Archaeogaming – Podcast with A Game with Chums

Why the dark academia aesthetic for the archaeologist doesn’t (but could) work

I’m not one for internet aesthetics. Before I studied archaeology, I was very much into the mainstream. I spent most of my time not reading the great classics, Fitzgerald, Carver, Dickens, but Sophie Kinsella, Helen Fielding and oh god R.R Martin. I rolled my eyes when anyone mentioned Plath or Hughes, there was very little time for anything much else but attending ritzy media parties. When I was at university for my postgrad, archaeologists fell in two camps, the pseudo academic always with a book in his hand or the scruffy muddy handed digger. Unfortunately for me I probably fell in the former category, although I found my tweed collection was lacking in comparison to everyone else and my knowledge of Latin was subpar, but who knew that almost a half a decade later that this image of the pretentious scholar would somehow end up being an internet sensation? Dark academia as it is known as is a popular academic aesthetic on social media that revolves around classic literature, the pursuit of self-discovery, and a general passion for knowledge and learning.

At 33, I am beyond the pursuit of an idolised image, but what intrigued me about this weird corner of the internet was how much of archaeology, most importantly an era of archaeology known as cultural history revolved around this aesthetic. Did the understanding of the origin of archaeology play almost ironically in this aesthetic? For those who don’t know, cultural history was based on the idea of defining historical societies into distinct ethnic and cultural groupings according to their material culture. It was first developed in in Germany among those archaeologists surrounding Rudolf Virchow, culture-historical ideas would later be popularised by Gustaf Kossinna.  A staunch nationalist and racist, Kossinna lambasted fellow German archaeologists for taking an interest in non-German societies, such as those of Egypt and the Classical World, and used his publications to support his views on German nationalism. This makes the idolisation of scholars from this period, problematic. There are numerous articles on this subject, most criticising the European aesthetic of the academic. And much like cultural history, it is defined by elitism with undertones of racism and classism.

Bruce Trigger argued that the development of cultural history in part was due to the rising tide of nationalism and racism in Europe, which emphasised ethnicity as the main factor shaping history. Childe introduced the concept of an archaeological culture (which up until then had been largely restrained purely to German academics), to his British counterparts. This concept would revolutionise the way in which archaeologists understood the past, and would come to be widely accepted in future decades. The pictures that encompass this aesthetic mostly focus on the European ideals. There is nothing intricately wrong with wearing tweed and reading Homer’s Iliad, but there seems to be little awareness of were this aesthetic borrows heavily from the colonial period of British history.  Dark Academia glorifies the long relationship between colonialism and archaeology. Even if one is not studying archaeology, the aesthetic (predominantly the fashion and décor) borrow almost exclusively from culture historians. From tweed jackets to pith hats, certain items of clothing are enduring emblems of preconceived notion of “European intellectual supremacy”.

A famous archaeologist Dr Manassa Darnell also known as the “Vintage Archaeologist” has a large Instagram following, and presents herself as a 1920s Egyptologist of course from a white European or American with a particular socio-economic background. During this period, archaeological practices not only sidelined African people’s heritage and knowledge. They also resulted in many important fossils and artefacts being held in institutions outside Africa most notably America and England. The obsession with the aesthetics of a particular culture and era are questionable, there is of course nothing wrong with appreciating beauty and aesthetic on any level. The issue arises when people who follow this aesthetic celebrate colonial-era archaeology and erase the presence of people of colour. Dark Academia promotes the marketization, and consumption of these type of colonial aesthetics.

With a focus on the idolisation of classical art and philosophy arguably beginning at the same time as cultural history or at least in colonial era archaeology. The Elgin Marbles of the Parthenon for example were removed between 1801 to 1812 by agents of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. The resurgence of Greek and Roman imagery by extreme conservative, white supremacist groups show how these types of imagery are still powerful at degrading people of a non-white background. Presumably, the problem is then not the aesthetic itself, I own a patchy armed tweed jacket, and my khaki’s are what I pack during archaeological excavations, it lies is in the complete idolisation and ongoing popularity of and nostalgia for colonial imageries among large segments of western audiences. By replicating this period down to the Harris Tweed and ignoring the the Eurocentrism apparent in Dark Academia makes it problematic in the context of the contemporary archaeology.  In this light, it almost callous for scholars of this field to out rightly appeal to the white-washed, elitist nostalgia of cultural history without context. It is up to us to instead point out the irony of internalised coloniality, and wear those tweed jackets while rewriting the damage done by those before us.

We are not Imposters: Dealing with Impostor Syndrome and archaeology

I don’t think I’m the only female archaeologist who’s looked around a room and thought what the hell am I doing here? I regularly do this, and I’m training my brain not to allow these thoughts to take over like Dory from Finding Nemo I constantly repeat “Just keeping nodding, nodding”. Because these thoughts are insidious, they creep up on you in the middle of a sentence, as you enter a conference room, or even when writing an email. The feeling is everywhere. I once was invited to speak at a conference on the topic of archaeogaming. My online articles had proven popular with a number of people following the subdiscipline and I felt absolutely ecstatic to be recognised. The conference moved online and even from the comfort of my own sofa, I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there. Apparently a lot of archaeologists feel the same, a quick search of the terms “imposter syndrome” and “archaeology” on Google, produces 1,030,000 results. A lot of archaeobloggers like myself have posted about it, feeling the weight of their own inadequacy, most of which are women and underrepresented racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, hardly surprising when you look into the evolution of the subject.

Like most of them, I can almost pinpoint where my imposter syndrome took hold. This feeling started off during my postgraduate studies, I sat in my Archaeological Theory class in University College London, tired and exhausted from trying to understand the amount of assigned readings from the night previous. Words like “processualism” and “middle range theory” popped out of my head as quickly as they got into it. Impostor syndrome is not the root cause of the problem, I realised that after taking Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that my worst enemy was not the lecturer probing me for comebacks on my theory, or that overenthusiastic undergrad asking me the impossible questions that I needed a reference for. It was me. I was the one with these thoughts in my head after all.

When I was talking to my therapist, she noted that I constantly put myself down. “Sorry I’m just being stupid” was/is apparently one of my favourite phrases or my ultimate favourite was/is “I’m a bit of an idiot.” According to Marisa Peer, author of I am Enough repeating negative phrases about oneself makes the mind believe them. So the fact I was talking to myself in such a negative way almost everyday made me believe I was in fact “stupid” and an “idiot.” When I decided to do a presentation for the local history group about the archaeology of our area I walked in thinking “I’m too stupid to do this”. During my undergraduate studies I did a presentation comparing the use of Jade in Neolithic China to to that of the Classic Maya in Mexico. I remembered being so filled with confidence because I kept saying to myself “I can do this” something one of my favorite videogame characters Lara Croft repeatedly says to herself during the course of the game Tomb Raider. The power of my own words had changed my outlook so quickly. So what changed? Having strong role models is imperative to development when I had just started off I latched on to strong independent thinkers who not only encouraged me but who took their own time to help me. When they moved on I felt isolated and alone, and worried about my own capabilities.

As archaeologists we aren’t supposed to know all the answers. Within my career, I have known academics who know very little about digging, and I have known fieldwork archaeologists who struggle to present their ideas to an audience. What’s important even if you know you have weaknesses you can change them with some discipline and self belief. It’s really that simple. During this last week, I realised one of the most important things for me is writing, be that on this blog, journal or website. I took Peer’s advice and started writing a little everyday so it would become a habit. When you repeat the same action every day, even if it’s only for ten minutes you start adopting healthier habits. I started by writing ten minutes of my blog, and started writing a new article, by the end of the week I had three ready to publish articles! One of the persistent worries I hear from other archaeologists is that they don’t know enough especially from students, when I was helping them study Aztec hieroglyphs I told them to learn just one every day. Once they have memorised one, they could easily memorise two.

Let’s be real even if we don’t want to admit it, but Imposter Syndrome is ubiquitous with archaeology because of the very nature of the subject. The material culture reveals a number of traits regarding human behaviour, but human behaviour by it’s very nature is capricious especially during periods when humans weren’t fighting for survival. This means archaeologists can never really assert a clear and standard theory to explain human behaviour, which can make us feel somewhat unqualified. But none of us can really be fully qualified to make such assertions without a time machine. We can make informed theories even if we can’t prove them. The archaeologists that I have great respect for know this. They’ve also trained their brains to accept this and not strive for absolutes. These feelings are the hijackers sabotaging our rational brain to make us believe the feelings instead of the facts. As archaeologist even if we accept that our ignorance of their world is vast, we can’t allow impostor thoughts to block our pursuit of knowledge.

An Archaeologist Reviews – The Dig (2021)

The Dig is a film driven not only by discovery but by loss. This feeling is captured in everything from it’s melancholic characters to its muted but earthy cinematography. The movies tells the story of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) who hires local self-taught archaeologist-excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to tackle the large burial mounds at her rural estate in Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge. He and his team discover a ship of Anglo Saxon origin while digging up a burial ground. It’s an archaeological discovery that lit up the Dark Ages. Before this discovery, a dearth of written sources was presumed to signal an absence of culture in this period.

The greatness of The Dig lies in its look at the personal lives of the people behind The Dig even if entirely fictional. This Netflix production focuses on how the key themes of archaeology such a death, loss and memory affect the characters. Brown struggles to maintain his control over the site, with Pretty, who’s going through health issues, not always available to make sure the right thing is done. But both share a passion for knowledge, for discoveries of the linkages between eras and peoples.

Based on John Preston’s novel of the same name, The Dig is a story laid out in truth, allowing the historical events and somewhat realistic characters to keep the viewers captivated rather than need for excessive drama caused by snakes, guns, treacherous Nazis or damsels in distress. The most important aspect is not the treasure found, but how the knowledge has impacted our lives. Allowing us to reflect on our complex relationship to the past, and how and why we value it. For a nation on the brink of war, the discovery of Sutton Hoo was a source of pride and inspiration, equivalent to the tomb of Tutankhamum.

The funerary mound contained the remains of a decayed oak ship, approximately 27m in length, which had been dragged from the nearby River Deben to serve as a royal tomb. Over 250 artefacts revealed the sophistication of East Anglia in Anglo-Saxon times. There were riches from across the known world, including silver bowls and spoons from Byzantium and gold dress accessories set with Sri Lankan garnets, highlighting that trade was happening on a large scale even then. The wood of the ship and the flesh of the man had dissolved in the acidic Suffolk soil, the gold, silver and iron of his wealth remained. The burial is thought to belong to King Raedwald, whose reign corresponded with the early seventh-century date of the coins contained in a gold purse (c. 610-635CE).

The movie gives us an portrayal of the archaeological excavation in the 1930s, conducted using workmen with just a few skilled excavators and qualified academics. There is careful attention to archaeological detail, emphasising that the ship’s timbers had virtually disappeared, surviving as nothing more than iron rivets and a silhouette stained in the sand. But with all its triumphs, The Dig fails to cast it only female archaeologist in a positive light, Peggy was known during her impressive career for her field expertise, but she is relegated to love interest for a swoony Johnny Flynn, her brilliance rarely shown. But that’s true for the rest of the dig team, few professional skills are depicted at all: the archaeologists were brought in to draw, plan and record archaeological features – not simply to extract artefacts.

The final scenes reburying the ship to protect it during the impending WWII shows that Britain is to bear even more loss within its history. Director Simon Stone explores the idea of having a legacy, the emphasis in the movie is what we leave behind for others. Thankfully for us, Brown and Pretty’s legacy is on permanent display. The finds were given to the British Museum to ensure that they were accessed to as many people for free allowing the treasures to be found again by new generations. Deepening our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our collective history.

Detoxing from cultural heritage

Like nearly everyone else in the UK I have spent most of the last year either indoors or in a park. Gone are the days when I would take detours through the British Museum to get to my part time job. There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t thought about the exhibitions that have been cancelled, or the empty spaces within those walls that I used to escape to when the stress of everyday life got too much.

The hiatus of not visiting my favourite cultural spaces has allowed me to rethink about why I spent so little time focusing on my needs away from work and study. My life has revolved around archaeology for such a long time that I had forgotten about the other parts of me that made me well me. How many exhibitions can I attend? How many books can I read this week? It was mentally exhausting, and while I still have guilt pangs about how much I’ve missed, the truth is so has everyone.

The freedom not to focus too much on keeping up to date with the latest research and exhibitions has allowed me to focus on myself, reading for the love of it, writing because I want to and not because of a false pressure to get published. Prepandemic I was only focused on how aspects of cultural heritage could either improve my knowledge or how it could impact my work. There’s much more to cultural heritage than what people are finding or how it looks in pretty display boxes. It’s about how we connect with it. Do we see our ancestors faces when we read about their ideologies? Do we see current patterns emerging when we walk around the ruins of fallen civilisations? This is what makes cultural heritage relevant to the world.

Detoxing from it, has allowed me to take a step back and consider what I enjoyed about it initially. The truth is people perspectives on it has always grabbed my imagination. How video game designers create spaces in historical environments. How people look at monuments and decide what people were thinking within that time and landscape. How writers use historical events and places to create narratives that connect with audiences.

The pandemic has allowed lots of us to look more inwards and to think about our happiness and contentment. The lives we were living before might not have actually been the best for our mental health, we’ve (or most) had the opportunity to slow down and reevaluate our goals, this inevitably means we’ve discovered something new about ourselves or that we don’t actually know ourselves at all. Cultural heritage won’t be the competition I wanted it to be. I will read books, attend exhibitions, and watch documentaries but in healthy moderation.

An Archaeologist reviews As Above So Below

My new series is An Archaeologist Reviews, in which I watch terrible (sometimes good) archaeology movies in order to get a better perspective on what the media portrays vs the reality. First up is As Above So Below, starring Perdita Weeks, which was released in 2014.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

I am a huge addict for dramatically fictional accounts of archaeology-gone-wrong. The discipline had been romanticized with grand ideas of treasures, unleashed curses, and  demons concealed for millennia being awoken by archaeologists exploring uncharted territory.  It makes for some exciting cinema, despite the reality being oh so much different. But, let’s be honest the archaeology/adventure genre in movies has been kind of crap of recent, apart from the Indiana Jones series (minus Crystal Skulls) this particular area of cinema has been a let down over and over again. So when I found out about As Above So Below, a horror movie set in the Paris Catacombs I was again skeptical.  Archaeology and horror is not a new concept, movies featuring ruins, mummies have been around since the dawn of cinema.  Despite the constant stream of disappointment I jumped at the chance to see this in the cinema.

Set in the style of a found footage documentary the movie follows Scarlett Marlowe continuing her late father’s work searching for Nicola’s Flamel’s Philosopher’s Stone. The location of the stone is within the Paris catacombs (of course it is!), and despite the dangers of running around in uncharted territory, Scarlett or Dr.Marlowe jumps at the chance of getting her ill-prepared footwear a little wet. The opening scene sees us introduced to archaeologist Scarlett (excuse me Dr. Marlowe), a university professor of a mere 30 years old with two PhDs, and the ability to speak 6 languages and two dead ones (of course!) and an expert in Krav Maga, because she must have ample of times preparing for her illegal adventures and not you know doing any actual research or teaching.  One of these PhDs is in urban archaeology, a master’s chemistry, and a second PhD in the fictitious symbology.

The movie moves along to George, who she enlists to help her uncover the whereabouts of the Philosopher’s Stone, further complicated with their unresolved sexual tension, and that time she left him in a Turkish police station. Charming this Scarlett, I mean Dr. Marlowe. Together they break into churches, defaces archaeological artifacts, and generally cause mayhem around Paris until she makes it illegally into the catacombs.

In the catacombs, the story changes from adventure movie to straight up horror.  As they venture further into the weaving tunnels of the catacombs a strange, singing cult can be heard; a ringing telephone deep underground echoes throughout the tunnels, and ghastly apparitions start appearing.  “The only way out is down,” says La Taupe’, a former friend of their guide who disappeared two years ago after going to explore the catacombs they now find themselves trapped in. They do as he says.

After a number of puzzles and trials, (to be honest too boring to actually write about) they finally find themselves The Philosopher’s Stone! Finally, Dr, Marlowe can vindicate her father, who spent years, writing questionable research papers for reputable academic journals!

But of course in Tomb Raider style, an important magical artifact is of course not what it seems; “it’s a trap!”, and they find themselves cornered with only their smarts and wits to escape. Scarlett figures out ‘as above, so below’. As they descend, they are faced with the same catacombs but reversed. It’s here, in this labyrinth mirror-world, that the deaths begin as they continue to descend over a thousand feet down.

One girl is murdered pretty horrifically by the rabid La Taupe. Benji the cameraman falls down a shaft after a woman lunges at him from the darkness mirroring an earlier, non-fatal tumble. George sees his little brother, who drowned in a cave when they were young, drowning again. Everything becomes a tense maze of ghosts of regrettable secrets that the characters have trouble letting go of.

As a horror movie, there are some genuine scares especially near the end of the movie, when three of the remaining characters are confronted by what is supposedly the devil. The movie uses the jump scare tactic, but also allows for quiet moments where filmmakers leave some points to the imagination. The movie deals with regret and grief much more efficiently than its use of archaeology, allowing the characters to move on physically from their own literal and metaphorical hell.

However, the movie’s main issue is its characters. Firstly, the protagonist Scarlett Marlowe is a questionable archaeologist, much like any media portrayal of the profession, she’s reckless, intrepid and obnoxious. “I’m not doing this for financial gain,” Scarlett says in some interview footage that plays at the end of the film.  Obviously not, because if she tried to get this little adventure published, her professorship will be in the dirt much like the friends she took down there in the first place. Unfortunately, we never get delve into Benji’s regret, and many of the characters apart from George and Scarlett (I mean Dr. Marlowe) are used as death fodder.

Overall, As Above So Below is a semi-decent horror movie with a tense creepy atmosphere.  However, the use of  predictable archaeological tropes to progress the story fails to allow the movie to embrace its weirdness. While Scarlett makes for a decent horror-film protagonist, she has the attributes: resourceful, intelligent, brave, and of course a complex relationship with her father (Indiana and Lara I’m looking at you)  – I doubt she’d make a very able archaeologist.

Why we need Indiana Jones

The media is often our strongest ally and often our greatest enemy. Drones of students decide to follow the footsteps of their heroes (Richard O’Connor, Lara Croft, Indiana Jones), allowing them to break the norm and enter a world quite unlike their own.  The media has painted archaeology as a profession of discovery, uncovering visually attractive finds, sites and civilisations. But often the journey to find our truths leaves many unanswered questions and because of this archaeology is often linked to mysticism and mystery. These mysteries are often supernatural in nature and it’s often up to the archaeologist to figure them out, think Relic Hunter, Bone Kickers, and of course Tomb Raider. It’s a victim of the Bond-effect creating a powerful brand for the the archaeology profession but posing no resemblance of reality. 

I suspect not many people watched Indiana Jones believing that archaeologists went around destroying archaeological sites and shooting sword wielding henchmen, but you’ll be mistaken if depictions like Indiana have little impact on the profession. Despite producing a sharply divided reaction among archaeologists, media representations of us are some of the most powerful. 

These stereotypes allow for more than just an appealing career, they form the public opinion on the profession. You can often find TV programming which focuses on the words like Ancient Lost Secrets Reveal the Hidden Mysteries of the Dead. There is a reason for this, if archaeological programming used words which reflected the profession it would be along the lines of Excavations Identify Farming Tools Reflecting Migration Patterns which of course sounds far less sexy.

However, these depictions of archaeology inspire real interest across the world. We want people to be motivated by the past, enough to support our work or even venture into the profession themselves. Even if these embellishments are far from the truth, they are the catalyst to get interest in the human past. And no matter what my colleagues might say, Lara Croft will always be my favourite archaeologist.