Is Indiana Jones Really the Villain?


On a rainy, moonless night, the man in the fedora is smiling through bloody teeth. Indiana Jones was always a pulp hero fueled by the nostalgia of George Lucas’ youth; a guy who looks like Charlton Heston in Secret of the Incas (1954), talks like Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), and performs stunts right out of John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). But this pure old-school romance of yesteryear was never stronger than during the opening moments of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

After the film’s prologue, director Steven Spielberg cuts to a grown up Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), who takes everything in stride, even another punch to the face as he’s being held captive on a ship in the middle of a hurricane. In this particular sequence, he has been captured by a familiar nemesis who is ready to reclaim a Spanish artifact that Indy stole from him. Over the roar of the ocean, Ford bellows, “That belongs in a museum!”

As far as the film, Spielberg, and likely every viewer in 1989 was concerned, this great line of dialogue represented a moral absolute that needed no further examination. After all, Indy is the good guy who is constantly on the search for new artifacts—at least when he isn’t dreaming about “fortune and glory, kid,” as he confesses in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

And yet, in our modern era, which is removed by nearly a hundred years from The Last Crusade’s 1938 setting, a growing divide among modern scholarship in the fields of archeology, anthropology, and even classicism might ask: Just exactly whose museum do you have in mind, Dr. Jones? It’s probably the same unnamed American institution run by his pal Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), an archeologist of an even older vintage who happily once told Indy that “the museum will buy [these artifacts] as usual, no questions asked.”

In the 21st century though, many questions are being asked about the origin of artifacts and treasures in museums all over the world, particularly in Western Europe and the United States. Marcus may not mind when Indy obliterates temples to acquire a single shiny golden idol, but you can be sure the Egyptian authorities would have different opinions about him smuggling the Ark of the Covenant out of Cairo.

That question of whose museum, and whose history, do artifacts belong to—as well as reexaminations of what archeology represented in the era most of the Indiana Jones films are set—has created a particularly thorny trap for our bullwhip hero. Have Indiana Jones and the values he represents become relics themselves?

The Earliest Tomb Raiders

To understand Indy’s pop culture fantasy, one should consider a little of the real history that informed it. The idea of Indiana Jones as a roguish smash-and-grab treasure hunter who destroys as many artifacts as he recovers has become the stuff of infamy—here’s a guy who thinks finding the tomb of a Crusader knight beneath Venice is nice, yet then proceeds to obliterate the place, including the remains of the knight!—but when you look at Indy’s motivations and methods, they’re honestly not that far removed from archeology’s earliest origins.

When the movies are set, archeology was still a relatively recent scientific discipline that had come out of the 17th and 18th centuries, but really had been refined in the 19th century. Within a century of Raiders’ setting, digging into the past could be as safe as opening the Ark of the Covenant.

For instance, one of the first great archaeological excavations was around the ruins of Pompeii, the Roman city that was obliterated by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. However, those 1700s digs, financed by King Charles VII of Naples, were a regular “fortune and glory” tomb raid that would’ve done Dr. Jones proud. Rather than a man of the emerging sciences, military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre was tasked with recovering as many works of Roman art to be housed in the royal court of Naples as quickly as possible.

Alcubierre ripped through the ruins by way of tunnels that destroyed anything that was not considered of artistic value or merit. These dangerous crawlspaces also had a habit of collapsing, taking pieces of Pompeii with them. It was not until after another engineer, the Swiss Karl Weber, and his successors began digging in Pompeii that actually preserving the ruins became of interest—partially because it made for one of the first ancient tourist attractions in the modern world, with the king’s visitors observing the unearthed, open-air ruins.

About a century later, archeology had emerged as a discipline, but you still had amateurs and fortune-seekers treating it as a get-rich-quick adventure. German businessman Heinrich Schliemann famously claimed to find the lost city of Troy in modern day Turkey in 1873, and the site he discovered is, indeed, thought of now as the probable remains of the fabled city (as well as about eight others that were built in different eras there).

But even then, Schliemann incorrectly claimed the oldest level as the “burnt city” because it was there he found pieces of gold which he proclaimed to be “King Priam’s Treasure.” In actuality, modern archaeologists now date that level as too early to be the Troy of Homer’s The Iliad. And to get to that level, Schliemann used dynamite to detonate his way through millennia of possible discoveries, including the level that is now believed to be the actual Troy of Homer.

Indy’s methods are far-fetched big screen escapism, yet they represent a certain kind of heedlessness which existed in the early days of archeology. It’s a heedlessness that is also increasingly viewed with less romance today. After so many years, saying “it belongs in a museum” no longer cuts it for many around the world.

Museums, It Had to Be Museums

As archeology developed, so too did the institutions and hallowed halls in which their finds were housed. And yet, in recent years, a great deal of thought has been applied to whether collecting for a museum was initially a respectable scientific pursuit or a pretext for exploration, adventure… and theft.

Of course these institutions are among the truly great legacies left by this era, with a public museum often acting as both cathedral and university, a refined place for learning and also awe-inspired admiration. Their existence as we know them today is a byproduct of archeology and other emerging sciences fascinated by the natural world. Yet their earliest coffers were largely filled by the spoils of colonialism, which are as entwined with the history of archeology as the shovel.

Consider for example the British Museum, one of the greatest resources for the record of human history on the planet—and, to quote comedian John Oliver, something of “an active crime scene.” This museum originally began as a private collection owned by Anglo-Irish naturalist Hans Sloane. A renowned physician with a passion for botany, Sloane’s collection of plants, animals, and antiquities, which he gathered over the span of some 60 years, largely sprang from his fascination with nature (although one which began by visiting, observing, and acquiring the floral life in the British colony of Jamaica).

Sloane kept all of it in his home until his death in 1753, whereupon he left that collection to the British government, which in turn created a museum to store it. It would be the first of its kind, a public museum financed by the state and open to all visitors (or at least those deemed worthy enough to receive written permission). Within 50 years of its opening, though, the British Museum transformed from a collection of natural wonders into a showcase of all the treasures collected from the empire’s reach around the world.

Indeed, the rise in popularity of natural history as a noble pursuit for the public’s betterment grew concurrently (if not from) the rise of European imperialism. As Britain competed with France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal in colonization around the world, each society in turn wanted comparable museums to showcase the breadth of their realm. Even those eventual upstarts in the U.S. would soon compete in the game of exploration and acquisition.

European scholars and academics claimed the historical treasures of subjugated lands and rationalized taking their prizes through various gradations of racism. They believed they could be better caretakers for an ancient, and implicitly superior, history than the current modern cultures in which that history resides. Hundreds of years later, those artifacts rest far from the lands of which they came.

So Is Indiana Jones a Villain?

Indiana Jones is born out of the era of exploration, discovery, and early archeology that inspired the filmmakers who, in turn, inspired George Lucas. This does not intrinsically make them bad, but their stories are coated in boyish fantasies from the height of imperialism—when Rudyard Kipling wrote of alleged Thuggee gangs roaming India and Bram Stoker dreamed of mummy sorceresses rising from their tombs. It comes from a view of the rest of the world as exotic and dangerous, and where a white man must survive those perils by his wit and grit if he is to claim local treasures as his own.

Through a modern lens, this could obviously be viewed as “problematic,” especially when many of the uglier sides of that older form of archeology are considered. For instance, Lucas revealed in Raiders of the Lost Ark that Indy went to school at the University of Chicago in 1919. One might wonder, then, if such an education included reading British aristocrat John Lubbock’s Pre-historic Times as Illustrated by Ancient Remains and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages.

First published in 1865, the book was one of the most popular textbooks about archeology until the First World War (which Indy also participated in, as per The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles). And in its pages, Lubbock used his neighbor Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to explain why the “uncivilized” and “savage” cultures of the world were less evolved than that of white Europeans. The text also became an intellectual touchstone for defending colonialism and the many racist atrocities that accompanied it.

Of course archeology changed plenty in the 20th century, including during the decades Lucas and Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies are set, but those films maintain what is increasingly considered an old-fashioned idea about Westerners exploring the world to fill their museums with other folks’ treasure–often with primitive natives chasing Indy with spears after he snags his bag.

In the 21st century, this is being challenged. For decades, nations from around the world that were the victims of colonization have demanded many of their treasures be restored. And in what appeared as a shifting of the paradigm, French President Emmanuel Macron announced in 2017 France would return many of the African artifacts which lined the walls of French museums. In 2018, two academics filed a commission report, announcing 27 artifacts would be returned to African soil. Yet as of 2020, only one artifact was actually returned—a sword to Senegal.

More recently, the Netherlands formed a committee that announced the nation would return museum treasures to former colonies in Indonesia, Suriname, and several Caribbean states, with over 300 Pre-Hispanic pieces having so far been returned to Panama alone. And just this past spring, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced it would return 15 sculptures to India; this following the Manhattan District Attorney Office seizing 27 pieces of art in 2022, which were repatriated to Egypt and Italy.

The British Museum has remained conspicuously silent on the movement of repatriation of looted artifacts, although London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens returned 72 items to the Nigerian government last year.

The attitudes around archeology and centuries of European exploration are changing. Even the academic field of “Classics,” the Greco-Roman history that first inspired our modern understanding of archeology, is in rapid decline. It began falling out of fashion in the late 20th century, with many academics viewing classicism as a historical vanity by Western societies that’s been used to justify the dominance of Western culture (and its litany of historical sins).

One professor in the Princeton Classics department even made headlines in 2020 when he declared a hope to see the whole academic discipline go away, blaming it for the modern construct of “whiteness” and saying, “Far from being extrinsic to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity, the production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrow of classics.”

In a modern academic landscape with such extremes, a character like Indiana Jones could be viewed as more than just antiquated; he’s now arguably a poster child for ethnocentric (if not Eurocentric) imperialism and “whiteness.”

…. However, while this is an intriguing contrarian take on the character, we suggest it errs on being a reactionary one. Indiana Jones is clearly the romanticized hero for an archaic vision of the world, but that does not mean he is ruined anymore than the advancements he represents in all his gaudy, swaggering fashion. In the broader academic conversation, it seems reductive to replace one politicized lens which tinted our ancient history with another one in the opposite extreme. Either way, it distorts our understanding of the past with the biases of the present.

Modern museums and archeology are intertwined with the history of imperialism, yes, but their benefits for the modern world are no less the greater, even if we will spend decades parsing out what was stolen and what was purchased. It would be similarly shortsighted to dismiss Indiana Jones as a dated relic, ready for the dustbin.

Old Indy certainly remains a product of his time, and it’s interesting to unpack that context, but he is a cinematic hero that instilled in new generations the same thirst for archeological discoveries that previously awakened a global curiosity in the distant past. For some modern sensibilities, Dr. Jones would appear to be a villain, but in truth he is himself an artifact from a different time. Maybe he just belongs in the museum now too.

The post Is Indiana Jones Really the Villain? appeared first on Den of Geek.

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