Discovering the Past with Indiana Jones

There’s only one Indiana Jones — the fictional tomb-raiding, relic-hunting archaeologist-adventurer who has clashed with the Gestapo, ancient aliens, and his own fear of snakes, all in the name of historical preservation. But in the real world that role is filled by archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert, Ph. D, who devotes his life to uncovering and understanding artifacts from around the world.

After a tour of Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology The Exhibit at TELUS World of Science – Edmonton, it’s apparent he’s also passionate about teaching his craft to the next generation of archaeologists. And I can confirm that yes, he owns a high-crowned, wide-brimmed sable fedora.
 

Digging Up Our History

You navigate the exhibit with a tablet and headphones, watching short videos and movie clips, some of which are even narrative by Indy himself, which provide context for the items on display. And from the moment you walk past the rows and rows of crates holding uncovered treasures, you’re immersed in the Jones universe.

Indiana Jones’ own trademark duds (bullwhip included) greet you at the entrance just feet from the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Headpiece to the Staff of Ra in their shiny, nostalgic glory.

Movie props are displayed alongside over 100 real-world archaeological finds, mostly provided by the University of Pennsylvania’s world-renowned Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Hiebert says one of his favourite displays is a collection of 5,000-year-old gold jewellery and personal items discovered in the tomb of Queen Puabi in the Mesopotamia region in 1922.

“We’re not going to show you any copies of artifacts in this show,” Hiebert says. “Everything that you see is either a 2,500-year-old Greek drinking vessel, or it’s a 6,000-year-old map … and all of the props are actually the ones used in the movies. Remember, we’re here in Edmonton, and we’re going to show you artifacts which you’d have to go to London to see anything even comparable. I’ve seen similar treasures like this, but I have to tell you a secret: These ones are better.”

He points to a perfectly oval piece decorated and painted at the top, and smiles. “That’s an ostrich egg. The British Museum has an ostrich egg in their central display, but theirs isn’t gold-plated.”
 

Fact vs. Fiction

At times, it’s difficult to tell the real archaeological finds from the movie props — that’s how realistic the set design was, even during the Temple of Doom days in 1981. Much of this is thanks to George Lucas’ obsession with historical detail in design.

One black and white image of an actual archaeology dig seems to be the inspiration for the Tanis dig in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hiebert confirms that many of the scenes in the movies were drawn from still shots and diary entries from historical locales.

“George Lucas has this magnificent library full of archaeology books, and the action scenes in his films are all inspired by and based on reality,” he says. “Lucas was inspired by real archaeology. And what’s interesting for us is that the films also inspired a new generation of archaeologists.”
 

A Historian’s Past

In his teens, Hiebert was actually bent on becoming an artist, not an archaeologist. Thanks to his supportive parents, he decided to skip college and move to Paris, France, with a backpack full of personal belongings in the hopes of landing an art gig.

“Of course, I didn’t get a job in an art studio, but I started doing drawings for archaeologists, and I got totally hooked,” he admits. “I came back and told my parents, ‘I apologize. I guess I am going to go to college’.”

During his time as a professor of archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, he saw a similar spark after the movies came out. A mere mention of the name Indiana Jones would pique students’ interests.

“The fact that Indiana Jones influenced a whole generation full of kids to become archaeologists is absolutely incredible. I would ask all of the kids in Archaeology 101, ‘Who came here because of Indiana Jones films?’, and 40 [students] would raise their hands. It’s amazing. We have a whole generation of kids who got inspired by this, and they came on board.”
 

The Future of Archaeology

Hiebert says there’s a similarity between the real props and the real artifacts on display at the Adventure of Archaeology exhibit. While new technologies like 3D scanning have ushered in a new golden era for modern archaeology, the fictional world of Indiana Jones deserves much of the credit for the field’s popularity.

“Who’s the most famous archaeologist in the world? It’s not Zahi Hawass, not Fred Hiebert — it’s Indiana Jones, and as long as you accept the fact that it’s a fantasy story, it can be a great inspiration,” Hiebert says. “We want to inspire kids to say, ‘These movies are really cool’, and then we want them to come in here and say, ‘Real archaeology is just as cool’.”


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I am an Online Content Specialist from Edmonton at the AMA. Am happiest when it is gloriously gloomy outside.