Indiana Jones, or, How I Nearly Became an Archaeologist

Walker of the MonthIn 1991, I was in year 11 at school. I’d been doing a weekly neighbourhood newspaper round for 3 years when my name was drawn as ‘deliverer of the month’. As well as giving me a small bonus, someone from the paper rang me up to ask questions, and they sent a man to take my photo.

The shot showed a skinny dark haired boy in a private school uniform and Harry Potter glasses. The clipping described me as a ‘budding archaeologist who studies Latin and enjoys playing saxophone and listening to music’. It didn’t say anything about my Spiderman comics. Maybe I forgot to tell them…

When my ‘friends’ got hold of the article, they made sure it was photocopied and distributed around the locker room at school. The humiliation of this budding archaeologist was swift and complete.

1991 was two years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out. We already had Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on video at home - Mum had taped them from TV - and my brother and I watched them over and over until we knew the lines by heart.

Of course, back then we didn’t know that the Indiana Jones films were really glorified B-Movies brought up to date. (I didn’t know what a B-Movie was!) I just loved the adventure, and my brother and I sat around talking about other ancient mysteries. After the Ark of the Covenant, an Indian cult of human sacrifice and the Holy Grail, what else was left?

There’s a long and inglorious history of swashbuckling archaeology movies, from The Mummy to Indiana Jones to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. More recently, novelists like Matthew Reilly - who lists Steven Spielberg among his inspirations - have turned this mix of pop history and action into something of an art form.

Was Indiana Jones directly responsible for my wanting to be an archaeologist? I don’t know, but it does bear some blame. I always enjoyed history at school, especially dangerous history. What’s not to like about legendary heroes, treasure hunters, cities of gold and unsolved mysteries? So I took ancient history and Latin.

At my school, ancient history was based on written (as opposed to archaeological) evidence, so by the time I got to uni I already had a bias for words. I never did any archaeology other than occasionally digging up old bottles in the backyard. A teacher told me that most archaeologists spent 90% of their time in libraries and 10% digging, and that was the end of that.

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Last year, my school teacher mother-in-law was looking for something to show her students as a treat in the last days before holidays. After turning down most of the boys’ suggestions, she proposed Indiana Jones. None of them had heard of him.

Perhaps this shouldn’t have been surprising - the movies were all made before they were born. But when she showed them Raiders of the Lost Ark, they loved it.

Forget the clunky ‘special effects’ - they were cutting edge in 1981 - the movie still stands up. There’s action, romance, physical comedy, an everyman hero, a believably silly plot, and some stereotypical Nazi bad guys.

Fast forward to 2008, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is set 1957, the height of Cold War paranoia and the ‘red scare’. After surviving a nuclear bomb test by hiding in a refrigerator, Indy loses his university tenure when a friend is exposed as a KGB double agent.

Conveniently, because he’s immediately asked to help find his old friend Oxley, kidnapped in South America while searching for a mysterious crystal skull. Legend has it that the skull was stolen from a tomb in a city of gold. The person who returns it will be granted ultimate power.

The new film has everything we loved about the early ones: high adventure; great chase scenes; exotic locations; and nasty villains. It also sees the return of Karen Allen (Marianne from Raiders of the Lost Ark), and Cate Blanchett hams it up as KGB paranormal scientist Irina Spalko.

But as ever, Harrison Ford’s everyman Jones is the self-effacing star of the action. The writers tackle the age issue well (Indy is not the young man he once was), and there are plenty of in-jokes and references for the fans. Indy always wins because he knows that there are some secrets best left unknown. The baddies are brought down by greed and lust for power.

Seeing this movie, I realise that Indiana Jones was never really about archaeology. They were always B-movies hung on a thread of history. Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull is an old fashioned adventure that doesn’t take its audience for granted. There are a few surprises, which I won’t spoil here. Suffice to say, it’s worth the wait.

And for a little while, it might be cool to be a budding archaeologist again.

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