The archaeologist in film

There are many movies that involve history. Night at the Museum, Schindler’s List, Michiel de Ruyter, are only a couple of names. However, there are not that much films that involve archaeology, and even less films that involve archaeology in a archaeologically correct way.

So how historically correct is 300? (Source: Warner Bros.)
So how historically correct is 300? (Warner Bros.)

“Ooh you study archaeology? That is so cool, I always wanted to be like Indiana Jones when I was young.” How many times have archaeologists not heard this? Indiana Jones is still the top 3 of IMDb’s top 40 of archaeology-movies. Followed by other well-known titles as The Mummy, Jurassic Park (when will people learn the difference between dinosaurs and archaeology?), and even Pirates of the Caribbean.  But how archaeologically correct are some of these famous films really?

Provenance, Indy?
Indiana Jones, probably the most well-known archaeologist in the world, is at first a professor. In  Raiders of the Lost Ark you will see Jones give a lecture on a Neolithic site mentioning the dangers of folklore and treasure-hunters. This is actually a very realistic lecture, and many young archaeologists will have had similar lectures about case studies and the dangers that lurk around. It sounds a bit hypocritical though, as this warning comes from the world’s most famous archaeologist who does nothing when it comes to documenting finds and places. Indiana makes sure finds end up in museums, and therefore he is the good guy. Technically speaking, Indiana’s work is a form of archaeology, but this form has not been used since the Grand Tour went out of style. So you would think a movie made in 1981 would know the difference between treasure hunting and proper archaeology. And Indiana rarely had the time to make proper notes about provenance as he mostly ran from the sites as fast as possible after obtaining treasures (often chased by German enemies and large rolling stones).

Archaeologists may act differently than Indiana, but when asked in 2007 by a Lycoming College project almost all participants in the research answered that when thinking of archaeologists, they saw a man in the desert wearing khaki clothing and an ‘Indiana Jones hat’ digging for lost treasures to put these in museums. It might hurt even more, when the same research showed that most people think destruction is ‘okay’ if it means getting access to these treasures. Thank you Indy.

So what about provenance? It seems to be one of the most important things when it comes to archaeological finds, and the word is often used in Museum Studies. Indiana Jones does not seem to have heard of it though, because it means taking notes, photos, or at least some form of a soil sample before running off with some golden object. No wonder people think taking cultural heritage and selling it online is perfectly okay.

The ruins of Sparta. (Thomas Ihle)
The ruins of Sparta. (Thomas Ihle)

Spartans vs. mythical beasts?
Let’s get one thing straight: the film 300 (yes, from that famous line “This is Sparta!”) is not based on any historical or archaeological record. This Battle of Thermopylae is based on a comic book. Unfortunately, a lot of people who saw the movie don’t know this and think it is based on the legendary battle that took place in 480 BC.

A good movie can’t work its magic without some villain, some heroes, and some general fiction. This is where 300 differs from reality. Starting with Leonidas himself. Leonidas seems to be the only ruler, but Sparta always had two kings that ruled with equal power. And the army was not 300, but over 7000 men strong. Greek soldiers from other major city-states joined the Spartan king in his battle.

But of course, this is not what people think about. They wonder about the mythical warriors of the Persian army. Did the Persians really use rhino’s and elephants? No, they did not.
Elephants were not used in warfare until the 4th century BC, and this practice started in India. It took a while for the strategy to come to Persia so Xerxes could not have known of this beast as a tool of war. How about rhinos? Well, Rhinos cannot be truly domesticated or trained like horses and elephants. And have you ever seen a rhino? Those animals are like walking tanks, no way you can spur them!

So no war-beasts, no magic, and no freaky-looking mutant-creatures. The Immortals, however, did exist. They looked nothing like samurai, but they were indeed Xerxes personal bodyguard and made up the elite-troops of the Persian army.
The final, and very disputable, thing is the size of Xerxes’ army. The narrator of the film says that they were ‘in the millions’, and ancient sources do comply. But more recent research done by writer Tom Holland states that it was a maximum of 500.000 soldiers, coming from every corner and tribe of the Persian empire. The end, with the shower of arrows, is correct. In 1939 archaeologists found large numbers of Persian arrowheads and human remains, identifying the spot where the last Spartans died. During this final battle, king Leonidas was already dead…

Photo credit: Dr._Colleen_Morgan via / CC BY
What archaeology really look like. (Dr._Colleen_Morgan via / CC BY)

Learning… Always learning
There is one thing that is completely archaeologically correct about The Librarian’s franchise: we learn, and then we learn some more in the real world. They also talk about curiosity, knowledge, and proper storing (no touching!) of ancient artefacts. In all fairness, it seems that this franchise (which is now shooting the third season of its new tv-series) has done its research on archaeologists and their work. But a movie wouldn’t be a movie without something going wrong… So of course there are traps, moving walls, some romance, lots of treasure, you know: normal film-stuff.

So how archaeologically correct is The Librarian really? One thing has to be said for the movies: they get the mix of archaeology just right. Archaeologists do not only work with ancient pottery, human remains, or treasure. We use a mix of historic sources, linguistics, ancient artefacts, and strange locations. And archaeologists are no treasure hunters!

When it comes to proper archaeological reseach, it is true that Flynn is much more interested in information than Indiana Jones. Indiana does not do research, and focuses on just getting the treasure. Flynn at least stops to spot an arrowhead and wants to collect it as it is a diagnostic find. Remember that word from all survey-work done?
And the rest? Well… It is still a movie, which would probably not sell well if there wasn’t some action in it. And for some reason, archaeological remains really hate action. Something with breaking and getting lost forever.

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