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Indiana Jones and the real-life archaeologist
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

Archaeologist Ryan Williams, who grew up in Door County, Wis., points out some of the ancient treasures kept in Field Museum storage rooms.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Field Museum archaeologist Ryan Williams and scientist Laure Dussubieux demonstrate a laser ablation system used to identify objects.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Field Museum archaeologist Donna Nash works with graduate student Kristi Peters, who measures an ancient artifact known as a tupu, or type of pin women used.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/20/2008 12:10 AM | Updated: 5/20/2008 8:16 AM

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Clinging to a fraying rope of llama fibers, archaeologist Ryan Williams climbed into the caves of the Land of Eternal Spring.

What treasures lay hidden in the Peruvian ruins? the intrepid explorer mused.

Perhaps the secret to the buried past of the Wari and Tiwanaku peoples? Could he find the link between the two ancient civilizations?

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Suddenly, with a noise like a whip cracking, his lifeline snapped. Was this the end of the Andean adventures?

Nope. Just a short distance away, Williams' faithful graduate students hauled their instructor to safety.

Naturally, "they got an A," Williams said, tongue in cheek.

Since obtaining his doctorate in 1997, the Field Museum curator has yet to dodge enraged Nazis, flee spear-toting warriors or hide under a coffin to escape incineration.

But that doesn't mean Williams won't be watching Hollywood doppelganger Henry "Indiana" Jones in his latest cliffhanger, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

Archaeologists of his generation who grew up in the 1980s watching "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" share a "dirty little secret," Williams confessed.

"The Jones trilogy at some level spoke to most of us," he said. "Despite the swashbuckling, there's an intellectual basis. There's detective work and extensive intellectual achievement that goes into everything."

Part of "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is set in Peru, a country Williams knows well after seven years excavating two ancient empires, the Tiwanaku and the Wari, who predate the Incas.

In early May, he returned to the Peruvian Andes to a region known as the "Land of Eternal Spring." There, Williams will lead an exploration of Cerro Baúl, an imposing citadel the Wari people built on a remote Andean mountaintop just miles from a Tiwanaku outpost.

Williams is searching for clues into the relationship between two civilizations who lived more than 1,000 years ago.

"The information is right beneath your feet if you really want to capture it," Williams said. "Most of our past is written in the earth. By bringing it to life, archaeology allows us to really rediscover who we are, where we came from and where we're going."

X-rays, not whips

Archaeologist Ryan Williams stares at a tiny object lying in the dirt of the ancient city of Cerro Baúl.

Does this ceramic fragment mean a Tiwanaku temple once stood in Wari territory?

Suddenly he realizes he's not alone! Faster than you can say 'Holy Grail,' his fingers tighten on his trusty portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.

Compared to Indy, "today's archaeologist is more strategic," Williams said. "We use tools to figure out how to dig and where to dig. Excavation is a destructive process."

The technology he'll use at the Cerro Baúl dig includes ground-penetrating radar and an electrical sensitivity meter to help pinpoint the location of structures and features below ground.

To illuminate mystery artifacts, Field scientists turn to aids such as the portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. The gadget shoots X-ray beams at objects pinpointing what elements they're composed of.

In "The Last Crusade," Indy, played by Harrison Ford, relies on instinct to select the true Holy Grail from a room full of deadly imitations. Williams dismisses such crude methods.

"If Indy had the appropriate analytical equipment, like a portable XRF on his side instead of a whip -- he could have determined which (cup) belonged to central Jordan instead of doing it by the seat of his pants," he said.

And instead of just Indy and a few inept sidekicks, Williams works closely with Peruvian colleagues and an interdisciplinary team. The international scholars include a chemist who analyzes metals, a ceramics specialist, and a paleo-botanist who "gets very excited about different corncobs."

Don't expect the experts to come home laden with foreign treasure, either.

A 1970s United Nations treaty seeks to keep all objects collected during archeological excursions principally in their country of origin. In fact, Field archaeologists helped establish a museum for their discoveries in southern Peru.

Indiana Jones is "always focused on the objects, and that's true of discipline at that time," said Field archaeologist and Cerro Baúl excavation director Donna Nash, who is married to Williams. "Now we're more interested in the association of objects with where we find them."

Williams adds, "We've moved away from the imperialist extraction of such artifacts and scurrying away with them to centers of urbanization in the Western world."

Absence of villains

On a dig, the day begins at dawn for the museum crew.

"We get up very early because light is very important for understanding soil differences and changes in strata while excavating," Nash said.

The team will use a precise 1-by-1-meter grid system to methodically excavate the site. Workers will painstakingly screen particles of dirt to uncover fragments from the once bustling Wari city.

"Indy should spend a lot more time in the dirt than he actually does," Williams observed.

As artifacts, walls and floors emerge, researchers photograph and draw their findings.

"If you can't cope with tediousness, it's a sign you shouldn't be an archaeologist," Nash said.

But frequently, treasures do surface.

"Most of the really impressive stuff we find has spent a thousand years in a decaying building, and may have fallen or smashed," Williams said.

With the Jones movies: "I'm always impressed by the amazing preservation of artifacts in situ. You almost never find artifacts in place on a pedestal waiting for you to come."

In the "Last Crusade's" opening sequence, Indy strong-arms an ancient cross from an evil collector. "That belongs in a museum!" he snarls, leaping into a raging sea minutes before the collector's ship explodes. Cut to the next scene and he's in a lecture hall telling students "70 percent of all archaeology is done in the library."

The juxtaposition of adventurous and cerebral worlds rings true, Williams agrees.

Back at the museum, 50 to 60 percent of his time is spent writing articles and making grant applications. Then, there are grad students to supervise, visiting scholars to meet and lab work.

The latter ranges from taking precise measurements of artifacts to using laser equipment to calculate their atomic breakdown.

"In some respects, archaeology today has a closer relationship with 'CSI' than Indiana Jones," Williams said, referring to the TV detective show.

Love interest

Whether it's free-spirited Marion Ravenwood in "Raiders," ditzy Willie Scott in "Temple of Doom," or scheming Elsa Schneider in "Last Crusade," Indy has relationship issues.

Williams and Nash, not so much. They are happily married after a fateful meeting in the Lima airport as grad students en route to a dig.

Nash had missed her flight connections and found herself in unfamiliar surroundings trying to hook up with a stranger.

"I thought, 'OK, who's the archaeologist?' and I guessed right," Nash said.

"He was wearing hiking gear, but unlike the tourists, it was old and worn. I came up to his traveling companion because I thought he was cute and I was shy."

Not only did they share a love of archaeology, but both are fans of the Jones movies. Now their careers have led to Chicago and the Field Museum -- which has a historical connection to the films.

Indy studied at the University of Chicago under Abner Ravenwood, a fictional character whose name evokes Robert Braidwood, a pioneering archaeologist affiliated with U of C's Oriental Institute museum.

"I think (Indy) was inspired by the archaeologists at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum," Williams said. "They were two of the earliest players in the formation of the discipline in the United States."

Many of the Jones' movies center on the search for icons such as the Ark of the Covenant or Holy Grail that Indy fleetingly possesses.

Williams hopes a more permanent treasure is emerging in Cerro Baúl.

Last year, while digging for a Wari temple, he had an epiphany.

"I came across some ceramic fragments quite distinctive than anything else I'd seen. The clays were different, the colors were different, the forms were thicker."

The foreign objects turned out to be parts of a Tiwanaku ritual burning vessel that held incense.

"That was (my) Holy Grail," Williams said.

"It's a very new discovery … the first Tiwanaku temple in a Wari city. It's very much like a Jerusalem of the Andes, if you will, where two religions meet and come together -- both occupying the same sacred mountain."

Indy would approve.

"Although (the films) may not represent real archaeology, there are some aspects that do," Williams said. "The allure of discovery and sense of exploration -- of finding the unknown."

Indiana Jones

Job: Archaeologist, adventurer

Fears: "I hate snakes!"

Greatest finds: Toss-up between the Holy Grail and Ark of the Covenant

Local connection: Studied at University of Chicago

Weapon of choice: Bullwhip and pistol

Quotable: "Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth. … We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and X never marks the spot."

Ryan Williams

Job: Archaeologist and curator

Fears: "I'm not a spider guy."

Great finds: Tiwanaku temple in Wari territory

Local connection: Works at the Field Museum

Weapon of choice: Portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer

Quotable: "99 percent of human history is unwritten, and the 1 percent is only written about certain people."