Fiction Science Club

Today’s archaeologists make Indiana Jones look ancient

As the world’s best-known fictional archaeologist goes after what may be his last ancient mystery in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” new generations of real-life archaeologists are ready to dig in with 21st-century technologies and sensibilities.

Harrison Ford, the 80-year-old actor who’s played Indiana Jones for 42 years, has said “Dial of Destiny” will be his last sequel in the series. And this one is a doozy: The dial-like gizmo that gives the movie its name is the Antikythera Mechanism, a real-life device that ancient Greeks used to predict eclipses and other astronomical events. The Lance of Longinus, the Tomb of Archimedes and the Ear of Dionysius figure in the plot as well.

Indy and his mysteries will be missed. Sara Gonzalez, a curator of archaeology at Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, says her favorite movie about her own field is “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the 1981 film in which Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) made his debut. But that’s not because it’s true to life.

Gonzalez said researchers from the University of Washington’s Department of Anthropology, where she’s an associate professor, recently took a field trip to a local cinema where “Raiders” was playing.

“They have something called HeckleVision, where you can text onto the screen and see it,” she said. “There was this great, fun discussion, happening virtually live, with a whole bunch of anthropologists sitting and watching a movie that we love to deride. But we still kind of love the story and the angle, and we also love educating people about what’s real and what’s fictional about archaeology.”

That’s the subject of the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, focusing on the intersection of science and fiction.

Some of the tools available to modern archaeologists would have seemed like science fiction to Indiana Jones’ real-life contemporaries in the 1930s. Researchers are using satellite images, muon detectors and bug-sized cameras to identify and explore ancient ruins in Egypt. Underwater archaeologists employ side-scan sonar, remotely operated vehicles and 3-D imaging to check out shipwrecks in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Canadian Arctic. And X-ray scans helped scientists figure out how the Antikythera Mechanism worked.

Closer to home, Gonzalez and her students use magnetometers, ground-penetrating radar and laser-equipped drones to check out sites of archaeological interest, in partnership with indigenous peoples like the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon and the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians in California.

“In ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ you have hundreds if not thousands of people excavating everything,” she said. “That’s really not what we like to do in contemporary archaeology, and it’s certainly not very consistent with the values of indigenous nations.”

Sara Gonzalez at historic site on Grand Ronde reservation
Sara Gonzalez, an archaeologist at the University of Washington and the Burke Museum, shows visitors the work that’s being done at a training program at historic sites on the Grand Ronde reservation in Oregon. (FMIA Photo via Burke Museum) Photo)

Her team developed a new technique for doing a minimally invasive excavations, called “catch and release.” The technique involves carefully peeling back the sod on a square meter’s worth of land, removing and cataloging material layer by layer to a depth of 10 centimeters (4 inches), then replacing everything where it was and closing up the hole.

“We were talking about the method, and I was like, ‘So it’s kind of like catch and release,’ and we all joked, because a lot of us really love fishing,” Gonzalez recalled. “It just stuck, and it’s evocative of exactly what we’re doing.”

Gonzalez has found that digging a hole and flying a drone (or cracking a bullwhip, for that matter) aren’t the most important skills that an archaeologist must master.

“I think the No. 1 rule of doing archaeology and becoming an archaeologist is that you really have to like people … and not just working with other archaeologists, but people within the local communities where you’re working,” she said.

Check out the GeekWire version of this story for more about Sara Gonzalez’s work at the Burke Museum.

Digging into Black history

Working with communities is also a big part of the job for Brittany Brown, an archaeologist at Bard College in New York. She’s part of an effort to document the sunken wrecks of ships that carried captive Africans to America, and she also studies historical Black cemeteries and funerary practices in the American South and the Caribbean.

Brown said Indiana Jones didn’t inspire her to go into archaeology — instead, it was Lara Croft, the heroine of Tomb Raider. “I played the video game, and I was very into her character as a kid,” she said.

What really got Brown hooked was an excavation project that she joined during her undergraduate studies at the University of Florida.

“There’s a famous plantation that’s actually a national park,” she said. “It’s called Kingsley Plantation. And there, we excavated some of the cabins, but also that year I made the discovery of a captive African cemetery. Uncovering bones for the first time was really sort of a transformative experience for me as an archaeologist. And so from that point on, my work has really been driven toward cemeteries and commemoration and burial practices.”

Working with communities isn’t always easy. Brown recalled an occasion when her request to excavate an archaeological site was turned down by the families in the community.

“Sometimes I think that can be hard for archaeologists to hear — that people don’t want their remains dug up,” she told me. “But I think that when you’re working with communities, you always yield to what would be the least harmful thing for their history. Because it’s their relatives, right? When we think about it, do you really want someone to just dig your grandmother up because they think it’s important to dig your grandmother up?”

Brown said her status as a Black woman provides her with a perspective that’s different from the Indiana Jones stereotype.

“Traditionally, African-descended people have been the subjects of study, and have not always had the pen and the power to be these scholars and experts of knowledge on their own histories and their material culture,” she said. “So that’s always been a negotiation, but I don’t necessarily see it as a negative. I find it to be quite empowering.”

Brown also takes advantage of today’s social media tools — particularly Instagram, where she blends on-the-job updates with fashion photos.

“There are a lot of archaeologists, oddly enough, on TikTok, explaining their finds and what things mean, and explaining the technology and demystifying archaeology in a way that hasn’t been done before,” Brown said.

Are scientists becoming social influencers? That’s a trend that Indy, or real-life researchers of the mid-20th century, never experienced.

“Everybody in archaeology, anthropology that is on social media definitely wants to be there,” Brown said. “However, how prominent social media has become in everybody’s lives is pushing these bigger institutions to make it a need and a must, especially if they want to capture younger audiences to go into these majors, to be inspired.”

Brown said streaming media has become another channel for getting the word out about scientific discoveries. Netflix, for example, recently featured archaeological finds in a well-received documentary titled “Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb” and a docudrama called “The Dig.”

There’s one Netflix series about archaeology that Brown shies away from commenting on: “Queen Cleopatra,” which sparked a debate over the color of the Egyptian queen’s skin.

“You know, oddly enough, I think it’s a little problematic to read race as we know it back into a time period when it didn’t necessarily exist in the same iteration,” Brown said. “So my approach is to let the Egyptologists duke it out.”

How the past sheds light on the future

Chris Begley, an archaeologist at Transylvania University in Kentucky, has done things that might make even Indiana Jones green with envy.

He was part of a quest to find a so-called lost city in the jungles of Honduras’ Mosquito Coast — a quest chronicled in a book titled “Jungleland.” (Spoiler alert: Archaeologists have found evidence of an ancient settlement, but no glittering golden treasures.)

Begley has also hunted for shipwrecks off the coast of Central America, and along ancient trade routes that criss-crossed the Mediterranean. He even helped develop a 3-D imaging system that’s optimized for underwater archaeology.

In “Dial of Destiny,” Indiana Jones has to rely on coded inscriptions and obscure puzzles to figure out where to locate a sunken artifact — but Begley has found that a more straightforward approach usually works better.

“I worked on a project in Greece around an island called Fourni, and in three short seasons, about two or three weeks each, we found 50 shipwrecks around this island,” he recalled. “I remember after the second season when I was there, somebody knew that we had found about 45 shipwrecks in about 45 days, and asked how we found so many shipwrecks. What kind of technology were we using? And you know, the answer was, we’re not using any technology.”

Instead, Begley and his colleagues talked to the local people who fish in those waters and dive for sponges. They knew quite well where to find the shipwrecks.

“All but about five were shown to us by local people,” Begley said. “And I’m sure those other five they also knew about. We just stumbled on them before we managed to hear about them. So the technology exists, but we still really rely a lot on things that are sometimes surprisingly basic.”

Indiana Jones’ mission in the movies is typically to protect the past from Nazis and other evildoers, but Begley argues that one of the benefits of doing archaeology is to prepare for the future.

Chris Begley portrait
Archaeologist Chris Begley says reversals experienced by societies in the past can help today’s society prepare for future crises. ( Photo)

In a book titled “The Next Apocalypse: The Art and Science of Survival,” Begley looks back at a series of societal crises — including the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the collapse of the Classic Maya culture and the decimation of Native Americans after the arrival of European settlers — to glean lessons about how to cope with modern-day challenges such as climate change and pandemics.

Begley says our typical idea of an apocalypse — such as the sudden collapse of society portrayed in “The Last of Us,” an HBO series based on a video game — is totally wrong. Apocalypses almost always unfold over the course of decades rather than months, and the beginning of an apocalypse is typically seen only in retrospect.

“The next apocalypse isn’t so much about how to survive the next big event, but rather how communities have survived — and how people have had to come together as communities and remain as communities through these transitions,” Begley said.

In his university classes, Begley has his students discuss how real-life archaeology differs from depictions in the Indiana Jones movies. “One of the principal things that I think is the big unrealistic element of Indiana Jones, in terms of the archaeology, is the motivation,” he said.

In the movies, archaeologists are driven to find an artifact, or prove a preconceived theory — whether it’s the existence of the Lost Ark or the powers of a Dial of Destiny.

“That’s just not really part of what we do,” Begley said. “You do have things that you want to answer, of course, and we all have biases and preconceived notions and all of that. But typically what we’ve done is to design something that we think will help answer a question, and we’re out there to collect the data.”

There is one point, however, on which Indiana Jones and most real-life archaeologists would probably be in total agreement.

“A lot of archaeologists still really advocate punching Nazis and fascists,” the Burke Museum’s Sara Gonzalez said with a grin. “That’s definitely a cultural touchstone amongst the community.”

“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” opens at theaters tonight. The four previous Indiana Jones movies — “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” — are playing on Disney+.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify,, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Podvine. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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