On Raiders of the Lost Ark's 40th anniversary, archaeologists dispel the movie's myths about their field

I fully admit that Indiana Jones was one of the sparks that led to me entering college as an archaeology major. I loved the idea of dragging myself all over this Earth looking for little bits of junk, preferably as I navigated booby-trapped burial sites. (Fortunately, I ended up deciding that a fine arts degree in electronic media was more in line with who I was than the fantasy of who I thought I wanted to be. This weekend is the 40th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and in celebration, Smithsonian's Kristina Killgrove asked archaeologists to comment on the myths that the film fueled about their field. From Smithsonian:

Myth 1: Rugged, swashbuckling, fedora-wearing Indiana Jones is what most archaeologists are like.

Raiders was set in the 1930s, "a time when 99 percent of archaeologists were white men," says Bill White of University of California, Berkeley. Casting Ford was true to the time, as was the portrayal of Indy's "treatment of cultural materials, because that's how archaeologists treated sites, women, and non-white people back then," according to White, who partners with African American communities to do public archaeology on St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In the fictional Raiders world, White adds, Jones ignored safety precautions, did not listen to the wishes of Indigenous people, and broke every sort of ethical guideline about archaeological remains, such as destroying sites rather than preserving them.

Myth 4: That belongs in a museum!

By far, the most enduring and problematic myth to come from the Indiana Jones movies is the idea that all ancient and historic objects belong in a museum. While he's correct that private collectors contribute to looting and other heritage crimes, "there isn't a single object that belongs in a museum," says [Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology archaeologist Annalisa] Heppner. "Objects belong with their communities."

Heppner is one of many anthropologists and museum professionals engaged in ongoing discussions about decolonization, repatriation and presentation of museum collections. "Most museums don't do enough to help visitors examine their pop-culture influences," she says. "When you walk into a gallery or exhibition space and you see an object all lit up in a pedestal case—it looks like Indy picking up the crystal skull."

Even using the term "artifact" to refer to objects in museum collections is fraught, according to Rippee. The word "creates a false narrative that the object is only valuable for its scientific value or because it looks cool," she says. Rather, these materials are "belongings," a term that centers the relationship between the object and its community […]

The last shot of Raiders, where the Ark of the Covenant is placed indiscriminately in a large government warehouse, is still a very real possibility today. "The 'it belongs in a museum' mentality has resulted in archaeological repositories being overrun with artifacts, and [ceasing to] accept collections," Camp explains. To ameliorate this, some archaeologists today employ a no-collection or repatriation strategy.

Rethinking traditional museum and excavation practices is an important step towards jettisoning the inaccurate idea of the archaeologist as treasure-hunter.

"The Enduring Myths of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'" (Smithsonian)