Saturday, July 19, 2008

Has Indiana Jones Been to Calixtlahuaca?

The site of Calixtlahuaca has been the target of looting for over 100 years. It’s impossible to calculate how many pots, figurines, copper bells, and obsidian lip plugs have been removed from the site. But several observations point to a long-time looting of the site. Perhaps Indiana Jones is responsible. After all, he is a looter and plunderer, not an archaeologist. I used to think that Indiana Jones was all right. He is a Hollywood character, designed to make money for film studios, and one should not confuse Hollywood fantasy with reality. The films are great fun, and perhaps the publicity they generate for archaeology is a good thing. The Archaeological Institute of American seems to think this way, because they recently made Harrison Ford a member of their Board or Directors. Hey, if the movies increase enrollments in archaeology courses, this is a good thing, isn’t it?

After reading the comments on Indiana Jones and the AIA on the very interesting blog Safe Corner: Cultural Heritage in Danger, however, I started thinking about the relationship between Indiana Jones and the looting of Calixtlahuaca. I doubt that any big-time looter like Jones (or his real-world counterparts) has ever found any treasures at the site. The looting has been very small in scale. I know about this from three sources. (1) Calixtlahuaca was a popular stop on the antiquities-collecting circuit of Mexico in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. A number of collectors (including some major names in mid-20th century Mesoamerican archaeology) sold or donated their collections from the site to the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History, where I have studied the material and the acquisition records. I’ve published on one such collection, made by Wilhelm Bauer around 1900 (Smith, Michael E. (2001) Postclassic Ceramics from the Toluca Valley in U.S. Museums: The Bauer and Blake Collections. Mexicon 23:141-146).

(2) Numerous elderly residents of San Francisco Calixtlahuaca have told me that in their youth, the surface of the site was littered with whole pots, partial vessels, and other ancient remains. But now, they say, most of this is gone. “There is nothing left” I was informed on several occasions (well, we did manage to excavate over a half million potsherds in one season). These informants noted that foreigners would come to the site, often camping out for several days, to buy pots and other objects from local farmers. (The apparent abundance of whole and partial vessels on the surface may be due to the disturbance of burials and offerings when the terraces were enlarged a century or more ago).

(3) Several people tried to sell me, or other project members, ceramic pots. This was mostly during our first season, before word got out that not only did we not purchase such items, but we gave lectures on the legality of selling ancient artifacts, not something that the sellers wanted to hear.

So, what does this have to do with Indiana Jones?

Archaeological sites like Calixtlahuaca cannot be protected from looting by fences and guards. There just isn’t enough money to protect this and the thousands of other sites in Mexico (and elsewhere) that can yield commercially valuable artifacts. The main protection for the site lies in the attitudes and actions of the people of San Francisco Calixtlahuaca. If they want to protect the site, then looters will have a hard time operating. If local people don’t care about the site as their patrimony or heritage, then destruction and looting would be encouraged. During our fieldwork at Calixtlahuaca (and continuing during out lab analyses) we spent a fair amount of time and effort in public education—lectures and tours to school classes, presentations in the town hall, numerous conversations in town and at the site, free distribution of brochures and guidebooks we wrote, etc. There are reasons to believe that the people of Calixtlahuaca are in fact doing well by the site (this is a topic for a future post).

But against our modest academic activities stands the huge media publicity of Indiana Jones. What are its messages in relation to archaeological sites and research? Plundering and looting are just fine. In fact they are exciting and sexy. The goal of archaeology is to bring home goodies (that is, bring them across international borders, illegally). Generating knowledge about past societies is not important, nor is the preservation of cultural heritage. Of course few viewers are going to confuse the activities of Indiana Jones with those of real archaeologists. But the context or the framing of his activities (i.e., the messages listed above) comes across very clearly. This is the pernicious part of these movies.

Although I cannot prove this empirically, my suspicion is that people who watch the Indiana Jones movies are more likely to take a casual attitude toward looting and the preservation of the archaeological heritage. Now maybe I’m all wet. Maybe I underestimate the intelligence or good sense of the movie-going public. But still, I’m not comfortable with a media hero who is a looter and plunderer at a time when such activities continue to do irreparable harm to the archaeological record and to our understanding of the human past.

So, even if Indiana Jones has never set foot in Calixtlahuaca, I fear that his influence may extend to the site, and that is not a happy thought.

1 comment:

Hacienda Calixtlahuaca said...

This is so right, education and promotion of historical thinking and value is what we need here in america, latin america.