Indiana Jones and the nature of archaeology: Fact and fiction in early 20th century fieldwork

The release of the latest Indiana Jones film presents an opportunity to reflect on how archaeology has been depicted in the franchise. Hélène Maloigne investigates the realities of archaeological fieldwork in the eras spanned by the movies.


With Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the fifth instalment of the popular film franchise, having arrived in UK cinemas in June, archaeologists are once again struggling with their love–hate relationship with the character. Its blockbuster-style storytelling and Harrison Ford’s charm and good looks undeniably secured archaeology a status in the popular imagination it might not otherwise have sustained over the last 40 years. Equally, the films are clearly intended to be pure entertainment, rather than striving for any documentary qualities. Even so, various aspects of the films, including the highly problematic depiction of the appropriation of material culture for personal gain and of some communities, have in the eyes of many archaeologists stained the image of their discipline.

A familiar silhouette. The popularity of Indiana Jones has cast a long shadow over perceptions of archaeology, but just how close to reality is the vision of the discipline presented in the films? Image: Disney
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is the fifth and final film in the blockbuster franchise. Image: Disney

While some archaeologists embrace the popularity of the character and tout themselves as a ‘real-life Indiana Jones’ to promote their lecture tours, others see any truths in the depiction of the profession in the films as relics of a past where such activities were more permissible. I believe this multifaceted legacy can be usefully employed to hold up a mirror to archaeologists. Taking a good hard look at ourselves and at our image in the public imagination can help us reflect on how the past continues to influence the present. Actively engaging with what audiences seem to find most fascinating about our work – whether reality or wishful thinking – can help us examine archaeology today. Problematic elements, such as the looting of archaeological sites, the dismissal of local communities’ contribution to excavations as unskilled labour, and the underrepresentation of women and minorities in the profession are as prevalent today in some parts of the world as they were in the 1930s.

Ever since the first Indiana Jones film, historians of archaeology have searched for ‘the real-life’ inspiration behind the character. The interwar period certainly had its fair share of larger-than-life personalities who might fit the bill. Of course, the character is an amalgamation of its creators’ own cultural influences and choices (Jones was initially conceived as a historian) and casting, rather than springing from a single source. The fact that the franchise nevertheless managed to capture the popular imagination so strongly, however, does speak to its grounding in perceptions of how archaeologists work (especially in South-west Asia and North Africa – SWANA – where two of the first three films are set), how they should look and dress, and how they interact with their local collaborators, government representatives, and philanthropists.

Past archaeologies

So, how was archaeology conducted in the eras when the films are set? In what follows I will look back at three archaeologists who collaborated for more than 30 years, excavated at three sites in the SWANA region, and influenced the methodology and research questions of countless archaeologists who came after them. Their work, and the emphasis they put on popularising and publicising their finds made a crucial contribution to the image of the archaeologist in the 20th century and beyond. Yet most readers will only be familiar with one of their names.

A hundred years ago, in June 1923, Charles Leonard Woolley was frustrated. His first excavation season at Tell al-Muqayyar in southern Iraq had been off to a promising start in November 1922. Funded by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (now the Penn Museum), the first season at ‘Ur of the Chaldees’ had yielded evidence of a multi-level royal precinct and a vast temple complex surrounding the ziggurat (temple tower). Yet, despite this success, Woolley had to end his season in February 1923 due to lack of funds.

Leonard and Katharine Woolley with an unidentified member of the team on the veranda of the excavation house at the north-west tip of Tell Atchana, 1938 1939. Image: © UCL Institute of Archaeology

Landing the directorship at Ur was a major step in Woolley’s career. Like modern-day early career researchers, he had gone from one short-term contract to the next, supplementing his income with newspaper and magazine articles and public lectures (as well as selling the occasional artefact to museums). Before the First World War, Woolley had been field director at Carchemish (in modern-day Turkey) for two seasons, assisted by T E Lawrence (later to be styled ‘of Arabia’). During the war, Woolley served as a military intelligence officer in Cairo, was taken captive while on a mission in the Gulf of Alexandretta in 1916, and spent the remainder of the conflict as a prisoner of war in Turkey. After a short stint at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt in 1920-1921, Woolley was appointed director of the ‘Joint Expedition of the British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania to Mesopotamia’ at Ur in southern Iraq in 1922.

The site had been briefly explored in the 19th century, and again shortly after the Armistice. Woolley was well aware of the challenges of excavating such a large site, both financially and logistically. Despite his best efforts, the quick depletion of funds in 1922/1923 was exacerbated by post-war inflation and the political instability of the region, which had only just become the new nation-state of Iraq, administered as a Mandate by Britain. Difficulties had been foreseen by the directors of the two funding institutions, but their agreement relied on the favourable conditions of operating in a new British colony: the University Museum, backed by American philanthropists, would provide the bulk of the money, while the British Museum would bring its prestige and its ‘influence with local authorities’. The choice of Leonard Woolley as the director of the project further underlines this interconnection between archaeology and the post-war expansion of the British Empire: his links in the region and among the colonial and military administration were vital for the success of the project. During the course of the Ur excavations, as the funding situation continued to fluctuate and occasionally restricted his plans, he called in countless favours through this ‘old boys’ network’: from the Royal Air Force for aerial photography, to Mesopotamian Railways (as the British had named the national rail service in Iraq) for transport and free travel, to the Port Agencies for exemption from export taxes.

Celebrating teamwork

The reconstructed brick ziggurat at Ur. The Woolleys excavated at the site with Sheikh Hamoudi over 12 seasons, from 1922-1934. Image: © Rasool Ali | Dreamstime

But Woolley’s connections went beyond the establishment. Ever since Carchemish, he had relied on his collaborator and friend Sheikh Mohammed bin Sheikh Ibrahim el-Awassi (c.1875-1953), known as Hamoudi, to oversee fieldwork, train staff, source supplies, and arrange the transportation and photography of objects. Yet, despite Sheikh Hamoudi’s nearly 40 years’ work in the profession and his contribution to the excavations at Carchemish, Ur, and later Tell Atchana (ancient Alalakh), he continues to be referred to not as an archaeologist but as ‘Woolley’s foreman’. It is clear from Woolley’s own acknowledgements in each excavation report and article, and from archival records, that he could not have managed such a large project as Ur (with an area of about 50ha, employing up to 500 men and children) without Sheikh Hamoudi’s management and people skills. Yet Woolley remained the sole author or editor of all scholarly output. Over the course of 12 excavation seasons at Ur (1922-1934), he also published countless newspaper and magazine articles: 58 articles in The Times, 25 in The Illustrated London News, two in the Daily Telegraph, three in the Daily Mail, and one in The Observer. Other outlets included the Radio Times, The Listener, Nature, Discovery, The Cornhill Magazine, as well as newspapers in the US. Sheikh Hamoudi often featured prominently in these stories – but he was never listed as co-author.

Hamoudi ibn Sheikh Ibrahim sitting next to one of the lions at a temple entrance (14th-13th century BC) in Tell Atchana. Image: © UCL Institute of Archaeology

The history of archaeology in the SWANA region is replete with figures like Sheikh Hamoudi. Their work as managers, cultural translators, and foremen (Arabic raʾīs, pl. ruʾasāʾ) has overshadowed their key role in the development of fieldwork processes and methodologies, as well as in the discipline more widely. It is true that Sheikh Hamoudi had not studied archaeology. But neither had Leonard Woolley (who studied theology at Oxford) nor most of his contemporaries, as archaeology degrees (let alone research degrees) did not become more widely available in UK universities until the 1930s.

The Indiana Jones films arguably contribute to the continuation of stereotypical depictions of these archaeologists with the character of Sallah (played by the Welsh actor John Rhys-Davis), a bumbling but resourceful Egyptian. It is time to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions by local communities and retire terms such as ‘foreman’ or ‘labourer’ and ‘worker’ that diminish often significant experience, skills, and knowledge.

The head and headdress of Queen Puabi from the Royal Tombs of Ur, reconstructed and sculpted by Katharine Woolley. From The Illustrated London News, 30 June 1928. Image: © Illustrated London News (ILN) Limited

In archaeology, as in the films, women are often also relegated to supporting roles. Over the last 30 years, historians of archaeology have done vital work in foregrounding their contribution as archaeologists in their own right, as well as appreciating the no-less important work of supporting their partners in the field as project managers, fundraisers, proof-readers, and typists. Leonard Woolley’s wife Katharine (1888-1945) fulfilled all these functions and more. A gifted illustrator, sculptor, and conservator, she first joined the team at Ur in 1923/1924 as a volunteer, and married Leonard in 1927. The nature and development of their relationship remains a source of intrigue and speculation to some, with Katharine often remembered as a complicated and demanding, even hypochondriac woman (she suffered from multiple sclerosis). This does not seem to have had an impact on the couple’s working life. Katharine was an integral part of the excavations, taking on the ‘traditional role’ of an archaeologist’s wife, busy with housekeeping, hosting guests, and medical duties (based on her experience as a nurse during the First World War), while at the same time supervising large parts of the excavation work carrying out illustration, conservation, and reconstruction. By creating the reconstructed head and wig of Queen Puabi, whose tomb was discovered at Ur in the so-called Royal Cemetery in 1927/1928, Katharine Woolley was responsible for one of the iconic images of the archaeology of ancient Mesopotamia.

Payday in front of the colonnaded entrance of a palace (15th century BC) at Tell Atchana. Woolley is conducting the procedure together with Hamoudi ibn Sheikh Ibrahim, while Katharine Woolley watches the scene. Image: © UCL Institute of Archaeology

Like her husband, Katharine Woolley recognised the importance of communicating with the public. She published five articles in the Daily Mail during the Ur excavations, one in The Observer, a novel set in Iraq (Adventure Calls, 1929), and a series of four articles for the magazine Britannia and Eve. Despite all this work, she – like Sheikh Hamoudi – never appeared as co-author on any scholarly publication documenting work at Ur or the team’s later excavation at Tell Atchana. No archival records survive to help us understand whether this was Leonard’s decision as project director or an active choice between the two. What is striking, however, is that our publish-or-perish culture operates as a selective memory for the discipline: without your name on a title page, you are likely to remain a footnote in the history of archaeology.

Archaeologists at war

The outbreak of the Second World War interrupted the Woolleys’ and Sheikh Hamoudi’s work at Tell Atchana, ancient Alalakh (Turkey), where they had begun a new excavation in 1936. The fate of archaeological objects during the conflict features in the Dial of Destiny and came to be the Woolleys’ main concern in the following years. Woolley, like many Western archaeologists on both sides of the conflict (and like Indiana Jones) – joined the war effort. In 1939, Woolley was commissioned with the Intelligence Division at the War Office to handle intelligence from the SWANA region. Independently of this work, he began an index of British monuments and works of art in 1941 to assist with restoration in the event of war damage. Utilising his vast network of archaeologists and curators as well as intelligence officers across Europe, he expanded this to incorporate information on works of art in other European museums and collections. This work as a member of the network that later came to be called ‘Monuments Men and Women’ resulted in the establishment of the War Ministry’s Archaeological Advisory Branch, which Woolley headed. Katharine Woolley (who was by then severely ill, and wheelchair-bound from about 1940 until her death) acted as his assistant and secretary, but has received almost no public recognition of her contribution to the efforts to save European and North African archaeological sites, artworks, and museums from looting and destruction. She died in 1945.

One of the major finds of the 1930s excavation at Tell Atchana is the statue of King Idrimi (15th century BC), found in a pit in a temple. The statue is covered by an autobiographical inscription (CWA 83) and is on display in the British Museum. Image: © UCL Institute of Archaeology

Leonard Woolley returned to Tell Atchana for three more seasons (1946-1949), but Sheikh Hamoudi had retired from archaeology, and two of his sons now took over the collaboration with Woolley.

The story of these three archaeologists demonstrates the need to look critically at the past to improve equality and diversity in the present. Imitating Indiana Jones can help us communicate with the public and share what can be most exciting about our work. Equally, while some resonance can certainly be found between the films and past practices and assumptions in archaeology, they often do not show the best side of our profession. Only by studying our past in its historical and cultural context can we move into a better future for all archaeologists.