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The Enduring Myths of Raiders of the Lost Ark

People who read the works of contemporary scientists online have probably run into a few archaeologists who were inspired to go into the field by Indiana Jones. I know I have. Real life archaeology turns out to be quite different from the adventures onscreen. Yeah, we've read biographies of quite a few men who were said to be "the inspiration for Indiana Jones," and Harrison Ford's portrayal may have been relatively accurate for the time period, but what went on before and what came after are different worlds.

Forty years after Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered to the public on June 12, 1981, the outsized shadow of Indy still looms large over the field he ostensibly represented. Over three movies in the 1980s, plus a prequel television series and a fourth film that came out in 2008, Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr., became indelibly tied to American archaeology. Despite it being set in the 1930s, an homage to the popcorn serials of the 1940s, and a cinematic blockbuster of the 1980s, Raiders of the Lost Ark is still influential to aspiring and veteran archaeologists alike. Even in the 21st century, several outdated myths about archaeological practice have endured thanks to the “Indiana Jones effect.” And contemporary archaeologists, many of whom harbor a love/hate relationship with the films, would like to set the record straight.

Even though the real work is not an Indiana Jones movie, the archaeologists who were inspired by the character enjoy their work, or they wouldn't still be doing it. Read about the work of modern archaeologists and how they compare to the cinematic version at Smithsonian.

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