Every Object Tells a Story

April 22, 2011

The series’ lone flashback – a cut to a discovery of the Cross of Coronado by a boy scout Indy and the follow-up conversation with his dad (deeply in-thought with some grail lore) – sets up a movie that tends to focus as much on the history of the pieces as it does the actual quest for treasure. It’s difficult to argue that a series about archaeology and history doesn’t look backward, but Last Crusade seemed to do this more effectively than the other installments. Between adventures on a zeppelin and a run-in with a Nazi panzer division, the Joneses take the viewer on an abbreviated tour of Western Christendom – fact and fiction. In fact, the grail quest that ends at Petra helped set the stage for a new wave in biblical fiction.

In order to make the correct choice of potential grails at the end of the journey, Indy needed to know about the history of the early Christians (“In the Latin alphabet, Jehovah begins with an ‘I'”) to the type of cup a carpenter would choose. It is those attention to details, and all of the history behind the object, that archaeologists around the world desire.

Almost every exhibit museums put together attempt to answer the questions behind the objects, but some artifacts tend to have more interesting stories to tell.

Hajji Firuz sherd, Penn Museum #69-12-260

Just after the exhibit visitors pass by the beautiful books and artwork used in Last Crusade, this little sherd included in Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology is easy to pass over. It is a dull gray piece, marked with pencil on both sides, fastened together by a conservator, and only about 3 inches tall. There are thousands of pieces in the museum’s collections that are more visually striking than this one. But Penn Museum’s own Dr. Patrick McGovern was able to determine that this small hunk of pottery was part of a larger group of pieces that used to hold wine about seven thousands of years ago – making it the oldest known remains of wine making in the world. The “small” find has resulted in massive gains in the world of molecular archaeology and has helped provide insight into the history of civilization (through slightly-aged beer goggles).

If a great story can be pulled from the most unassuming of pot sherds, I’ll let you determine what can be learned from this beautiful Egyptian Book of the Dead also on display in the exhibit. There is a story to learn for sure, but sometimes the journey is more fruitful than the destination.

Book of the Dead on papyrus, Penn Museum #E2775C

Tomorrow: Nazca vs. Aliens