Thursday, June 6, 2013

Exploiting Archaeology

For the next eight weeks, I'm participating in my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) through Coursera.  It's called "Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets," and taught by Brown University archaeologist Sue Alcock.  The first week's material and assignments have done more to stimulate my little grey cells than almost anything I've done in the last year.  So: I've decided to post any writing assignments for the course here and (when appropriate) on Owl's Cabinet of Wonders--not just because I don't have much time to write these days, but because the fist assignment, at least, seems to fit right into the scope of the Cabinet; it's also about education, at least obliquely, so The Owl seems like another suitable venue.

Of the three available exercise topics for this week, I chose one called "Archaeological Expressions," which asks students to "Find one form of artistic expression (poetry, film, literature, trash fiction, music) that draws on archaeology and archaeological uses of the past" and write a reaction piece; Indiana Jones is proscribed, and I don't blame the course team for forcing us to think of something else.  I chose the original version of The Mummy, and here's my response:

The discovery and excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb in the early 1920s, and helped create a wave of Egyptomania in the United States and Britain. It probably acted as the midwife to the horror film genre as well, with all the media hype about curses, and the first Mummy movie, now a classic, was produced in 1932.  I use this film to open a discussion on popular perceptions of archaeology in my Intro to Humanities classes, and compare it to other films, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Stargate, and Tomb Raider. Film clips and a trailer are available on the Turner Classic Movies page, and a special edition DVD is available for anyone who’s never seen the film.

In the first segment of The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff in the title role, a brash young archaeologist, Norton, expresses impatience with Sir Joseph Whempel’s insistence on strict archaeological method (dealing with each find in the order in which it was uncovered,  etc.), noting that the only item that would earn the expedition any “medals from the British Museum” would be “that fellow over there.” Leaning against the wall is a casket, containing a rather robust linen-wrapped mummy.  There’s also a small chest, inscribed with a hieroglyphic message.

A sign over the tent reads, “British Museum Expedition 1921.” Members of the team include not only Sir Joseph, a renowned archaeologist, and his assistant, Norton (a newly-minted Ph.D.?), who can decipher hieroglyphic text, but also Professor Muller, an “expert in the occult sciences.” Muller himself interprets the inscription on the chest as a curse on anyone who opens it, and thinks it contains the “Scroll of Thoth, which can bring the dead back to life.” He proposes that they rebury both the sarcophagus and the chest, refusing to participate in “sacrilege.”

When Whempel and Muller (who discovers that the mummy has not been embalmed in the traditional manner, and that there are signs indicating a live burial) leave the room to discuss what to do next, Norton is left alone to piece together fragments of inscribed stone. But the young punk can’t resist the temptation, and withdraws the scroll—reading it aloud as he translates it. In a long, brilliant shot, the camera focuses on the mummy’s face, catching the gleam of an opening eye and the slow recovery of movement in its arms. Norton watches, incredulous, as the mummy awakens, takes the scroll, and leaves.  The scene ends as an hysterical Norton announces that the mummy “went for a little walk.” We later find out that he has died mad.

The film is well worth watching, especially for those who were under-impressed by the most recent remakes.  The clips available on the Turner Classic Movies web page include several telling moments that illustrate many of the presumptions Sue Alcock outlines in her first lecture: All real archaeologists want to find “goodies,” have to be lucky, and are white, male, and macho.

In later films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, and Stargate, the archaeologist characters combine different aspects of those from The Mummy: brash, greedy daredevils or iconoclastic scholars. The earliest female version of this character I can think of (besides Marion Ravenwood) is Vash, who appeared in a couple of Star Trek franchise episodes.

Despite the stereotyping of archaeologists as tomb-plundering adventurers, it’s the archaeologist-as-occult-scientist aspect that’s done the most damage, I think.  Even as women like Lara Croft come into the picture, the emphasis of their explorations seems to focus on mysterious, supernatural forces as generators of all those important artifacts.

What these pop-culture, somewhat iconic figures do is to perpetuate the “our ancestors were dummies” perception which produces the consummately unscientific view that the aliens must have done it.

The unfortunate result of all this is that the movie-archaeologists engage in pseudoscience and suck in gullible youngsters already starved of solid science education.  Using these films to expose the myths and set the record straight may be a sleazy way of attracting attention, but if, like The Mummy, it provides a platform for discussion, perhaps the enjoyment we get from watching them is something of a reward for our diligence in promoting a healthier view of history.

I’d highly recommend The Mummy to anyone who teaches introductory archaeology, or who explores the impact of film on culture.  The first twenty minutes exposes a number of popular misconceptions, and offers a starting point for a more accurate exploration of archaeological method.

Image credit: The theatrical poster for The Mummy, via Wikipedia's article on the film.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Cynicism and Utopia

 Note: This essay also appears on Owl's Farm

This is rather a momentous day, what with President Obama's second inauguration coinciding as it does with Martin Luther King Day.  It's also still the new year's honeymoon period, when folks haven't yet given up on resolutions made under the influence on New Year's Eve.  And, it's been a month since the world didn't end, and I turned 65. The days are getting longer, and I saw my first robin (although I'm not sure he ever went anywhere), but the weather's still in flux (50s today, up to 70s by Wednesday, back down to 50s at the weekend) so I don't imagine spring is exactly around the corner.  February is typically the coldest month around here, and although Christmas was the worst weather day we've  had this winter so far, things could always get worse.

I didn't really want my first post of 2013 to be a downer, and perhaps it won't be.  But what's on my mind these days tends to keep my spirits lower than I'd like.  I am by nature an optimistic person; I try not to be, because pessimists are frequently happily surprised when things don't go as badly as they expect. But when confronted by adversity, I tend to accept it as a challenge and try to make things better--or at lease accept what's not in my power to alter.

But I do worry about the future, because I'm faced every day of my working life with evidence that this country has no idea of how badly its educating its children.  Not a day goes by when the Daily Poop doesn't offer some "solution" to a variety of perceived problems in the schools:  inefficiency, lack of career and/or college preparation, inability to engage students in essential skills.  In Texas, our legislators are constantly trying to find ways not to fund educational efforts because they think that both schools and the gummint need to be run like bidnesses (sorry; government, businesses).  Teachers should be able to teach 35 kids as easily as 25; students don't need access to real books when they can be reading them online on antiquated computers.  Teacher salaries are a joke (and not a very funny one), and Texas doesn't want to raise them unless they can tie compensation to student performance.  And that leads us to the testing regime that assesses all the wrong things and puts so much pressure on students and teachers that nobody has the time or energy or desire to really learn anything. It's not any better for college teachers, either (at least in proprietary schools and community colleges), because we're under the assessment gun as well, since rising student debt is giving administrators the willies.  More and more pressure is applied to colleges to run students through in the minimum amount of time (whether it's four years, two years, or 12 quarters).  However, students come to us with less and less preparation, and they're finding it harder and harder to successfully navigate the demands of a college-level curriculum. 

Even if they do graduate successfully, what do they have to look forward to?  Wages are stagnating (raise? what raise?) while we're being asked to more for what we're already getting.  So productivity is up in the U.S., while paychecks don't change.  I was wondering the other day why it is that in 2007 I could sit down at my computer a couple of mornings a week and write a post for Owl's Farm--and being able to do that encouraged me to start the others.  These days, however, I have to have a four-day holiday in order not to feel guilty about working on this post for a couple of hours.  What I realized while I pondered the situation is that I am working longer every day to find ways to compensate for the fact that my students are so unfamiliar with the past that putting art into context is impossible without recounting the historical moment in which works were created. Talking about Jacques Louis David to people who know nothing about the French Revolution isn't quite like facing the guillotine, but it certainly does recall Goya's contention that "the sleep of reason produces monsters."  In order to set the stage, I have to consult high school teachers in Hawaii, who (being younger, more energetic, and more with it) have created music videos on historical topics to engage their students.  Lady Gaga's music as a background to the events of 1789 is a lot more fun than listening to me try to summarize them in an art history lecture.

So I read advice in the Chronicle of Higher Education, look online for what others are doing, search for engaging videos, and try to find ways to make information more accessible without dumbing down the course or lowering standards.  Finding ways to connect fashion, video, animation, and other programs to art history is now a full-time job, added to my other one--teaching, with all it encompasses (research, lectures, grading, learning new delivery technologies). 

Have I mentioned that I just turned 65?

I didn't really make any resolutions for the new year; but rather than grouse about the state of education in the state of Texas, I really need to have more fun looking for new material.  I've already located a couple  of promising avenues--connections between paleolithic painting and animation--and as long as I can keep myself entertained, perhaps I won't bore my students silly.  The Cranky Old Bitch persona, which can be amusing to some, wears thin after a bit, and I'll  have to don another Trickster costume if I'm to make it through to spring. I'm looking to new sources (The Encyclopedia of Informal Education) and old (Morris's essays on education), in hopes of becoming more hopeful.  What I really need to become is more cynical--though not in the contemporary understanding of the term.

As Daniel Halpin points out in his article for Infed, "Hope, Utopianism and Educational Renewal," "A cynic today is not the same person the Ancient Greeks meant by the term. For them the cynic was a critic of contemporary culture on the basis of reason and natural law - a revolutionary rationalist, a follower of Socrates." In fact, the word "cynic" comes from the Greek word for "dog,"  so Cranky Old Bitch isn't inappropriate.  We love dogs because they know whom to trust (us, we hope), and they're naturally suspicious. Cynics are naturally anarchists, so I've always been rather sympathetic anyway.

Now, I'm not about to go live in the marketplace in a barrel or piddle in the street, but I think we could learn something by revisiting the teachings of the cynics, and by recognizing, as Diogenes did, that there is a toxic aspect to civilization itself.  We've been trying to come to grips with this realization since before the hippies started dropping out in the '60s, and folks started camping out on Wall Street.  I'll write more about this in a future post, but for now, I think we could consider the influence of money on everything we do.  The utopian in me wants to try to find ways to find ways to educate on the cheap: do what I can with what little I have, and see where it leads.  Since I've got a shelf full of William Morris, I think I'll start there, and spend the rest of Inauguration Day/MLK Day snuggled up with my two mongrel cynics and some Morris essays, and try to figure out how to save the world.

How's that for optimism?

Image credit: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes, 1860. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Via Wikimedia Commons.