The 10 Greatest Archaeology Movies Ever

With Christmas coming up, I thought I'd share the movies that the three Kings will be watching over the Holidays. Voting was entirely democratic (only one voter), is based on how much I enjoyed them and how accurately they reflect archaeology and/or my life. If you've forgotten to get presents, these can be ordered from Amazon with next day delivery ...

1 The Body (2001)
This might be a surprise winner, but the little known film is worth taking the time to track down. It's so good that 'real-life Indiana Jones' Sean Kingsley borrowed my DVD and kept it for two years. Antonio Banderas plays a Jesuit sent by the Vatican to investigate when an Israeli archaeologist [Olivia Williams] uncovers a crucified body in a rich man's tomb during a rescue dig. Just like Joe Zias. She's the most authentic archaeologist ever portrayed in a movie - chain smoking, constantly drinking coffee. The problems in Israeli archaeology such as looting, the Haredi stopping excavations, are well observed. One minor mistake in the script; the Babylonians did crucify, and may even have invented crucifixion. Liam Neeson was originally cast as the priest, and might have been better given that he seems to have made those roles his own. The bad guys are both sexy and diverse - Catholics, Israelis and Palestinians.
Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliott, Indie, Nazis, the Crusades, Petra and Biblical archaeology - what's not to like. This is by far the best of the Indiana Jones movies, with a good sense of humor. And a brilliant father-son relationship. And a great, accurate museum curator in Elliott. The Holy Grail probably was a clay cup, and yes, archaeologists do seem to find a new one with alarming regularity: most recently Franck Goddio in Alexandria Harbour.

3 Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The original Indiana Jones - Egyptology, the Ark of the Covenant .... Looses points for being a little dated but not yet classic, and for being unrealistic because the Ark was last recorded before Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon destroyed the First Temple in 586 BC, so obviously it's a little far-fetched for either Indie or the Nazis to find it. Gains points for being one of the first movies I remember seeing.

4 Untitled Joe Zias / Guy Sanders Project (2009)
It's ten years after Munich had been avenged. Unlike his friend Zohan Dvir, Avner [Eric Bana] follows the more traditional post-Mossad route and becomes an archaeologist. He and Daphna [Ayelet Zurer] are excavating in Lycia when Papa [Michael Lonsdale] and Louis [Mathieu Amalric] drop by as part of a culinary tour of Turkey. At a conference they meet Hirscham Schenkle, editor of the Review of Judeo-Christian Archaeology and the leading authenticator of Jesus artifacts. Trouble strikes when Avner discovers that Schenkle is supporting a plan to built a giant hydro-electric dam that will flood his dig, and displace dozens of villages. Avner has just found a pit containing the remains of a dozen crucified men with some Roman Republican coins, so he calls in the great Israeli archaeologist Joe Zias. Whilst waiting for Zias they find the remains of a Byzantine church, whose crypt was encased in Cyclopean stones which prove difficult to move. Avner, Louis and Papa battle the damn-builders and uncover Schenkle's dark secret; he has been selling antiquities to fund a local al-Qaeda cell. Lots of explosions. Zias announces that the remains in the pit are those of the pirates crucified by Julius Caesar. Lots more explosions. Schlenkle, fleeing the scene, is accidentally impaled on the Spear of Destiny. Then, using some of the left-over dynamite, the great Byzantine archaeologist Guy Sanders opens the crypt and uncovers the Temple Treasure, hidden in Lycia by a blind monk after the capture of Jerusalem by Caliph Umar in 638. Script by Aaron Sorkin; costumes by Galliano.

5 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)
I only saw if after the third journalist journalist asked about being a real-life Lara Croft ... and frankly, whilst I would rather avoid journalists, I would like to encourage them in this comparison rather than the Harrison Ford / Indiana Jones one, as it gets kinda insulting being compared to a wrinkly old man. Obviously, as an archaeologist, I found this to be an eerily accurate depiction of my life: the guns, the latex. If only Lara Croft cooked ... Tomb Raider looses points for Croft not technically being about an archaeologist or having an archaeology in it. It should however be required viewing for all students of cultural property issues because of the looting. And it's great fun. And it has Angelina Jolie, Chris Barrie and Daniel Craig in it. And Craig takes a shower.
I saw this with Sean Kingsley, so it passed the all-important 'two archaeologists' test. And I stayed in the cinema despite a tooth ache [although I wouldn't recommend this, as apparently doctors think popcorn counts as 'real' food, so had to have wisdom tooth removed under local anaesthetic]. It has more archaeology, starting on Thera with a lost under-water temple of temple of Alexander the Great. And very good Corinthian capitals in the temple, which provide the lost link between Vitruvius' text and the earliest extant examples on the Lysicrates Monument (c. 334 BC, small scale) and on the Mausoleum of a son of Lysimachus at Belevi (pre 281 BC, monumental).

7 Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
A classic movie. Omar Sharif, Peter O'Toole, David Lean, desert, war, Middle Eastern politics ... it's a stretch calling it an archaeology movie, except that T.E. Lawrence was an archaeologist. He worked on the British Museum's Europus-on-the-Euphrates (modern Carchemish, now in Turkey). Because of this, he had knowledge of the region which made him suitable for the position. Lawrence loses points for being a spy, and saddling every archaeologist since then with the accusation of spying.

8 The English Patient (1996)
Michael Ondaatje's book and Anthony Minghella's movie were quite different, but equally good. Ralph Fiennes plays the real-life archaeologist / adventurer / spy / possible Nazi or double-agent Count Laszlo de Almásy, pursuing a love of Herodotus. Juliette Binoche was an odd choice for her role, but Willem Dafoe is as brilliant as ever. Fiennes manages the difficult task of playing a cold, unfeeling Englishman yet again.

9 The Omen (1976)
The 2006 re-make was surprisingly good, as were sequels II and III - but the original is the best. It starts with an excavation at Tarquinia, and takes in Israel and Meggido. It has religion, murder, the occult, and pretty much everything anyone could possibly ask from a horror movie.

This version was directed by Paul Schrader; the studio hated it, and hired Renny Harlin to re-shoot it. Then they decided to release it on DVD. Father Merrin, after the horrors of WWII, is working as an archaeologist in Kenya. There he discovers a buried, perfectly preserved Byzantine church built by Justinian. It was designed to exorcise an entrance to Hades ... The church is brilliant, and the art director clearly did his research. Loses points because whilst a Byzantine church in Ethiopia might have been believable, one in Kenya is a bit of a stretch. And 'peasant' huts tend to be made of locally available materials - straw in the plains, rocks in the mountains.

Honorable mentions

This is the Renny Harlin version, which is quite different in many ways, but equally enjoyable. It still however has the church in Kenya, and straw huts in the mountains. Both are worth renting, though this is the more classic horror version.

* Stargate (1994)
James Spader for once playing geek rather than dissolute / sexy, as Egyptologist Dr. Daniel Jackson. Kurt Russell as a macho Colonel. Aliens. People speaking ancient Egyptian - how often does that happen in a movie. A bit of romance. It's fun.

It has Indiana Jones in it, though ... am not so keen on this one.

* Sahara (2005)
I'm still not sure that this is strictly an archaeology movie, but it's a fun couple of hours and shows that you can dig non-ancient things.

* The Ninth Gate (1999)
This is a totally gratuitous inclusion because I enjoyed the movie - it's more occult / religion / horror, and I added it because I was hoping that by the time I came to filling this in I would have found some highly tenuous archaeology connection ... Roman Polanski, Johnny Depp, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner, but surprisingly little known.

* The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
Whilst I'm pushing the boundaries, I might as well claim that this movie is very important in terms of art theft, museum studies and related cultural property issues. That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it. Plus the Rene Russo character is amazing. And I love her wardrobe. A sequel set in the Topkapi is in the works.
Any movie that combines the Temple Treasure and the Founding Fathers, whilst managing to be a good adventure yarn, is worth a couple of hours. I also enjoyed the sequel.

Only included in this list because it's an Indiana Jones movie. Liked the ending, but still not sure about the aliens. Despite seeing it in the most comfortable theatre in London, my friends refused to stay to the end and walked out. Please let there not be a part V.

TV Special - "Bones" (2005ff)
A TV series rather than a movie, this is the story of forensic archaeologist Dr. Temperance 'Bones' Brennan [Emily Deschanel], based on real-life forensic archaeologist Kathy Reichs, and her FBI partner Special Agent Seeley Booth [David Boreanaz]. It's strangely addictive - every house guest I've played it for is hooked by the end of the first episode, and wants to watch another episode, then a third ... In the UK iTunes has episodes the day after Fox in the US. Very camp, and funny, and sweet, and brilliantly cast, with music that I find myself humming in the kitchen.

The Greatest Archaeology Movies Amazon UK - List on Amazon UK

The Greatest Archaeology Movies Amazon US - List on Amazon US


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Loved your "10 Greatest Archaeology Movies Ever" and agree - Laura Croft the best. How about adding "The Librarian: Quest for the Spear" and it's sequel? Loved these 2 movies as well? What do you think?

  3. The Myth [Shen hua (2005)] with Jackie Chan. It takes archaeological fantasy to another level!!!

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  5. Great collection! I liked all the movies of him. He is one of my favorite actors. I am also having some of his movies collection where he did fabulous work. Have a look on this link funniest movies of all time.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. thank you for this list of movies and for an informative blog. I watch some movies in the list, but there some movies here that I love to watch. Because of this list now I can watch the movies on this list that I am looking and knowing the title of this movie. The Ninth Gate is what I am saying.

  8. The list of movies were all an amazing films. Some of the movies were a horror film series, like the Dominion and Exorcist. Thanks for the list of the films.


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