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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.