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Archaeology in Popular Culture

Are Archaeologists Always Absent-Minded?


Doesn’t it seem that archaeologists show up a lot in popular culture these days? The most familiar images of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft leap to mind; but you can find plenty of others in movies, television, toys, books, even advertising for retirement plans. Decades of archaeologists pictured in movies include Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient, Peter Cushing in the 1959 version of The Mummy, John Hannah in the 1996 version; Jason Miller in the Exorcist; Charlton Heston (heaven help us) in The Awakening. Archaeologists populate novels these days, too: Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody; Tony Hillerman’s Thief of Time; Willa Cather’s Barclay Owens in One of Our Own; Lanford Wilson’s August Howe in The Moundbuilder. Some archaeologists are portrayed as bumbling, some greedy, some absorbed in their work, some out for glory. It seems a little weird to see the profession of archaeology depicted in such frequent and varied manners. But is that bad?

Does popular culture’s portrayal damage the cause of archaeology? I have no idea. But Cornelius Holtorf of the Riksantikvarieämbetet in Stockholm, Sweden, may be finding out for us.

Dr. Holtorf’s project, called “The portrayal of archaeology in contemporary popular culture - opportunity or obstacle for the promotion of cultural heritage?” is a two-year undertaking funded by the Marie Curie Fellowship of the European Commission. In it, he will examine how popular culture in three countries (Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Germany) portrays archaeology; and then attempt to find out whether the popular portrayal of archaeologists damages--or promotes--the aims of archaeology (whatever they may be…).

Recently, I spent a few moments over a hot keyboard conversing with Dr. Holtorf.

What kinds of images are you thinking of when you talk about popular culture (especially in addition to Lara Croft and Indy)?

Indy and Lara have been very important but they both represent a theme that is far older in popular culture: that of the adventurer and explorer who searches for treasures in exotic places. Sometimes linked to that, but in other cases quite independent, is the archaeologist as the scholarly expert who has eccentric knowledge about writing systems, pottery types etc in ancient cultures but occasionally lacks the ability to live like everybody else in our own culture! This character is mainly interested in history rather than adventure. But both share a common interest in discovering things, and so the moment of discovery is a third aspect that is very important for the pop image of archaeology and keeps reoccurring. All these images can be found very widely, from children's toys, board-games, computer games and cartoons, to advertising, TV documentaries and newspaper reports. Themes and images such as these are also the context into which Indy and Lara fit themselves, I would argue, and the context in which their popularity ought to be discussed by archaeologists.

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