Thursday, May 22, 2008

Scientists dig Indy's exploits - to a point

Scientists dig Indy's exploits - to a point

Archaeology professors and students get inspiration and a few chuckles from the "Indiana Jones" movies.

Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Thursday, May 22, 2008, p. E-1 ff.
By BILL WARD, Star Tribune

The new "Indiana Jones" movie inspired Rob Lusteck, an anthropology student working on his doctorate at the University of Minnesota.

"Ahh, the Indiana Jones effect," anthropology Prof. William Beeman intoned solemnly. It was clear what was coming next: a scholarly dismantling, a pedantic pooh-poohing, of Hollywood's glamorization and fabrications of a serious science.

Except. ...

"We love it," exclaimed the chair of the University of Minnesota's Department of Anthropology, which includes archaeology. "There's no question our enrollment goes up when one of these movies comes out. And not just Indy. We have the 'Lara Croft' effect, the 'CSI' effect."

This might explain why the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) last week named Harrison Ford to the organization's board of directors. The group promotes archaeological excavation, research, education and preservation worldwide, and AIA President Brian Rose said Ford's Indiana Jones character has played a major part in stimulating interest in archaeological exploration.

Ford's fictional exploits certainly reeled in Rob Lusteck when the U of M doctoral candidate was a boy. "I thought 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' was the greatest film ever, or at least since 'Star Wars,'" Lusteck said. And because there was little likelihood of his becoming a Jedi warrior or even an X-Wing pilot in this lifetime, the kid from Jackson, Miss., opted for anthropology.

Fellow grad student Steven Blondo also was in second grade when he decided he would be an archaeologist. But he said the Indy movies "solidified my decision" more than spawning it. "I mean, who wouldn't want to escape giant boulders and Nazis without losing your hat and always getting the girl?" said the Minneapolis resident.

Fortunately for Beeman and his fellow professors, most students arrive knowing that there's little Hollywood-style derring-do and glamour in this field of study. For the others. ...

"We quickly disabuse them -- get them out on the site with the little sable brushes," he said. "But the truth is that once students get some real field experience, they get excited."

Down and dirty

Like most vocations, Lusteck and Blondo agreed, theirs is a mixed bag, with some of the more mundane work requiring an Indiana Jones-like ardor for the topic.

Lusteck called archaeology "incredibly interesting" and "tedious at times, but it is from the tedium that true discoveries are made." Blondo said he loves his work, but allowed that "there is a lot more research and paper-pushing than anyone realizes. You don't always get to go dig wherever you want to, and you can't pick up anything without first photographing and writing down where you found it."

Archaeology, a subfield of anthropology, is a meticulous vocation, involving a slow uncovering of the cultures of those who came before us.

"It starts with just dirt," said Beeman, "but you can uncover pottery and buildings and all sorts of stuff you didn't know was there -- just not necessarily the gold. But a whole pattern of existence of people who are long gone suddenly emerges before your eyes; that's the real wonder we want to inspire them with."

What, no treasure trove, no Ark of the Covenant?

"Though it would be nice to find the Holy Grail," said Blondo, "there is satisfaction learning about local history and putting together the pieces."

Laughing at the gaffes

Archaeology folks have a not-so-secret guilty pleasure: watching movies that portray their field and howling at the gaffes, which a group of students does every Thursday night. Portrayals of archaeologists as treasure hunters, often funded by mysterious benefactors, is only the half of it. Indeed, a lot of movies get the facts about half right.

"There's a scene in 'Holy Grail' where Indiana Jones enters a temple," said Beeman. "They went to Petra, Jordan, and filmed him entering a façade called the Treasury. It's the real deal and a wonderful façade, but it's just that: a façade. It goes back about 2 feet. When he enters and all of a sudden he's in a giant cavern with weird bridges, that's total fantasy. But the archaeological site is a real one."

And don't even get Beeman started on the recent movie "10,000 B.C." ("Oh, my goodness, it went beyond the pale, the mixup of time periods -- it was just hilarious") or the "Clan of the Cave Bear" books. "It's like they wake up and say 'OK, it's Monday, we're going to invent agriculture,' and then 'OK, it's Tuesday, we're going to invent pottery.' We get a huge laugh out of all this stuff."

Ironically, he added, movies and books are just about the only avenue for getting young folks interested in anthropology, which is rarely taught in elementary or high schools.

"No one is getting exposure to anthropology except through popular culture," Beeman said, adding that in these movies, "there's enough reality there to sort of launch the fantasy. If that's what hooks people into wanting to explore some of these ideas in greater depth, it's wonderful."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643