Insights and Impact

Fortune and Glory, Kid

Who's the real Indiana Jones and what was he chasing?


Illustra­tion by
Fred Birchal

illustration of Indiana Jones's clothes, whip and fedora

The phrase, spoken in the third installment of the blockbuster franchise, has become as synonymous with Indiana Jones as his fedora.  
“That belongs in a museum,” the rugged archaeologist snarls as the villainous “Panama Hat” snatches the Cross of Coronado from his pocket in the 1989 hit The Last Crusade
Yes—but whose museum? 
“The feel-good line of the Indiana Jones franchise conceals a far more contentious—and often racist—past than is alluded to in the films,” AU history professor Justin Jacobs wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in December. “What Dr. Jones really means is: ‘That belongs in my museum!’” 
According to Jacobs, Indy—tweed-clad professor by day, bullwhip-toting archaeologist by night—might’ve been a Hollywood hero, but his real-life counterparts were arrogant and righteous.  
For hundreds of years, Westerners traveled the world in search of cultural treasures, bringing “home” exotic art and antiquities from China, India, Peru, and the Middle East to new museums in Europe and the United States. These modern institutions literally set in stone the idea that whites were the only ones civilized enough to make sense of ancient civilizations.  
In his new book, Indiana Jones in History: From Pompeii to the Moon, and a companion video series, Jacobs chronicles the explorations and exploits of more than 40 archaeologists and adventurers who transported artifacts across ethnic and cultural boundaries in the name of science and empire.  
There was, among them, Italian sojourner and circus performer, the “Great Belzoni,” who found fame in 1815 with the removal of the “Younger Memnon,” a statue of ancient Egyptian ruler Ramses II. “I found [the bust] near the remains of its body and chair, with its face upwards and apparently smiling on me at the thought of being taken to England,” Belzoni said  
of his bounty.  
It took more than a hundred men 17 days to roll the seven tons of exquisitely carved granite from the sands of Luxor to the banks of the Nile. Today, the statue—number 20 on the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects—is on display at the British Museum. 
“It’s about, ‘This supports my empire, my state, my job, and my salary’ with little consideration of anyone else,” Jacobs says of the Belzoni expedition. 
Westerners maintained a monopoly over antiquities through the nineteenth century, even as the Turks, Egyptians, and Chinese began to erect their own national museums and enact preservation laws to fend off tomb raiders. It wasn’t until British archaeologist Howard Carter’s (failed) attempt to prevent the Egyptians from controlling access to King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1924 that the balance of power shifted.  
When moviegoers first meet Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, set in 1936, he’s navigating a booby-trapped temple in the Peruvian jungle to retrieve a golden idol. In reality, the golden era of Western archaeology was over by the early twentieth century.  
In two years, Harrison Ford—now old enough himself to belong in a museum, to borrow Panama Hat’s line—will slip on the wide-brimmed fedora for the fifth and final film in the franchise. And while audiences will undoubtedly turn out in droves to watch the debonair Dr. Jones unearth treasure, outsmart the bad guys, and get the girl, Dr. Jacobs won’t be among them. 
“I was a huge fan of the films growing up, but the thrill is gone,” he says. “Truth is stranger than fiction, and I find it’s more enjoyable to know the true history than the Hollywood version.”  

According to Jacobs, when filmmakers were crafting the character of Indiana Jones, they were inspired by “previous Hollywood films, theme park rides, and conspiracy theories about Nazis and the occult.” Any fidelity to the history books was pure coincidence.  
And what of the “historical Indiana Jones,” as Jacobs refers to the prototypical archaeologist of the last 250 years? “Despite the fact that no single figure can represent the breadth and diversity of those who scoured the globe for antiquities, it is possible to sketch a broad outline of their most consistent features.” 
Here, we stack historical fact against Hollywood fiction: 
Fact: Almost always a male 
Fiction: It’s time Indy “took a different form,” director Steven Spielberg told the British paper, the Sun, in April. “We’d have to change the name from Jones to Joan.” 
World View 
Fact: Nearly every Western explorer was steeped in the Greek and Roman classics and the Bible. “The unique lens of this classical education constrained the ability of the archaeologist to acknowledge or appreciate the possibility that anyone—beyond his own preferred ancestors—could’ve contributed something of value to the world that he lived in,” Jacobs says.   
Fiction: The brainy, brawling Indy is always chasing knowledge, which makes him more noble than the average tomb raider. He turns the spoils over to the Smithsonian-inspired “National Museum” in Washington, DC. 
Fact: Western explorers were backed by wealthy politicians and businessmen. They felt at ease among elites in other cultures, but “viewed the masses of lower class people outside of Europe the same way as they viewed their social inferiors back home: ignorant, lazy, addicted to pleasure, fond of wasteful diversions, filthy and unkempt, and unable to control their basest desires,” Jacobs says. 
Fiction: Among Indy’s sidekicks: Marcus Brody, curator of the National Museum; Marion Ravenwood, scorned lover and Nepalese bar owner; Sallah, a jovial Egyptian excavator with a deep baritone; and Short Round, an 11-year-old orphaned cabbie in Shanghai.  
Fact: “Whether self-taught or the product of the best universities in  
the world, he was highly educated,” Jacobs says. 
Fiction: Indy is an alumnus of the University of Chicago and teaches archaeology at the fictional Marshall College—a nod to producer Frank Marshall. 
Claim to Fame 
Fact: Or rather, infamy: “In the 1870s, an American consul stationed near the fabled site of Troy advised Heinrich Schliemann, a German-American tycoon who had smuggled valuable treasures out of the Ottoman Empire, that permitting ‘any part of them to go into the absurd collection of rubbish which the Turks call their museum’ would be worse than throwing them away,” Jacobs wrote in the Washington Post
Fiction: Dr. Jones checked in at number two on Entertainment Weekly’s “all-time coolest heroes in pop culture.” (James Bond topped the list.) To date, the film franchise has grossed nearly $2 billion worldwide. 
Fact: “He or his ancestors lived in Europe at some point between 1750 and 1969,” Jacobs says. “This time frame means he was a product of empire.” 
Fiction: Henry Walton Jones Jr. is the son of Anna Mary and Henry Sr., played by Sean Connery. In The Last Crusade, the elder Jones, a professor of medieval studies at Princeton, reveals that “we named the dog Indiana.”  
Greatest Fear 
Fact: Losing out to another archaeologist  
Fiction: “Snakes? Why’d it have to be snakes?”