Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Television and Archaeology: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

This entry is going to be rather unique compared to the previous ones as it relies solely on my own experience and opinions. This time I will look be looking at three different television shows that are similar in that they all have connections to archaeology, but are different in how they portray it. I have used the headings 'The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly' to portray my personal opinion of each.

The Good:

National Geographic recently aired a new show titled 'Diggers' which follows the stories of a team whose hobby is metal detecting. Although this seems like a fair idea for a show, many people took issue with it before its pilot even aired, saying that it encouraged treasure hunting and the destruction of historical sites when proper measures are not taken to document the site before removing artifacts.

With the show promoting the destruction of historical sites and possibly artifacts, you must be questing why I have placed it under the banner of 'The Good'. National Geographic has acknowledged the concerns and issues raised, and while they are continuing forward with the show, they have agreed to consult with archaeologists over the issues raised. As you will see, this is quite the agreement compared to other shows.

The Bad:

Spike has also jumped on the bandwagon of having a show centred around metal detectors. Recently they aired their show 'American Digger'. It was met with the same concerns that 'Diggers' was. People criticized it for promoting recovery for profit, and the destruction of sites.

Unlike National Geographic, Spike's response to these concerns were quite different. Essentially Spike responded that what they were doing was not illegal, and that it was not anybody else's business. But, this is a television show, it is mean to be everybody else's business. For the reason, 'American Digger' and has earned the title 'The Bad'.

The Ugly:

A wild mummy chase across Egypt. Sounds exciting... except mummies can not run so it is really not a chase, but a hunt. 'Chasing Mummies' which has been aired on the History channel snags the title of 'The Ugly', though not for reasons you would expect.

A team of archaeologist, led by Dr. Zahi Haswass, travel across Egypt in search of ancient mummies. Although the show does not show anything being documented before being moved around, Hawass is Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and is trained in proper excavation techniques. What earns 'Chasing Mummies' the title of 'The Bad' is Hawass's attitude towards his team (and other people in general). Constantly yelling at them and calling stupid, the show is not complete without Hawass threatening to fire someone multiple times.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Authenticity and Expectations - 'The Mummy'

-No worries ~ no spoilers!-

If you have not seen The Mummy (and it sequesl- The Mummy Returns and Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) I highly recommended you do so. The Mummy highlights a thrilling adventure whereby Evelyn Carnarvon and her brother team up with the adventurer Rick O'Connell to locate Hamunaptra, the fabled 'City of the Dead'. The search turns into a race when O'Connell former friend Benny appears leading a group of Americans to the city. The Mummy contains all the plots needed to make a successful box office hit – a resurrected mummy, a ancient curse,“a cult of immortality, a love story that spans millennia, and accidental (or intentional) grave robbing”.i

Although The Mummy was a great hit and is still enjoyed today by many people (myself included), there are many components of archaeology and Egyptology within it that have been criticized. The first big criticism revolves around how the film portrays archaeology and archaeologists. The film is not centred around archaeology, but nonetheless there are archaeologist within it, and they are 'excavating' ancient Egyptian tombs. What is problematic is that in the case of the Americans (whose team has an archaeologist on it), they are portrayed as treasure hunters seeking a profit. When they do discover a tomb, proper excavation techniques are not employed. Instead they focus on getting into the tomb through whatever means necessary without doing any documentation. They remove the canopic jars and kept them for themselves. If proper archaeology was being done, these jars would be placed in a museum. However, that would not make for an exciting movie.

The next few criticisms relate specifically to Egyptology. Egyptology is defined as “[t]he study of the culture and artifacts of the ancient Egyptian civilization”.ii Near the beginning of the movie the Americans open a chest contain 5 canopic jars, 4 of which were intact and one which was broken. In ancient Egypt individuals were only buried with 4 canopic jars, which I have outlined below:
  1. Duamutef, the jackal-headed god representing the east, whose jar contained the stomach and was protected by the goddess Neith
  2. Hapi, the baboon-headed god representing the north, whose jar contained the lungs and was protected by the goddess Nephthys
  3. Imseti, the human-headed god representing the south, whose jar contained the liver and was protected by the goddess Isis
  4. Qebehsenuef, the falcon-headed god representing the west, whose jar contained the intestines and was protected by the goddess Selket”iii
Another inaccurate portrayal that falls under Egyptology is that of the scarab. In the movie scarabs are represented as flesh eating beetles used for the mummification of individuals who have been convicted of treacherous crimes. But scarabs did not eat flesh, rather scarabs were and worshipped by Egyptians and featured on much of the jewelry. Mythology has it that the scarab, who pushes a ball of dung in front of it, inspired the story of the god Kehpera, “he who came forth”, who pushes the sun along the sky.iv

Even though there are these controversies, which for the most part you would realize unless you were educated in Egyptology, The Mummy still presents a fun and action filled look into ancient Egyptian culture. The producers did not accurately portray certain aspects of it so as to entice viewers. The Mummy is a good example of how movie industries have to carefully balance accuracy, authenticity, and the expectations of viewers in order to create a box office hit.

iHirst, Kris. “The Mummy in Fiction.” Retrieved 3 April, 2012.
iiFarlex. “Egyptologist.” The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 3 April, 2012.
iiiWikipedia. “Canopic jar.” Retrieved April 3, 2012.
ivDigg! This. “Sacarab Beetle.” Ancient Egypt: The Mythology. Retrieved April 3, 2012.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

An Authentic Replica

Tourism is a growing industry, especially in the area of the 'archaeological experience'. Tourists are looking for the opportunity to experience archaeology first hand, a wish that is fulfilled with rides such as Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure Ride. Alongside their experience tourists are demanding an opportunity to bring some part of the experience home so they can preserve the memory. In response the industry is now mass producing archaeological souvenirs such as an authentic pottery, carving, or statue.

How is it though, that this mass produced souvenir is authentic? It was not actually made in the ancient or historic past. It is simply a piece of modern day culture made to look like something from the past. People are satisfied with it though, and take it home after their vacation to show family and friends that they have participated in an archaeological experience.

The question of authenticity in archaeology is also present for replicas. In 1987 a prehistoric menhir was discovered in Germany. In 1989 a replica was erected near where the original was found. The original itself had been transported to the State Museum of Wurttemberg in Stuttgart. To make matters even more interesting, the original is in the cellar of the museum, while a second replica is on display. The material of the copies is not the same as the original, and knocking on a copy will result in a hollow sound. i Even though they are copies, locals and tourists alike treat them as the originals and believe them to embody the same aura and value as the original. This is a phenomena that takes place at sites all around the world. Needless to say, in both the case of the souvenirs and the replicas, they are viewed as being authentic.

How then, is this authenticity created and maintained? Cornelius Holtorf insists that in the case of the souvenirs it has to do with what individuals “believe themselves to have bought, not what they have actually bought”.ii Individuals, though they know otherwise, choose to believe that they have bought an ancient relic, not a modern day mass produced object. This belief solidifies the objects aura as 'authentic' and not 'created' for as long as the individual holds that belief. In the case of the German menhir, it functions the same way. The individual chooses to accept the object as the real original and treats it as such. They allow it to hold the same value. In this way one can argue that authenticity is decided on an individual basis.

Another example worth looking into is that of the replica of Stonehenge III in Maryland, Washington.

Constructed our of concrete under the discretion of Sam Hill, it was intended as a memorial to “thirteen young me who had lost their loves during World War I”.iii This replica contains less than half of number or bluestones that the original does, the Heel Stone is in the wrong spot, and the alignment in off. Yet, even though it is so inaccurate, it is flocked to by pagan worshippers who use it for celebrations and rituals. One individual who attended a celebration there commented that to be “at Stonehenge as it was in its days of glory, for a total eclipse of the sun, as an experience for which we had waited a hundred life times”.iv To these worshippers, even though the replica is vastly inaccurate, it is just as real as the original. They are more than happy to use it for their rituals and celebrations. They have even pointed out that “at least in one respect the replica is superior to and more authentic than the original”.v They are referring to how this replica, unlike the original, is not fenced in and they have year round access to it like people did to the original in the past.

All three example lead to the same conclusion. Authenticity is not something that is inherent in an object. It is something that has to be created and applied to it, it will only hold for as long as people find it believable. Authenticity, like beauty, is the eye of the beholder.

i Holtorf, Cornelius (2005). From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. pp. 119-121.
iiHoltorf, Cornelius (2005). From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. pp. 121-122
iiiHoltorf, Cornelius (2005). From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. pp. 122.
ivDalley, Kirsten and Artemisia (2006). Creating Circles and Ceremonies. USA: Book-mart Press. pp. 115.
vHoltorf, Cornelius (2005). From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. pp. 122.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Really?" "Of course! Archaeology says so!"

In the previous entry I discussed how archaeology is is influenced by popular culture and what kind of a portrayal this leads to in the media. Supported popular cultures perception of archaeology, parts of society have come to use archaeology incorrectly as means to support theories and ideas when no historical information is to be found. Part of their ability to do so comes from the fact that “archaeology is defined by methodology, and thus the use of methodology validates archaeological activity. If archaeology can show relationships or activities in a new light, it is valid-no matter how recent, or in principle well documented, the subject is”.i

The best examples of this come from within folk archaeology, otherwise known as pseudoarchaeology. Folk archaeology can be defined as a category that encompasses “[a] broad spectrum of largely unconnected topics and approaches which misapply, misinterpret, misrepresent archaeological material in a non-scientific and often speculative way”.ii Take Stonehenge for example. Stonehenge is a site that has been studied in depth by archaeologists who have come to various conclusions in regards to specific aspects of it. For instance, they have studied that bluestones there and concluded that their weight is between 20-30 tons each. At the time when Stonehenge was built, people did not have transportation like we do. There were no trucks and cranes. There was no wheels. The could make simple canoes and boats. The moving of these rocks to Stonehenge is a remarkable feat that has long been puzzled over and many theories have come up that make use of this information. One in particular stands out as it is good example of the misuse of archaeological information. In this theory, the stones were said to have been transported by Merlin. The theory asserts that the weight of the stones is to much for people to have drug as it would have required too many people, and not enough people would have been left to ensure resources. Therefore, this theory stresses that it would have to have been Merlin who moved those stones from Ireland. Belief in this theory is further supported when authors uses phrases such as “[a]rchaeologists have been even firmer in their support for a belief in an almost superhuman feat”iii

Theories such as this use archaeological information incorrectly. In the case of this theory, a lot of the facts were left out, such as that it has been shown through a mineral analysis that the bluestones “most likely source was the Carn Maini ridge of the Preseli mountains in south-west Wales, 200 sea- and land- miles away”.iv This fact dissects the Merlin theory, for it shows that the stones originated in Yale, not across the seas in Ireland. So therefore, whether or not Merlin actual does or does not exist, he is not responsible for the transportation of the bluestones at Stonehenge.

Although this example is a little far-fetched, it clearly shows how you can misuse archaeology information to prove or attempt to prove that a theory or artifact is real and/or valid. Other examples includes pseudo-artifacts such as Dropa stones, Newark Holy Stones, and the Lenape stone.

Misusing or misinterpreting archaeological information can lead to wild claims and allegations. It also makes the job of archaeologists harder as they can not control how the information is used by people, and they then have to work against these created theories to show people the facts. One should therefore be careful when considering claims about archaeological theories, artifacts, and sites, that are made by the general public, for intentionally or not, they may have misapplied, misinterpreted, misrepresented the archaeological material in some way.

iPrice, Jon (2007). “Great War, Great Story: A Personal View of Media and Great War-Archaeology.” In Timothy Clack and Marcus Brittain (eds.). Archaeology and the Media. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press. pp. 178. “Pseudo-archaeology.” Retrieved March 9, 2012.
iiiBurl, Aubry (1999). Great Stone Circles: Fables, Fictions, Facts. London: Yale University Press. pp. 102-114.
ivBurl, Aubry (1999). Great Stone Circles: Fables, Fictions, Facts. London: Yale University Press. pp. 103

Monday, February 13, 2012

Archaeology and Popular Culture ... What?

Many people would question what kind of relationship can exist between archaeology and popular culture. After all, the common perception of the discipline of archaeology is “the study of ancient people through their material remains, usually as discovered by excavation”.i As will be seen though, archaeology and popular culture, coexist in a very complex relationship.

Consider where in popular culture one can find archaeology. It is is in movies (Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider), books (Martin Mystere), the news, theme parks (Jorvick, Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure Ride), and so on.ii Archaeology is all around us and is intrinsically part of our everyday lives. 

In fact, it could be argued that “archaeology, in all its various manifestations, does not offer a perspective from which our own present can be understood in the light of its past. Instead, archaeology offers a perspective from which the past and its remains can be experienced and understood in the light of our present”.iii It is our present which affects how we understand what comes to light with archaeology. When an archaeologists excavates, and find the remains of an ancient culture, the immediate questions to be answered centre around what the artifacts found were used for, who used them, and why. To answer these questions archaeologist and experts have to use interpretation. The ideas they use to make these interpretations are influenced by what they have learned in present day society. They are therefore influenced by the popular culture of today’s society. They create a theory for the artifact using these influences and then present it to society who accepts it even though there is no way to prove it as valid, as we were not present when the artifact was used or created. Society accepts it caused the theory was created using the popular ides and beliefs of the culture.

Another way that this relationship can be seen is in how popular culture presents archaeology, and how in turn this affects and changes archaeology. As a discipline, archaeology is controlled by a large amount of ethical and legal policies which must be followed.iv Yet, according to popular culture, archaeologists are carefree treasure hunters and heroes. They carry around whips and wears fedoras. They go on adventures to exotic places and always win in the end. Unlike real life archaeologists, they never have to worry about the laws of the country they are treasure hunting in, or how the nearby people and environment will be affected. They do not have to hand over artifacts to the people who have legal possession of them. In fact, they can plain out disregard laws and ethics and do as they wish. Popular culture has, and still is,creating stereotypes of archaeology as a fun and adventurous experience, while disregarding the academic and ethical side of it.

It is not to say that this has had a purely negative effect of archaeology. In fact, the effect has been largely positive. Due to the influence of popular culture, interest in archaeology has increased, resulting in larger amounts of funding. This results in more sites and artifacts being documented and preserved. More people are going into archaeology and the discipline is growing.

This presentation of archaeology is also beneficial to society. By presenting archaeology as a fun, adventurous experience, tourism industries have grown. People are interested in participating in a real archaeological experience. So parks such as Disneyland have created rides to provide this. There are even parks, such as Jorvick Viking Centre, which are completed centred around this experience.v Las Vegas is perhaps where one can most easily see this relationship. In Las Vegas one can find replicas of Egyptian pyramids, of roman coliseums, and the Sphinx. The replicas are not exactly like their originals, but nonetheless, tourist come to see and experience them. They appreciate them as though they are the real deal.
Through the creation of stereotypes, to the use of archaeology as an experience in tourism, one can see that the relationship that exists between archaeology and popular culture is very complex.

iDrewett, Peter (2011). Field Archaeology: An Introduction. New York: Routledge. pp. 1
iiHoltorf, Cornelius (2005). From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
iiiHoltorf, Cornelius (2005). From Stonehenge to Las Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. pp. 14-15.
ivVitelli, Karen and Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonn (2006). Archaeological Ethics. Oxford: AltaMira Press.
vJorvick Viking Centre. “Take Hold of the Past”. Retrieved February 12, 2012. <>