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Indiana Jones’ role model was a ruthless grave robber

Decades before the movie hero Indiana Jones, Hiram Bingham III grazed. through the jungle in search of fame. The historical model for the super archaeologist, however, was more of a charlatan.

No other film hero has shaped the image of archeology like Harrison Ford in the role of Indiana Jones. Countless young viewers took him as a role model in the 1980s – and decided in the cinema that they would later fight as an archaeologist against grave robbers and other villains of all kinds.

The charismatic classical scholars Steven Spielberg and George Lucas invented them. Among other things, a true American historian and politician served as inspiration for the two: Hiram Bingham III.
There is only one catch: Bingham wasn’t an archaeologist at all – he actually belonged to the guild of grave robbers that Indiana Jones beat up so passionately in the films.

Better an adventurer than a missionary

Bingham himself would never have thought of calling himself an archaeologist, but insisted all his life on being listed as a “discoverer” in the lexicon “Who’s Who”. After all, it was he who scientifically discovered the legendary ruined city of Machu Picchu in the Andes. But not even that is the truth.

Machu Pichhu: A long time ago the Inca city was overgrown with plants.  (Source: imago images / NBL picture archive)Machu Pichhu: A long time ago the Inca city was overgrown with plants. (Source: NBL picture archive / imago images)

So who is the charlatan that Spielberg and Lucas posthumously made a hero in a certain way, really? Born in Hawaii in 1875, his family initially had very different plans for the young Hiram. He was to become a missionary, like his father and grandfather before him. But the boy didn’t want to. When he was 12, he ran away from home and tried to leave the islands by ship. He got as far as the port before being picked up and sent back.

Grudgingly, he leaned over and began to study theology at elite Yale University after school. In 1898 he moved to the University of California at Berkeley, where he took a course for the first time in a subject that actually didn’t even exist: Latin American history.

Two years later, the student married Alfreda Mitchell, heir to the Tiffany jewelry empire. Their parents were horrified. She paid his tuition while Bingham dreamed of an exciting life and read poetry by Rudyard Kipling: “Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and search behind the mountains – something lost behind the mountains. Lost and waiting for you. Go. Go ‘! ” Before moving to the mountains, however, Bingham first moved to Harvard, where he specialized in the aforementioned Latin American history. A completely absurd choice of course.

Bingham made his own subject

The area was so new that there were no teachers or examiners – and thus no one to control it. Inspired by Kipling and financed by his wife’s money, the budding adventurer set off to Peru to help develop his field of study. In order to give the expedition a scientific coating, Bingham put the survey of the 73rd meridian, the highest volcano in Peru, the Coropuna, and the still relatively unexplored Lake Parinacochas on the agenda.

Steven Spielberg (lu), George Lucas (blue shirt with sunglasses) and Harrison Ford (ru): The trio gave life to the screen hero Indiana Jones.  (Source: imago images / Everett Collection)Steven Spielberg (lu), George Lucas (blue shirt with sunglasses) and Harrison Ford (ru): The trio gave life to the screen hero Indiana Jones. (Source: Everett Collection / imago images)

But what he actually wanted to find in the Andes was Vilcabamba, the last retreat of the ancient Inca civilization from the soldiers of the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who destroyed the empire in the 16th century. The location of the city was described relatively well in old chronicles. Therefore, Bingham initially paid little heed to the reports of the local farmers from a ruin site on the mountaintop of Machu Picchu.

He allowed himself to be taken there, but after a few hours he lost interest again and turned to other things. Only on the way back did he stop by again. This time, however, he saved himself the difficult ascent, preferring to send the surveyors of his team up and let them examine the ruins.

Only after his return did he make the detour to Machu Picchu to discover Vilcabamba, raving about the “lightness and elegance” of the “ornate masonry”. Bingham did not mention that the ruins did not match the descriptions of the last Inca capital, as did the inscription of a previous visitor that he had read on a rock at Machu Picchu: “Lizarraga 1902”.

“Don’t be shy”

In fact, the American found the real Vilcabamba on his trip – which he could not have known at the time – but only examined the site superficially and found it uninteresting. Bingham’s crushes were enough to set up further expeditions.

Archaeologists have still not hired Bingham, however. On the one hand, no trained archaeologist was interested in this unusual field of research. On the other hand, Bingham found them simply superfluous. After all, anyone can pick up artifacts and bones from the floor, whether they are studying or not. For the expedition participants he wrote leaflets with the most important techniques – loosely stapled sheets on which he explained how the packing lists for the catering were organized or which hygiene measures had to be observed when setting up a camp.

Hiram Bingham III .: The American later went into politics.  (Source: ullstein bild / Granger, NYC)Hiram Bingham III .: The American later went into politics. (Source: Granger, NYC / ullstein bild)

He also included information on the correct collection of artifacts in the leaflets. “Don’t be afraid to take copious amounts of notes,” recommends Bingham. On site, however, it was quickly over with every care. The thick vegetation over the ruins was not carefully cleared by hand. Instead, the helpers soaked the undergrowth with fire accelerator and let the flames do the job.

The brute method saves “time, patience and curses,” enthused Bingham’s assistant Ellwood Erdis. When workers found several graves in a cave, but this was populated by blood-sucking vampire bats, they unceremoniously lit a fire with the dry mummy bandages. Unfortunately, the bones are now badly charred, Bingham noted succinctly.

Disappointed with Machu Picchu

Everything was collected that could consolidate its reputation as a “discoverer” back home in the USA: a random compilation of ceramics, bones, jewelry without any context, but also exotic animals and plants from the region – and lots of photos. The most popular motif: the smart Hiram Bingham, mostly leaning casually against a rock, the rifle loosely slung over one shoulder. If you look at it today, you are immediately reminded of a screen hero of the eighties: Indiana Jones.

When it gradually became known that Machu Picchu is not Vilcabamba at all, but merely a royal residence, and that he was not the first, but only one of many explorers who set foot in the ruined city over the centuries and reports as well as leaving cards, Bingham quickly lost interest.

The self-proclaimed adventurer liked to compare himself to Christopher Columbus. He was not the first person to discover North America, and yet everyone would celebrate him as that person – because he finally made the continent known in Europe.

Bingham’s new passion was flying. When the First World War began, Bingham enlisted as a pilot in the US Army Air Force. His success as a commander in France, his reputation as a daring explorer and the money from his wife, with whom he now had seven children, ensured that he could get into politics after the war. In 1924 he became governor of the US state of Connecticut – for a day before moving to the Senate, where for a few years he ran obscure politics and windy business with lobbyists.

Nevertheless, he did not have the entry in “Who’s Who” changed. Until his death, the job title read what Hiram Bingham III. after reading Rudyard Kipling’s poems, set out to become: Discoverer.



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