Archaeology in Fiction: Indiana Jones versus Reality

Scotland: Loanhead of Daviot; photo credit - Lesley Donaldson

Before I chat about the discussion points from the Archaeology in Fiction panel, I congratulate CanConSF 2016 co-chairs Derek Künsken and Marie Bilodeau. This enthusiastic duo and their entire programming team, including volunteers, technical staff, & hotel staff, created a successful weekend. Thank you!

My day one of CanConSF began with a fabulous workshop in mythology by Derek Newman-Stille. It ended with the funny and informative panel: Archaeology in Fiction – Indiana Jones versus Real Life. The audience learned how to make and wield leather whips. I’m kidding, but we did have a good laugh about the perception of an archaeologist’s image.

I moderated this panel, grateful to experts S.M. Carrière and Katrina Guy.

About Archaeology in Fiction Co-Panelists

Katrina Guy spent most of 2 decades working in museums, heritage sites, cemeteries, archaeological sites and paleontological sites in 3 Canadian provinces. She has developed a career as a municipal heritage planner, conserving the past for the future. Katrina is also an avid reader, from Science Fiction and Fantasy to Romance, Mystery and Literary fiction, and loves seeing how the past is interpreted and used across the different genres.

S.M. Carrière had her start in self-publishing she, at the urging of a friend, she collected some short stories and poems and published her first book in 2011. S.M. Carrière has released one publication a year since. In addition to writing, she also trains Kung Fu and Chinese Kickboxing with Wutan Canada, has a fairly impressive collection of weapons, she games, paints, hosts a Youtube channel, and, weather permitting, practices equestrian archery. No rest, after all, for the wicked.

Archaeology is not Relic Hunting

Relic Hunter vs. Archaeologist

Relic Hunter vs. Archaeologist

The panelists pointed out a very important distinction often missed in fiction.

Indiana Jones was not truly an archaeologist or historian. He was a relic hunter: seeking an item in the absence of context.

Had Indiana Jones been an archaeologist, he would have left the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol (the Golden Head) on its pedestal. He would record every detail of its location and reflected upon how the object integrated into the fictitious Peruvian Chachapoyan tribe.

Of course, had he done that, audiences wouldn’t be thrilled by his daring escape from a rolling boulder. Would Indiana appear as sexy and suave if he were a true “shovel bum” with dirt under his fingernails, sweat in his eyes, rubbing his hand on his lower back to ease the strain? I doubt it.

When writing fiction, they cautioned, authors should be careful about how they define their characters’ job role. For a great example of archaeology in fiction, Carrière referred to the epic fantasy Malazan Book of the Fallen by Stephen Erikson.

Specifically, she referenced book 7, Reaper’s Gale. The protagonist carries out a full-scale dig in his garden. Moreover, Erikson’s prose reflects the ingrained nature of the protagonist’s experiences as an archaeologist: the character notes sand uncovering then reburying artifacts in a marketplace.

When doing field work, Guy confirmed that archaeologists work in small sections of dirt, often laid out in a grid. The discovery of a pristine, giant temple, often represented in fiction, is practically unheard of. I believe one of them used the expression, “Two stones is a Roman wall.” But I could be wrong.

Both panelists reassured the audience that finding giant treasure hoards is not the goal of their field of study. “The smallest detail in archaeology can be the most fascinating,” said Carrière.

Reinterpretation of Sites, Advances in Technology, & Changes to Approach

The panelists discussed the progression of archaeology as a science and philosophy. Colonialism informs early research. This also stood as a warning to those who interpret research or wish to be archaeologists: the Other is not necessarily lesser.

I asked the panelists to reflect upon changes in the practice of site research, from early antiquarian archaeologists to contemporary satellite archaeology.

In its earliest years, archaeologists dug for artifacts, often mis-interpreting how that artifact fit into the culture that produced it. Modern archaeologists can, and do, return to sites and re-interpret the creation and purpose of what was previously dug up. Radar technology (geophysics) and satellite archaeology tells a story in the layers of earth before a single spade hits the soil.

Guy reassured everyone that sit digs will never be replaced. Yay! Although if we do write stories of adventurer-researchers, I think she’d be a happy bunny if we denoted how painstaking and painful the work can be. And yes, please write characters who smell and/or taste ancient foodstuffs. It happens. Often.

We heard horrific anecdotes of the archaeologists who dug up an Indo-European 2500 year old (5th C BC) mummy entombed in ice, named the Ukok Princess. [Note: Carrière mis-named her reference as the BBC Ice Queen” documentary.]

Researchers poured boiling water over the ice to access the body. Hearing this, the panel’s audience gasped! The body started to defrost and decay, ruining the intricate tattoos on her skin. The team attempted a helicopter flight, rushing the princess back to a facility. The engine failed, adding to the delay. Later they re-froze the mummy, but the damage had been done. I watched said video. They put the mummy in a freezer meant for cheese. Yikes!

In another time, with another team, the mummified princess would have been left in place, or transported in her ice cocoon and studied under very different conditions. Such a rigorous team wouldn’t bode well in a fiction like Iceman, I suspect.

A great example of preservation-oriented archaeology is the conservation of the 16th century King Henry VIII’s warship the Mary Rose.  The Nautical Archaeological Society and the underwater archaeology section of the Institute of Field Archaeologists did everything they could to prevent the decay with exposure to air. This included extensive underwater archaeology. In Portsmouth, teams created a building around the carefully excavated shipwreck. Inside, water and a wax-like polymer constantly washed the remains of the hull to prevent shrinkage and decomposition until fully preserved. The award-winning structure became the Mary Rose Museum.

Defaulting to Ritual

Guy pointed out that if you are considering the purpose of a site or an artifact, don’t default to ritual. Archaeological sites in which large gatherings happen do not necessarily denote ritualistic function.

Consider our modern food court. Large numbers of people gather here, in a place that is often pleasantly decorated, often at particular times of day. However, there is no extensive ritualistic purpose to this space. People come, eat, then go about their business, often not connected to each other at all. Post-apocalyptic vampire zombie archaeologists will definitely misinterpret our food court! Turn to cross-disciplines in historical sciences to compound your understanding of the how and why of the place and/or people you research for your fiction. Cross-discipline collaboration in research is a standard.

And Now, a Warning

I sat beside Guy. She had two pages of notes worth touching upon. Occupying a large chunk, bold strokes underlined: no aliens!!! Both panelists firmly assured the audience that ancient civilizations had the capacity and technology to create the monumental structures like pyramids. We did not need to rely on aliens for our technical evolution. Even Neanderthal man, previously beshrewed by academics as carelessly brute-ish, are now known to have had a hyoid bone which suggests the species used evolved speech patterns.


Final Thoughts & Recommended Online Resources

Some of the above listed resources were not discussed during the panel, but are added here after the panelists realized they couldn’t empty the entirety of their brains in one hour.

I apologize in advance for any errors or omissions made in this blog post. Happy writing!

(Did you see my CanConSF 2016 reading list?)