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An Indiana Jones scene from a Disney ride

From Nazis to the Ark: Five Surprising Truths from the Indiana Jones Films


Sadly, the much-loved Indiana Jones movies don’t represent the average day at work for most archaeologists, but there is more truth to Indy’s swashbuckling adventures than you may think. Crystal skulls do exist, the Nazis really were (very) keen on archaeology, and the world’s museums are full of artifacts taken from unsuspecting tribal peoples. Here are some of the more surprising things the films got right.

A raidin’ we’ll go.

1) Crystal skulls and holy grails

Some of the artefacts featured in Indiana Jones are not as ridiculous as you might think. Crystal skulls (made from Quartz), as featured in the fourth film, do exist – there’s even one in the British Museum. Unfortunately, they are probably 19th-century forgeries, rather than original pre-Columbian – or alien – artifacts.

A crystal skull from the British Museum (CC by SA 3.0)

And while we have never found it, at least nine countries, including Ethiopia and Egypt, are rumoured to be the location of the lost Ark of the Covenant, the wood and gold chest central to Raiders of The Lost Ark and rumoured to contain the stone slabs etched with the Ten Commandments.

William Morris’s vision of the Holy Grail.

William Morris’s vision of the Holy Grail. Art Gallery ErgsArt/flickr

The Holy Grail, featured in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and which supposedly featured at the Last Supper and caught the blood of Christ during the crucifixion, is even more of a mystery. It does not actually appear in literature until the early 12th century, in a legendary tale of Joseph of Arimathea, in which the grail is sent for safe-keeping in Britain.

Real or not, however, all of these legendary artefacts do reveal a truth: that many archaeologists have a personal “holy grail”. It is probably not an actual artefact – it is objects’ relationships with other things, people or structures that actually allow us to interpret the lives of past cultures. We do not aim to collect objects, we aim to answer questions about how and why human societies change. That is our Grail quest.

This way to the Grail.

2) Nazis and nationalists

Nazis were the villains of both Raiders of The Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, which again isn’t far from the truth. For the Nazis, archaeology was central to “proving” their arguments for Aryan superiority. Nazi research missions under the guise of the Ahnenerbe were dispatched to a surprising variety of places in order to “demonstrate” the influence of Aryan migrants in prehistory, including Poland, the Andes and Tibet.

Perhaps most telling are the works of Gustaf Kossinna, whose book German Prehistory: A Pre-eminently National Discipline set out the archaeological justification for the annexation of Poland. Kossinna based it on the supposed presence of Germanic peoples there during prehistory, and while he died before Hitler came to power, he was active while the territorial negotiations at the Versailles conference after World War I were taking place.

So Indiana Jones fighting Nazis is an honourable and historically accurate portrayal, even if the modern battleground against nationalist pseudo-archaeology has now shifted to Twitter.

Nazis and the ark from Indiana Jones’ Raiders of the Lost Ark

Nazis and the ark from Indiana Jones’ Raiders of the Lost Ark

3) The Thuggees and the cult of Kali

A real Temple of Doom?

A rather strange mish-mash of ideas in the Temple of Doom did have some basis in fact, although very loosely interpreted. The Thuggees, led in the film by the sinister Mola Ram, were a notorious criminal fraternity, suppressed by the British in colonial India. The film’s mistreatment of Kali is rather more obvious, however. Despite popular iconography – the fangs, red eyes and penchant for blood – this Hindu goddess is generally revered as more than just a destroyer and is a rather more nuanced force than the one represented in the film.

Thuggees strangling a traveller (public domain)

4) ‘That belongs in a museum’

This quote, from The Last Crusade, possibly is the most famous line spoken by Indy – and the most problematic for archaeologists and museums. It reinforces the idea that Western academics have a right to excavate and display the world’s cultural treasures. Indeed, major national museum collections, from the British Museum to the Louvre were founded on this very belief – but, in a post-colonial world, this attitude has become hotly contested.

What would Indy have said? The Elgin Marbles. michael kooiman/flickrCC BY-SA

Do artefacts belong in museums? Or do they belong to the people from whom they were taken? What if those artefacts were removed more than a century ago, from a tomb built 4,000 years ago, from a place now occupied by people who have no relationship with the original inhabitants? These are the ethical questions museums must struggle with. For example, debates over the return of the Parthenon (or Elgin) Marbles to Athens from the British Museum are long running; Cambridge students recently voted to return to Nigeria a bronze cockerel which was removed in 1897; and artefacts even became embroiled in geopolitics when Egypt severed ties with the Louvre Museum over the return of Ancient Egyptian remains.

What is certain is that each claim for repatriation must carefully be weighed on its own merits. Indiana Jones didn’t always appreciate this.

5) A life of romance and adventure

Archaeology really can be adventurous. Maybe not adventure of the poisoned darts and jumping over chasms variety, but the moment when you unearth something really exciting, anything from a sarcophagus to a 10,000-year-old worked flint nodule (depending on your interest), is the reason archaeologists stay in the business.

Of course, occasionally it can be dangerous, too. Just consider Lord Carnarvon and the Curse of Tutankhamun – practically an Indiana Jones plot device.

Personally, I am still waiting to be offered a course in basic whip-handling, and I own a trilby rather than a fedora – perhaps a little more Time Team than Indiana Jones. But while we now avoid sacrificing our students to angry sun gods – even if only because of the health and safety paperwork – if a new major Hollywood movie is a reflection of the central place of archaeology in our cultural consciousness, then I think we should all be pleased.

Top image: An Indiana Jones scene from a Disney ride (Joe Penniston / flickr)

The article ‘From Nazis to the Ark: Five Surprising Truths from the Indiana Jones Films’ by Ben Edwards was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.



And yet your own comment has "s" instead of is.... You know what they say about pots and black kettles, don't you? You also don't seem to know how to properly use commas or even how many periods to use to indicate a pause....

It is good you all apparently majored in the sciences, and not English. You would think that SOMEONE would have noticed that artifact s spelled "ARTIFACT", and NOT "artefact". There IS something called an artefact, so it passed your spell-check, but you would think someone would have read your article before it was published..

Adolph Hitler was, indeed a great believer in The Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, but in the occult as well. Specialized groups of his military, along with scientists were dispatched to many parts of the world to seek out anything which would aid in the Nazi / Aryan agenda. Some of these expeditions are well documented in the history of the period, but I suspect that there were many more whose records were either destroyed or removed prior to the fall of the Reich. The Nazis may very well have discovered the very things for which Hitler searched. We may mever know the truth, but one thing is certain. Hitler conducted what is probably the most intense, well –  funded archaeological research project in history.

R. Lee Bowers

In my book The Royal Secret the origins of the Aryan race are traced by Albert Von le Coq a real life German adventurer and archaeologist of the 19th Century who was paid by the German Emperor Wilhelm II to seek the truth of Aryan sources. His adventures took him to the Silk Road which led from Europe to China across Asia where he found evidence of an Aryan race buried deep in the sands of the Iranian salt desert whose bodies had been well preserved. The women were two metres tall with red hair who resembled the Frankish tribes in Gaul under the rule of the Merovingian kings. Strangely he believed that the name Iranian came from that of Aryan although the Iranians today are normally a dark haired people. This discovery did not suit the purposes of the Emperor and so the information became forgotten until Hitler, a great believer in the practices of The Knights Templar and the Holy Grail commanded an entire division of his military to discover new sources as far away as Tibet but with no luck, although today it is believed by some that the first religion was in fact an Aryan one and that the race originated in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan.

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