 2019 provided an opportunity to give the region’s indigenous peoples more of a say in how their story is presented. “Our Material World exhibit that features archaeology at the Burke … was developed in close collaboration with tribal partners across the Pacific Northwest, and especially here in Washington,” Gonzalez said.

One of the Burke’s featured archaeological projects focuses on a Coast Salish canoe that was found eroding out of the banks of the Green River south of Seattle in 1963. Researchers created a digital 3-D model of the canoe and used radiocarbon dating to determine its age. “We think it was probably made in the 1830s to 1840s,” Peter Lape, another archaeologist at the Burke, told University of Washington Magazine.

“Right now, if you come by, you’ll seen the canoe in the process of conservation, and we’re getting it ready to put on display,” Gonzalez said.

The Burke Museum also worked with Native carvers and artists to create a replica of the Green River canoe, which is currently stored at the university’s ASUW Shell House. “Our UW canoe family now paddles it,” Gonzalez said. “So do the archaeologists, on occasion.”

“It’s a really fantastic kind of story about how these collections are brought to life when you’re actually working in partnership with people and ensuring that that knowledge goes back into community and into a living practice.”

That sounds like a lesson that the fictional Indiana Jones might benefit from learning, if there’s at least one more ancient mystery to make a movie about.

“It’s definitely the main takeaway,” Gonzalez said. Then she added with a grin, “I would also say that a lot of archaeologists still really advocate punching Nazis and fascists. That’s definitely a cultural touchstone amongst the community.”

“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” opens at theaters tonight. The four previous Indiana Jones movies — “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” — are playing on Disney+.

Check out an extended version of this story at Alan Boyle’s Cosmic Log for more insights into how archaeology has changed since the fictional days of Indiana Jones, from archaeologists Chris Begley and Brittany Brown.

Stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Player.fm, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Podvine. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

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