In creating the lost temple setting for the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the filmmakers drew on a variety of imagery produced by diverse cultures separated by as much as 2,000 years and spread across more than 1,000 miles of the South American Andes. (Cultural appropriations from Central America appearing in this same sequence are discussed in greater detail in separate posts.) Among the wall carvings lining the final approach to the inner sanctum is a close copy of a tenoned head from the temple at Chavín de Huantar, a site in the North-Central Highlands of Peru that was an important center of religious pilgrimage during the Formative Period (c. 1200–400 BCE).
In the chamber housing the idol, a further collection of stone heads includes the face of the central deity from the so-called Gateway of the Sun at Tiwanaku, a major seat of religious and political authority during the Middle Horizon (ca. 400–800 CE) located on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Flanking the head arrayed directly behind the golden statue are expanses of plain wall composed of large boulders. Even though no imagery is presented here, this stonework almost certainly references Inka polygonal masonry walls from the Andean Late Horizon (ca. 1450–1532 CE). Finally, numerous identical U-shaped seats supported on the backs of human figures are arranged in a circle around the cylindrical altar upon which the idol rests. These are based on a form prevalent in Ecuador during the period immediately preceding the Spanish Conquest and belonging to a culture variously referred to as Manteño or Huancavilca.
The cumulative effect of this jumbling together of disparate cultural references is one of homogenization, whereby the artistic production of an entire hemisphere has been lumped together in an amalgamation whose guiding logic is one of negative definition: these are signifiers of non-Western civilization, intended to be recognizable only in their Otherness. Having been stripped of their original contexts and meanings, the wanton appropriation of these forms to create the set is directly analogous to the pillaging of the golden idol dramatized in the movie. The first is justified through artistic license and an appeal to the entertainment value of the movie, while the latter is given legitimacy through the archaeological profession of the protagonist, who, we learn in the following sequence, is a professor at a prestigious Ivy League university.
There is a significant temporal dimension to this portrayal of the non-Western Other, which is also implied as belonging to a distant past from which the modern world has been irrevocably estranged. For, just as they don’t go digging up the graves of the recently deceased, it would not be acceptable for archaeologists to take religious objects still part of active cultural tradition. This is made clear to the viewer by the extensive cobwebs blocking the entrance to the temple, indicating that it has not been entered for a long time. Thus, it is implied that the local indigenous tribesmen in the hire of Indy’s rival, the French archaeologist René Belloq, are as estranged from the temple’s builders as the Western archaeologists. However, by bowing in awe before the raised golden idol, they demonstrate a conception of this object as continuing to exert an active agency in the present. This superstitious gesture (along with their loincloths and body paint) condemns them to be exemplars of the primitive Other, living relics of the past who are excluded from Modernity.
Indeed, Indy’s ability to achieve his goal of obtaining the idol is shown to be a direct result of his enlightened rationality: while one of his guides is terrified by a menacing statue on the way to the temple and runs away, the Western archaeologist gives it only a passing glance and continues forward. The irony of all this only becomes clear at the film’s end: when the Ark of the Covenant—the object constructed to house the broken tablets of the Ten Commandments of Jewish tradition—is opened, it is shown to possess all the supernatural power that the Amazonian tribesmen granted to the golden idol. It was not their belief in the power of a deity that was incompatible with Western Modernity, but rather their misguided faith in the wrong deity. Taken in its entirety, the film paints a picture of the modern relationship of Western to non-Western cultures that is little changed from the view promulgated by treasure-hunting conquistadors, for whom Judeo-Christian monotheism served as the ultimate legitimization their colonialist project.