I’m back in Canada for the holidays, and had the good fortune of being in Edmonton at the same time a touring exhibition Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology happened to be on there at the Telus World of Science. If you’re like me, you probably spent a great deal of your youth watching the original three Indiana Jones films and wanting to be a real archaeologist – you know, the kind that go out into Egyptian temples and kick Nazi butt. Or spent a lot of time puzzling through Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis on the PC, attempting to discover the secrets of Plato’s orichalchum and the real fate of Minoan civilisation. As time went on I discovered that real archaeologists do decidedly less Nazi-punching as part of the practical discipline than Lucasfilm Pictures may have made things out to be (at least where I tend to do my archaeology anyway), but nonetheless the real adventure of archaeology is none the less exciting as the adventure of historical discovery.
The exhibition was heavily multimedia based. Each person upon entrance is given a tablet and a set of headphones that serve as an audio guide, but also delivers additional video content to better explain film props, artefacts, and behind-the-scenes content from the Indiana Jones films. The tablet also has another function as at various stations scattered throughout the exhibition spaces it can be used to collect small ‘fragments’ of artefacts that are acquired through solving little interactive games and puzzles. While the interactive ‘treasure hunt’ part of the exhibit was fun and sure to provide fun to the children, I also couldn’t help but feel that sometimes it was distracting from actually appreciating some of the more interesting archaeological exhibits. I particularly recall myself being frustrated at trying to get the sensor on the tablet to scan an object for a game in the script and decipherment room while thinking I’d much rather be appreciating that Meroitic grave stele on display in the corner as an example of an undeciphered language. Or, in another room, there was a game involving ‘excavating’ objects embedded in the stratigraphy of the walls by scanning them with the tablet’s sensor which had so many people running back and forth that it was impossible to actually appreciate the actual exhibition content of the room.
Leaving aside this small criticism of the interactive game element of the exhibit, the overall layout was actually quite well thought out. When you first enter and get your tablet set up, you’re introduced by an audio recording of Harrison Ford and a mannequin decked out with his well-known costume. The main path of the exhibit follows the films chronologically through Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Temple of Doom (1984), The Last Crusade (1989), and finally The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Each section on the films has its fair share of film-props, concept art, displays on how the sets based on archaeological sites were conceived, and fact-and-fiction sections explaining, among other things, what the actual Ark of the Covenant was in the Hebrew bible, the myth and legends surrounding the Holy Grail and the Arthurian legends, where artistic liberties were taken in interpretation, and so forth. Some attention to detail on some of the props was quite impressive, and not always possible to see up close in the films.
Aside from the content on the main path, there were a number of offset alcoves where there were actual archaeological artefacts on display, many on loan from the University of Pennsylvania Museum, along with historical contextualisation in order to explain who actual archaeologists were/are, what real archaeologists do on actual excavations (NB: not stealing golden idols and getting chased out of temples by giant boulders). These alcoves had usually had content explaining the history of the archaeological discipline through case studies of archaeological sites and excavations, for example, Leonard Woolley’s excavations in Ur in Mesopotamia and the beginnings of archaeology as a scientific discipline, modern methods of archaeology at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the Nazca lines in Peru (unmentioned: Greenpeace’s recent stunt at Nazca trampling and severely damaging the site).
With the discussion of Nazca in the context of the final Indiana Jones film, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, there was some discussion given to certain modern-day pseudoscientific theories about their original purpose. I suppose that while the Indiana Jones films have always used religion and the supernatural as plot device, I guess I thought that in the last film aliens were perhaps a step too far, although that might be a matter of my own personal taste. Nevertheless the exhibit mentioned theories, although not mentioning Erich von Däniken by name, about the purpose of Nazca lines being made so as to be seen by extraterrestrials. Since Kingdom of the Crystal Skull does use extraterrestials as a plot point, I concede it probably had to be discussed – and the exhibition does quite tactfully say that archaeologists dealing with big problems like the function of the Nazca lines sometimes do have to think big while conceding that theories of archaeological interpretation have to be constrained by plausibility. I think, however, that they didn’t dismiss the extraterrestrial interpretations forcefully enough, and the whole time I couldn’t help but think of the Ancient Aliens meme while I was in that room…
My favourite room, perhaps unsurprisingly since I’m a philologist, was a section talking about dead languages and decipherment. Indiana Jones apparently can read many languages, from Greek to Sanskrit to several Mesoamerican languages, so there was a great section on the decipherment of Mayan with a video giving a phonetic reading of one of the stelae in the Mexico Room of the British Museum.
If I could make one final criticism of the exhibit, it is that although it did well in talking about how artefacts need to be interpreted from their archaeological context and that the social use of artefacts determine their cultural value, in certain parts of the exhibit I couldn’t help but feel their use of applying the word ‘treasures’ to valuable artefacts was occasionally giving the wrong impression that archaeologists are really after gold, jewels, and bits of impressive sculpture, and less interested in telling stories about the past based on material culture. This seems particularly cogent where National Geographic’s cable channel has been subject to recent controversy over its programme, American Digger, where artefacts are excavated from, inter alia American Civil War battlegrounds, and sold to collectors for money. Archaeology is after all, contrary to the image of the archaeologist portrayed by Indiana Jones, decidedly not treasure or relic hunting, rather it is the scientific study of the past through material remains.
In spite of the criticisms and I’m think that I have been quite critical, the exhibition was actually very good, and a lot of fun to see and participate in. It’s dual purpose of presenting objects and media from the films and talking about their production was quite entertaining, and the educational task of being a publicly accessible discussion and illustration of archaeology as a discipline was quite well-thought out with lots of great content and artefacts on display to illustrate what it is that real archaeologists (and occasionally philologists!) do on excavations and how they interpret archaeological remains. At present there aren’t any current future stops for the exhibition listed on its website, but it is still in Edmonton until March 8th and if you happen to be there before then, or around any other place the exhibit happens to be in the future I would not hesitate to recommend it whether you are simply a fan of the Indiana Jones franchise or even an archaeologist yourself.