The Real Great Adventure

"You call this archaeology?!" - Dr. Henry Jones to his son, Indiana

Well, yes, he does. And rightly so.

For more than 20 years, audiences have been enraptured by the wild and woolly exploits of Indiana Jones as he gallivants around the globe questing after impossible historical artifacts.

The Ark of the Covenant. Shankara Stones. The Holy Grail. The names are familiar to movie lovers. But what of the legends surround them and the exotic locales Indy visited on his treasure hunts? How much of what is seen on screen is real and how much springs from the imagination of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas?

Perhaps surprisingly, the Indiana Jones films contain more than a sprinkling of historical and archaeological truth.

The real-life histories of the Ark of the Covenant, Indy's goal in INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK; the Thuggee cult of India, chief antagonists of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM; and the legend of the Holy Grail which both Indy and the villainous Nazis are after in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE are as fascinating as the films themselves. When creating the movies, filmmakers made sure they used historical fact as a springboard for cinematic fantasy.

Indeed, sometimes truth is even stranger than fiction:

  • The city of Tanis really is one of the possible resting places of the Ark of the Covenant. Though the city lies in ruins today, once it was famous for the gold of its royal tombs and was just the place where a Pharaoh like Shishak - who according to the Bible, raided Solomon's temple where the Ark was kept - would have hoarded his prized possessions.
  • The "Well of Souls" was a real chamber beneath the original Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
  • Egyptians were avid model builders and created many miniatures like the one Indy finds in the Map Room.
  • Like the Map Room, many Egyptian monuments were built to use sunlight in mysterious ways, most famously the great temple at Abu Simbel.
  • In 1981, the year INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was released to theaters, a team of diggers secretly searched for the Ark of the Covenant under Israel's Temple Mount.
  • The "Thuggee" cult really thrived in colonial India and was notorious for sacrificing humans to its goddess, Kali.
  • The modern word "thug" originates from the sinister cult.
  • In ancient Mexico, the Aztec Indians routinely sacrificed humans by pulling their hears out - often while still beating - much like the sect of Thugees led by Mola Ram in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.
  • The Holy Grail, the central icon in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, was the invention of a French poet in 1180 A.D. and, if it does exist, almost certainly is not the cup from which Jesus Christ drank wine at the Last Supper.
  • Dreaded SS lead Heinrich Himmler created an organization called the Ahnenerbe in 1935; its mission was to scour the world for Archaeological evidence of the "superiority" of the Aryan race.
  • Himmler outfitted a castle in Wewelsburg, Germany, with a black alter to receive the Grail - which he was intent on finding.