Are Movie Archaeologists Realistic?

One of the most common criticisms handed out to any movie is that it’s “not realistic”. Of course, we expect a certain amount of unrealistic behaviour in our movies, because we wouldn’t have a story without it. But when it gets pushed too far, people find their credulity strained, and they can’t take the movie seriously on its own terms any more. Some unrealistic premises, though, have become conventions that we accept. The hero gets the girl, true love prevails, and villainy undoes itself. Most unrealistic and yet thoroughly accepted of all is the simple fact that everything that happens is important, and every question will be answered by the time the credits roll. These are all almost central to our concept of movies as an artform, and in fact it’s the absence of them that rankles us if it occurs. Still, though, people like to call out the aspects of movie worlds that they feel are unrealistic. Which leads us, naturally, to archaeology.

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                I’m fortunate enough to count several archaeologists among my friends. They’re as diverse as any group of people, really. While at least one of them is trained to use firearms, none of them have ever had to do so in the course of their professional lives. Their work is characterised by a painstaking approach to ensure that no knowledge is lost to the ages, scholarly research and occasional borderline alcoholism. Compare this to the two most famous movie archaeologists, Lara Croft, and Indiana Jones. Lara is far more likely to be found wielding dual pistols than a trowel. Meanwhile, while Indiana Jones is seen teaching students on one occasion, and definitely seems more likely to do some academic research than Lara, he is still much more likely to wind up in a fistfight or gunfight than painstakingly marking out a grid with blue twine. Based on that, the surface perception is that they are not realistic depictions of archaeologists. But is that really a fair assessment?

                One thing it’s easy to forget when watching (or indeed, writing) movies is that they do not take place in our world. Some wear this on their sleeves – such as Harry Potter, which while set in a variant on our world still makes it clear that it’s very different from ours in fundamental ways. But other movie worlds hide their difference more deeply. Lara and Indy both seem to walk in our world, with the same countries, political tensions and brands. But at the root there are fundamental differences between these worlds and our own. In these worlds, ancient mechanisms still turn as well as they did thousands of years ago. Civilisations long dead possessed powers that we no longer even understand. In these worlds, magic is real.

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                Indiana Jones  not only hunts down Biblical artefacts capable of killing an entire Nazi battalion or granting eternal life, but faces psychic Russians, long-dead aliens and sorcerers capable of killing with a touch. Meanwhile in the film Tomb Raider, Lara Croft has to deal with a global conspiracy seeking to uncover an artifact created by an ancient civilisation with the power to control the flow of time. In Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, she is seeking another ancient artifact, the mythical Pandora’s Box, guarded by strange humanoid creatures. The video games have her face even stranger and deadlier threats – immortal Atlantean queens, Mafia dons transformed into dragons, angelic nephilim and even ancient Egyptian gods. Both also have to deal with ancient mechanisms fully as deadly as the day they were constructed, as well as animals and people out to kill them. They’re not alone, of course – in the Mummy movies, Rick and Evelyn O’Connell uncover immortal entities in both Egypt and China, as did the archaeologists in the classic Mummy movies. Even movies not featuring archaeologists directly follow a similar theme. In the Vincent Price movie Dr Phibes Rises Again, the titular Dr Phibes intrudes into an archaeological expedition to Egypt that turns out to have been organised by an immortal Roman centurion seeking the key to extending his life. And in The Ninth Gate, the old book that the demonologist hires Dean Corso to look for turns out to be the key to opening a portal to hell itself.

                It’s clear that, in these worlds, the ancient things of the past are dangerous. The unknown corners of the world, and the unknown stretches of our history, both harbour metaphorical and occasionally literal dragons. And the artefacts of the past are not delicate barely preserved relics to be painstakingly uncovered, but durable and well preserved, pulled from the ground as new as the day they were made. Under these circumstances, the very nature of archaeology changes. No more the careful, measured approach that it requires in our world. Instead, it would require people capable of outsmarting or outrunning the dangers they face – and willing and able to fight off those seeking the past not for knowledge but for power. While a keen knowledge of history would still be a prerequisite, the job would become almost like that of a bomb disposal expert – never knowing if this one is the one that will blow up in your face.

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                It’s interesting to look at shows in other genres that explicitly explore a similar theme. In the TV show Alias, the power of the historical is explicitly acknowledged, with the Rimbaldi artefacts becoming the target of global spy networks seeking to control them for their own ends. The comic series Planetary has its heroes uncovering the past of a world with superheroes – clearly not the safest of pursuits. The logical progressions of the idea, with the lost history returning to confront us directly, can be found in the Stargate series, and in the works of HP Lovecraft, which take the same premise to very different conclusions. Night at the Museum tends in a similar direction, although where it falls down is in simply having a single magical artifact causing trouble – surely in a world where such things are possible, then museums (especially such a large one as the Smithsonian in the second movie) would have many such artefacts. It does raise questions around Indy’s famous declaration, “That belongs in a museum!” Is he declaring that the artifact should be put on display – or put where it can cause no harm?

                In such a universe, Indiana Jones and Lara Croft become not anomalies but rather the norm – exactly what you would expect an archaeologist to be. Indeed, when we meet other archaeologists they fit the same mould – from Belloq, who while a villain, is nonetheless clearly as much a man of action as Indy, to Alex West in the first Tomb Raider movie (played by Daniel Craig, the current James Bond). And when World War 2 breaks out, Indy is even called to use those talents in the service of his country. Archaeology is a dangerous profession that attracts dangerous people – adrenaline junkies in search of a fix. Standing between us and the dangers of the past.

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