Sunday, 27 March 2011

‘All archaeologists are evil’. Discuss

So, Dennis the Menace is 60.

For those who are not ‘in the know’, Dennis the Menace (or ‘Dennis and Gnasher’ as he is referred to these days – presumably because ‘the Menace’ sounds a bit ASBO) was (and may well still be for all I know) a cartoon staple character from the Beano, a weekly comic which, before the days of Facebook and Wii, was the highlight of any self-respecting child’s week. Dennis has worn particularly well, in fact his instantly recognisable mop of black hair remains stubbornly free of grey, whilst his red and black striped jumper is still as vibrantly ‘in your face’ as it was in the 1950s. He still lives with his mum and dad, still upsets the local bobby and still gets into trouble with the neighbours. Neither he nor Gnasher, his dog, appear to have aged in the previous six decades, a worrying thought if any archaeologist of the future were to excavate his mortal remains, for he still has the physique of an 11 year old.

Why do I bring this up? Well, I was watching CBBC this morning (don’t ask) when up pops the latest adventure of the be-jumpered tearaway. Before I could hit 'off' on the TV remote, there on the screen was an animated archaeologist, excavating a trench (more like a disordered ‘crater’ if I’m honest) at the end of Dennis’ road. I should of course have been able to guess the profession of this new character, even with the sound down, for he was wearing what any self-respecting archaeologist wears these days: tweed jacket, bow-tie, pith-helmet and Khaki coloured shorts (with long, knee-length socks). This is how all archaeologists dress: this is our uniform; our regulation outfit…isn’t it?

Archaeologists appear with surprising regularity in the world of television; in fact the character, personality and career-path of the televisual archaeologist has become so well defined within western culture, so deeply ingrained within the public consciousness that the stereotype is instantly recognisable, sometimes comical and, just occasionally (at least to those who consider themselves to be REAL archaeologists) vaguely unsettling. The TV archaeologist is always eccentric, upper-class, fashion unconscious and socially inept. Pith helmets and khaki (or other forms of quasi-military camouflage) are de rigueur, sometimes topped off with either tweed or leather jacket. Occasionally they may also have a whip.

Interestingly, no one has ever felt it necessary to ask why archaeologists require unceasing quantities of camouflage, though presumably, whilst on expedition, they really don’t want to be seen by either rival archaeologists (who may steal their ideas) or members of the public (who may ask embarrassing questions). The pith-helmet and shorts, both covered ancient dust, are a fashion stereotype not just of the archaeologist of course, but also of the colonial explorer in general. It is the archaeologist, however, who has kept the pith-helmet-as-fashion-accessory alive into the 21st century. If anything, this particular piece of designer headgear has now become the lazy shorthand for the archaeologist and general ‘searcher of antiquities’. Put such a hat upon a televisual, cinematic or cartoon character and the implication is clear: ‘Adventure’, ‘Exploration’ and ‘Excitement’, possibly combined with a liberal dollop of ‘Treasure’.

Within this world of the curiously-attired adventurer, there are only a very limited number of stock (male and female) characters that the fictional archaeologist MUST conform to. Sadly none of them are very pleasant:

First there is the archaeologist driven by a single goal, considered mad by some, who will, thanks to their discoveries, unleash a curse upon all humanity, perhaps even deliberately to get their own back upon fellow academics who ignored / overlooked / sneered at their work for so long (“ha ha ha!”);

Then there is the archaeologist motivated solely by greed (the treasure seeker), who, in the course of their quest for lost Egyptian loot, will awaken a huge, lumbering, bandage-swathed monster to threaten all of humanity;

Thirdly, there is the gun-toting, hard drinking ‘hero’ / ‘heroine’ who pretends to be “in it” for the purist of reasons (protecting items of the cultural heritage from other alcoholic, gun toting ‘heroes’), but who is clearly motivated by the ‘great discovery’ which will boost their standing and who, in the course of their work, will undoubtedly unleash something rather unpleasant upon themselves (usually in the form of a sudden and extremely grisly death);


Lastly there is the plain, and, if I’m honest, the ever-so-slightly seedy academic with an abiding and incomprehensible love of obscure Byzantine ceramics who prompts contempt and boredom from his / her colleagues but who ultimately unleashes something unpleasant upon their immediate circle through the pursuit of knowledge (an indigestible 32 volume critique on the importance of Norse toe-clippings in 10th century Yorkshire). 

So clear-cut have these figures become, that most broadcast serials or soaps, usually at a time when they are searching for a supposedly ‘new idea’, will often latch on to, and whole-heatedly embrace the character of the pop culture archaeologist, further enforcing the stereotype. If you doubt this at all, just watch such programming stalwarts as Murder She Wrote, Columbo, The Avengers, Doctor Who, Star Trek (in all its incarnations), Bone Kickers, Coronation Street, MI High, Lovejoy, Sliders, Quantum Leap, Babylon 5, even, heaven forbid, Scooby Doo. Look around and see the stereotype everywhere. 

Pretty much all the archaeologists that appear on the screen (both TV and cinema) are thoroughly nasty and wholly unscrupulous tomb raiders; the doom-bringer / curse-invoker is the instantly recognisable stock character, even in something as outwardly inoffensive as Dennis and Gnasher. Archaeologists, and those actively engaged in the pursuit of the past, may like to view themselves as public servants or (in some extreme cases) as heroes bringing the dead back to life, but the media continue to take this rather literally. Archaeologists are the villains: they are the ones tampering with forces that they really do not understand; they are the people who raid the tomb, irrespective of the wishes and warnings of the local population, awaken the dead, activate the curse and bring down some supernatural nasty upon the world. Ultimately it is left to others to clean up the ensuing mess, destroy the curse and put the monster back in its box.

It is perhaps a sobering thought for those of us involved in archaeology today that our pop culture equivalent is systematically portrayed as the villain, the evil eccentric who MUST be stopped.

Archaeologists are the bad guys: should we be worried?


  1. Well, there are some rather heroic archaeologists in the charming "Pimpernel Smith" - though I admit it's going back rather a few too many years to be considered modern popular culture!

    I try not to let the stereotype bother me - after all, if potential burglars see my "beware of the archaeologists" sign and are put off by the idea that I might be a gun wielding maniac, it's all for the good...

  2. Ah Pimpernel Smith – you’ve found one of my favourite films – a genuinely brilliant piece of anti-Nazi movie making from the early 1940s produced by, directed by, largely funded by and starring Leslie Howard. Howard of course, used the film as a powerful tool in the rally call against the horrors of fascism, horrors which the West (and particularly the USA) had yet to fully acknowledge at the time the film was made (and the final scenes, when he predicts that the Nazis will destroy themselves at great cost to the German people, are profoundly unsettling). Intriguing, though, that Smith never gets a ‘back-story’ in the film; we never know what his motivation is or whether he is acting alone (at several points the film implies that he may have the backing of a larger organisation - British Military Intelligence?).

    Throughout the film, Smith uses his archaeologist persona (ineffectual, intellectual, forgetful, woman-fearing, artefact-hunting, pacifist) as cover to gain access to the Nazi homeland in order to rescue those at most risk from the fascist regime. Only when he puts aside this persona, is Smith revealed as the true hero, standing up to the Nazis and selflessly putting his own life on the line for others. One could argue, therefore, that this is not a case of the archaeologist as good guy, but of the good guy using the role of archaeologist (turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed by the State in order to advance his research) in order to gain access to the needy.

    I digress

    There are, of course, a number of heroic archaeologists in pop culture, and let’s face it, in most cases I think most people would prefer the stubble-jawed excitement of Indiana Jones to the harsh reality of a medieval cesspit in a rain-sodden British winter. What unsettles me (and perhaps I really ought to get out more) is that in all cases, from Smith to Jones, is that the archaeologist is not a very sympathetic character, one that ALWAYS puts the search for artefacts before all other concerns (especially the safety of others). As the Nazi collaborating archaeologist Dr Belloq says to Dr Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark “You and I are very much alike. Archaeology is our religion”.

    Now THAT’S scary….!

  3. I find it interesting the layers of Smith's personality are peeled away throughout the film, always revealing more and more of his capability and heroics. Eventually he is quite a steely, cunning fellow - but no less charming than when we originally met him as the slightly eccentric, harmless academic. I do tend to gush about this film as I love it so much - I always tell people it's my favourite film about archaeologists, though very few people seem to have heard of it, which is a great shame.

    I don't know if it's a sign of madness that I'd prefer the medieval cesspit to a tank chase in the desert. They say that Formula 1 drivers have that part of their brain missing that makes them afraid when driving at such high speeds - well, I think archaeologists have that bit of our brain missing that makes us sad about being in a damp trench digging out several decades of other people's waste!

  4. I must admit that I’ve never tried a tank chase in the desert (though looking at the current news it doesn’t look a whole heap of fun). To be honest, I agree, the majority of archaeologists are at their happiest when moving soil from A to B and retrieving other people’s waste (ancient waste anyway – not too keen on sifting through the remains of last week’s take away). It’s just that, despite the best efforts of Time Team etc, I find that’s precisely NOT what those in the media feel that archaeologists really ought to be doing. Tombs of long dead Egyptian pharaohs?: well yes, of course; refuse deposits of 12th century Winchester?: er…no.


    The desire to sift the damp dirt of damper trenches probably is related to a neurological disorder of some kind. Has anyone ever compared the brains of archaeologists with REAL people just to check?