The Adventuring Archaeologist Trope

Archaeology is a fairly common video game theme, and why wouldn’t it be? Distant lands, searching for lost treasures, the threat of competing looters and foreign governments, the possibilities of cursed tombs, with only the lone archaeologist to right the wrongs and triumph. This fantasy is not unique to the digital era; the adventuring archaeologist is a trope whose history extends back into the Imperial Age. During the 18th and 19th centuries, real adventurers and antiquarians left their comfy European homes to travel through foreign lands to salvage artifacts and treasures from dying savage nations. Their actions were racist, colonialist, imperialist, and politically incorrect. Archaeology as a discipline has suffered from these roots, but over the past decades has worked hard to prove itself as unbiased, self-reflexive and beneficial to foreign nations.

Mainstream archaeological games continue to use the 19th century trope of the archaeologist as looter, grave robber, and, to be blunt, thief. As Breger (2008:56) argues, these archaeological video game “narratives follow a relatively unquestioned logic of appropriation” with secondary characters from the non-Western world being represented using “the worst tropes of the imperialist imagination”. Characters like Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and Nathan Drake exemplify the video game archaeologist, and the many problems of the stereotype. The premise of each of these video games follows the same plot line. The archaeologist adventurer is in search of relics from King Arthur’s tomb, Thor’s hammer, or the lost city of El Dorado. In their search they are faced with angry natives, competing archaeologists, wild animals, and sinister leagues of evil treasure mongers. The male archaeologists are a cross between cowboy and academic, with dirtied collared shirts and surplus military bags. The female archaeologists are clad in sexy dungarees, tight plain navel revealing tees, which are completed by their tribal jewelry or military accessories.

But this is a far cry from reality, where the only epic battles of archaeology are between the professors and the funding agencies, and the quest for relics is a long, slow, well researched one. Real archaeology involves working closely with the cultures under investigation, collaborating across nations, and detailed planning. Movie versions of Lara Croft and Indiana Jones attempt to break from the tropes and colonial narratives by acting as protectors of the past, with the ‘exotic natives’ supporting their efforts against tyrannical organizations who seek artifacts for world domination. We actually see Professor Jones in his classroom and leading excavations, and Lara Croft researching artifacts and seeking the advice of the foreign nations.

However, these post-colonial and politically correct efforts are lost in the game, where foreigners are simplified to the textbook ‘other’ and the quest for appropriation of artifacts becomes paramount. These games are simply replaying the tropes of imperialism; a colonial narrative of penetration and appropriation, with the archaeologists ‘saving’ the artifacts from other looters or from the cultures themselves. They are the hero in that they at least want to protect the interests of the culture under investigation whereas other looters just want the profit- but in the end… it’s not archaeology.

The question is whether this is detrimental to the protection of our archaeological resources or our discipline. I’ll be the first to admit that I love Indiana Jones, and as a kid wanted to grow up to be Lara Croft. My first archaeological excursions were directly inspired by these characters. Archaeological video games are popular, there is no denying that. As I mentioned in my previous post, mainstream video games can be an engaging entryway into the past. While there are not many educational benefits from playing ten hours of Tomb Raider, it could serve as inspiration to get people interested in museums and history, or at least a jumping off point for a discussion on the true nature of archaeology. The museum exhibit which explored Indiana Jones and archaeology was flogged by academics, I do not see anything wrong with leveraging the popular media as a way to show people a more accurate conception of archaeology.

More accurate portrayals of archaeology are beginning to be introduced into mainstream video games. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm introduces archaeology as a new occupation for players to hold. The spell to discover the location of artifacts acts as a magical ground penetrating radar, with players needing a combination of skill and luck to discover pieces of artifacts. It is also based around understanding the ancient cultures of Azeroth, and while money and skills do come from the artifacts it is still a more accurate portrayal than many others.

Perhaps then the trope of archaeologist in mainstream games is evolving. Maybe in the future we will see a Lara Croft who does appropriate surveys, applies for government permission, and struggles with balancing a budget and a crew of graduate research assistants.

Works Cited

Breger, Claudia 2008. Digital Digs, or Lara Croft Replaying Indiana Jones: Archaeological Tropes and Colonial Loops in New Media Narrative. In Aether 11:41-60.


  1. Katy,

    Great exploration of a trope that players and viewers alike (like me) take for granted. Seeing little of archeology outside of pretty things in museums and flashy discover channel documentaries with “cool” archeologists that like to speculate wildly about every conspiracy theory and hidden temple, having any real perspective on archeology seems difficult for the layman.

    The sad truths of otherness and thievery becoming the basis of the profession in entertainment took me aback. But what I will say is that games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted place themselves in the adventure/action genre, somewhere no archeologist could really be said to stand if one were to simply simulate the job. So, true representation seems impossible.

    What is possible is the creation of two good effects of putting the player into the role of an archeologist. I’m a big fan of Uncharted 2, which I think strove to exhibit these positive approaches.

    1. Games as history/education. Although mysticism and connections may be added for plot and entertainment, actually teaching the player about the temples of Katmandu or the peoples of Tibet (as I would argue Uncharted 2 did), about the history of a certain artifact or people, in the locations and puzzles of the game is an organic good games (and films)can exhibit.

    2. Games as tours of ancient and modern locations: Players can travel to the Holy Land and medieval Italy in Assassin’s Creed, to many American cities in Grand Theft Auto, and to worldwide locations including the Turkish Museam, Tibet, Katmandu, and Borneo in Uncharted 2.

    I think the archeologist trope gives game designers the unique ability to explore the history of a culture or an area, to teach players about that history, and to instill a reverence in the player for far off lands and treasures. That is, as long as they show the due respect toward those cultures that you mentioned.

    Great article. Thanks for reading my thoughts.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the comment Andrew. I love your idea of using games as a tour of ancient worlds. I’m currently playing through the Assassin’s Creed Series and it definitely appeals to the archaeologist in me. Perhaps I will expand upon your idea in a future post.

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