(Giddens 1993) where the public definition of archaeology is driven by mass media.
The world around us is full of preconceived notions of identity. We pretend to ignore them, or hope that they might just disappear, but sometimes they just stick like glue. Archaeology is lost in stereotypes, bogged down by it’s own colonial past and Hollywood hype. Depictions of archaeologists fall within two categories, bumbling bookworm or reckless adventurer. While the truth lies somewhere in the middle, ultimately all archaeologists want to find the truth in the past, but the public rarely have an opportunity to assess objectively the representations of archaeology found in film.
My own misconceptions of the industry actually deterred me from pursuing a career in archaeology until my mid-20s. I knew that archaeology conjured up images of gold, adventure and narrow escapes from hostile natives but those images misrepresent who archaeologists are and what we do. The perceived way of doing archaeology in Hollywood can be destructive and dangerous, with the end result being theft and decimation. What we perceive as harmless stereotypes can undermine archaeology’s changing identity and goals keeping it trapped in it’s own colonial history.
So why is the fiction so far from the reality? Because media depictions have a long-lasting influence which supports the very existence of archaeology as a profession. As Holtorf (2016, p.3) states the major allure of archaeology lies more in popular culture than in “any noble vision of improving self –awareness through “historical perspectives”. The draw of course is that archaeology in such mass media pertains more to the celebration of archaeological work rather than any real academic merit. This brand of archaeology, and how we are perceived is sold upon what will we discover either through the archaeologist as an adventurer or the archaeology as some bookish detective.
If archaeology is a service society and falls within this rigid framework then should archaeology fulfill the audience fictional, but exciting expectations? The reality is that archaeology is exciting, though the scientific principles it follows only allows the excitement to go at a rather leisurely pace. The romanticized and poetic version of archaeology has been exploited to create engaging and entertaining stories, but the real scientific facts about the discipline have been largely ignored. But we can strike a balance.
What is archaeology?
Archaeology is about the study of human culture and history. It aims to create a scientific base of human knowledge that reaches back into Prehistory by compiling evidence of our ancestors actions through their material culture. Material culture comprises of structures, artifacts, potholes, and cropmarks. But Western society is most infatuated with ruins; Pompeii and Stonehenge being the world’s most renowned tourist attraction. They allow for people’s imagination to run wild, offering people a real glimpse into the human past, while potholes and gullies prove extremely difficult to capture the public imagination.
The origins of the ‘archaeologist’
Archaeology originally started as a nothing more than an antiquarian hobby for those interested in collecting relics of the human past (usually by stealing other countries’ treasures). In the 1930s, field archaeology was starting to make the transition from its shameless roots to the beginnings of a professionalised science. It still retained its treasure hunting approach to an extent that made it entertaining, but yet also antiquarian enough that there was space for the scholarly characters such as Pitt-Rivers and Mortimer Wheeler.
These scholarly characters inspired the likes of Indiana Jones, and various other characters over the last century. They instilled the image of a man in khaki, with a pith helmet and a large moustache. Of course the moustache comes from the devilishly handsome Mortimer Wheeler, whereas the khaki and pith helmet come from Egyptologist Howard Carter. When Mortimer Wheeler and Howard Carter images were first established, they were probably the first famous ‘archaeologists’, and thus cartoon artists, illustrators, film makers, and television makers created this stereotype based on their image. Now, this representation of the archaeologist has become the widely recognised depiction in western society.
The common media trope of the ‘action hero archaeologist’ is actually a negative one, as it is detrimental to the general understanding of archaeology. It is important that more of the media use accurate representations, as the public have these misguided stereotypes firmly set in their minds, meaning they have an inaccurate view of history. Evident enough that as Winter (2002, p.334) highlights that the local guides incorporate Tomb Raider stories and routes into their tours around Angkor.
The archaeologist stereotype reflects more than what the public perceives, it represents the ever changing nature of archaeology. For the most part, the past and present of archaeology has been glamorised to an extent that the reality of the industry hardly shines through. Even more realistic depictions of archaeology such as Time Team and Meet the Ancestors cut corners. Despite the need for a more grounded archaeological portrayals, the increasingly scientific nature of archaeology, has made it less accessible for the public to learn about the past, and, most importantly the people of the past.
Does this mean we need to reassess archaeology’s role in society from the ground up? We can’t ignore public’s perceptions of archaeology as the purpose of studying representations of archaeology in film is to learn how to communicate more effectively with popular audiences (McGeough 2006). As Marwick states (2010, p.395), “the damage of the unrealistic tropes associated with these professions in film is mitigated by the public’s personal experience of these professionals at work.” The key to changing the public’s perception is by making them more involved in our work, and consequently the media is a key communicator of our work. Archaeologists can contribute to society by providing opportunities for archaeological engagement with the film-watching public. We as archaeologists can do this by engaging on more authentic TV work, social media, podcasts, open access writing, blogs, outreach in schools and with children and elders, writing op ends, writing books- and so many others. This in turn enriches people’s social identities contributing to “happiness, meaning and inspiration to their lives” and hopefully motivating the next generation of archaeologists not trying to copy Dr. Jones and his unethical archaeological footsteps. (Marwick 2010, p.410).
- Giddens, A. 1993. Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Holtorf, C., 2016. Archaeology is a brand!: The meaning of archaeology in contemporary popular culture. Routledge.
- Marwick, B., 2010. Self-image, the long view and archaeological engagement with film: an animated case study. World Archaeology, 42(3), pp.394-404.
- McGeough, K. 2006. Heroes, mummies, and treasure: Near Eastern archaeology in the movies. Near Eastern Archaeology, 69: 174–85.
- Winter, T. 2002. Angkor meets Tomb Raider: setting the scene. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 8(4): 323–36.