The Cinematic Guide to Archaeology


Throughout movie history, archaeologists seem to have a lot of interesting adventures such as discovering lost treasure, unleashing ancient curses, defeating the bad guys, solving hidden puzzles, smashing less valuable artifacts, and wait a minute, this doesn’t seem right. Of course, like many professions, archaeologists in the movies seem to have more fun and interesting lives than their real life counterparts (well, depending on anyone’s definition of “fun”). And if you’d stack someone like Indiana Jones by what most people would expect a real archaeologist would actually do, well, let’s just say he wouldn’t even make tenure even according to 1930s standards. Sure he may make archaeology look cool and has inspired many young fans to go into his field, but he sucks at his job. Still, he’s not the only one who doesn’t stack up with what anyone would expect a from a real archaeologist or even the worst offender. And when you think about it, even the subject of archaeology itself doesn’t really measure up to the real thing. So here is a list of what movie archaeology deviates from the real thing in many ways.

1. Most of archaeology focuses on discovering lost cities and civilizations, kings’ tombs, legendary artifacts, lost technologies, imprisoned evils, and long lost secrets. (Actually archaeology is about discovering knowledge about the past civilizations through the study and analysis of artifacts and what information it gives them about the past. Also, plenty of archaeologists have made careers by meticulous analysis of contents of the garbage dumps of old.)

2. The goal of an archaeologist is to find and obtain a legendary MacGuffin, which everyone else is after for themselves. (Most archaeologists would be perfectly fine with discovering worthless pottery fragments.)

3. Most archaeologists study ancient civilizations in exotic locations. (There are plenty of archaeologists who study artifacts relating to more recent history and have excavations that aren’t so far from where they live. And I’m not just talking about those who live in the Middle East and South America either or even in Asia as a matter of fact. Also, Aztec and Inca civilizations were around during the medieval period so they’re not really ancient.)

4. If an archaeologist stumbles on a tomb of an ancient king, it will be cursed and the curse will come true as well as unleash supernatural forces. (This never happens. Sorry Mummy franchise.)

5. It’s perfectly reasonable for an archaeologist to acquire the MacGuffin through any means, no matter how destructive, even if you have to destroy ancient machinery that still works after thousands of years just to obtain a gold monkey. (Most archaeologists would try to be careful with any kind of remnant of any past civilization encountered. They great pains in attempting to excavate with as little disruption as possible and carefully preserve whatever is found. Smashing your way into any and all historical monuments for a shiny trinket is just plain unacceptable in the archaeological community.)

6. Most ancient ruins are filled with booby traps set up as protection against raiders or modern archaeologists. (Most archaeologists manage to excavate ancient ruins without having to stumble in one of these. Also, plenty of Egyptian Pharaoh tombs had already been robbed a few thousand years before any modern archaeologist ever got to them. Of course, there are some ruins that do have them. Not to mention, ruins are rarely “abandoned” anyway.)

7. It’s perfectly acceptable for an archaeologist to neglect his or her students while hunting for artifacts. (Though archaeologists do go on excavations, neglecting academic responsibilities is not okay. And academic responsibilities for a professor don’t just include teaching either. In case you want to see why Indiana Jones would be denied tenure:

8. A Pharaoh’s tomb will be intact and have unimaginable treasure inside it. (The significance of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in the 1920’s is that it’s one of the few Pharaoh tombs found mostly intact. Most Pharaoh tombs were robbed not long after the funeral.)

9. As long as you plan to have the priceless artifact put in a museum, there’s nothing wrong with taking it without the natives’ consent. (Understand that the people behind these ancient artifacts and heirlooms have nearby descendants who are very much alive and wouldn’t be happy if an archaeologist takes something of great cultural value to them. Best keep the artifacts as close to the place you found them or at least within the country of origin. If you want the artifact in a museum, make sure it’s in a museum in the country you found it in. Also, nothing angers Egyptians more than taking a royal mummy out of the country without their consent. You don’t want a whole country to get angry with you. And if you want to take something back for further analysis, ask first.)

10. It’s perfectly fine to excavate a site without permission from the locals or taking cultural sensitivities into account. (Then why is it illegal for archaeologists to excavate a Native American graveyard in the United States? Because the Indians would get royally pissed off if you ever dare disturb their ancestors. Also, you don’t want an archaeologist to dig up your dead grandmother, do you? I mean there’s a reason why archaeologists don’t conduct excavations in cemeteries.)

11. Archaeologists don’t need to take local and cultural sensitivities into consideration. (Okay, I know many movies pertaining to archaeology take place at a time when most archaeologists didn’t really take native sensitivities into account. Nowadays this isn’t the case since pissing the natives can result in things that a mummy curse will be the least of your troubles.)

12. Archaeologists don’t need to do any documentation once you find a priceless artifact MacGuffin. (Archaeologists need to catalog every find and document exactly where they found this in order to establish provenance. Also, they need to record information and location of every artifact and its relation to other artifacts and features at the site. It’s a meticulous, systematic, and time consuming process. They need to map the entire site, make sketches, take photographs, sift dirt through screens to make sure nothing is lost, and put all artifacts in carefully labeled bags. Neglecting to do this could lead to suspicions of theft or forgery and, yes, this has happened.)

13. In archaeology, shiny museum trinkets are all that matters. (Pottery fragments may bring glory but can yield their own share of valuable information about a past civilization.)

14. A bad archaeologist goes after a priceless trinket to hoard for a private collection, give to the bad guys or sell to the highest bidder, or use it for his or her quest for world domination. (There’s more than that to describes a bad archaeologist. Indiana Jones could be described as one for example.)

15. Long dead civilizations possessed powers we no longer understand. (Really? You got to be kidding me.)

16. Archaeologists need to be armed and badass since they constantly have to deal with bad guys. (Well, they’ll have to deal with bad guys if working in areas like the Middle East or Latin America where there are plenty of things that can kill you, especially in this day in age. Yet, never to the same degree as Indy. Also, many of them didn’t take boxing lessons or even carry guns.)

17. If an archaeologist finds something he or she can carry, he or she can just take it. (Most archaeologists usually try to do more research into the artifact before they could even touch it.)

18. Most of archaeology consists of field work and adventure. (Actually most archaeologists spend 70% of their time in some sort of academic setting doing research, like libraries, museum, laboratories, and universities.)

19. Archaeologists get rich by selling lost treasures in museums. (Most archaeologists don’t sell their artifacts because they see them as clues providing information to the lives of people in the past. In archaeology, it’s not just the shiny stuff that matters here.)

20. Desecrating a grave is perfectly all right as long as you’re using a human leg bone as a torch to explore a crypt. (Doing this will land you in an international prison.)