Ray Phipps continues our student series by ranking the worse movie archaeologists by their sins.
The 5 Worst Fictional Movie Archaeologists
To be an archaeologist it takes patience, dedication, and years of training. Definitely not the most glamorous profession or rewarding in a monetary sense. It is, however, rewarding to see your countless of hours of hard work pay off by piecing together parts of history. With that in mind we can understand why Hollywood veers so far from what actual archaeology is and leans more towards “adventure archaeology” or, simply put, looting. This sells tickets and funnels money into the pockets of Hollywood stars. As an avid movie goer, I can respect some of these movies for their sheer entertainment factor, but as a student of archaeology I can’t help but cringe at some of the anachronism of these same movies. So, I’ve decided to compile a list of five of the worst archaeologists in movies.
5 – Indiana Jones (all four movies) played by Harrison Ford – Probably the most iconic fictional archaeologist of all time and one of the worst at conducting archaeology. In the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Arc we see Indy and a rag tag group of individuals trudging through a remote jungle with the guidance of what appears to be an ancient map. Ah yes, the classic treasure map folded away in your pocket, exposed to the elements and probably ruined forever. We’ll just move on past that and get to the good stuff. Indy races his way into this ancient site with no data recording, destroying countless artifacts, and destroying ancient pressure plates (that surprisingly still work after hundreds of years) all for a piece of gold. Now while he ignores the most basic approaches to conducting actual archaeology, it can be argued that few artifacts he does retrieve he intends to preserve, as we can see from one of his famous lines “It belongs in a museum!” Still, not enough to absolve him of this list.
4 – Benjamin Gates, National Treasure part I and II played by Nicholas Cage- Now Gates isn’t actually referred to as an archaeologist in this film, he does call himself a “treasure protector”, which is part of what an archaeologist does, but his definition of treasure probably differs from mine. Gates somehow manages to steal the Declaration of Independence in order to discover a hidden message on the back…by using lemon juice! I don’t think I have or ever will meet an archaeologist that would ever recommend doing that to a document. Throughout the movie Gates somehow bumbles his way into finding these priceless artifacts with little to no help, data recording, or equipment. Thankfully they only managed to make two movies and not finish with a trilogy of bad archaeology.
3 – Daniel Jackson, Stargate played by James Spader – An archaeologist by trade, Daniel is asked to inspect an ancient Egyptian artifact that turns out to be a portal to another civilization. That’s it.* That’s the extent of any hint at real archaeology in this film. Part of an archaeologist job is to learn more about a civilization, and Daniel has a portal that goes directly too one still thriving. Instead of finding artifacts though Daniel and his team spend more time destroying…everything they come across. I feel like all the artifacts in the British Museum stand a better chance with a stampede of elephants than anything in this movie.
2 – Everyone in all of The Mummies – Did anyone root for the bad guys at some point in these? No? Must have just been me then. Somehow, they reinvented Indiana Jones with two people, Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz). Rick being the whip cracking, pistol waving hero and Evelyn the smart, studious scholar who is supposed to be an expert in Egyptology, but is actually pretty terrible at it. They claim to want to preserve many of the artifacts they find, but for some reason they have this really nice house with a lot of artifacts on display. Anyways, they manage to steal the Book of the Dead and for some reason, Evelyn, can’t manage to read the text with her mouth closed; therefore, they unleash a scary-murderous mummy thing that they were warned about. Unfortunately, they managed to put things right (to my dismay). On the bright side, maybe this movie will help deterring looters from digging up ancient tombs.
1 – Lara Croft, Tomb Raider played by Angelina Jolie twice – What? The name doesn’t explain my reasoning behind putting this at number 1? Fine, there is absolutely nothing in this movie that can be seen as archaeological. Croft is simply a looter who masquerades around the world with little to no clothes on hunting for treasures, destroying priceless artifacts, making ruins out of ruins, if that’s even possible. Croft stands alone at the top of this list as the absolute worst portrayal of someone with any inkling of archaeological background.
[*Editor’s Note: If I may nerd-out for a minute, I would argue that Daniel Jackson does use his archaeological skills, because he uses his anthropological skills. He does participant observation while living with the people at Abydos. He even stays behind and marries into the community! And of course, later in the TV series, he continues to use his archaeological knowledge (although often to fight bad guys) and is always arguing with Jack O’Neill (two ll’s) about preserving information and sites.]