Real-life Indiana Jones generates controversy

Christopher Heaney enlightens students about Hiram Bingham, the archaeologist who inspired the Indiana Jones films and the controversy between Yale University and Peru over his work.

By Rachel Stengel and Katie Zeck
The adventures of the archaeologist who later became an inspiration for the Indiana Jones films was the focus of the keynote speech of Rider’s International week, held Thursday, Nov. 11, in Sweigart Auditorium.

The highlight of the celebrations was the keynote speaker, Christopher Heaney, author of Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones and the Search for Machu Picchu.

“Indiana Jones is a pop culture copy of Bingham’s story,” Heaney said.

Heaney is a Yale University graduate with a B.A. in Latin American Studies. He began his journey to Peru in 2005 while completing his undergraduate research about Hiram Bingham. The story of this real-life Indiana Jones is not the romanticized version we see in the movies, he said.

Bingham was born in 1875 to an impoverished missionary family. Bingham attended Yale, where he began to reconsider entering into the religious life as his family had intended. Instead, he married the heiress and granddaughter to the founder of the jewelry empire Tiffany and Co. before setting out into the uncharted jungle.

Bingham’s archaeological journey began with his explorations in the depths of  Venezuela, Columbia and Peru. He traveled in true explorer style ­­— by mule through the mountains. Bingham loved Latin American history and cherished the title of explorer. He is credited with the discovery of the lost Incan city of Machu Picchu in 1911, in an expedition sponsored by Yale and the National Geographic Society.

He described Machu Picchu as “the cradle and grave of the Inca society.” After completing his explorations, Bingham published the book The Lost City of the Incas, documenting his excavations in Machu Picchu.

Yale and the Peruvian government struck a deal concerning the artifacts Bingham uncovered during his explorations. The deal permitted Yale to keep the artifacts for research, but Peru could request the items’ return at any point. Bingham did not refer to this specific clause in the agreement when discussing his findings.

In 1921, Peru demanded the artifacts be returned. Yale gave the majority of the artifacts back but retained some for further research. Yale claims that Peru was aware that some artifacts would not be returned. Peru disputes this claim, stating that Yale violated the original terms of the agreement.

During the finalization of Cradle of Gold in 2008, the confusion concerning the ownership of the artifacts between Yale and the Peruvian government culminated. Peru filed a lawsuit against Yale, demanding the return of the artifacts.

“It gave my work a current, political side to things,” said Heaney. “I think the artifacts should go back. It is a personal, informed stance by looking back at the history. On one level, Bingham was a person of his time, but he did go around Peruvian law many times and it is hard for him to be a role model.”

Hiram Bingham is the basic model for Indiana Jones. The chronicles of Indiana Jones involve daring explorations of lost cities and the discovery of treasure hidden within their depths. Bingham explored ancient cities, but the treasure he uncovered could not decorate a royal palace. Many of the artifacts were mummies and skeletal remains. Indiana Jones is praised as a hero while Bingham’s story did not have the same grandiose ending.

Peru labeled him as a looter and still seeks the return of its artifacts. The tales of a brave explorer have become ridden with political malice. The dispute between Yale and Peru erupted from an initial peaceful agreement between nations and higher education institutions.

“It’s become a sad story, but it began as a happy one of cooperating and sharing artifacts around the world,” Heaney said.
International Week aimed to provide students with a glimpse into cultures around the world. The week consisted of exotic food served at Daly’s, cultural art exhibits, fashion shows and global music performances. Rider strives to foster a sense  of global awareness and appreciation in its students.

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