Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) begins with the pursuit of a looted artifact: a gang of treasure hunters chase 13-year-old Indiana Jones on horseback and train to recover a stolen cross. According to the film’s version of history, this fictional “Cross of Coronado” is a jewel-encrusted cross that combines a gold alloy crucifix from the 7th or 8th century with a piece of the True Cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. It dates back to the last emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian II, and bears a nearly identical inscription to that of the real-life Crux Vaticana, currently kept at St. Peter’s Basilica. In the movie, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés gave the cross to Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in 1520. Some time later, it was boxed and buried in Utah until being dug up by treasure hunters and stolen by an adolescent Indiana Jones, who is then forced to surrender the artifact back to the hunters. Twenty-six years later, we learn that Jones is still chasing the cross; when he finally secures the object, he ultimately donates it to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.
Based on this opening sequence, where a precious relic is passed around between the various parties that plundered it, here’s a question: Who is the rightful owner of the Cross of Coronado, and where should it be kept today, if it existed? At the Vatican? With Coronado’s descendants, if any? Back in Utah? We already know what Indiana Jones would say: “That cross is an important artifact. It belongs in a museum.” Does it?
Released 30 years ago this year, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (really, all the Indiana Jones movies) indirectly broached what has become an increasing topic of concern for museums throughout the United States and Europe in recent years: the matter of returning looted antiquities from various cultures and archeological sites around the world—particularly those located throughout Africa and the Middle East—to their places or cultures of origin.
While it has mainly been the mantra of Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling archaeologist that sacred objects belong in museums for Western scholars to study and display, this viewpoint has been largely contested within the art world. Those in favor of artistic repatriation, such as The Guardian’s Jonathan Glennie, argue for the return of such works to the places where they actually come from because it’s the ethical thing to do. “As we seek to remake the bonds between nations based on mutual respect rather than plunder,” he wrote in 2016, “what could be more symbolic than a gradual but highly public return of many of the myriad items removed by travellers, conquistadors[,] and dutiful civil servants?” Others, such as former Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello, believe that due-to ever-changing geopolitical landscapes, such claims for restitution are rhetorical at best. “Where do you stop?” he asked in a 2007 interview with TIME. “At what point then is Turkey going to return the Alexander Sarcophagus to Sidon in Lebanon? In the 19th century it was brought from Sidon when Lebanon was part of the Ottoman empire … On what grounds should you return and not return?”
As the debate rages, many museums have been fulfilling requests by foreign governments to return stolen items, often on a case-by-case basis. This past February, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it would return a first-century gilded coffin to Egypt after evidence emerged suggesting the object had been looted during 2011’s Arab Spring. Last month, Germany’s Minister of State for Media and Culture Monika Grüetters announced that a 15th-century navigation landmark known as the Stone Cross, erected on the Namibian coast by Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão in 1498 and currently on display at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, will return to Namibia this August as “a clear signal that [Germany is] committed to reappraising the colonial past.”
Reckoning with the legacy of colonialism and undoing the damage caused by the theft of sacred objects are two of the struggles at the heart of the second Indiana Jones film (technically a prequel), The Temple of Doom (1984). Though it has been widely criticized for its violence, brutality, racism, sexism, stereotypes, white savior narrative, and gross misrepresentations of India and Hinduism, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is also, strangely enough, one of the most forward-thinking films of the series in terms of cultural repatriation.
At the start of the movie, Indiana Jones is little more than an educated grave robber, trying to earn a buck by trading the cremated remains of Nurhaci (a real-life Jurchen chieftain, whose unification efforts throughout China and Korea would lay the groundwork for the Manchu Dynasty) to Shanghai gangsters in exchange for a diamond. When the elders of an impoverished Indian village convince Jones to travel to the fictional Pankot Palace to retrieve a prized lingam stone, the archaeologist’s preadolescent accomplice Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) asks what they’re looking for. “Fortune and glory,” Indiana Jones says, possibly seeing this as another lucrative opportunity.
After finally retrieving the stone from slavers who also pursued it for their own “fortune and glory,” Jones realizes the cultural and spiritual significance of the object to the village where it belongs and returns the stone. When reminded that he could’ve kept (or sold) the stone, Jones asks: “What for? They’d just put it in a museum. It’d be another rock collecting dust.” As far as Temple of Doom is concerned, selling the stone outright or putting it in a museum are equally problematic, if either option means depriving a village of their religious artifact.
Although, by the time period portrayed in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), set the following year, Indiana Jones would wind up collecting items for museums on a regular basis. (“Dr. Jones, we’ve heard a great deal about you … professor of archaeology, expert on the occult and, how does one say it? Obtainer of rare antiquities.”) The film opens with Jones venturing through a Peruvian jungle and temple in search of a gold idol representing the Chachapoyan goddess of harvest and fertility, Pachamama, on behalf of the National Museum in Washington. Barely escaping alive, Jones loses the statue to a small army of indigenous natives led by his evil counterpart: Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman), an equally history-savvy French archaeologist and treasure hunter who sells his resourceful skills not to museums, like Jones, but instead to the highest bidder—in this case, the Nazis.
Despite having failed to secure the prized idol, Jones is able to offer “good pieces” to National Museum curator Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), who agrees to accept them unconditionally (“Yes, the museum will buy them, as usual, no questions asked…”)—all despite knowing that his best friend is an archeological looter. Later in the film, Jones is basically hired to steal again, this time on behalf of U.S. Army Intelligence, which asks him to secure the Ark of the Covenant (if it exists) before the Nazis do. Here, Jones evolves from tomb raider to cultural preservationist, mimicking similar type of work done by the real-life “Monuments Men” tasked with traveling to Europe to find and protect antiquities from being stolen or destroyed by the Nazis during World War II.
If Temple of Doom is about prioritizing human lives over profit, and Raiders of the Lost Ark is a warning to treat sacred items with respect, then the third film of the franchise— Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—is a reminder that making the right decisions, here and now, is more important than what happened in the past.
In the movie, Jones is on a personal mission to track down and rescue his missing father, Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery), who was on a quest to recover the Holy Grail, the fabled chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper. It’s clear that father and son share similar traits; they’re equally stubborn and educated, and share a penchant for accidentally destroying art while supposedly on a quest to preserve works. In The Last Crusade, they crack open the marble floor of a historic library in Venice, ignite a petroleum-soaked ancient underground catacomb, set a historic castle on fire, and contribute to the collapse of a temple containing the Holy Grail. All while professing the need to rescue artifacts from the clutches of the Nazis, who are seen burning books and bartering with precious valuables that have been “donated” by the Jewish people. Like in Raiders, it’s not just about getting the Holy Grail for a museum; it’s about keeping it from the Nazis—or any culture that would weaponize or destroy it. (Whether that includes the United States is a question that none of our heroes pause to consider.)
Indiana Jones’ decision to abandon the Grail at the end of The Last Crusade is a culmination of three movies’ worth of lessons. Art professor Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) plummets to her death trying to reach for the cup after it rolls into a chasm, unable to shake a thirst (no pun intended) for power and her insatiable greed. (“Elsa never really believed in the Grail,” Jones Sr. muses. “She thought she’d found a prize.”) Meanwhile, Jones, who previously spent his entire adult life trying to recover artifacts like the Cross of Coronado, is encouraged by his father, who spent all his life looking for the cup of Christ, to leave the Grail and not be actually consumed by ancient history. “Let it go,” Jones Sr. says, about both the artifact as well as decades’ worth of grudges that his son has been harboring. Jones Sr.’s lifelong fixation on the Holy Grail created a proverbial rift between father and son that has now led to the two men hanging over a literal abyss. Jones—who his father acknowledges for the first time as “Indiana,” his son’s self-acquired nickname—regains his sense of agency and they climb the hell out of there.
For a series in which the rallying cry is that artifacts and antiquities “belong in a museum,” in the Indiana Jones movies, that never really happens. The Holy Grail falls to the depths of the Earth, the Sankara stones remain in India, and even the Ark of the Covenant vanishes into the world’s biggest blacksite warehouse. In every film, Jones is ultimately saved not by whip-cracking bravado but by his finally relenting and standing down. Most of the time, he learns to give up his objects of pursuit in deference to the cultures that produced them, while the audience gets to witness what happens to those who fail to show respect: face melting and spontaneous combustion in Raiders, the Sankara stones becoming literally too hot to handle in Temple of Doom, and death by turning-to-dust (“He chose…poorly.”) in Last Crusade.
Even the oft-maligned Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)—which traded religious artifacts capable of supernatural devastation during the Nazi era for manmade nuclear threats and unknown extraterrestrial dangers during the McCarthy era—ends with Indiana Jones leaving behind an entire Goonies-sized treasure chamber filled with centuries’ worth of historical goodies. The interdimensional aliens of Crystal Skull that collected these various items are otherworldly archeologists in their own right, whose willingness to let humans die and flood an entire forest during their travels mirror the type of collateral damage that European colonists and conquistadors have intentionally or inadvertently exacted on native populations throughout human history in the name of “discovery.”
Despite broaching these topics, though, the Indiana Jones franchise still leaves much to be desired in regards to representing non-Western cultures and indigenous narratives accurately on-screen. Whenever we see native peoples in the Indiana Jones series, they’re usually bad guys, posing as much of a threat to Jones’ gang as the Nazis. In Raiders, Belloq convinces the Peruvian Hovitos to hunt Jones with blow guns and bows and arrows; later in the film, the Nazis hire assorted sword-wielding Arabs to chase the archaeologist through Cairo. In Temple of Doom, nearly every Indian character in the movie is a caricature, from the sadistic “Thuggee” slavers, to the magical shamans, to the gluttonous merchants and dignitaries feasting on eyeball soup and monkey brains at dinner. (The only Indian characters who finally come to Jones’ aid are soldiers of the British Indian Army.) Last Crusade depicts the religious fanatics of the Turkish “Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword” who initially try to kill Indiana Jones to protect the Holy Grail, and Crystal Skull featured the fictional Ugha tribe who, despite having received supposedly divine knowledge from alien visitors over 6,000 years ago, still resort to using bolas and spears when hunting Jones et al in the Amazon.
In the Indiana Jones films, indigenous peoples are largely portrayed as primitives or savages who, at best, operate in fearful deference to sacred relics or, at worst, will work under the likes of Nazis for pennies. Why else would Jones, despite having seemingly unlimited knowledge of each culture he’s looting from, make zero attempts to communicate with the native peoples he encounters? (The only exceptions being when he feels compelled to help the villagers in Temple of Doom and when he works with his buddy Sallah’s team of Egyptian diggers in Raiders.)
And despite their central conceit as a tribute to the fields of archeology and cultural preservation, these films bear little resemblance to the real thing. When Indiana Jones isn’t deliberately stealing antiquities from ancient civilizations, he’s accidentally destroying their temples and other sacred spaces. Jones is probably acting with what he believes to be the best intentions. But those intentions stem from a Western perspective steeped in centuries of colonialism and imperial conquest, one whereby the white explorer becomes a savior by forcing “civilization” on indigenous cultures around the world.
At the same time, the Indiana Jones series has helped popularize the fields of archaeology, cultural preservation, and museum work (or at least the notion of them) in a way that no other movie or medium ever has, save for maybe Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum franchise. Raiders and Last Crusade actor John Rhys-Davies counts upward of 150 professors, lecturers, and practicing archaeologists he’s met over the years who said they became interested in archaeology after seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark. According to National Geographic archaeological fellow and historian Fred Hiebert, Indiana Jones led to a statistical rise in the number of archaeological students after Raiders came out in 1981.
Hiebert was the curator of Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archeology, an exhibition that toured museums in Canada, Spain, and the U.S. from 2011 to 2016, showcasing props from the Indiana Jones films alongside ancient objects from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology as well as historical materials from the National Geographic Society archives, including 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian jewelry and a Sumerian cuneiform tablet showing the former city of Nippur (modern-day Iraq), believed to be the world’s oldest map. The goal was to give actual artifacts equal billing with their fictional counterparts, and to highlight the importance of keeping objects with the cultures that produced them. “Cultural artifacts need to stay in the place where they come from. Where they belong,” Hiebert explained at the time. “I hope this exhibit will put a spotlight on cultural heritage, looting, and loss of heritage—a worldwide phenomenon going on now in Iraq and Syria and Peru and Egypt.”
Today, the debate around returning looted works to their cultures of origin is still raging. But it’s worth noting that repatriated objects don’t just leave behind empty pedestals and displays. When the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston returned 13 looted antiquities dating from roughly 530 B.C. to 136 A.D. to Italy in 2006, the Massachusetts museum received pieces on loan from the Italian government, including Roman statues and Renaissance paintings. Often, for museums, returning artifacts can open up doors for new dialogues, relationships, and forms of cultural exchange. Holding onto stolen antiquities closes the door.
Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from Indiana Jones doesn’t come from the man himself, but his father. Instead of hanging onto an artifact that belongs to another culture, sometimes the best thing to do is let looted items go so that their respective cultures have the opportunity to reclaim their sense of agency too. After all, if the world’s most famous (and notorious) fictional archaeologist can figure it out, what’s stopping some of the biggest museums in the West?