Ancient Egypt-mania, preserving antiquities and why Indiana Jones is an archaeological looter

On any given day, you may find numerous documentaries about ancient Egypt – just do a cursory search on YouTube to find multiple results. The Indiana Jones movie franchise increased interest in and public awareness of archaeology. That is all well and good, except for one pertinent fact – Indiana Jones is a treasure hunter, and his behaviour is more in line with archaeological looting.

Let’s examine this subject.

Archaeologists today would have no problems with punching Nazis – as Indiana Jones does. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones replaces a gold statue with a sandbag and hightails it out of the cave – the behaviour of a looter. He shows no curiosity about the numerous traps in the cave, how they worked and survived intact over the centuries, resistant to humidity and natural deterioration. The indigenous tribes turn out to be hostile and treacherous, cooperating with Belloq, the villainous French archaeologist who steals the artefacts that Jones retrieves.

While Spielberg blended fact with fantasy, he overstepped the mark by portraying the French character Belloq as a deceitful and opportunistic villain. If not for the painstaking and persistent hard work of the French – and in particular, Napoleon Bonaparte – Egyptology would never have taken off as a branch of archaeology.

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he brought with him not only soldiers, but an army of scholars, scientists, researchers and writers to collect and document ancient Egyptian artefacts. Prior to Napoleon, Greece and Rome were known through Europe as ancient civilisations. The French expedition broadened the knowledge of Europe to include Egypt as an equivalent ancient civilisation. National Geographic wrote that:

Along with 35,000 soldiers, more than 160 scholars and artists traveled to Egypt in 1798. Officially known as the Commission of the Sciences and Arts of Egypt, this group would end up making a greater contribution to history than the French fighting forces. Their careful work, carried out over many years, would give birth to the field of Egyptology in Europe and reveal to the world the history of the grand civilization that had ruled along the Nile for millennia.

French illustrators painstakingly drew detailed drawings of what they found, and numerous engravers reproduced plates of the archaeological findings in Egypt. In the era before photography, everything had to be reproduced by hand. Multivolume collections were produced, and French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion was the first to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, opening up that ancient language to a modern audience.

With all due respect to Hollywood filmmakers, Indiana Jones and Brendan Fraser fighting the curse of the mummy, ancient Egypt was the first regional state and had philosophy, grand architecture and remarkable civilisational achievements.

The French military expedition to Egypt was defeated, and the British moved in – taking with them most of the Egyptian antiquities, although the French were able to keep the illustrations and documents they created. Egyptian artefacts ended up in the British national museum. This raises an interesting question – Indiana Jones, alone out of all the archaeological competitors, wants to retrieve artefacts for museums. A noble goal, but we have to ask – which museum?

Jones is endeavouring to steal antiquities, not for the museums of the country in which he operates, but for either British or American museums – precisely the behaviour of an archaeological looter. Jones may be an appealing, wise-cracking character with a fedora hat whose handy with a whip – but that has nothing to do with archaeology.

The main impression – implicit yet important – in the Indiana Jones movies is the white saviour, an outsider motivated only by the purest of intentions, risks life and limb to help the native civilisations preserve their archaeological artefacts from unscrupulous foreigners. What exactly is this implicit theme based upon? If anything, the American presence in archaeologically significant sites has been destructive and disrespectful to the local ethnicities.

When it comes to the Mesopotamian civilisations, we may see that the natives looked after their archaeological heritage very effectively. Mesopotamia – modern day Iraq – is home to ancient cultures. Archaeological looting had been a recurring, if not severe, problem in 20th century Iraq. The only time in Iraq’s modern history that archaeological treasures were preserved, looters heavily punished, and archaeology seriously promoted, was under the regime of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party and its leader the late President Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi Ba’ath party, cultivating a strong Iraqi nationalism, heavily increased funding for archaeological research, implemented school and university programs for the study of Mesopotamian civilisations, and constructed protections for Iraqi antiquities. The Iraqi leadership was trying to portray itself as the legitimate inheritors of the Babylonian legacy, and read Iraqi history along nationalist lines. The BBC, ever prone to exaggeration, emphasised the personal aspects of Hussein’s presidency.

Even the BBC had to admit that archaeology flourished under the Ba’ath party’s leadership. Stealing archaeological treasures in Ba’athist Iraq incurred heavy police-state penalties. The 2003 American invasion of Iraq was devastating for archaeology, with widespread looting permitted by the invading authorities. Iraq today is slowly but surely working towards recovering its stolen artefacts.

If you wish to enjoy the Indiana Jones movies, please do so. Just bear in mind that he is not so much an archaeologist, but a treasure hunter; a male Lara Croft with archaeological pretensions.

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