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Treasure Hunting on Television

Treasure Hunters On TV


Most people know the worlds of archaeology and treasure hunting only from TV, especially from the famous "Indiana Jones" movies. This article gives a comment concerning the fact content of these movies and the relationship between archaeologists and treasure hunters as depicted in these works of fiction.

To start with, archaeologists and treasure hunters have different priorities. For the archaeologists finding knowledge is the most relevant issue while for treasure hunters financial considerations are important. Their goals do not differ as completely as the archaeologists claim, though. For both the thrill of finding is a major motivation. Additionally, also archaeologists have - at least unofficially - an interest in spectacular finds.

The funds granted for their work depends largely on public reception. This reception is much more positive when things are found that are interesting to the public. Some meagre pot sherds, no matter how historically relevant, do not create public attention.

Though this mechanism is officially not mentioned often by the archaeologists it clearly exists. In the traditionally boring German archaeology this was demonstrated by the find of the star disk of Nebra, a bronze disc with the oldest depiction of a concrete star cluster (Pleiades) known to man. It led to exhibitions, publications and a nice career for the archaeologist in charge. This find was made by private searchers and later confiscated by archaeologists.

Too much public attention, on the other hand, is harmful for the scientific process. For instance, if the archaeologist in charge has to give so many interviews no time is left for publication or if the excavation receives uninvited visitors at night these are negative sides of publicity.

Indiana Jones

Part 1 Raiders of the lost Ark (1981)
Part 2 The Temple of Doom (1984)
Part 3 The last Crusade (1989)
Part 4 The Ravages of Time (scheduled for 2008 – maybe)

Parts 1 and 3 are good in my opinion. All parts starring Harrison Ford. First choice was Tom Selleck who had to decline since he was under contract for the “Magnum” TV series.

The every day work of archaeologists has nothing to do with the Indiana Jones movies. Even the movie series mentions this discrepancy in a humorous way. In part 3 "Indiana Jones and the last Crusade", Indiana, as professor in a classroom scene, says to his students that archaeology is mainly about library work and "never ever anywhere did a cross mark an important spot". Later in that movie a big cross in the floor of a former church marked a grave site essential to the plot.

Most archaeologists would not accept "Indiana Jones" as a colleague but would rather dismiss him as a treasure hunter. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine him applying for a digging permit at the local authorities. In "Indiana Jones 1 " he sells found artefacts to a museum represented by his friend Marcus Brody. Markus says "The museum will buy them without questions, as always" and - in an ironic undertone - "I am sure everything you do is in compliance with international treaties concerning the protection of cultural items" (translated from German movie version).

This scene has a true core. Since museums have a strong interest in purchasing spectacular items they are in a conflict to the monument protection authorities. Should a spectacular item of unknown origin be bought? This debate was led with many words over countless years though two words are sufficient to describe the positions. The museums usually say "Yes" since their cabinets would be quite empty if they buy official finds only. For them, this weighs heavier than all academic consideration. The monument protection authorities say "No", because this will encourage unauthorised diggings.

Fact content Indiana Jones

Of course, the "Indiana Jones" movies are works of fiction designed to entertain. Still, in same cases they contain amazingly well researched pieces of information. For instance, in "Indiana Jones 1 - Raiders of the lost ark" Indiana, when talking to FBI agents, describes the antique Egyptian city of Tanis as "one of the assumed places of the Ark of the Covenant". This is not a mere invention.

Tanis was an important city, maybe even the capital, of pharao Scheschonq 1 who was mentioned in the Old Testament under the name of Schischak. (These are German spellings. In the English speaking world he is called Shoshenq, Sheshonk or Sheshonq.)

This Pharao conquered Jerusalem around 925 BC though it is not sure whether he plundered the city or took ransom. The latter assumption is supported by the fact that this pharao left a list of some 165 cities destroyed in this campaign and Jerusalem is not on that list. Anyway, advocates of one (of many) Ark of the Covenant theories suggest the Ark was taken to Tanis thereafter.

TV series

Some 20 years after the first Indiana Jones episode two TV series belonging to the same genre were produced.

Relic Hunter (1999)
starring Tia Carrere as professor Sidney Fox

I like to watch all episodes. The character Sidney Fox is similar to Indiana Jones. Formally an university professor, she hardly spends time in lectures but is involved in relic hunting adventures all over the world. Politically correct, in contrast to Indiana Jones recovered items are handed over to local museums without financial demands.
The fact content is relative good for a movie of that genre and suited as an entry point for absolute beginners. However, the main attractions are Mrs. Carrere and the adventures of treasure hunting.

Adventure Inc. (2002)
The, well, interlectual level is lower than in Relic Hunter. However, those who are addicted to treasure hunting stories do not ask that sort of question. Actress Karen Cliche is medicine for the eyes and the plot is bearable.

(C) Thorsten Straub 2006-2011.

Treasure Hunting for Knowledge and Fame