Tales of a Real-Life Indiana Jones Highlight International Week

Keynote Speaker Christopher Heaney thrilled students with the story of adventurer archaeologist Hiram Bingham and his search for Mach Picchu.
Thursday, November 18, 2010

Like many who grew up in the 1980s, Christopher Heaney was captivated by the daring archaeologist-turned-adventurer Indiana Jones, an idealized Hollywood hero who repeatedly cheated death in the Amazon in order to bring his ancient loot back to the United States in the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark.

As Heaney matured, however, he realized that the Indiana Jones legend also had some basis in fact. Indy’s real-life model, as it were, is the subject of Heaney’s book, Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones and the Search for Machu Picchu. Heaney, a Harrington Doctoral Fellow at the University of Texas-Austin, spoke to a capacity audience in Sweigart Auditorium on November 11 as the keynote speaker for International Week at Rider University.

Bingham, who had been to Chile as a delegate to the First Pan American Scientific Congress in 1908, was taken to Choquequirao – the Cradle of Gold – on his way back to the United States, and was enchanted by what he saw and learned there.

“It was the last city of the Incas,” said Heaney of the mountainside development to which the tribe retreated in 1572 after 40 years of fighting the Spanish Conquistadors, marking the end of the Incas’ political era. “Bingham loved this story, and tried his best to expand North America’s understanding of the Incas’ story and culture.”

It set Bingham – like Heaney, a baccalaureate graduate of Yale University – back to Peru in search of the lost city of Machu Picchu, a place heretofore unknown to most of the world beyond its borders. By the spring of 1911, he had secured funding from Yale and reached his destination by the end of July. In return for footing the bill, Yale would take possession of Bingham’s findings for its own collection.

Bingham’s subsequent excavations of Incan artifacts yielded much in the way of museum-quality findings, at a time when universities were in competition to develop their collections. It also yielded a controversy that persists today, regarding ownership of the artifacts.

The government of Peru objected to what it considered looting of its national treasures, explained Heaney, before being reassured about the mission by U.S. President William Howard Taft, who promised several concessions.

“Under the agreement, Yale would get half of the artifacts,” Heaney said, adding that there were also concerns in Peru that a colonial relationship was developing. “Intellectuals in Lima could not understand the agreement, however, and asked how Peruvians would study artifacts when half of them were going to New Haven.”

From this, Bingham unilaterally cut a another deal with the Peruvian government that seemed to favor the South American nation.

“All of the artifacts would go to Yale, but Peru could call back the collection anytime,” said Heaney, who also explained that at the time, nations the world over were being shamelessly looted by explorers representing academia across the United States and Europe. “The media in Peru exclaimed that they had ‘changed the system.’”

Except that Bingham never told Yale about the agreement. In 1920, a letter arrived in New Haven from Peru, requesting the return of the artifacts – plenty of bronzework and silver, but primarily human remains taken from the mountainside of Machu Picchu. Needless to say, the correspondence came to the surprise of the Ivy League university.

“Bingham was embarrassed of the arrangement, and never mentioned it back at Yale,” Heaney explained. “He simply said that Peru has negotiated in bad faith. It had a lasting effect on the reputations of both Bingham and Yale in Peru from the 1920s on.”

Indeed, even at this year’s New York Marathon, nine Peruvian participants competed in shirts that said, “Yale, give the artifacts back,” Heaney said.

Regardless of his questionable dealings, Americans fell for tales of Bingham’s daring in this mysteriously exotic land, as detailed in various periodicals. Even years later, his book, Lost City of the Incas, landed Bingham on the bestsellers list in 1948.

If anything, the book reignited the public’s interest in Bingham, his exploits, and the search for Machu Picchu. The 1953 film Secret of the Incas, starring Charlton Heston, bore some striking similarities to Bingham’s story, according to Heaney.

“It involved a grifter who goes to Machu Picchu and find a vaunted ‘sun disk,’ which the natives had been searching for over many years,” Heaney said. “Before he could take it back to the United States, he has an attack of conscience and gave it back. The producers came up with the idea after reading Bingham’s articles.”

Heaney explained how the Heston character really provides a missing link from Bingham to the more contemporary Indiana Jones. However, with each incarnation, more and more truth is sacrificed to Hollywood-style drama.

“Think of a paper-copy machine,” explained Heaney. “If you kept making copies off of previous copies, each generation comes out with less and less detail.”

Though Bingham was a respected academic and archaeologist, the successive incarnations of his legend may lead one to believe that he was more of a shameless plunderer. Not so, says Heaney, who described the scene, near the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Jones escapes with his golden bounty as the temple implodes just behind him.

“To an archaeologist, whoever destroyed a place he was studying would be kicked out of the profession,” said Heaney, who admitted that even Bingham certainly could have moved more tactfully through Peru – a place he genuinely loved – if his focus wasn’t sometimes blurred by his ambition. “We can find our own artifacts, but sometimes, we need to tread a bit more lightly.

“This became a sad story, but it began very positively as a story of cooperation,” he said.

Back to Campus & Community
Christopher Heaney, author of Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones and the Search for Machu Pic