Indiana Jones and the quest for truth

Area professors discuss realities of profession depicted in iconic movie series

click to enlarge This photo shows a site at the Susitna River basin in Alaska that John Blong, assistant professor of anthropology at Washington State University, has been working at for many looking for the earliest evidence for hunter-gatherers in the Alaska Range. - JOHN BLONG
John Blong
This photo shows a site at the Susitna River basin in Alaska that John Blong, assistant professor of anthropology at Washington State University, has been working at for many looking for the earliest evidence for hunter-gatherers in the Alaska Range.


Men want to be him.

Women want to be with him.

Nazis want to punch him.

And archaeologists have mixed feelings about him.

The person in question is none other than legendary cinema icon Indiana Jones. On June 12, 1981, the hero debuted on the big screen in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” This year marks the film’s 40th anniversary.



The fictional archaeologist has a special spot in pop culture, with four movies and a fifth on the way. The films have grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide. The American Film Institute lists “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at No. 66 on its list of 100 greatest American movies of all time. The character ranked No. 2 on its 100 greatest heroes and villains list, right behind Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. While it lost to “Chariots of Fire,” it picked up wins in art direction, sound, film editing and special effects.

Despite Jones’ status as a legend, his reputation as an archaeologist is questionable.

click to enlarge Mark Warner discusses the excavation plan at Moscow High School with site visitor and fellow University of Idaho employee and MHS alum Kim Salisbury. - MARK WARNER
Mark Warner
Mark Warner discusses the excavation plan at Moscow High School with site visitor and fellow University of Idaho employee and MHS alum Kim Salisbury.

The adventure begins

Nearly every “Indiana Jones” movie starts with the character on the hunt for his next big find. Once he gets it (or loses it) he returns to the university and is soon preparing for his next assignment.

The real process for beginning an archaeological adventure takes more preparation. Field work starts with a consultation with the group that owns the land, whether its state, federal or private, said John Blong, assistant professor of anthropology at Washington State University in Pullman. This process also includes a plan for what happens to artifacts that may be discovered on the site, a detail left out in the “Indiana Jones” movies.

click to enlarge Mark Warner, professor of anthropology at University of Idaho, excavates a well unexpectedly discovered at the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga Boarding House in Boise. - MARK WARNER
Mark Warner
Mark Warner, professor of anthropology at University of Idaho, excavates a well unexpectedly discovered at the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga Boarding House in Boise.

“X” never marks the spot

When Indy heads out to find the Ark of the Covenant or the holy grail, there’s a series of clues and maps that lead to the treasure.

Most archaeologists make their discoveries by very different means.

Sometimes sites are found because of new construction, said Mark Warner, professor of anthropology at the University of Idaho. Before work can begin at a location, builders must determine what types of environmental or cultural impact construction could have. An archaeologist will investigate, which can lead to finding artifacts or even burial sites. Construction crews and the archaeologist work together to determine how to proceed to minimize impact.

Some discoveries are made by accident, Warner said. For example, some people removed the floorboards of a Boise home and discovered a well. Sometimes a site is used as a teaching tool, like when Moscow High School did a dig at the school grounds in 2019.

click to enlarge University of Idaho students Moira Riggs and Josee Grant excavate a trench at Moscow High School as part of an Idaho Public Archaeology community-based dig. - MARK WARNER
Mark Warner
University of Idaho students Moira Riggs and Josee Grant excavate a trench at Moscow High School as part of an Idaho Public Archaeology community-based dig.

Sometimes the answer is in the landscape before an archaeologist’s eyes, which is how Rachel Horowitz, assistant professor of anthropology at WSU, makes her discoveries. Horowitz specializes in finding stone tools in the Maya region. Mounds on the ground indicate where people once lived.

Horowitz uses Light Imaging Detection And Ranging, also known as LIDAR, an airborne laser-mapping system that reveals what’s on the ground underneath the dense canopy of trees in Central America.

Like Horowitz, Katrina Eichner, assistant professor of anthropology at the UI, uses the latest technology to find locations. Eichner uses Geographic Information Systems, a program that overlays historic maps onto Google images of the landscape. This allows archaeologists to see where old structures once stood.

Along with technology, Eichner talks with local communities, tribal groups and historical societies to find out what work needs to be done. She also uses historical documents like old maps, journals and personal accounts of people who were once at the site.

click to enlarge String is used to divide up the excavation unites from the site of Arenal, Belize. - RACHEL HOROWITZ
Rachel Horowitz
String is used to divide up the excavation unites from the site of Arenal, Belize.


The work begins

Indiana Jones heads into a dark cavern to acquire his latest artifact, ignoring the skeletons of previous trespassers, avoiding booby traps without thinking twice and making casual remarks about any wall carvings. Once he finds the object of his quest, he grabs it and heads out before the antagonist can stop him.

To Erin Thornton, associate professor of anthropology at WSU, Indy misses all the good finds when he brushes past the skeletons. Her work involves analyzing human and animal bones.

Archaeologists look at the whole scene, not just the artifact, she said. It’s often the little things that reveal the most, and everything is documented. Part of archaeology is keeping the context of how and where items are found, like how deep an object is buried in the soil and what was found next to it, she said.

Taking things out of the context by removing an object without recording where it came from means losing information, Blong said. Documenting a site includes taking notes and photographs.

“Every time a site is excavated you’re destroying it,” which is why it’s important to correctly record the site and artifacts, he said.

“Indiana Jones” doesn’t show the detailed excavation and analysis that goes with the job, Thornton said.

“We don’t start walking up to an archaeology site and start chunking it with shovels; it’s a lot slower than that,” she said.

Rachel Horowitz at an excavation site in Arenal, Belize. - RACHEL HOROWITZ
Rachel Horowitz
Rachel Horowitz at an excavation site in Arenal, Belize.

The way Indy acquires objects is an example of exploitative colonialism. He removes artifacts from communities without permission to take them back to a museum or university in America. Thornton said she can’t go into Guatemala and start digging wherever she wants and bring back her finds like in the movie.

The lone adventurer archaeologist is another misconception the film presents, Eichner said.

Jones usually works alone, but archaeology is interdisciplinary. A team excavates a site, and each person has a specialization, Thornton said.

“Archaeology is a team sport; you can’t do archaeology by yourself,” Eichner said.

Eichner and other archaeologists often return to the same dig site, year after year.

“It’s not a one-off tourist adventure,” Eichner said. “It’s continued relations with tribal communities and local communities that we try to foster, and the field work is a small component of what we do.”

Excavation sites also present challenges. Rainy weather can flood dig sites. There are insects — and Indy’s greatest fear: snakes.

While unexpected things do occur on archaeological sites, it’s rarely as dramatic as the movies, Horowitz said.
“I’ve never encountered Nazis, to my knowledge, never been chased by anyone or run out of anywhere,” she said.

And real-life adventures don’t always wrap up with a tidy ending.

“You always find the burial on the last day of excavation,” Thornton said.

click to enlarge Katrina Eichner, assistant professor of anthropology at University of Idaho, at a field site in Fort Davis, Texas. - KATRINA EICHNER
Katrina Eichner
Katrina Eichner, assistant professor of anthropology at University of Idaho, at a field site in Fort Davis, Texas.

The right tools

Indy’s iconic look and tools of his trade are his fedora, gun, leather jacket and bullwhip.

That’s not the usual dress code for field work.

“I’m out there with a baseball cap, T-shirt and a trowel in my hand,” Warner said.

“Every archaeologist owns a trowel,” Thornton said.

Blong agreed. “A trowel is your best friend. It’s your right hand when you’re working.”

Other common tools are shovels and tiny brushes, like toothbrushes. Thornton also uses a screen that sifts the dirt, leaving the artifacts on top. Sometimes water is used to wash off dirt.

Blong uses mostly wooden tools, because metal can leave scrapes on objects like bone. This can incorrectly lead people to think the person or animal was harmed.

click to enlarge Erin Thornton, associated professor of anthropology at Washington State University, works at the El Mirador Basin Archaeology Project lab house in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Thornton is analyzing ancient animal bones from the Maya archaeological site of El Mirador located in Peten, Guatemala. The Dole boxes on the shelves are also filled with artifacts such as ceramic sherds, stone tools, and human and animal bones). Thornton is holding a leg bone of an archaeological turkey. - ERIN THORNTON
Erin Thornton
Erin Thornton, associated professor of anthropology at Washington State University, works at the El Mirador Basin Archaeology Project lab house in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Thornton is analyzing ancient animal bones from the Maya archaeological site of El Mirador located in Peten, Guatemala. The Dole boxes on the shelves are also filled with artifacts such as ceramic sherds, stone tools, and human and animal bones). Thornton is holding a leg bone of an archaeological turkey.

‘This belongs in a museum’

After Jones obtains his treasure, he usually takes it to his friend, Marcus Brody, to display in his museum, or the object is taken from Jones and put into a secret government warehouse.

The warehouse option is actually a little more realistic.

“Typically it ends up in, not exactly the ‘Indiana Jones’ warehouse at the end of the movie, but it’s like, ‘OK, we have these things in storage,’ ” Warner said.

Artifacts are brought to a lab to be cataloged and analyzed. From there, they might be listed in a report or they might remain in a repository for future generations to study.

Eichner said it can take her two weeks to excavate a site. Materials found will take a year to process. Writing a report or thesis adds another one or two years.

Thornton spends a lot of time in the lab cataloging and analyzing materials, as well as writing reports, proposals or grant requests. Much of her time is spent determining whether bones belong to animals or humans.

“When I went into archaeology, I didn’t think I would be doing this much chemistry,” she said. “It’s not what people typically picture when they think of archaeology.”

If Jones does get an artifact into a museum in the movie, he’s getting paid for it.

This doesn’t and shouldn’t happen in archaeology, Thornton said. Archaeologists don’t give assessments for antiquities.

“We don’t put monetary value on anything,” Eichner said.

The idea that archaeologists are treasure hunters is one of the biggest myths about the field, Horowitz said.

Archaeologists pushed back against the film series because it portrayed them as grave robbers, “which is not what the field is about,” Warner said.

click to enlarge Rachel Horowitz at a field lab located near Succotz, Belize. - RACHEL HOROWITZ
Rachel Horowitz
Rachel Horowitz at a field lab located near Succotz, Belize.

Unveiling secrets of the past

If Indy’s search for the legendary artifacts is inaccurate, what are archaeologists searching for?

Most archaeologists are trying to answer broad questions about the past. Questions like how economies or politics worked, or what types of food people ate.

The odds of finding one specific object are very small, said Horowitz, which is why archaeologists try to ask a question that multiple objects can answer. If she doesn’t find a particular item, she might find others that answer the same question.

The problem with finding one specific artifact is that, in order for archaeologists to search for such an object, they have to know what it is, which means information about it has to be written down somewhere. Then, that written object has to survive and also be discovered, Horowitz said.

If there is anything archaeologists would be scrambling to find, it wouldn’t be an object but an ancient site, Blong said. If it were an object, it likely wouldn’t be a valuable golden idol but something more like a “piece of charcoal” that could be carbon dated to provide archaeologists with information.

click to enlarge This photos shows the Kovrizhka site that John Blong, assistant professor of anthropology at Washington State University, excavated with his Russian colleagues in southern Siberia. The site is 18,000 years old. - JOHN BLONG
John Blong
This photos shows the Kovrizhka site that John Blong, assistant professor of anthropology at Washington State University, excavated with his Russian colleagues in southern Siberia. The site is 18,000 years old.

A common saying among archaeologists is that it’s not about what you find, but what you find out, Blong said. Archaeologists are more interested in learning about the past, not the thrill of finding valuable artifacts.

“The other myth is that it’s always about finding an individual cool exotic thing, but the reality is the interesting things come out of the mundane,” Warner said.

Much of archaeology is looking at what people lost or threw out that is broken.

Warner uses this example while teaching: Someone might show you their most treasured possession in their home, but “I’ll learn a heck of a lot more about your life going through your trash.”

click to enlarge This photo shows Erin Thornton, associated professor of anthropology at Washington State University, and her crew on a recent research trip to Oaxaca, Mexico to study turkeys. They are touring the archaeological site of Monte Alban. From left to right, Heather Lapham (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill research archaeologist), Jackie Rumberger, (WSU graduate student), Thornton, Joel Cristian Piñon (National Autonomous University of Mexico postgraduate researcher), José Carlos Gallegos Pérez (Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca undergraduate student). - ERIN THORNTON
Erin Thornton
This photo shows Erin Thornton, associated professor of anthropology at Washington State University, and her crew on a recent research trip to Oaxaca, Mexico to study turkeys. They are touring the archaeological site of Monte Alban. From left to right, Heather Lapham (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill research archaeologist), Jackie Rumberger, (WSU graduate student), Thornton, Joel Cristian Piñon (National Autonomous University of Mexico postgraduate researcher), José Carlos Gallegos Pérez (Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca undergraduate student).

Debunking Dr. Jones

As Professor Jones lectures at the chalkboard in the movies, the classroom is filled with students, some flirting with the handsome adventurer. He dismisses the class and heads to his office, avoiding the crowds of pupils waiting for him and stacks of papers to grade. He sneaks out the window, off on his next adventure.

Horowitz uses clips from the movie in a class she teaches about the myths of archaeology.

“He’s never there. He’s always leaving to go off,” Horowitz said.

Instead, most professors plan field work around the academic calendar and are gone in the summer months.

Eichner noted that Jones never brings students along with him on field work.

“I don’t do research unless I have students involved,” she said.

Jones doesn’t provide hands-on opportunities to learn or teach skills to make students employable, Eichner said. She notes that archaeology is ranked No. 7 in the U.S. for best science jobs, according to U.S. News & World Report. She wants her students to be able to obtain good jobs when they leave school.

“Dr. Jones does not seem focused on that,” she said.

Another issue some archaeologists have with “Indiana Jones” is who is shown doing archaeology. The movies depict a white American male, when the reality is the field includes many women and people of color. Eichner said the majority of undergraduate archaeology students are women, and many archaeologists are Black, Hispanic, Native American or Indigenous.

“That’s another thing we are not seeing depicted on film,” Eichner said.

click to enlarge Erin Thornton, associated professor of anthropology at Washington State University, measures the skeleton of a ritually deposited archaeological turkey in a lab space at the National Museum of Anthropology (Museo Nacional de Antropología) in Mexico City, Mexico. The box contains the nearly complete skeleton of turkey that was sacrificed and buried as a ritual offering. - ERIN THORNTON
Erin Thornton
Erin Thornton, associated professor of anthropology at Washington State University, measures the skeleton of a ritually deposited archaeological turkey in a lab space at the National Museum of Anthropology (Museo Nacional de Antropología) in Mexico City, Mexico. The box contains the nearly complete skeleton of turkey that was sacrificed and buried as a ritual offering.

Damage Report

After the credits roll, archaeologists are left to pick up the pieces of how their profession is depicted.

“It’s a lot of pseudoscience and fantasy and spy thriller, but not necessarily a great depiction for what archaeology actually is,” Eichner said.

Horowitz called “Indiana Jones” a mixed bag for archaeologists. On one hand, many people know about archaeology because of the movies and will take classes because of it.

“Few professions are depicted in film the way archaeology is, but it brings with it problems of how it’s presented,” Horowitz said. However, the movies can be a useful tool in the classroom because “everybody likes watching Indiana Jones.”

“We can use it as a bridge,” Blong said. “Let’s learn together about what archaeology is and what we can learn from people.”

click to enlarge Indiana Jones
Indiana Jones

He understands why archaeology is popular in films because there is an aspect of adventure. He has arrived at sites by helicopter, all-terrain vehicle, hiking and float plane.

“There is a kernel of truth that gets glamorized,” Blong said. “Archaeology can be adventurous at times, which is part of the fun of it.”

So it turns out that “Indiana Jones” does not accurately represent archaeology, which isn’t surprising, given it’s a fictional Hollywood film.

“For me, and for most of us, handling art that hasn’t been touched by human hands for thousands of years is just as exciting and adventurous,” Thornton said. “And it’s safer than how it’s portrayed in the media.”

Professor bios:

Mark Warner

University of Idaho
Professor of anthropology
Area of study: Historical archaeology, food inequalities.
Geographical area: U.S., Idaho.
“Holy grail” discovery: While excavating the shed of Boise artist James Castle, who was deaf and mute, materials Castle used for his art were discovered. “That’s not finding the holy grail, but that’s the kind of thing I find exciting as an archaeologist.”
How did you get into archaeology? He attended an archaeology field school after graduating from college and was hooked. During the excavation, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was released, and the group took a break from digging at the site to see the movie.


Rachel Horowitz
Washington State University
Assistant professor of anthropology
Area of study: Economic past, stone tools.
Geographical area: Maya region of modern day Mexico, Honduras, Belize, Guatemala; and the southern and western U.S.
“Holy grail” discovery: While excavating a site in the Great Basin area of Nevada, she was walking in the desert and found a projectile that was likely a spear from early America. “You don’t think you’ll find something that old just sitting on the surface.”
How did you get into archaeology? Her interest began in childhood. Her aunt gave her a science activity kit with a small replica of the Mayan site Tikal, in Guatemala, to excavate. “I was hooked. I wanted to be in archaeology ever since, so we like to blame my aunt for that.”

click to enlarge Erin Thornton
Erin Thornton

Erin Thornton
Washington State University
Associate professor of anthropology
Area of study: Human and environmental relationships, zooarchaeology, human bones, isotopic analysis.
Geographical area: Mezo America, Maya region of modern day Mexico, Honduras, Belize and Guatemala.
“Holy grail” Discovery: She was working in the early Maya city of El Miradora as a graduate student when ancient turkey bones were discovered. They belonged to a domesticated turkey that wasn’t believed to be there during that time period. It opened up a whole new area of research that she continues to study.
How did you get into archaeology? She was always interested in archaeology, ancient societies and how different people lived. She was drawn to the detective-like puzzle work of the field, traveling and learning new cultures. She already had an interest in archaeology when she saw the “Indiana Jones” movies. “I probably would be lying if I said ‘Indiana Jones’ had nothing to do with it. It fanned the flames of my interest in archaeology.”

John Blong
Washington State University
Assistant professor of anthropology
Area of study: Prehistory of Native Americans, geoarchaeology, paleoethnobotany.
Geographical area: North America.
“Holy grail” discovery: While working as a cultural resource management technician, he excavated a site with Native American burials during a construction project in West Virginia. The Seneca Nation of Indians was consulted, and the remains were given to the tribe for reburial. “As a young researcher at the time, this created a more solid connection between the artifacts we find at archaeological sites and the living descendants of the Native Americans that left the artifacts.”
How did you get into archaeology? In fourth grade, he drew a picture of what he wanted to be: an archaeologist discovering dinosaur bones. Although he now knows that paleontologists, not archaeologists, seek dinosaurs, he remained interested in learning about people. He enjoys camping, and field work often involves living in a tent for a summer.

click to enlarge Katrina Eichner
Katrina Eichner

Katrina Eichner
University of Idaho
Assistant professor of anthropology
Area of study: Historical archaeologist studying the material record of the last 200 years with a focus on military forts, women, children and Black enlisted troops.
Geographical area: American West.
“Holy grail” discovery: All the artifacts she finds are interesting because of the information she can learn from them. “I get just as excited when we find an old medicine bottle as when we find botanical remains.”
How did you get into archaeology? Her interest began in college at Boston University while exploring history programs. She took an introduction to archaeology class and was intrigued with the idea of learning about people from what they leave behind. “I like the idea that you could literally touch history.”

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