Indiana Jones whips up interest in archaeology

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A Purdue University professor hopes the latest Indiana Jones film encourages more people to dig archaeology.

“The movies are really fun and exciting to watch, and they make archaeology look interesting,” says Kevin Vaughn, an assistant professor of anthropology. “But they make archaeology interesting in the wrong ways. Finding lost cities or single history-changing artifacts is rare, and that really isn’t the goal of contemporary archaeology in the first place. Our goal is to better understand the broad sweep of the human past, and we do this with pretty meticulous and scientific methods.

“I think many archaeologists would admit that there is a little bit of Indiana Jones in all of us. There is the thrill of discovery, however small, and the knowledge that what we do helps us better understand human history, but what most people don’t realize is that archaeologists spend 99 percent of their time making incremental discoveries and that for every day an archaeologist spends in the field, he or she spends a week or more in the lab processing data.”

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” opened Memorial Day weekend and is in first place at the box office.

Vaughn, who studies the Nasca civilization of Peru –which existed from A.D. 1 to A.D. 750 — says people are surprised that the most common career in archaeology is very different from that personified by Indiana Jones. More than 50 percent of the jobs are in cultural resource management. These specialists often work for the government or private firms to ensure that development projects are in compliance with federal, state and local cultural heritage preservation laws. A smaller number of archaeologists work in museums or as university professors.

“Obviously our lives are not as exciting as Hollywood makes them,” Vaughn says. “One of the most important discoveries made this year was fossilized human feces found in Oregon, with the oldest preserved DNA in North America. This is never going to make a good Steven Spielberg film, but it’s a really important clue about the peopling of the Americas.

“I hope Indiana Jones fans continue learning about what archaeology really is. Taking classes in archaeology, going to museums and attending public lectures are great ways to learn.”

Purdue’s archaeology program is housed in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. On Aug. 1, sociology and anthropology will become two departments.

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