The real life Indiana Jones'

Updated August 10, 2017

When we think of archaeology, the first images that come to mind are heroic adventurers like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. Of course, archaeology isn't really like the movies. For most archaeologists, painstaking research, meticulous excavation and lengthy analysis take the place of swashbuckling adventure. Over the history of the field, however, there have been more than a few archaeologists whose adventures have made them famous -- or infamous.

Howard Carter

The image of the archaeologist unearthing golden treasure owes much of its romance to Howard Carter, the British archaeologist who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1923. The wealth of treasures found within the young king's burial chamber sparked a worldwide resurgence of interest in Egyptian art and archaeology and confirmed the stereotype of archaeologists as investigators who dig deep underground to uncover buried treasure.

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Giovanni Batista Belzoni

Carter himself admired the Italian Egyptologist Giovanni Batista Belzoni. Belzoni's career was long and colourful: at various times in his life, he had been a barber, an engineer and a circus strongman. Between 1815 and 1819, Belzoni collected Egyptian artefacts to be displayed in Britain. "Those were the great days of excavating," Carter later wrote of Belzoni. "If there was a difference of opinion with a brother excavator one laid for him with a gun." Belzoni died while on an expedition to Timbuktu in 1823.

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Heinrich Schliemann

Archaeologists are divided about the German excavator and author Heinrich Schliemann. To some, he is the discoverer of Troy and one of the great writers about ancient history, while others will point that Schliemann's methods were suspect and many of his theories flawed. None will deny that Schliemann's adventures -- including smuggling golden treasures past Turkish customs concealed within his wife's voluminous skirts -- are one of the inspirations for the image of the archaeologist as a daring, opportunistic rogue.

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Hiram Bingham

American historian Hiram Bingham III became fascinated by the archaeology of the Inca civilisation while visiting Peru in 1908. Although his claim to have "discovered" the city of Machu Picchu in 1911 is somewhat suspect -- if nothing else, there were communities living in the nearby valley -- he certainly did more to educate the public about it than anyone else, particularly with his 1948 book Lost City of the Incas. In addition to a historian and archaeologist, Bingham was also a trained military aviator and eventually a US Senator.

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Percy Fawcett

Not every archaeologist's career ends in fame and wealth. Percy Fawcett, a British geographer, artillery officer, explorer and amateur archaeologist, set off in 1925 to locate "Z," an ancient lost city he believed to exist in the depths of the Brazilian rainforest. He and his two companions were never seen again. Over the years, many expeditions have sought to determine Fawcett's exact fate, but only hints have been found. No lost city has been located.

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Frederick Mitchell-Hedges

Frederick A. Mitchell-Hedges would have been a real-life Indiana Jones if it weren't for the fact that most of the adventures he recounted in his books and popular radio programme probably never took place. Regarded as an embarrassment by archaeologists, Mitchell-Hedges is most famous today for claiming to have discovered "the crystal skull of Lubaantun," also known as the "Skull of Doom." While this artefact is almost certainly a 19th- or 20th-century European work, Mitchell-Hedges constructed an elaborate mythology around it which inspired the fourth Indiana Jones film.

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Edward Drinker Cope

Although he was a palaeontologist rather than an archaeologist, Edward Cope epitomises the fiercely competitive spirit of science in the 19th century. Cope and his rival, Othniel Charles Marsh, challenged each other for dominance in the discovery of dinosaur fossils in the American west in the late 19th century. Each sent agents to collect specimens ahead of their rivals, spending vast quantities of money to secure the best finds. This period of bitter rivalry, which bankrupted both men, is known as "the Bone Wars."

Roy Chapman Andrews

Also a biologist and palaeontologist rather than an archaeologist, Andrews was the inspiration for many public portrayals of globetrotting explorers. His expeditions to Mongolia discovered the first known examples of dinosaur eggs. Andrews projected the image of a man of action. He once claimed that in the first fifteen years of his field work he could think of "only" ten times that he had narrowly escaped dying.

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About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.