As an anthropology major, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the Indiana Jones movie franchise. The Harrison Ford character was an inspiration to me in my youth. His archaeological excursions were a significant part of igniting my interest in the field of anthropology. But as with most things as one ages, becoming educated unveils the problematic and gross realities of the real world. Indiana Jones is littered with colonialist, Eurocentric notions that are not in line with the contemporary redirection within anthropology to decolonize the field. The sentiments Indy spouts do not fit with anthropology today. The cultural image of Indiana Jones as a caricature of the modern archaeologist or anthropologist exemplifies the ever more pressing need to decolonize the field of anthropology. And hopefully, the fifth installment of the franchise, set to release in 2022, will be the final nail in the coffin to the sugarcoated, Eurocentric depiction of archaeology that is Indiana Jones.
One of the most contentious attitudes of the Indiana Jones character is his belief that cultural objects “belong in a museum.” While seemingly just a quote about the importance of preserving the past through curation and conservation, his words tap into the complex politics surrounding the recovery of archaeological artifacts, ownership of the past and the rights of museums — especially Western ones — to transplant artifacts from their cultural region to collection cases for the purpose of education. Most of the time Indy never realizes the transportation of the artifact to the museum; it ends up destroyed or given to the people of the area. But the underlying statement of the global cultural hegemony of Western museums exists within the films.
Repatriation is the act of giving looted cultural objects back to their country of origin. This act is meant to continue uprooting the colonial ideologies inherent in museums holding artifacts taken under colonial power. While not a resolved issue by any means, the scale is tipping in favor of past colonial powers returning some cultural objects to their place and culture of origin. The Netherlands is leading the pack with Dutch museums instituting a €4.5 million project to create a guide on the repatriation of artifacts to former Dutch colonies. This is a much different museum landscape than the one in Indiana Jones. Repatriation is a hot-button issue in museology, and it’s not as simple as Indy claims it to be.
I am a proud member of the anthropology community, but I’ll be the first to acknowledge the ugly history that the field has — a history that has been glorified by the Indiana Jones films. Anthropology and archaeology were and, in many ways, still are plagued by the practices and epistemological ideologies that were born out of the roots of colonialism. Early anthropologists were often tasked with understanding Indigenous people in the name of aiding a Euro-American power in colonial expansion. Racist, imperialist and colonialist beliefs often seeped into the ethnographies and archaeological excursions. Indiana Jones, unfortunately, perpetuates colonial talking points. The depiction of Indigenous peoples in the films is overwhelmingly negative. Indigenous people are portrayed as the savage enemies of Indy. Indian characters in “The Temple of Doom” are cartoons and the Ugha tribe in “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” are shown employing spears through having ancient divine knowledge. Rarely portrayed in a positive light, it creates an underlying tone of colonial viewpoints of Indigenous cultures in the regions that were colonized. This is out of touch with how contemporary archaeologists do and should interact with individuals of the culture they are studying.
Take any theoretical sociocultural anthropology course, and the decolonization of anthropology is bound to surface. The concept started budding around the cusp of the ’90s. It rests upon altering the epistemology, pedagogy and methodology of the discipline to move away from the colonial beliefs that the discipline was birthed from. This looks different within the different anthropological subdisciplines, but a commonality is uplifting diverse voices. Furthermore, the concept and recognition of power are crucial to the movement. Anthropologists and archaeologists have power when they produce knowledge. In order to move anthropology into the future, the discipline must be decolonized — yet things like Indiana Jones are holding anthropology back.
The impact of Indiana Jones on the public’s interest in archaeology is without debate. The actor John Rhys-Davies claims to have talked with more than 150 professional archaeologists that were inspired to pursue the field after watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Ask anyone to name a famous archaeologist, and the most prominent one to come to mind will likely be Indiana Jones. For that, I am indebted to the film series. I have to wonder how many archaeological discoveries have been made by individuals whose gateway into the profession was this film franchise. But the imperative to acknowledge the aforementioned problematic issues of Indy is more important than growing the number of professional archaeologists.
If Indiana Jones is going to remain the media representative for anthropologists and archaeologists, the ideologies upon which his excavations are based must be revised. Depictions of the profession in media are not trivial. They affect the public’s conceptions, interests and therefore the amount of funding funneled into anthropological research. Not only must Indiana Jones be critiqued on the colonialist grounds it rests on, but it also needs to be molded to the current beliefs of contemporary anthropology. This is a matter of ethical and financial security to the discipline. We, people with a vetted involvement with anthropology, have a duty to ourselves to either rework or erase Indiana Jones. The type of colonialist, racist messages the films perpetuate are increasingly out of touch with archaeology. The next film released in 2022 will be the final ruling on what the next actions forward will be.
Benjamin Davis is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.