Indiana Jones, My Foot: Busting Popular Archeology Myths

Most people have only a general idea of what an archaeologist does, since it’s easy to confuse them with similar scientists. Join us as we dig up and expose several common archeology myths.

It’s fun to believe in the classic archeology myths of the dashing tomb raider, diving into danger to rescue rare artifacts. But take it from a former archaeologist: all that’s Hollywood hooey. Lara Croft and Indiana Jones are as typical of the average archaeologist as Clark Kent is typical of the average American.

For one thing, we rarely carry guns (except in places where something might try to eat you). As for wanton destruction of the very things you’re supposed to save — well, that’ll get you drummed out of the profession in a hurry. And while we’re here, let’s set the record straight on a few other misconceptions, too.

Myth 1: Archaeologists spend their time looking for dinosaur bones.

This is one archeology myth we just can’t shake. For some reason, we’re often confused with paleontologists, scientists who really do hunt for old bones. It probably has something to do with the similar field methodologies and the tools we use; and in many ways, admittedly, the fields are related.

However, archaeologists are after evidence of past human activity. We’ll accept anything from ancient fire pots to house foundations, worn out chipped stone tools to kitchen remnants. In a very real sense, archaeologists study garbage, piecing together an understanding of past cultures from what they’ve discarded.

Myth 2: Archaeologists never want for adventure.

Thank you, Hollywood, for this archeology myth. It is to laugh. Archeology is often fascinating and even exciting, but it’s rarely thrilling. Anyway, adventure tends to mean no baths, bad food, and constant danger. We like to avoid those things as much as we can, though bad food seems to follow us wherever we go.

Most of an archaeologist’s days involve either walking for miles and digging little pits in likely-looking spots, or scraping up dirt from a square or rectangular hole and running it through a screen — which is a real treat when you’re digging through clay. Sometimes they even find something. All in all, it’s hard work.

Myth 3: Archaeologists are basically grave robbers.

It can be argued that there’s a grain of truth to this archeology myth. In their defense, when archaeologists find a burial, they excavate it carefully, recording as much data as they can. Sometimes they scientifically examine the remains in an attempt to understand how the person lived and what they ate.

Grave robbers just steal, and are contemptuous of the dead. Archaeologists, on the other hand, treat burials respectfully, and usually eventually rebury the remains. While it’s true that the profession wasn’t as concerned about reburial in the past, it’s more or less standard practice today, at least in the Americas.

Most of us hear this charge at one time or another. Sometimes it comes from native peoples concerned about the treatment of their ancestors’ remains; sometimes it comes from people whose interests are impacted by archaeological fieldwork. Either way, it’s a particularly hurtful archeology myth.

So, grab your popcorn and enjoy that new Indiana Jones flick coming out soon. But remember, it’s full of archeology myths!