In 2012, a team of archeologists using breakthroughs in LiDAR technology was able to peer through the thick jungle canopy of the remote, impassable mountains in Honduras and found the ruins of an ancient, lost city.
Controversy erupted. And, as usual, a strongly worded letter was involved. Two fellow archeology lecturers circulated the letter, inviting their students to sign, denouncing the expedition to the lost city. Their reasons?
- Stories published in National Geographic about the expedition contained language that was “antiquated and offensive,” expressing “ethnocentric attitudes.”
- It disrespected indigenous people by failing to recognize they were there first, so nothing was truly “discovered.”
- It didn’t give proper acknowledgement to previous archeological research.
- And they were concerned about language that “felt like a throwback to the bad old colonialist, Indiana Jones days of archaeology.”
A quick survey of the situation made it clear that the letter amounted to sour grapes. The authors of the letter had hoped to be consulted on the expedition; invited along even.
Despite this, the archeologists acknowledged the letter made some valid points. Their humble words*:
“The sad truth is that, until recently, many archaeologists were shockingly insensitive and arrogant in the way they conducted fieldwork, riding roughshod over the feelings, religious beliefs, and traditions of indigenous people. They dug up burials without permission, sometimes looting the graves…[Archeologists] hauled off sacred objects to which they had no legal right of ownership. They talked about “prehistoric” Indians as if they had no history until the Europeans arrived.”
The field of archeology is acknowledging their sins of the past and doing their best to atone for them. Modern archeological language is increasingly nuanced and sensitive. Field work is careful and considerate, becoming even more so. Sure, there are treasure hunters still and they often get reality TV shows. But they are the rare hucksters in a field of sincere and passionate professionals.
But my main takeaway from the cat fight within the field of archeology is this: Don’t besmirch the blameless name of Indiana Jones as part of your sour grapes, nasty letter writers! Listen, he’s a movie character, so he’s meant to be entertaining. But I’ve written before about the importance of the Indiana Jones mythos in inspiring young people to develop a curiosity for the sciences and I’ll share part of that here again.
We all know that Indiana Jones wasn’t interested in fortune and glory; Indy was interested in seeing the world’s artifacts safe from those who wished to use them for self-serving gain.
Indiana Jones is bold, lucky, smart, daring, and curious. I picked up as much when I was a kid. I’ve watched Indy dig for treasure, dodge traps, and fistfight Nazis. And that sparked an interest in history in me all because I wanted to be like my hero, Indiana Jones.
As the father of two young girls, I want them to be able to enjoy movie franchises where the hero might inspire them into an interest in history and archaeology, just as Raiders of the Lost Ark inspired me as a boy.
Watching Indiana Jones can make young kids want to see the world, and it’s about the only thing I know that can make anthropology and library research feel cool. Indiana Jones movies materially affected my life, and I don’t want to deny today’s kids that same opportunity.
I’m not an archeologist by vocation. Not even close. I’m just an enthusiast who stared wide-eyed at Indiana Jones movies as a kid, wishing he could understand ancient civilizations like Indy did.
But I am a philanthropy professional by vocation, so I closely follow the humanitarian work of people like Bill and Melinda Gates. In short, the humanitarian efforts of Bill and Melinda Gates have been influenced in a profound way by the field of archeology.
Archeology contains cautionary tales of disease and pandemics, a very 21st century issue. Archeology provides clues about human decline. It teaches lessons on war, violence, social upheaval, class inequality, and environmental catastrophe. It offers tales of religious fanaticism.
But archeology also teaches us about human flourishing. It provides lessons in overcoming the challenges of environment and climate. It offer tales on how humans have adapted and found fulfillment and meaning.
These are important lessons and we’d all be poorer without archeology, history, and the geological and anthropological sciences.
* I encourage you to give the book Lost City of the Monkey God a read. It’s excellent. It’s the tale I alluded to above and it’s highly worth your time. Sure, it doesn’t feature Indiana Jones but it’s full of colorful real-life characters on a quest for knowledge. Better yet, it wonderfully pulls open the curtain on a remarkable culture who thrived in the dense jungles on Honduras. You can get it here.