|Unlike Indiana Jones, there is nary a fedora to be found in their field kits and their grants certainly don't cover the costs of Webley revolvers or bullwhips, but it could be convincingly argued that in some respects NSF-funded archaeologists are "shadowy reflections" of their big-screen counterpart.
No one, of course, should expect that the "reel" world of the fictional Indiana Jones, the hero of four swashbuckling tales of adventure and, almost incidentally, archaeology, should bear any resemblance to the real world of science, least of all his creators, filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
By all accounts what the two men hoped to do in bringing Indiana to the screen was to recreate the excitement of the adventure serials they enjoyed in their youth.
And yet. And yet.
By some archaeologist's own admission and the evidence of their work, parallels do exist.
As illustrated in these pages, NSF-supported archaeologists like "Rip" Rapp and Dixie West and their colleagues do discover "lost cities"; they do try to figure out what happened to "vanished civilizations" and whether what caused their collapse may have relevance to contemporary problems; they do seek rare and precious artifacts that tell important stories about the past, even if those artifacts are minute snails and the scrapings of ancient teeth and not golden idols. They do "deal with Native peoples," though with respect, as partners in the process of learning about the past, rather than with weapons. And certainly, as is jokingly noted in the latest Indiana Jones adventure, teaching is an important part of what they do.
NSF-supported archaeologists do discover "lost cities"; they do try to figure out what happened to "vanished civilizations"; they do seek rare and precious artifacts that tell important stories about the past, even if those artifacts are minute snails and the scrapings of ancient teeth and not golden idols.
And they do all this while facing some of the challenges familiar to fans of the films.
"I find it almost incomprehensible that anyone would be doing this," says Matt Sponheimer, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who studies the migrations of human ancestors in Africa. "We have to travel constantly, occasionally deal with disease and poisonous snakes, and people shooting at you from time to time."
But the differences between the NSF–funded archaeologists working as far afield as the Aleutians, Egypt, China and the deserts of the Southwest, or as close as Mississippi, are more significant and go far beyond the cosmetic.
Rather than relic hunters and adventurers, they are scientists, whose work is aimed at answering key questions about the past, answers that may even inform policy about contemporary problems such as how societies adapt to climate change, ecological shifts, political upheaval or mass migrations.
Although federal funding for archaeology is not unique to NSF—the National Park Service, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among others, support various branches of the discipline—NSF's focus, as is the case across its portfolio of grants, is on broad and basic scientific questions.
"We focus on anthropological archaeology," says John Yellen, NSF's program director for archaeology and archaeometry in the Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences Directorate. "We're trying to understand broad principles of human behavior."
Scientists supported by Yellen's program focus on problems such as how environmental changes have affected human populations and, in turn, how human activities may have affected their environments. Or, he adds, "What the interaction is between states and different groups within a state and understanding how states evolve over time."
Yellen's is one of two archaeology programs the foundation supports; the other is in the Arctic Social Sciences Program in its Office of Polar Programs.
Anna Kerttula de Echave, the program officer for Arctic Social Sciences, notes that the polar archaeology portfolio is slightly more diverse in focus than Yellen's. For example, it has funded grants for historical archaeology, like research on the wreck of the Russian-American Company vessel Kad'yak, in conjunction with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and other federal agencies, as well as an investigation into the remains of an 1871 whaling fleet disaster in which 31 "Yankee" whaling ships were crushed by the ice and sunk or burned near Point Belcher, Alaska.
But, she adds, the broad focus of archaeology in the circumpolar Arctic is on climate and other environmental changes such as tsunamis, floods and volcanoes—past and present—and how populations have adapted to them; on the basic question of how the Arctic came to be peopled through migrations; and on how all of these factors interact to shape the human dimensions of today's Arctic.
Kerttula de Echave notes that the work is particularly significant during the 2007-2008 International Polar Year (IPY), a concerted effort of international scientific deployments to the polar regions for which NSF is the U.S. lead agency, because American archaeology can trace its roots to work done in Barrow, Alaska, during the first IPY in the late 1800s.
Dennis H. O'Rourke, a biological anthropologist at the University of Utah, will be among the scientists deployed into the field as part of IPY. He will work alongside an archaeological team led by Anne Jensen, of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, to conduct DNA analysis of skeletons in an ancient burial ground there. The cemetery is gradually being eroded away as the climate warms, shore ice retreats and waves wash over beaches that the ice protected for thousands of years.
Jensen's and O'Rourke's project highlights many of the key differences between working science and archaeology as entertainment. The Indiana Jones films are set in a world—even with the latest entry in the series—50 years in the past and therefore could not possibly reflect, even if that were their goal, the scientific or social realities of modern archaeology.
Using techniques that are, at the most, 25 years old, O'Rourke will sample and analyze the DNA of skeletons from the burial ground that may range from a few hundred to more than 1,200 years old, as well as from skeletons in museum collections. The analysis will factor in archaeological information from the burials themselves, as discovered by the archaeologists led by Jensen.
"This is very much a collaborative and integrative exercise," he says.
O'Rourke will also compare the results of the DNA analysis with the DNA of living people on Alaska's North Slope, in the hopes of better understanding "how and when people spread about the Arctic."
He notes that aside from the fact that such a genetic analysis would have been impossible not so long ago, there are two other very important factors that make the project unique and set it apart from the world of fiction.
First, Arctic warming has forced the Native community to relocate such a venerable burial site. "I think it is fair to say that this presents us with a unique scientific opportunity," he notes. And second is that, unlike some of the archaeology of the early days of the field, where native people were often the object of inquiry and treated as such, this project is being done with the full cooperation of the Barrow community. "Without the support of the local community, this could not be done and this would not be done," he asserts.
Whatever parallels may exist between the big-screen world of archaeology and NSF-supported science, there also remains one key difference: what O'Rourke and his colleagues learn will become the shared intellectual property of humanity.
It will not, as happens in the iconic closing scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark", be trundled away in a vast government warehouse, never to be heard of again.