Friday, May 30, 2008

The reality of archaeology (David Germain)

It's a slow news day, so forgive the slight side step from the specific (Egyptology) into the general (archaeology). I've been enjoying the various responses to the new Indiana Jones movie from many archaeologists who, whilst generally enjoying the whole series, are appalled by the chaotic image of archaeology that the scenes portray. This article contrasts the gung-ho approach of Indiana Jones to the fin-grained reality of archaeology as it is actually carried out today. It also raises concerns about looting.

When Indiana Jones managed to retrieve the trinket he was after in the opening moments of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," he pretty much wrecked everything else in the ancient South American temple.

Though he preaches good science in the classroom, the world's most famous archaeologist often is an acquisitive tomb raider in the field with a scorched-earth policy about what he leaves behind.

While actual archaeologists like the guy, they wouldn't necessarily want to work alongside him on a dig.

Real experts in antiquities acknowledge that the movies are pure fiction. Still, they cringe at the way Indy manhandles the ancient world.

"There are codes of ethics in archaeology, and I don't think he would be a member. Not in good standing, anyway," said Mark Rose, online editorial director for the Archaeological Institute of America.

In a career spanning 27 years and four films, Indy has been both a blessing and curse for the musty world of archaeology, fanning interest in the field beyond academic circles but doing a Hollywood number on how the job actually works.

In 1989's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," nerdy Professor Henry Jones Jr. tells students that 70 percent of archaeology is done in the library and advises them to "forget any ideas you've got about lost cities, exotic travel and digging up the world. We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and 'X' never, ever marks the spot."

Then he puts on his fedora, smashes through crypts, kills scores of Nazis and desecrates a grave by using a human leg bone as a torch. And, in one scene, "X" really does mark the spot.

The reality of archaeological field work involves large groups of workers painstakingly sifting through grids to retrieve artifacts as mundane as pottery fragments.

See the above page for the full story.

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