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Glamorous Digs: Does Indiana Jones Action Help Archaeology?

Miniseries focuses on exploits of amateurs

'Real archaeology is not good theater,'' says Professor Sarah Nelson, head of the anthropology department at Colorado's University of Denver.

Yes, but what about Indiana Jones shooting it out with Nazis, or leaping on a moving truck to escape villains?

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It may be good theater, but even Indy Jones fans would probably admit it isn't ''real'' archaeology. So it may come as a surprise that at least some archaeologists themselves, including Professor Nelson, tolerate or even applaud the vision of archaeology offered in the media.

''The glamorizing of archaeology in films and TV isn't necessarily a bad thing,'' Nelson maintains. ''It piques people's interest. Who, after all, would watch hours of someone stooped over the dirt during a dig,'' she chuckles. ''I feel letting the public know, in a responsible way, is a good thing, even if it isn't perfect.''

Her comments came in response to a question about the Discovery Channel's upcoming miniseries ''Seekers of the Lost Treasure,'' airing Sunday, July 30, and Monday, July 31, from 9-11 p.m.

The production is a dramatically presented, meticulously researched documentary about four amateur archaeologists whose exploits span two centuries. The series ranges from the swashbuckling Giovanni Belzoni at the time of Napoleon to the late Michael Rockefeller, whose father was then governor of New York and a future presidential candidate. The opening show describes Michael's disappearance on an expedition to New Guinea in 1961.

For its producer, Anthony Geffen, the production falls halfway between Steven Spielberg's ''Indiana Jones'' movies and the academic approach. The show uses evocative music and lots of dramatic camera work, yet the action is based on carefully reconstructed events.

''We did incredible amounts of research to get the details right,'' says Mr. Geffen, reached by phone in London. ''We went to the exact location, used the exact object or a replica. We were trying to capture the spirit of the people and times.''

Although the production uses some reenactments, the series has no dialogue. ''For me there is a line drawn there,'' Geffen says. Even for spoken voiceovers, ''we used exact quotes from diaries and newspapers,'' he notes.

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Opinions about such presentations vary widely among Nelson's colleagues. Some approve of the visibility of archaeology in the media - especially certain TV documentaries - but decry the romanticized image of a field where drab field work and lots of laboratory time are the reality.

Mark Leone, head of anthropology at the University of Maryland in College Park, says media images of archaeology are a great help.

''These images don't generate an interest in archaeology,'' he says, ''they live off an interest already there. Popular presentations do not damage archaeology. Even the most popular and widespread of these films, once you get by the adventure, present a sophisticated picture of the complex knowledge that archaeologists assemble to do their business. Spielberg, for instance, has served our field very well while serving the public.''

Other professionals have misgivings. William Marquardt, professor of anthropology at the University of Florida, Gainesville, finds movies and TV questionable communicators of ''real'' archaeology. ''I am amazed at the lack of information the general public has,'' he says. ''This doesn't mean they're stupid, just that we archaeologists haven't done a good job in getting the message across.''

The way to accomplish this, he maintains, is not through media portrayals but through good books and through having archaeologists speak at schools to help children understand what it's really about. Perhaps most important of all, he says, is getting people to come to actual archeological sites, where they can get hands-on experience.

Barbara Burrell, associate professor of Classics at Ohio's University of Cincinnati, says she and most of her colleagues are wondering when the Indiana Jones label will be stripped from their field. ''Archaeology does have excitement,'' she notes, ''but archaeologists are pursuing knowledge, not treasure. Usually TV does a fairly poor and sometimes cheesy job on archaeology.''

Despite her concerns, a partly romanticized view of archaeology will get a boost when ''Seekers'' airs, adding a bit of fuel - though a well-researched bit - to a debate that isn't likely to end soon.

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