What Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Archaeology–And Why That Can Be Dangerous

I am constantly reminded of the ways that archaeology is portrayed in the media that are: 1. misunderstandings of what archaeologists actually do and 2. downright irksome to archaeologists themselves. While some of these things can amount to minor annoyances, they can often feed into common perceptions that feed into the destruction of cultural heritage. This has very real consequences for the people to whom this heritage belongs.

One thing I came across this week was this article in the Miami Herald, which discusses a historian’s inquiry into the final fate of the last Sapa Inka (i.e., Emperor of the Inka Empire), Atahualpa. For those who may not know, the Inka Empire existed along the Andes Mountain range and Pacific coast of South America, including parts of modern Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile. It lasted until the Spanish Conquest, when Francisco Pizarro had Atahualpa murdered in 1533. The story goes that Pizarro was holding Atahualpa ransom, but was too impatient for the vast amounts of gold to reach him, he so slaughtered Atahualpa while the gold was en route. According to legend, the gold is still somewhere waiting to be found in the mountains and jungles of Ecuador. Tamara Estupiñan, the historian in the article, believes that she has at least found the final resting place of Atahualpa, in a previously under-explored site called Malqui, which happens to also be the Quechua for “royal mummy.” Atahualpa’s body has not yet been found—and probably never will be due to the fact that the Inka didn’t bury royal mummies because they believed they retained a form of life even in death.


Portrait of Atahualpa now in the Brooklyn Museum

From the headline, the author of the article takes a particular approach by wrapping this research in a “lost treasure” narrative in dealing with archaeological materials. This idea, that there are lost treasures out there to be found, comes from the historical motivations of people searching for valuable artifacts. Even in antiquity, people knew that artifacts could be found buried in the ground, and that other people would pay a great deal of money for them. This is why the Egyptians stopped building pyramids. A pyramid is basically a giant billboard saying GOLD TREASURE INSIDE!! None of the Egyptian pyramids have been found with their contents intact by modern archaeologists, so we believe they were all looted in antiquity. Because of this, they started burying pharaohs in tombs dug into the ground in the Valley of the Kings instead of putting them in giant monuments. But still, most of those were looted in antiquity as well. the tomb raiding was so bad that at one point in time, priests had to salvage as many of the royal mummies as they could get their hands on and put them into a separate secret tomb outside of the valley.

Starting in the 1700s and extending through the 1800s and early 1900s, the main focus of excavation was to obtain objects for museum collections and for private collections, which were often bought for great sums of money. Many  famous early discoveries came from expeditions seeking artifacts for this purpose. People like Heinrich Schliemann, who found hoards of gold artifacts at the Homeric cities of Troy and Mycenae, Henry Austen Layard, who took many artifacts and giant statues from the Assyrian cities Nimrud and Nineveh in the Mosul region of Iraq, and Giovanni Batista Belzoni, who explored sites all over Egypt, all exemplified this type of mentality when it came to collecting artifacts.


Belzoni’s expedition to Egypt, taking a colossal statue of Rameses II for the British Museum

Today, we do not call it archaeology when people search for antiquities for the sake of their monetary or artistic value. It is more accurately called antiquarianism. Today, archaeologists are more concerned with what we can say about peoples’ lives through the use of ancient material culture, rather than just looking for the things just because they are there to be found.

Nevertheless, archaeology is still portrayed in this manner in film. Indiana Jones, of course, comes to mind, as he is traipsing across the world searching for this or that great lost treasure. His continuing assertion: “IT BELONGS IN A MUSEUM!” is a great rallying cry against the looters he fights against, showing his commitment to cultural heritage that should be shared by all.


Despite this, the methods depicted in the Indiana Jones films are outdated, even for the time period in which they take place. For archaeologists, the objects themselves are only the beginning of the information that we look for. Even more important than the objects themselves is the archaeological context in which they were found. This includes information on where specifically the objects were found and what other objects were found with it. This information allows us to talk about how things were used, who may have used them, and allows us to be better able to provide a date for when the objects were made or used. When we know the archaeological context of many different objects, then we can talk about how people used objects for different purposes in different places, or how their culture changed though time. Without this information, we just have some pretty objects.


Maybe not as exciting to watch, but way more necessary.

Unfortunately, this kind of portrayal of archaeology in popular culture feeds common attitudes about what archaeology is. I cannot tell you how many times people ask, when finding out that I’m an archaeologist “What’s the best thing you ever found?” “How much is that stuff worth?” “Do you get to keep what you find?” It’s not a treasure hunt, and articles such as the one about Atahualpa also perpetuate this idea that it is one by approaching archaeology as a field where people are looking for gold and riches. Admittedly, preserving cultural heritage and learning about past cultures provides for fewer attention-grabbing headlines than finding lost treasures and solving ancient mysteries. But there is a dangerous side to all of this. Looters do still exist, and antiquities are often sold on the Black Market, and even in reputable auction houses, despite the fact that UNESCO has prohibited the sale of antiquities discovered after 1970.



Yes, well-organized looters like the ones in True Lies do exist in real life.

Nevertheless, people looking for some quick money will loot archaeological sites and sell the objects to wealthy collectors, particularly when there is upheaval, such as in Iraq after the American invasion, and in Egypt after Mubarak’s ouster. Once these objects are looted, any information that they may provide us is lost forever, and once they are in the hands of collectors, even the little information that the objects themselves contain without context may remain unknown to archaeologists for many years. In addition, people have lost their lives when they have stumbled on looting operations.

The best way to stop looters is to remove any marketability in ancient artifacts, and the best way to achieve that is through education about the value of archaeology, and the value of what it can tell us when done properly. There, of course, will always be movies and shows about fictional archaeologists who seek treasure over the course of a grand adventure, but some newer reality shows, such as Diggers, which essentially encourage people to search for artifacts and to loot the evidence for the past on their own, definitely go too far. It’s a perplexing conundrum and a fine line to walk, as popular culture is a major driver of the public’s interest in archaeology, which is definitely a good thing. There must always, however, be a certain amount of responsibility taken to encourage people to respect, preserve, and cherish the past.

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