Real life archaeology is rarely as exciting as movies make it out to be. It’s a career loaded with dusty tomes, intellectual infighting, and a mad scrabble to earn one of the few spots left for university tenure. A field dig isn’t a thrill ride either. The biggest excitement usually comes from dealing with a country’s military personnel, and licking things to see if they’re rock or bone. If it sticks to your tongue, it’s bone, and you’re probably tasting human remains. Also, to be clear, you will probably never need a gun. Much less a rocket launcher.
Setting the tiny picks and brushes aside, however, pop culture archaeologists are still some of our favorite protagonists. They embody the heart of the science; a joy of discovery and a call to adventure that still brings people to the study of our past. From The Mummy’s Evie (Rachel Weisz), whose digs mostly only go awry thanks to her beautiful himbo boyfriend (Brendan Fraser), to Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), who was minding his own business at a dig in Iran when the Bad Vibes struck, we’re blessed with some terrific scholars to look up to. And then, well. Here’s the ones you shouldn’t learn from.
Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones
We’re coming in hot to tell you what you probably already knew: Harrison Ford’s legendary swashbuckling scholar is not the idiot’s guide to seeking tenure that you were hoping for. He’s the apex throwback to the pulp serials which Steven Spielberg grew up with, and he is beloved in all of our eyes. No one will ever take that honor from Indy, our whip-cracking king.
But he is also a terrible professor. God help you if you’re one of his students trying to reach him with an actual question about your study notes. He’s always out committing crimes against indigenous people and smuggling Nazi gold across borders. To be fair, being an archaeologist in the time of Hitler makes him a good infiltrator, but that’s not bringing his university fellows a Howard Carter-level win to keep the alumni donating. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s dig sites are not going to require platforming skills. The one percent is cool stuff like Oak Island, but since there weren’t Nazis involved, Indy wasn’t either.
You know what he did do? Indy had the priceless body and shield of a knight of the First Crusade in his grasp, and he dumped them into Venetian sewer water to save his own ass. We can hear Stanford University’s archaeological department crying.
As loving as we are to The Mummy’s Evie—or, as we should be calling her, Ms. Evelyn Carnahan, our honorary Doctor of Archaeology—her boyfriend-turned-husband is a hot mess on a dig site. Emphasis on hot. Rick is an adventurer in an era where that’s still a valid job opportunity, lucky guy, and as a former French Foreign Legion soldier, he’s got a taste for danger.
Rick is not overburdened with brain cells though while he’s escorting Evie to Hamunaptra, and he sheds what’s left of them after a whoopsie with the Book of the Dead makes fighting mummified immortals a necessity. Fortunately, he’s as sturdy as the pyramids themselves. When all he can do is keep Imhotep occupied while Evie does the real work of unraveling the mummy’s curse, he doesn’t complain. He’s all in. We should all have a dig site assistant like him. Maybe without the massive archaeological site damage though.
Lady Croft is more than a gender-swapped Indy in a tight teal-green shirt. With movies and rebooted video games offering some mixed-up origin stories, one thing remains constant: Lara is incredible in a fight. Which is good, because she gets into so goddamn many of them.
For our money, the best two Laras are the rebooted SquareEnix games with Rihanna Pratchett writing, and the Angelina Jolie movie variant, because we can buy Angelina doing this in her spare time for fun. Both also share the Croft family gift, which is coming across archaeological mysteries that beggar belief. We’re not saying you’re a hypocrite if you’re mad about Indy’s crystal skulls but not the time Lara fights an ancient mystic automaton activated by the actual Illuminati. Just, maybe you should think about it.
Lara doesn’t do a lot of actual archaeology. She does a ton of ammo scrounging instead. But at least she’s got Croft Manor to return to after another night of being shot up by goons. It’s good to be rich, if you can’t get that sweet, sweet tenure.
Dr. Daniel Jackson
Stargate isn’t a good movie in the broad critical sense. It is an excellent movie for kids who grew up on that Egyptology high. It’s bloated with stuff like mecha Anubis helmets—which remain the coolest thing on Earth for some of us dorks—and the sassiest alien overlord (Jaye Davidson) you could hope for outside of anime. It also has Dr. Jackson (James Spader), and frankly, he deserved to be laughed out of the industry in the movie’s opening moments.
Not because he’s a fringe guy (it’s the premise of the movie, we’ll roll with that), but because he’s so incompetent at historical sites that he manages to get himself and Kurt Russell’s succulently muscled military squad stuck on the other side of the galaxy. We’ll give him that E.A. Wallis Budge’s dodgy but foundational Egyptological contributions are worth arguing about. Other than that, this Jackson dude hosts Ancient Aliens in an alternate timeline.
Angus Flint and Lord James D’Ampton
There is a whole world of delicious trash cult horror out there, and if you’re a Re-Animator/Color Out of Space devotee, you owe it to yourself to find Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm. Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi) is our primary idiot, a daft archaeologist who thought it was a fine idea to dig up a convent’s backyard and show off this weird skull he found. Lord D’Ampton (Hugh Grant), who owns the territory, is a descendant of the guy who probably killed whatever that skull belonged to.
Together, they wind up in an Alan Moore fan fiction, with horny vampire women that worship eldritch snake gods. It’s based on a Bram Stoker novel that’s legendary for how terrible it is—c’mon, you didn’t know the man wrote anything other than Dracula—and when we say “based,” we mean “yeah, technically, kinda… all right, they bought a title.” That’s for the movie’s betterment. Ken Russell’s dumb archaeologist is like this on purpose, but folks, this is why you do your due diligence on local custom before you grab a shovel.
Drs. Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway
Don’t trust a digger who got his degree from Safeway, that’s all we’ve got to say about Dr. “No Helmet, We Ball” Holloway (Logan Michael-Green), who is selected for rapid Darwinism by the android David (Michael Fassbender) shortly after he decides to breathe ancient alien air without a mask. Don’t take off your PPE in hazard zones! OSHA will tell you this. Basic dig safety will have you chanting it in your sleep. But no, Charlie’s gotta be a special boy on this screwed up trip. At least he pays for it.
Dr. Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) behavior is more understandable, but even in the late 21st century, we’re not buying her version of the Graham Hancock special. Yes, Stargate is a lesson in buying into the premise, but Prometheus is built under the kingdom that Xenomorphs made. Cave glyphs that riff on the old Mayan spaceship myth is asking a lot of an audience that prefers blue collar ingenuity in its franchise. Y’all argue about the two stoned life science guys, but we’re over here banging our heads against the wall every time these lizard-people-believing David Icke knockoffs act like our precursors are gonna be thrilled to see us.
At no point are we here to rag on Tom Holland, a slim but agile choice to incarnate for film the sturdier version from the Naughty Dog video games. No, the problem here is the same one that dings Lara Croft: who shoots off cannons at dig sites? To be fair, the Uncharted movie is light on the gun violence compared to its inspiration, although the absurdist set pieces that see Drake hopping from one falling platform to another are intact.
Not only do Drake and his antagonists share a horrifying disregard for historical locations, but the film pulls off an indignity we only accept from small children trying to use a pirate’s hidden gold to save their neighborhood. Drake loses Ferdinand Magellan’s treasure, gathered during that famous first voyage around the world, and walks away with a handful of coins hidden in his pockets. He probably doesn’t even write crucial coinage notes before hocking them.
Dr. June Moone
Boiling it down, the events of Suicide Squad (2016) happen because an archaeologist played with the wrong artifact. Not only does the film toy with how it represents mental illness, but somehow Dr. Moone (Cara Delevingne) is clumsy enough to fall down a shaft and end up in front of a cursed artifact. Which she then decides to break open on the spot. Nice lady. Bad story. At least Zecharia Sitchin is entertaining.
This DCEU film doesn’t even have the nerve to dig into what mythology the Enchantress could’ve sprung from, instead making Peruvian prehistory up out of whole cloth. If Dr. Moone found an artifact suitable for a 6000-year plus evil goddess, we’re looking at Sumerian figures instead, the whole War of the Gods thing be damned. First of all, you’d have a great story just getting Dr. Moone into an Iraqi dig site. Second of all, do that, and you have all the myths of Erishkigal to flesh out your crazed Enchantress. But no. She commits self-destructive bad archaeology in Peru. For some reason.
Dr. Bandit Heeler
Bandit Heeler is the loving dad at the heart of Bluey, a perfect father figure because of those imperfections. The Heeler family, with their charming house and two happy pups, Bluey and Bingo, earn it on Chili’s airport security job, and Bandit’s career of researching and visiting some big digs. We see glimpses of Bandit’s job in the show, and we know he’s got an office with a yoga ball seat the kids can’t help but steal. A handful of artifacts on display and a love for Indiana Jones references seals the deal: Dr. Heeler is the archaeologist we still want to grow up to be.
There’s one problem: he falls apart during his presentations. In the Archaeology web short, he’s tapped to present the first bony proof of a canid that could walk upright. His patter is bang on, offering scientific proof of this precursor pup species. And then, proving for all to see the link between dogs of then and now, Dr. Heeler goes feral and starts chewing on his own priceless artifact, mid-conference! Get a hold of yourself, man! Dog! Dog-man!
The legend of the cowboy digger will continue for centuries to come. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) seems like a renaissance man, but he’s actually the rarin’-for-adventure troublemaker we all think Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is. The first time he goes on vacation in Star Trek: The Next Generation, he ends up in a proper Romancing the Stone situation. Alongside the shady digger Vash (Jennifer Hetrick), they race a Ferengi for a timey-wimey doohickey. It’s a surprise set-up for one of Next Gen’s biggest episodes, The Chase. That’s when Picard’s little hobby really swings out of hand.
This time, the whole Enterprise is pulled into this Indiana Jones gag, racing across the known galaxy to find out how sentient life emerged. It’s a perfect Star Trek riff on the Marvel principle: We have precursors, and that’s why 80 percent of the known races look curiously human. But it’s what Picard does long after these rip-roaring pulp trips that earns him his biggest archaeological infamy: Come the Lower Decks era, he’s secretly funding Vash-style cowboy archaeologists all over the galaxy, courtesy of the Independent Archaeologists Guild. All its members have good hearts, and terrible ethics. Where do we apply?