The dashing, adventurous, and patriotic archaeologist found its archetype in 1981. In that year, Indiana Jones debuted as the protagonist of Steven Spielberg‘s Raiders of the Lost Ark. A pulpy tale about a University of Chicago professor who gets drafted by U.S. Army Intelligence in order to stop the Nazis from seizing the Ark of the Covenant, Raiders of the Lost Ark became an immediate sensation.
Amidst all of the hoopla over the film, many archaeologists were quick to point out that their lives are nowhere near as interesting. Unlike the dashing Jones (played by Harrison Ford), most archaeologists are underpaid academics who spent more time in the classroom then they do in the field.
However, if you think there have never been archaeologists like Jones, then think again. History is replete with swashbuckling archaeologists who braved the elements, bandits, and armies in order to make earth-shattering finds. Some real-life archaeologists even worked as spies, thus proving that the main thrust of Raiders of the Lost Ark is based in historical fact.
Overall, the following men on this list prove that derring-do and a Ph.D are not mutually exclusive things.
15. Otto Rahn
The fictional Indiana Jones spent most of his career fighting Nazis. Otto Rahn briefly worked for them. As a German university student, Otto Rahn developed a fascination with the Holy Grail myth. Alongside this, he also developed a deep appreciation for the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy and Mycenae. Using the 12th century legend of the Arthurian knight Parsifal as his guide, Rahn set off to find the real Holy Grail.
By the summer of 1931, Rahn was convinced that he was close to the truth. In the Languedoc region of France, Rahn began searching the ruins of the former Cathar castle of Montsegur. In the 13th century, the Albigensian Crusade systematically wiped out the Cathar heresy, a Gnostic Christian sect that promoted the idea of two divine Gods. Rahn came to believe that the Cathars had taken the sacred cup full of Jesus’ blood with them.
In 1933, Rahn accepted an offer from Heinrich Himmler to join the SS. Himmler was also interested in finding the Holy Grail, and he handed state funds over to Rahn in order to continue his search. Ultimately, Rahn, who authored several books on his findings regarding the Cathars and the Holy Grail, committed suicide in March 1939. At that point, Rahn, who served a tour at the Dachau concentration camp, knew that the Nazis wanted him dead over his supposed links to British intelligence.
14. Giovanni Battista Belzoni
Italian adventurer and circus strongman Giovanni Belzoni blurs the line between serious academic and treasure hunter. Jones does the exact same thing in his movies, so the pair are likeminded cousins.
After the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded his native Italy, Belzoni fled and began traveling the world. By 1802, the six-foot-seven man was working in London as the “Patagonian Samson.” The main appeal of Belzoni’s act was his ability to lift twelve people sitting on a specially-made iron frame.
At the age of 40, Belzoni left the circus and began working as a hydraulic engineer for Muhammed Ali, an Albanian Ottoman soldier who became the Khedive of Egypt. It was here that Belzoni began his passion of collecting Ancient Egyptian artifacts. Belzoni’s most famous action was the removal of the “Young Memnon” statute that currently sits in the British Museum. Belzoni also explored the the Nubian Abu Simbel temple and the tomb of Seti I (which is still called “Belzoni’s Tomb).
13. Farish Jenkins
American paleontologist Farish Jenkins spent his life as a fun-loving bone collector. At the peak of his career, Jenkins discovered a 375-million-year-old fossilized fish. Because he was born in 1940, he and Indiana Jones were contemporaries.
For the majority of his career, Jenkins used his talents to document the process of early evolution. From the dry deserts of Africa to the frozen wasteland of the North Pole, Jenkins helped to discover many priceless fossils, including the full remains of a previously undiscovered crocodile-like mammal.
Prior to becoming a noted polymath, Jenkins served in the United States Marine Corps as an artillery officer. In one instance, Jenkins had to rely on his military courage in order to remain calm in the face of a charging black rhino. Sadly, Jenkins died at the age of 72 after a battle with cancer.
12. Percy Fawcett
Most people today only know of Percy Fawcett as the lead character in the story of The Lost City of Z. In real life, Fawcett was an officer in the British Army who served in Sri Lanka and as a member of the secret service in pre-World War I North Africa. Fawcett would later see action during World War I as an artillery officer on the Western Front.
Fawcett was also a skilled surveyor and explorer who made several trips into the mighty Amazonian jungles of South America.
Here, Fawcett became convinced that an ancient city of Z existed deep in the rain forest. However, following one last dispatch on May 29, 1925, Fawcett disappeared forever. Many believe that his search for the city of Z was a type of suicide mission. Others point out that Fawcett believed that his son Jack was a reincarnated god. Therefore, the search for Z was part of Fawcett’s attempt to set up a Theosophical commune in the Amazon.
11. Robert Braidwood
American archaeologist Robert John Braidwood spent almost his entire academic career fascinated by the earliest human civilizations of the Near East. In 1933, Braidwood first traveled to Syria as part of a team organized by University of Chicago archaeologist James Henry Breasted, the man who coined the term “the fertile crescent.” Breasted, like Braidwood, has frequently been named as a possible inspiration for Indiana Jones.
During World War II, Braidwood worked for the U.S. Army Air Corps’ meteorological mapping program. By 1947, Braidwood was convinced that he could find the earliest cities in the world in the Middle East. Not long after, Braidwood and his team discovered the ancient city of Jarmo, a settlement located near the border between Iran and Iraq that dates back to 6800 B.C.
In 1964, Braidwood and his wife Linda discovered the prehistoric city of Cayonu in southwest Turkey. At that site, the Braidwoods discovered a fragment of cloth that dated back to 7000 B.C. Unquestionably, the work of the Braidwoods have expanded our knowledge of early human civilization in the Middle East.
10. William Montgomery McGovern
Even before becoming a professor at Northwestern University, the American adventurer William Montgomery McGovern had already lived several lives. As a student, McGovern had been educated at elite schools such as Oxford, the University of Berlin, and the Sorbonne. He also taught Chinese to students at the University of London and graduated from a Buddhist monastery in Japan. His first great expedition occurred when he disguised himself as a servant in order to reach the fabled Tibetan city of Lhasa. He may have been the very first Westerner to ever see the holy city.
By 1929, when McGovern was hired by Northwestern as a political science professor, he already spoke 17 languages, had published 11 books, and had explored several Asian and Latin American countries. During the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937, McGovern served as a war correspondent for the Chicago Times. Later, after America entered World War II, McGovern served as a Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. His written reports from Asia were reportedly required reading for President Franklin Roosevelt.
9. F.A. Mitchell-Hedges
Most moviegoers would like to forget about 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While that particular film was an insult to the Indiana Jones franchise, its central plot did take inspiration from the exploits of one of the men who may have inspired the character in the first place.
Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges was a British explorer who shocked the world by discovering a crystal skull inside of a Mayan temple. According to Mitchell-Hedges, during an exploration of British Honduras (today’s Belize) in the 192os, he and his adopted daughter Anna found the crystal skull in the ruined city of Lubaatun.
This discovery immediately courted controversy. Proponents claimed the crystal skull had magical properties. Others claimed that it is nothing more than a modern forgery. Forensic science seems to support this second claim, thus making F.A. Mitchell-Hedges one of history’s great hoaxers.
8. Langdon Warner
Langdon Warner dedicated his long life to studying and preserving East Asian art. An archaeologist and an art historian, Warner was both an academic and the curator of Harvard University’s Fogg Museum. Rather than just another stuffy academic, Warner was intimately familiar with the harsh elements and danger.
During the 1920s, which was a veritable golden age of archaeologist adventurers, Warner spent time exploring the Silk Road in China. At the time, there was no central government in China, as the country was divided between rival warlord cliques. In Chinese Turkestan (modern Gansu Province), he used a chemical solution to remove priceless works of art from the Mogao Caves in the city of Dunhuang. This move remains controversial, for the Tang dynasty artworks remain on display the Harvard Art Museum.
7. Carl Akeley
Carl Akeley’s primary skill was not as an archaeologist, but as a taxidermist. A native of Clarendon, New York, Akeley began practicing taxidermy at the young age of twelve. From there, Akeley decided to pursue his hobby as a full-time career. By age eighteen, Akeley began working for Professor Henry Ward at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment.
In 1896, Akeley joined the Field Museum of Natural History. Akeley became a specialist in stuffing wild animals that he caught in Africa. During the early 20th century, Akeley’s travels throughout sub-Saharan Africa were reported like adventure stories. These stories were further sensationalized by the types of trophies that Akeley brought back — stuffed lions, elephants, and gorillas.
Besides being a friend of Theodore Roosevelt and a member of the Explorers Club, Akeley was also an inventor and author. His inventions include a “cement gun” that was presented at the World’s Columbian Exhibition and an improved motion picture camera.
6. Richard Halliburton
Like Carl Akeley, Richard Halliburton did not find fame as an archaeologist. During his heyday in the 1920s and ’30s, Halliburton was a popular newspaper reporter and travel writer. Using carpe diem as his personal creed, Halliburton set off to lead a life of adventure. His is often credited as being the founder of adventure journalism, much of which wound up in the pages of books and in the pages of magazines like Field & Stream.
According to his own pen, Halliburton swam the length of the Panama Canal, traversed Mount Everest in an airplane, and followed the route of Carthaginian General Hannibal via an African elephant.
Halliburton’s most famous exploit was also his last. In 1939, Halliburton left Hong Kong in a Chinese junk named the Sea Dragon. The original idea was that Halliburton and his crew would sail to San Francisco in order to attend the Golden Gate International Exposition. However, after a final radio message near Midway Island, Halliburton and his ship disappeared.
5. T.E. Lawrence
Best known by his nickname “Lawrence of Arabia,” Thomas Edward Lawrence was fascinated by history and old artifacts since his days as a simple schoolboy. Upon enrolling at Oxford, Lawrence became a History student with a penchant for studying the Middle East. Sometime during the early 20th century, Lawrence made his first trip to the Middle East when he ventured to Ottoman-controlled Syria. In 1910, Lawrence began excavating at the ancient city of Carchemish with Professor D.G. Hogarth.
Famously, Lawrence’s skills as an archaeologist earned him the attention of the British Army, specifically the Army’s intelligence wing. In 1914, Lawrence became a member of British Intelligence’s Middle East bureau. Here, Lawrence would earn his name as one of the leaders of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks. Between the summer 1916 and the autumn of 1918, Lawrence and his Arab allies successfully fought the Ottoman Turks all across the Middle East. Their greatest and most important success was pushing the Ottomans out of the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
4. John Pendlebury
It seems that the British Empire once saw something of value in British-trained archaeologists. Like T.E. Lawrence, John Pendlebury was an archaeologist and historian who did his duty as a member of British intelligence.
Pendlebury graduated from Cambridge rather than Oxford, but like Lawrence, Pendlebury had a passion for the ancient Middle East. Pendlebury was particularly interested in studying Ancient Egypt and the influence of Egyptian culture on the Minoan civilization of ancient Crete. Because of this, Pendlebury spent the 1920s and 1930s working at excavations sites in both Egypt and Crete. In the latter, Pendlebury spent a great deal of time at the kingly complex of Knossos.
During World War II, Pendlebury volunteered for Military Intelligence. London then sent him back to Crete as an officer tasked with organizing Cretan resistance. As a member of MI6’s “D section,” Pendlebury distributed anti-German and anti-Italian propaganda to the islanders. Some of this work paid off during the Nazi invasion of Crete in 1941. Although the German paratroopers ultimately took the island, the stiff resistance put up by the British Army and Cretan irregulars convinced Hitler never to use paratroopers again.
3. Hiram Bingham III
Archaeologist. Explorer. Army officer. Aviation pioneer. Politician. Hiram Bingham III wore all of these labels throughout his very eventful life. A scion of an old Connecticut family, Bingham was actually born in faraway Hawaii in 1875. His parents were both missionaries. They wanted young Hiram to pursue a similar line of work. He chose academia instead.
In 1907, after completing a Ph.D at Harvard, Bingham accepted a job as a professor of Latin American history at Yale. Thanks to this position, Bingham got the chance to undertake three expeditions to Peru between 1911 and 1915. During this time, Bingham helped to unearth and document the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu. At the time, the city was only known by a handful of indigenous locals.
During World War I, Bingham served in the Connecticut National Guard and as a member of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps in France. His time as an aviation instructor made him a believer in the importance of air power in conflict.
2. Sylvanus Morley
The scrawny Sylvanus Griswold Morley was probably no one’s definition of an adventurer. Although the son of an army colonel, Morley favored more academic pursuits. After graduating from Harvard University, Morley relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, Morley spent his days researching the ruins and lost culture of the various Native American tribes of the American Southwest.
Morley was also quite fascinated by the Mayan civilization of Latin America. As such, Morley made several visits to the Yucatan in order to study the area’s Mayan ruins. In 1913, he received a grant from the Carnegie Institution that allowed him to explore the relatively untouched ruins of Chichen Itza.
During World War I, U.S. Naval Intelligence tapped Morley for some secret espionage work in Mexico and Central America. Under the cover of archaeological work, Morley’s job was find out if the Germans were building submarine pens somewhere near the Yucatan. While Morley did not uncover much in the way of German activity, he did ultimately gather enough support in Washington and beyond to fund a sweeping restoration of Chichen Itza.
1. Roy Chapman Andrews
Decades before Indiana Jones ever hit the big screen, Roy Chapman Andrews was a celebrated adventurer who tramped around Asia in a cowboy hat. Andrews was known to be fond of carrying revolvers and whips in order to beat back Chinese and Mongolian wildlife and bandits.
A small-town boy who graduated from his hometown college in Beloit, Wisconsin, Andrews soon found himself in New York City as a graduate student in mammalogy. After graduating with a Master’s degree from Columbia, Andrews took a job as a janitor at the American Museum of Natural History.
By 1922, Andrews was an experienced explorer who had already visited the western edges of China. In that year, Chapman undertook a major expedition of Mongolia and Chinese Turkestan. Utilizing state-of-the-art Dodge cars, Andrews and his team set out to find traces of early man in the Gobi Desert.
Andrews’ adventures in the Gobi Desert unearthed amazing finds, such as the first dinosaur eggs, the fossilized remains of a Paraceratherium, and other prehistoric fossils. Andrews’ discoveries were not as popular as the stories surrounding the man himself. It seems that Andrews had several shootouts with bandits and even managed to kill a small colony of vipers that had found warmth inside of his boots.
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