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Archaeology, Science Fiction, and Pop Culture

Posted by Dan Shoup

The first time I TAed an archaeology class, we began by having our students draw a picture of an archaeologist. The result was predictable: a pile of comically bad drawings of Indiana Jones, leavened with a few nerdy-looking academic characters. That semester, we went on a mission to wipe this image out of our students’ minds, and replace it with the silhouettes of Lewis Binford and Ian Hodder.

The ghost of Indy is hard to stamp out. Everywhere archaeologists gather, we complain about how archaeology is portrayed in pop culture: it’s sensationalistic, cheesy, misleading, schlocky! It gives people the wrong impression of what archaeology is.

This last existential verb is the source of our trouble. We archaeologists know what archaeology is, and refuse to let anyone define it except us. But the cat has always been out of the bag: archaeology has cast a giant shadow on the public imagination from the moment it first emerged as a profession. And the nature of shadows is to distort, and shift, and show us what we want to see. On that note, I offer you two propositions about the discipline.

1) In the popular imagination, archaeology is a form of science fiction.
2) Archaeologists should embrace this, and start writing science fiction that promotes their vision of the past and agenda for the present.

You heard that right: for most people, archaeology is just a flavor of science fiction. And that’s not a bad thing. If this has made your head start rotating and shooting deadly laser beams, take a deep breath before reading further.

It’s probably more precise (if less punchy) to say that archaeology is “speculative fiction”, a family that includes science fiction, fantasy, and horror. These genres all come from the same roots in Poe, Shelley, Burroughs, and certain forgotten Victorian poets (Lord Dunsany, anyone?). It’s a diverse genre, and hard to define. For thinking about archaeology, I like Robert Heinlein’s take: "a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” Substitute “past events” for “future events” and you’re describing any work of archaeological interpretation.

Obviously a definition found on Wikipedia is not enough to prove the point. So let’s take a look at the two big sources of popular exposure to archaeology: Hollywood and the History Channel.

Archaeologists in the Movies

Hollywood’s offerings in the last decade divide roughly into stories set in the past and stories about archaeologists. I’ll focus on the latter here – but point out in passing that there are usually only cosmetic differences between an action movie set in the future (The Matrix, Starship Troopers, Alien, Terminator) and one set in the past (300, Troy, Alexander). The films about archaeologists themselves, however, are the ones that have given Hollywood durable, lucrative, and influential franchises.

Last year, for instance, we were graced with the latest installments of the Mummy and Indiana Jones franchises. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor takes the template of 2001’s The Scorpion King and transplants it a bit further east. Explorer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) must defeat the resurrected first emperor of China, who attempts to use his magical powers to animate his terracotta army and conquer the world. The ancient evil is (of course!) awakened by an archaeologist, in this case Rick’s son Alex. To restore order to the universe, Rick and his Egyptologist wife Evelyn journey to Shangri-La, huge undead armies fight, and the evil emperor (played by Jet Li and based very loosely on Qin Shi Huang [259-210BC]) is defeated. (The lack of any actual mummy in the story is, of course, no impediment at all to the plot.)

The latest offering in the Indiana Jones series chooses an explicitly Sci-Fi flavor over The Mummy’s horror-fantasy blend. For some unfathomable reason, George Lucas chose to structure the whole movie around artifacts – the crystal skulls – that are well-known and notorious fakes. Then he decided to up the ante by making them the skeletons of aliens. Set in 1957, the plot revolves around a nefarious Soviet plot to use crystal skulls to develop an advantage in psychic warfare. The film is a rich buffet of science fiction tropes: flying saucers, interdimensional travel, psychic powers and an ancient temple full of alien bodies. I can’t decide if it was just a fun caper movie, or is the latest evidence of George Lucas’ creative senility. Probably both.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007), sees Nic Cage deploying some of the same tropes in a less sensational context. His character, Benjamin Gates, is a cryptologist and treasure hunter (his mother is the film’s token archaeologist), and he must solve a series of historical mysteries that poses an existential threat to American identity. Unsurprisingly, the trail leads to the discovery of the “ancient city of gold”, Cibola, which is amusingly located inside Mount Rushmore. It’s a frenetic romp with all the required elements: sinister villains, ancient mysteries, a vigorous, heroic explorer, and a resolution that restores order to the world.

These films don’t just loosely connect archaeology with science fiction – instead, archaeology is the sine qua non of the speculative universe that the film explores. There is a causal relationship between archaeology and fantasy: the archaeologist/explorer/treasure hunter character unleashes weirdness into the world and then must fix the problems that result.

Archaeologists can’t just dismiss these movies, which are all just the latest sequels in franchises with global reach and billions of dollars in earnings. And in fact, there’s lots to like here. Time travel, magic, the undead, war with exotic weapons, evil rulers, aliens, and ancient gods are the window dressing around a similar formula: the past contains powerful mysteries, these mysteries are supernatural and pose an existential threat to human existence, and only the special knowledge and abilities of the archaeologist-explorer can nullify the threat and restore order to the universe.

It’s an empowering metaphor. The archaeologist acts as a wizard, ensuring that the magical powers of ancient artifacts do not disrupt society, and restoring order when they do. The past is a source of deep disturbances to the collective psyche, and archaeologists are the only ones who can fix them. No wonder that despite our classroom crusade, we never could bring ourselves to take down the Indiana Jones poster in the TA office: who doesn’t want that kind of power?

The History Channel

You’d think that compared to these Hollywood quests, the History Channel would be, well, more historical. But if you’re a reader of ‘serious’ history, the lineup of shows seems insane and cretinous at first glance. UFOs? Ancient Mysteries? Ice Road Truckers? Jurassic Fight Club? What the hell is going on?

But there is a logic here, just not the one you might expect. The way that the History Channel deploys the past reflects how archaeology works in the public imagination. Its offerings fall into three main categories: figuring out hidden truths, reclaiming things that are lost, and extremes (of distance, time, and size).

These elements are regularly combined: this month, The Lost Pyramid will examine whether the now-vanished pyramid of Djedefre was really the biggest ever, and what happened to it. Lost? Check. Real big? Check. More ‘lost’ elements of the past are explored in Ancient Discoveries, which focuses on technologies from the ancient world. Recent episodes and webisodes have featured flamethrowers, rocket cars, explosives, ancient mining technology, Da Vinci’s helicopter prototypes, Caligula’s giant ships, and the first “robots”. Fun stuff that engages the fascination with firsts – but also projects a love of futuristic technology deep into the past.

Among the better offerings is Cities of the Underworld, hosted by the amazingly-named “Don Wildman”, an actor, one-time spokesman for Oreo cookies, and former host of an ESPN adventure show. His current show looks for hidden truths in underground places. One of this season’s episodes, for instance, focuses on medieval labyrinths:

Europe was plunged into chaos for centuries, with mass bloodshed, rampant disease, and vicious carnage regularly raging through the streets. But below them, another world was carved out to keep the people alive...and enemies on their toes.

Others explore the historical roots of the Mafia, the construction of Vegas, and Hitler’s Bunker. Webisodes currently on the site ask other probing historical questions about the Maya Calendar (“will the world end December 21, 2012? Don tries to find out”) and Irish myth (“Don takes us to Ireland to see whether Banshees really exist”). It’s fun to watch, and tries hard to use historical data as the basis of Don’s adventures.

Other shows are more obviously pseudoscience, like “UFO Hunters” or “MonsterQuest”. You might be tempted to argue that these shows actually have nothing at all to do with the past. I used to myself: the first time I flipped on the History Channel and saw a gripping examination of the different possible locations of Atlantis, I was left shaking with anger. But that reaction was based on a totally mistaken understanding of what these shows are trying to do.

The History Channel isn’t trying to present linear historical narratives based on archaeological or historical data. Instead, it starts from the perspective of ordinary people, who look to history to help them expand the limits of their world. The viewers want to be scared, titillated, and amazed; taken out of themselves and then brought back again. They want Heinlein’s “realistic speculation about possible future [and past] events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world”. UFOs, Caligula, giant snakes, Templar labyrinths, and Las Vegas make perfect sense together if you understand them as devices that stretch the edges of reality in plausible ways. Understood as science fiction, the History Channel’s lineup is perfectly logical.

The new show "Life After People" perfectly captures what I’m talking about. It explores what the world will be like after the disappearance of humanity. The science fiction premise allows us to explore archaeological processes – the collapse of buildings, the decay of bodies, ecological succession in abandoned urban spaces. It’s a superb way of making important archaeological questions accessible to ordinary people, at the very same time that it starts from a science fiction premise.

When archaeologists complain about the media, someone always points out that TV shows and movies bear little or no resemblance to the lives that archaeologists actually lead. There is no toothbrushing of pottery or writing of excavation reports, no grant applications or tenure reviews. This dissonance makes it easy to dismiss popular treatments of archaeology as “wrong”. But that is only true if we make the mistake of thinking that anyone outside the archaeology really cares about the sufferings of academics. I don’t mean to be rude here, but archaeologists have an outsize sense of entitlement. We feel that our long years in graduate school, the months spent digging in the sun, and the boredom of data analysis gives us the sole right to talk about history. But the past has always belonged to everyone, and the public comes to the topic with a very different set of interests. They don’t have to listen to us: if the academy won’t give them what they’re looking for, they can turn on Ancient Discoveries instead.

Grab the Ring

Let me be blunt: archaeologists should be humble and grateful for the opportunity that the mass media is offering them. No one looks to the HR manager, dental technician, or real estate developer to save the world. But they invite the archaeologist to assume heroic powers as a defender of humanity, a shamanic worker in the collective unconscious.

Those of us who realize what we’re being offered are, I think, uncomfortable with this role, because it is so far from our own self-image as scholars and scientists. This is why the hosts of archaeology-themed TV shows are always “survivalists”, “adventurers”, or practitioners of extreme sports. These men make their living by guiding people through liminal experiences. But they’re actors, and don’t know much about the past. Watching Cities of the Underworld, I feel sorry for Don Wildman: in the midst of some ancient labyrinth, surrounded by skulls and darkness, he is often at a total loss for words. By the same token, those who have lots to say, but little knowledge, can have outsize success: Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, for instance, reached tens of millions of people with an exciting vision of the past. His clever pastiche of pseudo-historical tidbits was inaccurate and unoriginal, but nonetheless transformed popular ideas about Jesus and the Bible for tens of millions of readers. In these situations, the absence of archaeologists’ voices has consequences that marginalize academic and scientific truths.

The past belongs to everyone, and the public deserves strong, capable, creative guides who will lead them into another world and then bring them back safe. Hollywood is right: in the popular understanding, that is what archaeologists are for. Archaeology should unleash chaos into the public imagination. If they want to have influence in mass culture, archaeologists need to be storytellers, mythmakers, science fiction writers. And I don’t mean just as a hobby, or an occasional thing. Writing a bestselling thriller based on archaeological data should be should be celebrated at conferences, and help you get tenure. Storytelling should be part of graduate training for archaeologists. It should be as highly respected, and vigorously debated, as any study of temple façades or agricultural innovation. It should be integral to the discipline.

It is popular to ridicule Zahi Hawass’ flamboyant self-promotion and Indiana Jones affectations. But he has the right idea. He understands the public role that is expected of him and uses it to promote a political and cultural agenda. He gives the people what they want, while insisting on the importance of scientific archaeology. If we criticize him, it should be on how well his public persona advances our collective goals of scholarship and site preservation – not for stooping to speak to the masses in a language they understand and crave.

The challenge is to use our power confidently, and accept our role as guides to the outer limits of what it means to be human. We know that the real stories of the human past are much better than crystal skulls, or Jet Li’s turn as a magical undead kung fu emperor. Archaeologists have the knowledge, the authority, and the imagination to make amazing popular works that are just as epic (or more so) than another lame Mummy sequel.

To make this happen, the academy has to redefine how they train, hire, and reward archaeologists. Graduate students should take classes that take popular culture seriously, that teach them to talk to the public, and that encourage them to tell the stories that got them fascinated with archaeology in the first place. Professors need to consume popular media and write articles for popular magazines. Department chairs and deans need to make sure their programs teach archaeology in the media, public interpretation, and science fiction writing as integral and required parts of the curriculum – and criteria for tenure and promotion.

People want their myths, and look to archaeologists to provide them. If we refuse the privilege we are offered, then we richly deserve the third-rate visions of archaeology that the media creates to fill the void.


Dan Shoup also blogs regularly at archaeopop.blogspot.com