Thursday, December 15, 2011

On Being Called "Indiana Jones"

For serious archaeologists, the relationship to the Indiana Jones mythology is an uncomfortable one. On the one hand, there's a comical quality to "Dr. Jones" that cannot be taken seriously. The fantastical adventures he goes on
and mystical treasures he finds are as divorced from reality as any other action film might be. Thus, the scholar finds it necessary to constantly remind students, readers and visitors to the museum exhibit that "real" archaeology is "nothing like the movies." Therefore, for someone to suggest that an archaeologist is "being like Indiana Jones" is somewhat insulting, as though they are not appearing as "scholarly" as they want to be. The label reveals that the scholar is not to be taken seriously. It can be discouraging.

On the other hand, the Indiana Jones movies and mythology has done much to raise popular awareness regarding the joys and excitement of real discovery. Not unlike how police television dramas inspire young people to grow up to have actual law enforcement careers, they know that reality and film differ, but one inspired the other anyway. Legitimate or not, the film character has inspired many a young researcher to joyfully enter the field or for donors to fund a discovery project. For this reason, Harrison Ford was elected to the board of directors for the Archaeological Institute of America because his legendary character had "played a significant role in stimulating the public's interest in archaeological exploration." Thus archaeologists can unapologetically own "Indiana Jones" as a sort of tongue-in-cheek mascot.

However, this "mascot" has to be utilized within reason. While the fictional character may have inspired young scholars to pursue the thrill of "adventure," they also know that "adventure" is a relative term. The thrill of discovery was no less powerful to them just because they reached their conclusions through hours spent in the lab rather than through car chases with Nazis. Thus, the "Jones" label needs to remain unspoken, lest it rob the scholar's research of some of it's deserved respect. The author that calls themselves "a real life Indiana Jones," is shedding his credibility in academia for the sake of selling more sensationalized books or enjoying the rock star status of a speaking circuit. A scholar that is desiring respect in his field, though secretly enjoys watching Harrison Ford pursue the Holy Grail, likely will cringe if friends and family says he or she seems like "Indiana Jones" (colleagues would know better than to invoke the Jones reference).

Knowing this uneasy interplay of inspiration and embarrassment, I've dangerously waded into that soup by unabashedly keeping the trappings that inspire me (i.e. a brown, felt fedora), all the while pursuing scholarly work that avoids the sensationalism spouted by those claiming to be "a real life Indiana Jones." Thus it can be said I've brought the embarrassing label on myself, and have no grounds for avoiding it. Nevertheless, my beloved spouse sees me donning my "thinking cap" and realizes it simply inspires me to spend that many more hours in the library, the lab and in the field. So the balance is to enjoy my little reminders to myself of how exciting I find "real" archaeology, hoping that people DON'T get around to saying, "Wow! You look just like..." It's an unreasonable expectation, I know. Who can blame those that reference the mythic action hero? They don't know how much I'd like to leave that motivating image from my youth left unspoken in the conversation. Somethings are just for me to know about, reminding myself of the secret thrill of pursuing what I love...but the hat is a little difficult to conceal under the rest of the clothes. If, however, I can make it to the library or the lab without anyone drawing the connection between the hat and a popular film character, the research seems just a little more sweet when I get there.

If I were THAT committed to avoiding being called "Indiana Jones," I'd leave the hat at home. I suppose a less secure man would be highly offended by the seeming loss of respect inherent in having the connection made between them as a scholar and the action star. I, however, simply smile and admit that some myths can inspire people toward real scholarship. I suppose it also helps to prevent me from taking myself too seriously as well. Nevertheless, it's a delicate balance of being inspired by a youthful myth while growing up to do the "real" work.

Inspirations have their place. What inspires you?

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