Indiana Jones teaches archaeology

It’s hard to decide which Indiana Jones scenes to prefer: the ones where Indiana makes his way through a web of skeletons, metal spikes and slithery creatures set up to deter curious archaeologists; or the ones where he is magically restored, scrubbed face and clean shirt, to his university classroom. Only what does he teach there?

Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth.

(See this fragment on Youtube, for as long as it lasts.)

What could Indiana mean there? Are facts not true then, and is the truth not made up of facts?

'Standard archaeology trowel used in British Archaeology', photo by HeritageDaily, on excavations at Caerwent, 25 June 2012, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Archaeology_Trowel.jpg, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

‘Standard archaeology trowel used in British Archaeology’, photo by HeritageDaily, Caerwent, 25 June 2012, CC-BY-SA 3.0.

That’s difficult to tell. We see the classroom Indiana Jones just a few times in the films. To us, he is like a Classical Greek philosopher: we have only fragments of his ideas. It’s up to us to interpret what he meant by ‘fact’ and ‘truth’, and what important wisdom he apparently wished to impart on his students.

But what he may have said, is that his students have to look for facts first. If they were to start with the truth – with a theory about the site they’re digging up, which may turn into a hope, an expectation of what the place used to be – they might find any facts they want. For, unfortunately, research can be very circular and self-affirming.

Instead, a researcher should be curious first of all. The world is made up of disparate facts, and this needs to be acknowledged first. When, later on, you start to fit them together into some sort of truth, you try to keep this in mind. And you will keep coming back to the multitude of facts, some of which fit this truth, and some of which don’t.

The truth itself does not allow itself simply to be found, because it is spread out over so many facts that all the scientists in the world cannot catalogue it. But you might find a fact or two. If you search for them.

This is one possible meaning of Dr Jones’s lecture. The irony of the movies, of course, is that in the end, Indiana is after the truth: the truth of the holy grail, the truth of his father’s search and his mother’s sacrifice, the truth of the nazis and of greed. ‘X marks the spot’, after all. Or in Hollywood it does.

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