Friday, June 13, 2008

Harrison Ford and the AIA

Several weeks ago, I reported on the Archaeological Institute of America's (AIA) appointment of Harrison Ford to its Board of Directors (Numismatics and Archaeology: "'That Belongs in a Museum!'" 21 May 2008). Harrison Ford is popularly known for his role as the dashing, adventurous archaeologist, Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr., in the Indiana Jones films. Since Harrison Ford's appointment to the AIA Board of Directors, there has been some controversy over the appointment (there are some links to these discussion in the comments section of my previous post).

SAFECORNER recently posted a reaction by Oscar Muscarella, a well-known scholar and advocate against the illicit trade in antiquities and an active AIA member ("'Indiana Jones is a Plunderer.' What do you Think?" 5 June 2008). SAFECORNER has asked for public comment on the controversy and has received a dozen comments so far.

In the AIA article announcing Ford's appointment to the Board, the AIA President, Brian Rose, stated: "Harrison Ford has played a significant role in stimulating the public's interest in archaeological exploration." Surely, this is an accurate statement and the films have cult status among many young archaeologists. As an undergraduate studying archaeology and classical studies, I was a member of my university's "Archaeology Club," which organized trips to local archaeological sites, "pot parties" (not what you are thinking - these consisted of purchasing cheap Wal-Mart ceramics, smashing them and then gluing them back together again), and other social gatherings. One of the most popular events were the regular Indiana Jones movie marathons. I recall several students in archaeology that I went to college with said that the Indiana Jones films were partly responsible for their desire to study archaeology. As archaeologists, we are fully aware of the differences in archaeological practice and ethics used by the fictional Indiana Jones and archaeologists working in the real world. But what about the general public?

The controversy does not seem to be so much a question of whether or not the Indiana Jones films will inspire someone to loot an archaeological site, but what message the AIA is sending by putting the actor behind Jones' character on its Board of Directors. The AIA has adopted a bold stance on archaeological ethics and has supported research on and legislative measures against the illicit trade in antiquities. Does the appointment of "Indiana Jones" to the AIA Board then exacerbate public perception that artifacts are there for the taking by anyone who comes across them? This seems to be the question at the heart of the controversy and is a question well worth asking. For example, when I tell people I am an archaeologist, I am always asked at least one of two questions, "So you're into dinosaurs?" or "Do you get to keep what you find?" Muscarella's concerns are justified.

I wonder, however, if it may be too early to assess the capacity in which Ford will work with the AIA. Indeed, the first line of the AIA article reads: "'Indiana Jones" shows his commitment to real archaeology.'" Ford himself stated, "Knowledge is power, and understanding the past can only help us in dealing with the present and the future." It has been reported that Harrison Ford has lent his star-power to advocacy against wildlife trafficking in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State and WildAid. Will Mr. Ford also use his celebrity status and his Indiana Jones stardom to help raise public awareness on the problem of plunder and the illicit antiquities trade in his new role at the AIA? I hope so.

Already, some from the collecting and trade community seem concerned about Harrison Ford's new role at the AIA. Two prominent members of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), a lobby of ancient coin dealers and collectors that I and others have discussed elsewhere (relevant posts at SAFECORNER and Looting Matters), have expressed fear that Ford will help raise public awareness on looting and the trade in antiquities. Jim McGarigle, an ancient coin dealer who lobbied Republican Congressmen in Wisconsin, on behalf of the ACCG, to put "collectors rights" on the state's Republican party platform, apparently with no concern regarding the source or nature of collected material, recently stated on the Unidroit List:

"I predicted something like this would occur over a year ago [Ford's appointment]. Be ready for the AIA to pull out the big guns on collecting with an easy celebrity reference where they can put on the 'White Fedora' and try to place the black one atop the heads of ancient and world coin collectors.


Maybe it's time to start writing scripts about a heroic ancient numismatist [dealer/collector] who beats up the bad guys, saves the world and gets the girl or an antiquity collector who solves a murder every week."

Peter Tompa, the ACCG's current president, recently blogged about Ford's support of the State Department and WildAid against wildlife trafficking and expressed concern that he would also help the AIA in its efforts to raise awareness on antiquities trafficking:

"I also have to wonder if Harrison Ford and the State Department are also working on PSAs that will expose the evils of collecting 'illicit cultural property' now that Ford has joined the AIA board."

Like many people, I am sure Harrison Ford has an interest in archaeology and ancient history and I am delighted he is so enthusiastic about it that he decided to become an active part of the leading professional organization for archaeologists. I am anxious to see in what capacity Mr. Ford will be working with the AIA and wish him the best in his exciting new position.



I agree with all of your views, some of which I came to independently before I had read your post. Archaeology needs all of the celebrity endorsements that it can get!

My opinions on this same topic are posted at Life Cycle Analysis.