From Nazis to the Ark: five surprising truths from the Indiana Jones films

Indiana Jones: the real deal? Eva Rinaldi/flickr, CC BY-SA

So, there is to be a fifth Indiana Jones film. Sadly, the much-loved movies don’t represent the average day at work for most archaeologists, but there is more truth to Indy’s swashbuckling adventures than you may think. Crystal skulls do exist, the Nazis really were (very) keen on archaeology, and the world’s museums are full of artefacts taken from unsuspecting tribal peoples. Here are some of the more surprising things the films got right.

A raidin' we’ll go.

1) Crystal skulls and holy grails

Some of the artefacts featured in Indiana Jones are not as ridiculous as you might think. Crystal skulls (made from Quartz), as featured in the fourth film, do exist – there’s even one in the British Museum. Unfortunately, they are probably 19th-century forgeries, rather than original pre-Colombian – or alien – artefacts.

And while we have never found it, at least nine countries, including Ethiopia and Egypt, are rumoured to be the location of the lost Ark of the Covenant, the wood and gold chest central to Raiders of The Lost Ark and rumoured to contain the stone slabs etched with the Ten Commandments.

William Morris’s vision of the Holy Grail. Art Gallery ErgsArt/flickr

The Holy Grail, featured in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and which supposedly featured at the Last Supper and caught the blood of Christ during the crucifixion, is even more of a mystery. It does not actually appear in literature until the early 12th century, in a legendary tale of Joseph of Arimathea, in which the grail is sent for safe-keeping in Britain.

Real or not, however, all of these legendary artefacts do reveal a truth: that many archaeologists have a personal “holy grail”. It is probably not an actual artefact – it is objects' relationships with other things, people or structures that actually allow us to interpret the lives of past cultures. We do not aim to collect objects, we aim to answer questions about how and why human societies change. That is our Grail quest.

This way to the Grail.

2) Nazis and nationalists

Nazis were the villains of both Raiders of The Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, which again isn’t far from the truth. For the Nazis, archaeology was central to “proving” their arguments for Aryan superiority. Nazi research missions under the guise of the Ahnenerbe were dispatched to a surprising variety of places in order to “demonstrate” the influence of Aryan migrants in prehistory, including Poland, the Andes and Tibet.

Perhaps most telling are the works of Gustaf Kossinna, whose book German Prehistory: A Pre-eminently National Discipline set out the archaeological justification for the annexation of Poland. Kossinna based it on the supposed presence of Germanic peoples there during prehistory, and while he died before Hitler came to power, he was active while the territorial negotiations at the Versailles conference after World War I were taking place.

So Indiana Jones fighting Nazis is an honourable and historically accurate portrayal, even if the modern battleground against nationalist pseudo-archaeology has now shifted to Twitter.

3) The Thuggees and the cult of Kali

A real Temple of Doom?

A rather strange mish-mash of ideas in the Temple of Doom did have some basis in fact, although very loosely interpreted. The Thuggees, led in the film by the sinister Mola Ram, were a notorious criminal fraternity, suppressed by the British in colonial India. The film’s mistreatment of Kali is rather more obvious, however. Despite popular iconography – the fangs, red eyes and penchant for blood – this Hindu goddess is generally revered as more than just a destroyer and is a rather more nuanced force than the one represented in the film.

4) ‘That belongs in a museum’

This quote, from The Last Crusade, possibly is the most famous line spoken by Indy – and the most problematic for archaeologists and museums. It reinforces the idea that Western academics have a right to excavate and display the world’s cultural treasures. Indeed, major national museum collections, from the British Museum to the Louvre were founded on this very belief – but, in a post-colonial world, this attitude has become hotly contested.

What would Indy have said? The Elgin Marbles. michael kooiman/flickr, CC BY-SA

Do artefacts belong in museums? Or do they belong to the people from whom they were taken? What if those artefacts were removed more than a century ago, from a tomb built 4,000 years ago, from a place now occupied by people who have no relationship with the original inhabitants? These are the ethical questions museums must struggle with. For example, debates over the return of the Parthenon (or Elgin) Marbles to Athens from the British Museum are long running; Cambridge students recently voted to return to Nigeria a bronze cockerel which was removed in 1897; and artefacts even became embroiled in geopolitics when Egypt severed ties with the Louvre Museum over the return of Ancient Egyptian remains.

What is certain is that each claim for repatriation must carefully be weighed on its own merits. Indiana Jones didn’t always appreciate this.

5) A life of romance and adventure

Archaeology really can be adventurous. Maybe not adventure of the poisoned darts and jumping over chasms variety, but the moment when you unearth something really exciting, anything from a sarcophagus to a 10,000-year-old worked flint nodule (depending on your interest), is the reason archaeologists stay in the business.

Snakes! Why’d it have to be snakes? Elroy Serrao/flickr, CC BY-SA

Of course, occasionally it can be dangerous, too. Just consider Lord Carnarvon and the Curse of Tutankhamun – practically an Indiana Jones plot device.

Personally, I am still waiting to be offered a course in basic whip-handling, and I own a trilby rather than a fedora – perhaps a little more Time Team than Indiana Jones. But while we now avoid sacrificing our students to angry sun gods – even if only because of the health and safety paperwork – if a new major Hollywood movie is a reflection of the central place of archaeology in our cultural consciousness, then I think we should all be pleased.

One final point. The drinking competition in Nepal in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Maybe not in the Himalayas, but from personal experience … that was dead accurate.