INDIANA JONES IN HISTORY: FROM POMPEII TO THE MOON
Justin M. Jacobs | xiii + 266 pages | Pulp Hero Press | 2017 | ISBN: 9781683900993 | $24.95
Justin M. Jacobs’s Indiana Jones in History: From Pompeii to the Moon is an interesting but incomplete book, one filled with fascinating information, told from a distinctly modern perspective, loosely related to its title subject, but somewhat inartistically expressed. Jacobs is an expert in Chinese history at American University and his academic experience manifests both in a certain clunky quality to the prose and in a notable distaste for Western civilization that colors much of his discussion of Western interactions with Eastern cultures and leads to an extreme conclusion that I found both unjustified and dangerous.
But the weakness of such an approach is that Jacobs highlights destructive figures in service of a narrative that seeks to highlight the swashbuckling, looting aspect of imperialist and colonialist incursions into the innocent East. To that end, the reader gains only a negative picture of Western efforts to understand the Middle East and Asia. For example, Belzoni receives a full chapter to chronicle his smash-and-grab efforts to ship Egyptian antiquities back to Europe, but the more scholarly and scientific Napoleonic investigation of Egypt receives virtually no coverage, despite being both less destructive and more closely tied to Western imperial ambitions. Scholars who behaved well, showed respect for the cultures they explored, and contributed to world knowledge are largely omitted.
Jacobs delineates a historical Indiana Jones, by which he means real-life explorers like Belzoni and a consumed Indiana Jones, by which he means the media representation of white male adventurers in the East or the Global South. There might be something interesting to say about the difference between the cross-cultural lived experiences of real archaeologists, who must work with and in non-Western cultures, and the flattened, heroic loner portrayal of these same people in the media, but Jacobs generally prefers to leave this at the surface level of “white male = bad.” He also doesn’t generally prefer to explore change over time, giving the impression that the values of eighteenth century antiquarians and twentieth century archaeologists remained, if not unchanged, then quite connected.
Throughout the book, Jacobs focuses on the controversial issue on when and whether artifacts from one culture or region of the world should be removed to another, starting with the Elgin Marbles, the sculptures removed from the Parthenon and taken to the British Museum. This is a deeply complex issue, around which Jacobs emphasizes only one perspective. He sees the removal of artifacts as almost entirely an expression of Great Power politics, where weak polities buy off richer ones by sacrificing their antiquities. He complicates this a bit by positing that such transfers occur only when the occupants of the land view the objects as culturally discontinuous but the acquirers see them as culturally continuous. (That this isn’t entirely true can be seen in the decidedly non-Western artifacts filling Western museums, like the Easter Island head in the Smithsonian.) While this has certainly been a theme in European treasure-hunting adventures, this is not the only consideration. For much of history, weak or failed states have been unable to protect or preserve their antiquities, and without their removal to secure locations, they would not exist at all. Jacobs dismisses this as racist propaganda that assumes that poor and authoritarian countries cannot or will not maintain their antiquities. There is more than enough evidence to show that this is not mere propaganda. This is not an easy question to resolve, since the competing interests involved are deep and complex, but the question deserves more than the simplistic equation of “West = bad” that Jacobs assigns to it.
One area where Jacobs succeeds is in describing the way Western culture has engaged with and reimagined Middle Eastern cultures, especially Egypt, over the centuries, turning Egypt from a foreign enemy into a font of Western civilization. But here, too, he can’t help but see European involvement in Egypt as an unmitigated disaster for, of all reasons, disrespect to Islam. “No European who went to Egypt as a tourist was obliged to learn a single word of Arabic unless already inclined, nor conform to Muslim sensibilities in matters of dress, custom, or habit.” I can’t help but see in Jacobs’s disgust more than a little reflection of the recent burqa controversies in the West. “What can account for such a consistent aversion to the cultures, customs, and lore of the Muslim Middle East?” he asks. His answer is that humans are hard-wired to be ethnocentric, and capitalism favors catering to wealthy white male audiences with information about wealthy white males.
Jacobs also does some very good work highlighting an issue familiar to students of art history and museology but largely invisible to the general reader. Museums, as he notes, are set up to tell an ideological story. The classic example of this is the Louvre, conceived as a universal museum but one that tells a story with a clear conclusion. Rooms were arranged to create a semi-chronological hierarchy of culture, where visitors progressed from early cultures to modern ones, culminating in French art, symbolically placed at the acme of civilization. To this end, many European museums would follow this pattern, substituting their own cultures at the end point of cultural evolution.
However, Jacobs doesn’t note that his own choice of starting and end points for his discussion the history of art history and archaeology are designed to cast aspersions on modern Western culture. Just as the Louvre makes France the acme of art, Jacobs makes Nazi Germany the ultimate expression of Western culture. He begins with the excavations at Pompeii in the 1700s and continues down to the Nazis, whose scientists he takes pains to note joined American institutions after the war, and he ends the book by condemning archaeology as “half-truths” and science as a tool of Western “wealth and power.” This is disturbing on a number of levels, but not less for the author’s myopia. The modern West was hardly the only culture to transfer artifacts of past civilizations to make political statements or express power. The ancient Greeks had an entire religious rite for justifying the transfer of divine statues from conquered cities to adorn their temples. Constantine and his successors brought Egyptian and Greek sacred objects to Constantinople and set them up in the Hippodrome to express Christian contempt for paganism. The Arabs looted Egyptian tombs and set up sarcophagi as decorative objects in their palaces to show their domination over Egypt. The Aztecs reused Toltec and Teotihuacan art and artifacts to create historic antecedents for their own culture.
Jacobs like to highlight the worst abuses of archaeology. He describes times when archaeological expeditions served as cover for American espionage during World War I, and how the Nazis abused archaeology to support their racist ideology. But he became so enamored about questions of racism and Nazi atrocity that he let his discussion swerve far beyond archaeology or Indiana Jones to discuss postwar efforts to define Judaism as a racial identity, the return of Nazi-looted artwork, the creation of the CIA, Nazi scientists’ involvement in the U.S. space program, and even complaints that Neil Armstrong’s first words on the moon were too “politically correct.” He also throws in dark hints about secret Pentagon space missions. Why? Because “the public face of science, exploration, and archaeology has always been a benign one” but “behind the scenes, those that get their hands dirty know exactly what is at stake: wealth and power.”
There is also a final chapter with some thoughts on Indiana Jones. It doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the book except as proof that the movies were largely divorced from real history.
The Indiana Jones movies were a pastiche of Hollywood adventure movies of the 1930s to the 1950s, and the pulp fiction heroes whose exploits inspired those films. Those heroes, in turn, were built atop Victorian novels that carried with them a reflection of the real-life exploits of some of the men whose careers Jacobs sketches here. Many fans of the Indiana Jones movies know this, but Jacobs did not. He was also appalled to discover that the brains behind the films, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, took Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods to be an actual book of history and used it to create their vision of an electrified Ark of the Covenant. Lucas even suggested on tape making von Däniken the inspiration for the movie’s villain: “The thing of it is that in the end they convince him to do it because they say this Professor Erich von Däniken, or whatever, this German version of himself is the one who found it.”
A better book would have pursued the process of creating Indiana Jones in greater depth, perhaps with interviews where possible, and divided that material among the chapters as a framework to show how each stage of the creation of Raiders of the Lost Ark drew upon a web of historical and pop culture influences, which could then lead into a discussion of different stages in the development of archaeology.
Instead, Jacobs uses this brief final discussion of the Indiana Jones movies to argue that they continue imperialist, colonialist, and racist narratives, and he suggests that future films should dump straight white men for heroes and heroines from other countries and colors. “There are major legitimate roles for people with different shades of skin color,” he writes.
There is the makings of a good book or two in Indiana Jones in History. There is some fascinating material about early archaeology, for example. If the book were more honest in describing itself as Orientalism and the Making of Egyptology, I would probably have rated it more highly. As it is, there is too little Indiana Jones to justify the title and too much anti-Western ideology to make this much of a fun read for most of its target audience. I would have given it four stars if the book were honest about its intentions, and two if did not have as many compelling anecdotes about early archaeology. Three stars is an average of my two competing reactions, not so much an absolute grade.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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