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The Man in the Fedora May 20, 2008
by Mark Rose

A look at the new movie, archaeology, crystal skulls, aliens, and Indiana Jones

Intro: 19 Years later...

It's 1957. The Nazis are history, but the free world is facing a new menace, the Soviet Union and its remorseless communist cadres sporting accents like Boris and Natasha's from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. The bad guys, led by Colonel Professor Spalko, are searching for an alien corpse stored in Hangar 51 (along with the Ark of the Covenant)... Enough introduction, here are some observations about the movie from an archaeologist's perspective.


Official Movie Website Homepage


Surprising Arky Bits

Scattered throughout the film are bits of archaeology--history and artifacts--that are sometimes very well done, other times aggravating. At the beginning, Professor Jones is at Marshall College lecturing about Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement on Orkney's west coast that is today threatened by coastal erosion. Excavated first by V. Gordon Childe from 1928 to 1930, and later in the 1970s, it was a small settlement occupied from 3000 to 2500 B.C. (Indy's dates in the film are a bit off, but might represent the view current in 1957.) It must have been a wide-ranging lecture as the blackboard behind Jones has a cuneiform text written on it.

Another archaeological moment occurs after Jones and his young sidekick Mutt crash a motorcycle in the college library. A student walks up to the slightly shaken scholar and asks for help with research, and Jones tells him to read--who else--V. Gordon Childe on diffusion. That's an interesting selection in the context of a movie set in the Cold War. Childe (1892-1957) authored such classic works as The Dawn of European Civilization (1925) and The Danube in Prehistory (1929). A proponent of the idea that domestication and civilization arose in the Near East and spread (diffused) to Europe from there, Childe was also a lifelong Marxist and one of the few Western scholars approved of in Soviet archaeological circles. Perhaps the scriptwriter knew this and added Childe as a subtle indication that Jones, although an unabashed patriot, wouldn't "blacklist" a fellow scholar because of his beliefs.


Dr. Jones recommends V. Gordon Childe

On the subject of Jones and patriotism, the question of his service in the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) during World War II gets a bit of screen time. In fact, many archaeologists served in this way, devoting their knowledge of languages and geography to the defeat of the Axis powers. For more about archaeologists as spies, see our article "Cloak and Trowel."

Conquistador Francisco de Orellana, who appears as a mummy in the film, was real. A relative of the Pizarro brothers, he was a captain of the expedition that set out from Quito in search of Eldorado, the legendary city of gold, in 1541. Orellana led part of the expedition down the Amazon, reaching the river's mouth in late August 1542. But he didn't find Eldorado, or the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for that matter. He died four years later, having sailed from Spain in a failed attempt to conquer and colonize the lower Amazon region.

Another archaeological moment is slightly odd. Instead of heaps and heaps of gold, the treasure in the film consists of a massive display of replica artifacts within a pyramid in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Presumably aliens don't require gold, so cultural and artistic masterpieces were used instead. It prompts Indy to say of the alien beings, "They were archaeologists." Hmmm.... As the sequence flashed by I noticed a terracotta warrior of Shihuangdi, a statue from Tut's tomb, a Thai temple carving, and some Buddhas. The props department pulled out all the stops for this scene. For good measure, on one side of the chamber is a massive doorway flanked by Mesoamerican feathered serpent carvings (I've seen similar ones at the Maya site Uxmal).

A question for Mayanists who see the film: is the crooked nose god sculpture on the pyramid that appears fleetingly in one scene supposed to be the Maya deity Chaac?

Not the Skulls!

I really wish the movie hadn't gone the alien route, but once the crystal skulls were selected as the focal point, the die was cast. Fortunately the morphology of the crystal skulls made for the film had an elongated, bean shape (a bit like Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and the Amarna princesses). If it had matched the platycephalic shape of Jar Jar Binks' head from Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, I would have been despondent. There's little to say here, really. The crystal skulls are fakes. Just read "Legend of the Crystal Skulls."

Looking at aliens depicted on a fresco, Indy ends up ascribing to them the spread of farming and irrigation in this part of the world. Even a diffusionist like V.G. Childe might spin in his grave as a result. Aliens. "Interdimensional beings, in point of fact," says Jones's colleague Oxley. From "the space between spaces." Well, why not. If you allow the Ark of the Covenant in the first movie, maybe you can't object too strongly to aliens in the fourth...on the other hand, the Ark is an historical or at least legendary thing, while the crystal skulls and aliens aren't.


The Ark of the Covenant makes a cameo appearance in the new film.

The Smashing Ending

The ending of this film--at least the big action ending--seemed familiar to me. Essentially what happens is the Maya-esque pyramid set in the jungle on the floor of a large, circular valley starts collapsing. That's what you expect in a film like this, so okay. Then, as our stars look on from a safe vantage point, the debris starts hurtling around the crumbling pyramid in a vortex of stone and the occasional tree. Self-destructing pyramid? Whirling stuff? It's very similar to the ending of The Mummy Returns from 2001. Perhaps there's a paper to be written there describing the effects of cataclysmic vortices on Egyptian vs. Maya pyramids. To finish things, the aliens then take off in a gigantic spaceship (think Close Encounters), apparently buried beneath the pyramid, and depart. Of course this raises the burning--and unanswered question--do interdimensional beings really need a spaceship?

Which Indy is the Best?

The fourth Indiana Jones movie is now out. How does it stack up against the others? Tell us which one is your favorite...

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
I love them all
I don't like any of them
Already voted?
Click here for current results.

What About the Movie?

As just another audience member, I enjoyed seeing Indiana Jones back in action. Even with the basic problems with the script--a bunch of fake crystal skulls and aliens at the foundation of it all--Indiana Jones and action movie fans will certainly appreciate this movie. Harrison Ford (actor) and Indiana Jones (character) carry the film. Cate Blanchette and Karen Allen do well as Irina Spalko and Marion Ravenwood. The Mutt character played by Shia LaBeouf, however, is contrived: channeling a young Marlon Brando in the role of James Dean as a rebel with no real reason to be a rebel. And I thought some of the chase sequences, like the Tarzan routine, extended beyond what was needed. Is it the best of the four Indiana Jones flicks? I still like the first one best and maybe Last Crusade better than this one. Let us know what you think--take our poll!

The Website

The official Kingdom of the Crystal Skull website is a model of how big budget movies are no longer just films but brands. There's a lot of free stuff: photogalleries with still images, video clips that show filming, interview bites, sets (house), etc. There's even an "Indy Community" section capitalizing on the popularity of social networking via the web. It features downloadable banners, icon images, posters, and photos to download for those who want to brand themselves with Indiana Jones stuff.

One video clip on the site, "Indy's Hat and Jacket," is worth watching. In it, director Steven Spielberg says, "I think with the exception of the shark in Jaws and ET, I've only made a couple of movies when I can put the silhouette of the leading character up on the screen, just the silhouette, and people immediately know where that comes from." That's a real insight given that the film virtually begins and ends with Indy putting on the fedora. The clip also has Harrison Ford clowning around on the set of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, seemingly stapling the hat to his head so it doesn't come off during filming.


Golden Idol, based on a fake


Holy Grail, based on legend


Staff of Ra, made up

The other part of the website I liked was the Marshall College section. It has a number of pages from Indiana Jones's history, characters from earlier films--villains and good guys, and the various artifacts featured in the films, such as the Staff of Ra from the original movie. It also has the gold idol from the first film, which it says is based on a real one. Too bad the "real one" is a fake. You can read about it in Smithsonian anthropologist Jane Walsh's article "Legend of the Crystal Skulls."

In the section of the website devoted to merchandise ($$$), it gets intense. There are movie tickets, of course, but the other stuff, all about promoting the brand, is almost overwhelming. They have t-shirts, Lego sets, a "special edition" version of three earlier films, Crystal Skull trading cards from Topps, and an Indiana Jones action figure. You can buy a Crystal Skull key chain for $8.99 or a "fine art" print for $295.00. But do you really want to buy your kid an Indiana Jones sound effects whip? Fedoras? Those are $41.99. Of course, I already have a fedora. It belonged to my grandfather.

Mark Rose is Online Editorial Director, Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). This website is a publication of the AIA, and Harrison Ford has been elected to the Institute's Governing Board.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America