Thursday, 3 May 2012

Archaeology is child's play

These days I rarely ever visit a toyshop. Partly that's due to my age (thank you for noticing) but mostly it's due to the fact that the majority of independent toy stores around me seem to have closed down, leaving just the big warehouse emporia such as Toys R Us (whose outlets appear to be situated a convenient 10 km from any given city centre). When I do mange to find such a shop, however, I'm relieved / surprised / comforted (delete as applicable) to see that archaeology continues to be represented as a distinctive, though rather particular, brand of toy-based excitement. 

That archaeology, as opposed, say, to geography, geology, biology or physics, is so well represented within the world of toys today is, I guess, due in significant part to the success of the Indiana Jones and Lara Croft films / games which market the profession primarily as a form of adventure tourism, spiced with untold, life-changing quantities of treasure. Lego, Play Mobile and countless other manufacturers have 'cashed in' on this aspect of archaeology, some with a great deal of success, although the scope of treasure-retrieval is always fairly limited, involving a combination of despoiled tomb, desert-setting, combat-clothing, sparkling gold, reanimated (sometimes partially mummified) corpse and / or accompanying army of the undead, unscrupulous rival and villainous, gun-toting, quasi-fascist mercenaries.

The fact that this is far from the daily reality of archaeology doesn't seem to bother anyone (but then I suspect the real nature of the profession would not make for a particularly stimulating child's game: "What are you playing darling?"; "I'm playing 'fill in the context sheet with irrelevant detail concerning the colour, texture and consistency of soil mummy"; "Er...lovely darling, just don't upset the cat too much"...). I'm not complaining (really) as I have colleagues working in a variety of other scientific disciplines who would, quite literally, kill (or at least significantly maim) friends and close relatives in order to achieve similar levels of media and pop culture recognition (anything to make their specialist subject area appear at least half as exciting and thrilling as say Raiders of the Lost Ark). 

Look in any Toy shop or catalogue and you will find archaeologically inspired figurines, play sets and board games. Of all such archaeo-themed toys produced in recent years, my favourite has to be from the Lego Adventures range created in the late 1990s. These toys demonstrated, perhaps more clearly than anything, how archaeology has bled into the mainstream of pop culture and how 'the Public' perceive the stereotype. In this, now sadly defunct range (although it has occasionally been reactivated in slightly different forms following the last Indiana Jones movie - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - in 2008 as well as, rather bizarrely, the Jurassic Park franchise - which pitted archaeologists against dinosaurs of all things - and please don't get me started with the archaeology is NOT palaeontology rant again) Lego had, for its main character a stubble-chinned, battered hat and khaki-uniform wearing explorer, by the name of Johnny Thunder.

Thunder looked in every aspect the rough-and-ready rogue, part Harrison Ford part Brendon Frasier (with a liberal smattering of Vinnie Jones)...a diamond in the rough. The female of the archaeo-Lego species, Miss Pippin Read, was slightly less dishevelled (and more presentable) than her male counterpart, but evidently no less action-orientated, donning a distinctive green pith helmet, matching militaristic outfit (and, of course, bright-red lipstick). He raided tombs in Egypt; she looted the burial-grounds of South America (so I guess neither were destined ever to meet, although, now I come to think of it, perhaps they were part of a trans-national organisation (or pan-global cabal), systematically despoiling the treasures of the world for financial gain - there were, after all, no 'museum curators' in the Lego range, patiently awaiting the repatriation of cultural artefacts).

Other stock characters in the Archaeo-Adventurers range included:

Dr Kilroy, an elderly professorial type with big white moustache and sideburns (an intellectual, but rather loveable, if at times irritable, senior father-figure); Dr Lightening, a white-suited, white pith helmeted, monocle and bow tie-wearing, academic (whose loyalty was really rather uncertain - although I always had him down as a pedantic, bureaucratic, OCD type who disapproved of Johnny Thunder's gung-ho approach to fieldwork);

Senor Palamar, a villainous art collector (no doubt single-handedly supporting the world-wide black-market trade in illicit artefacts), dressed in Panama hat and cream suit and

Rudo Villano (the muscle behind Senor Palamar), another 'bad guy' with a similar fashion sense to Johnny Thunder, (they probably went to the same school before Rudo was seduced by the dark side) but (in classic Western-style) with a predilection for black hats, greater quantities of stubble and more intense frowns (probably as he tried vainly to understand how Thunder was always able to outwit him), not to mention a nasty facial scar (either from a horrific shaving miscalculation or, more likely, from an earlier encounter with his nemesis). 

All these adventuring types possessed the standard pop culture kit necessary for fieldwork in treasure enriched foreign fields; namely rifles (presumably for self defence), pistols (ditto), dynamite ( careful removal of well preserved stratigraphic sequences), magnifying glasses (for close examination of artefacts), shovels (for detailed excavation) and pick-axes (for sensitive removal of fragile remains - or for removing the bad-guy's easily-detachable heads). None of the fieldworkers carried trowels, dental tools, writing equipment, note-books, planning frames or cameras (but then I guess that recording wasn't really a priority in their line of work). Thankfully, unlike their real world counterparts, who never seem to be more than 3 feet away from a bottle of fire-water, none of the Adventures range carried alcohol in any quantity (but then hey, this was a kid’s toy).

I suppose that my main worry about such child’s play archaeology is the clear disparity between the need to record artefacts / buildings / burials in situ and the desire to shoot the living crap out of things. Both Mr (or Dr?) Thunder and Miss (or Dr?) Reed, like their cinematic counterparts Jones and Croft, carried significant, rather infeasible quantities of weaponry. This may in part be due to the chosen areas of fieldwork, carrying with it the potential to be devoured by something that has a real taste for heat-moulded plastic, but I suspect, more likely, that it's due to the probability of bumping into a rival archaeologist / treasure hunter with a greater desire for buried loot; after all, why share the spoils when you can blast your opponent back into their component parts? 

The Lego explorers all possessed rifles and pistols, but other pop culture archaeologists from the worlds of literature, TV, radio and cinema, carry knives, swords, pistols, rifles, sub machine guns, lasers, stasers, quantum torpedoes and all manners of death-ray.

This dependence on extreme armament does make me question the motives of these treasure-seekers for I have never myself really felt the need for side arms on a dig (though there has been odd the occasion where I wished I that had in my possession something more threatening than a 3 inch pointing trowel and a propelling pencil), but then, I guess, if I were battling the combined armies of Dr Lightening / Rudo Villano, Imhotep, Klingons, Nazis, Daleks, Nazi Daleks etc whilst investigating the cess pits and middens of our ancient ancestors, then possession of a lethal arsenal of death-dealing technology would appear sensible.   

Perhaps, in the light of Lego's recommendations, I should reconsider the equipment listing for this summer's field project - you never know what undead / supernatural / black-market / totalitarian menace may be lurking in the undergrowth of an outwardly placid corn field in southern Britain...... please excuse me; time to lock n' load...

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