8 Famous Fictional Archaeologists Who Suck At Their Job
"The patient academic study of ancient culture" is both the traditional definition of Archaeology, and a sentence that most movie executives can't hear, much less comprehend. Seriously, words like "academic," "patient" and "culture" are like a dog whistle to them. Someone must have communicated that ancient artifacts are helpful plot motivators using flow charts and wild gesticulations because they invented a fictional version of archeology which replaces pick hammers and book learning with handguns and competitive burglary. For instance ...
Dr. Indiana Jones is worse at recovering precious items than a magpie stuffed with explosives. He gets some points for being the original, and he's not as bad as many of the characters he inspired. Of course, if being better than your own photocopies excused bad behavior, your ass wouldn't have gotten fired after last year's holiday party.
Raiders of the Lost Ark's opening sequence is a cinematic classic and a documentary on how to suck at archaeology. Indy dashes into priceless ruins with no data-recording equipment, and proceeds to destroy archaeological records of an entire civilization. Most archeologists are after information about ancient cultures and Indy's daring raid destroys an entire temple full of thousand year old machines that are still-functioning. He destroys them so that he can grab a bit of gold that weighs as much as a small rhinoceros's ball sack. That's like a scientist happening upon a working model of the Starship Enterprise, and smashing it up to get a good calculator.
"Oh man, I can play Doom on this!"
We have lots of gold, Indy! We have people and machines whose entire job is to make holes in mountains until gold comes out, and you're collapsing a priceless trove of ancient machinery to recover something we could dig up in 10 minutes. Most archaeologists consider themselves lucky to find all the shards of the same destroyed vase, because they'll be able to put it back together in only a few months. That pressure-plate-triggered arrow-launcher? That was worth more than the gold. That shouldn't be that difficult for Indy, an archeologist, to comprehend. Yet he destroys ruins so intact they're actively trying to protect themselves from him. In other words, they weren't ruins until he arrived.
These wise people had so much to teach us! Their systems still worked after thousands years, even though they were made of nothing but string and rope. Modern man can't make an iPhone last six months before it has to be replaced with a newer model.
A relic of the unimaginably ancient 2007 era.
Benjamin Gates (National Treasure)
At one point, as Gates is attempting to steal the Declaration of Independence to read the secret code written on the back, he's asked if he is a treasure hunter, to which he answers, "More like treasure protector." Or, exactly like an archaeologist. Of course, Gates couldn't refer to himself using that word, both because the Indiana Jones rip-off would be too obvious, and because his target market couldn't spell "archaeologist" if they were staring at this sentence.
Benjamin Gates (Nicholas Cage) was born because The Da Vinci Code sold millions of copies. He lives in a world where everyone who was ever famous achieved all of history as a hobby in between hiding things. And by "hiding" we mean "putting them in the most visible places to exist prior to the invention of Ken Jong's career."
Still, you'd think an avowed "treasure protector" would be more careful than Indy when it comes to priceless archeological finds. And maybe Gates would be if he was better at finding them.
While real archeologists are lucky to glean a single detail about an ancient society from a lifetime of work, Gates fumbles his way from one treasure to the next using clues so clearly spelled out for him you'd swear he was being lead around by the writers of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? instead of the writers of the Declaration of Independence. The second movie, National Treasure: Book of Secrets gets its name, not from a difficult to translate Biblical scroll, but from an actual book of secrets in which a bunch of conspiracies are written out for him in plain English. The big mystery is solved when they discover that a federal book, which the President owns, is kept in the Library of Congress. If it had been a trilogy, they might have had time for Gates to try and decipher the meaning of an Automatic Door sign.
Nathan Drake (Drake's Fortune)
Drake belongs here because he's a Frankenstein's monster Indy and Gates, and just like any patchwork horror, he stumbles around clumsily killing people until coincidence does the thinking for him.
"If there are still people to shoot, I'm going in the right direction."
This "fortune hunter" is such a blatant Indy ripoff, the only reason he doesn't have a whip is console players would wonder where its trigger was. Relic recovery is so utterly secondary to his skill-set that his story would work exactly the same if he was a trash collector pushed to the edge by a gang of exceptionally well-armed litterers. He sees something, he picks it up and kills everyone in between. And yet he wouldn't know late classical bronze unless they cast their precious metals into 5.56mm jackets.
But where Indy tried to defeat the Nazis, Nathan Drake tries to outdo them. He's killed more people with dark skin than the first Englishman to figure out how to steer a boat.
Of course, this is appropriate since he is the descendant of Sir Francis Drake, English explorer and one of America's earliest importers of African slaves. The game ignores that part of Uncle Frank's legacy, preferring to focus on a dangerous treasure he encountered while circumnavigating the globe that mutates Nazis into ... less white looking Nazis.
If at first this seems like the weirdest, most hamfisted plot device ever, you are unfortunately not one of the millionaires who created it. They created the only device that could allow Drake to accomplish all the major tenants of Hollywood archaeology -- fighting Nazis, ignoring the shit out of history -- while still doing what Drake does best: killing non-whites.
Tia Carrere (Relic Hunter)
Relic Hunter was written by watching Tomb Raider, borrowing a thesaurus and choosing the shortest word for each noun. It features Tia Carrere, trying to be more than "that girl in Wayne's World," without becoming "that girl from softcore porn" and somehow landing in something far worse.
The show starts out by giving a head fake towards softcore porn. For instance, this is Carrere's secretary's uniform:
This is our first view of the strong academic female character:
And then things go disastrously wrong.
Yep, this is pretty much exactly the opposite of what we were promised.
Whichever idiot decided that ripping off Tomb Raider was a good idea was obviously allowed to hang around, because he'd be the only person stupid enough to forget he was doing that. Tia spends the rest of the game acting like a softcore porn actress after filming ends: putting on more and more clothes while still being utterly unqualified to stand in front of a camera. The show rations violence like a colony of brittle-boned Buddhist monks throwing a party for Gandhi, and Tia fights with camera-fu: waiting for the cameraman to leap to an angle from which it looks like her flails might have connected with something.
Daniel Jackson (Stargate series)
An archaeologist's job is to learn from the civilizations who built ancient relics. Daniel Jackson has an actual portal to that civilization, and he's still less helpful for learning about the past than a bottle of absinthe to the head. Granted the civilization he's studying happen to be bloodthirsty slavers out to murder him, but the peace-loving pygmies of the Pa'ci'fist forest would attack Daniel on sight just to make sure he didn't destroy every historical record of their existence.
He also graduated from the world's only joint Ancient Cultures/Phys Ed program
The closest Stargate comes to real archaeology is resurrecting a relic from the ancient "80s period" by bringing back MacGuyver. And just like all sci-fi military resurrection experiments, it creates an evil opposite: instead of using ordinary objects to create non-lethal weapons, Colonel O'Neill (MacGuyver) uses lethal weapons to destroy extraordinary objects. And he's just part of the anti-precious items squad Jackson leads to the galaxy's most incredible finds. All together, the team put more priceless relics in danger than 57 Jackie Chans going undercover as the Smithsonian museum security detail.
His other archaeological assistants are Teal'C, a giant soldier whose first act was to use a walking stick to blow up an ancient building, and Carter, a brilliant scientist from the University Of Science Means Setting Things To Overload.
Not one incredibly world-changing relic has survived more than 30 minutes exposure to Jackson and Co.'s anti-archaeology field. He'd do less damage to history if he threw an atomic warhead into a DeLorean, since that would only blow things up once.
Professor Hershel Layton (Professor Layton series)
The first problem is that Professor Layton can't so much as check his watch without taking 20 minutes to solve it. Faced with an actual mystery based on a forgotten people, the only place he'd be able to write his results is in the cold ashes of the heat death of the universe.
Ah, a bus timetable! Luke, fetch my supercomputer and five different colors of pen!
WARNING: NEXT PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SPOILERS.
The second is that any conclusion he reached would be laughed out as ludicrous by Scientologist Birthers. So far his "mysteries" have been revealed to be an entire town of clockwork robots, a group hallucination the size and population of Transylvania, and an entire fake London built in a giant cave below London. Even one of Layton's "discoveries" would have Benjamin Gates calling bullshit, and he's legally forbidden from using that word.
On the plus side? Professor Layton beats National Treasure in pulse-pounding action.
Everyone (The Mummy series)
In The Mummy, the movie-archaeologists jobs of knowing things andkilling things" are split between two characters: Brendan Fraser took care of the action, back in the brief period when he could headline a movie, and Evelyn Carnahan takes care the academic training, in that "she can read." And she'll screw even this elementary skill up so bad it kills people.
She's clearly not comfortable with the responsibility.
They steal the Book of the Dead from an accredited academic who has it in the first place to prevent idiots meddling with it -- he's essentially what Benjamin Gates wants to be: a treasure protector. However in The Mummy, our protagonists promptly ignore his desperate warnings, making this the first archaeologist movie that doesn't even try to hide the fact that you're accidentally cheering for the bad guys. The ancient evil is unleashed when Evelyn reads aloud from the book in the City of the Dead in the dead of the night, which works exactly as well as you'd expect. She wasn't even trying to summon something good, or researching, she was just reading the book to see what it said. Yes, this does mean that the nightmarish murder-thing's killing spree of plagues is all because the good guys' "smart" character can't read with her mouth closed.
She's clearly not comfortable with the responsibility.
Lara Croft has made a career out of bringing horny 12-year-old boys and guns into ancient ruins -- the two worst things to bring into a tomb outside of fire and corpse solvent. Her defining features were created by mistake in 1996, when a programming error gave her character model 150 percent extra chestage and before the coder could fix it a marketing executive dive-tackled him screaming, "STOP HIM THIS IS A BESTSELLER NOW!"
... thus giving birth to the now common origami fetish.
Creating new objects through accidental use of modern technology vs. recovering old ones made through dedicated old technology = exact opposite of archaeology.
However, this article isn't about her flaws as a character, but as an archaeologist, a profession that game designers gave her because muddy-brown textures are easy to draw, jumping puzzles are easy to design and wild animals are way easier to program than real enemies. Wait, her enemies are animals? We suppose turning modern species into relics by rendering them extinct sort of counts as archaeology.
And this counts as a dialogue on race relations.
To give you an idea of Croft's archaeology chops, the Wikipedia plot summary of her movies contain sentences such as "Since the device resembles a clock, Croft consults a clock expert," and "the Cradle of Life is in a valley where its forests are filled with shadow monsters." But her most baffling decision is having to leap across deadly spaces, and constantly make do without any of the normal tools any of the other archaeologists on this list seem to carry around with them. Why doesn't she have a grappling hook, or at least a whip to help swing across the gaping chasms? Because where the hell is she going to store that?
She's already got these two ... guns.
You can learn about more people who are bad at their jobs in our new book.