Why Indiana Jones’s artefacts are based on forgeries
The real-life academic Judy Sund questions the authenticity of Dr Jones’s movie treasures in her book Exotic
When you think of an archaeologist, who do you picture? You may well have an image of Dr. Henry Walton "Indiana" Jones in mind, the swashbuckling hero of the antiquities department, played by Harrison Ford in the blockbuster Stephen Spielberg films.
They're fun, thrilling films, that have done much to enliven the often much more slow-paced ancient, material examination. Unfortunately, in glamourising archaeology, the movies have tended to draw on the less plausible stories behind ancient civilisations, rather than hard, historical fact, as Judy Sund, Professor of Modern European Art and Art of the Americas at the City University of New York explains in our new book Exotic: A Fetish for the Foreign.
This new publication explores our obsession with the lure of distant lands and their promise of the weird and wonderful, the beautiful and grotesque, showing how 'the foreign,' has been absorbed into Western society, contributing to it cultural dynamism and artistic energy.
Exotic runs through the West’s obsession with the Ottoman Empire, China, and Egypt, but it’s in the chapter entitled Exotics Everywhere: 19th- 20th Century Proliferation that Sund digs into the Mesoamerican items that informed Dr Jones’s creators.
“Although select carvings and feather-work collected by sixteenth-century conquistadors were preserved, most Aztec artworks had long since been destroyed as idolatrous or melted into bullion,” Sund writes. “Buried antiquities would continue to be unearthed as Mexico City modernized, but demand for pre-Columbian objects outstripped supply and prompted much forgery.
"A skull carved from rock crystal, acquired by the British Museum in 1897, was considered a model of Aztec virtuosity until twentieth-century microscopic examination showed evidence of nineteenth- century manufacture. An exotic construct masquerading as fifteenth-century artefact, the skull had been carefully crafted from a non-Mexican material by a forger looking to please a modern audience. His continuing success is evidenced by New Age guru's insistence on the venerable power of the long-discredited object – a claim reinforced by Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).
“In that film, Peruvian geoglyphs, Amazonian jungle and Maya tombs intertwine with visitors from outer space – the premier twentieth-century addition to the roster of exotics. The film’s plot draws on pop theories that pre-Columbian objects ‘too good’ to be made by Amerindians were actually crafted by aliens – a plot point the film’s designers reinforced by reshaping the British Museum’s skull to make it resemble the head of the stereotypic extra-terrestrial known as the ‘Roswell Grey’.”
However, that’s not the only less-than-authentic artefact in the movie franchise. The best-loved scene in all of Indiana Jones movies comes at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when our hero manages to escape from a booby-trapped cave, pursued by a rolling boulder, having successfully plundered a golden crouching figure.
"The object that Jones snatches was based on another modern forgery – the so-called ‘birthing figure’ once hailed as a model of Aztec craftsmanship and as an anthropologically informative depiction of natural childbirth,” writes Sund. “Art director Norman Reynolds exaggerated the figurine’s Otherness by further enlarging its oversized head and grimace, and transformed it from ethnographic curiosity to treasure-hunters’ prize by making it gold – the material for which Westerners have most reliably been willing to risk life and limb."
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to discover the ingenious, and captivating work of 19th century fakers drew the eye of Reynolds and Spielberg, over the authentic, though perhaps dustier, duller artefacts. As Exotic makes clear, over the centuries, most artists – movie makers included – like to spice up the strange and unfamiliar.
For more on Indy’s forgeries and plenty more besides, order a copy of Exotic here.