An Archaeologist reviews As Above So Below

My new series is An Archaeologist Reviews, in which I watch terrible (sometimes good) archaeology movies in order to get a better perspective on what the media portrays vs the reality. First up is As Above So Below, starring Perdita Weeks, which was released in 2014.

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I am a huge addict for dramatically fictional accounts of archaeology-gone-wrong. The discipline had been romanticized with grand ideas of treasures, unleashed curses, and  demons concealed for millennia being awoken by archaeologists exploring uncharted territory.  It makes for some exciting cinema, despite the reality being oh so much different. But, let’s be honest the archaeology/adventure genre in movies has been kind of crap of recent, apart from the Indiana Jones series (minus Crystal Skulls) this particular area of cinema has been a let down over and over again. So when I found out about As Above So Below, a horror movie set in the Paris Catacombs I was again skeptical.  Archaeology and horror is not a new concept, movies featuring ruins, mummies have been around since the dawn of cinema.  Despite the constant stream of disappointment I jumped at the chance to see this in the cinema.

Set in the style of a found footage documentary the movie follows Scarlett Marlowe continuing her late father’s work searching for Nicola’s Flamel’s Philosopher’s Stone. The location of the stone is within the Paris catacombs (of course it is!), and despite the dangers of running around in uncharted territory, Scarlett or Dr.Marlowe jumps at the chance of getting her ill-prepared footwear a little wet. The opening scene sees us introduced to archaeologist Scarlett (excuse me Dr. Marlowe), a university professor of a mere 30 years old with two PhDs, and the ability to speak 6 languages and two dead ones (of course!) and an expert in Krav Maga, because she must have ample of times preparing for her illegal adventures and not you know doing any actual research or teaching.  One of these PhDs is in urban archaeology, a master’s chemistry, and a second PhD in the fictitious symbology.

The movie moves along to George, who she enlists to help her uncover the whereabouts of the Philosopher’s Stone, further complicated with their unresolved sexual tension, and that time she left him in a Turkish police station. Charming this Scarlett, I mean Dr. Marlowe. Together they break into churches, defaces archaeological artifacts, and generally cause mayhem around Paris until she makes it illegally into the catacombs.

In the catacombs, the story changes from adventure movie to straight up horror.  As they venture further into the weaving tunnels of the catacombs a strange, singing cult can be heard; a ringing telephone deep underground echoes throughout the tunnels, and ghastly apparitions start appearing.  “The only way out is down,” says La Taupe’, a former friend of their guide who disappeared two years ago after going to explore the catacombs they now find themselves trapped in. They do as he says.

After a number of puzzles and trials, (to be honest too boring to actually write about) they finally find themselves The Philosopher’s Stone! Finally, Dr, Marlowe can vindicate her father, who spent years, writing questionable research papers for reputable academic journals!

But of course in Tomb Raider style, an important magical artifact is of course not what it seems; “it’s a trap!”, and they find themselves cornered with only their smarts and wits to escape. Scarlett figures out ‘as above, so below’. As they descend, they are faced with the same catacombs but reversed. It’s here, in this labyrinth mirror-world, that the deaths begin as they continue to descend over a thousand feet down.

One girl is murdered pretty horrifically by the rabid La Taupe. Benji the cameraman falls down a shaft after a woman lunges at him from the darkness mirroring an earlier, non-fatal tumble. George sees his little brother, who drowned in a cave when they were young, drowning again. Everything becomes a tense maze of ghosts of regrettable secrets that the characters have trouble letting go of.

As a horror movie, there are some genuine scares especially near the end of the movie, when three of the remaining characters are confronted by what is supposedly the devil. The movie uses the jump scare tactic, but also allows for quiet moments where filmmakers leave some points to the imagination. The movie deals with regret and grief much more efficiently than its use of archaeology, allowing the characters to move on physically from their own literal and metaphorical hell.

However, the movie’s main issue is its characters. Firstly, the protagonist Scarlett Marlowe is a questionable archaeologist, much like any media portrayal of the profession, she’s reckless, intrepid and obnoxious. “I’m not doing this for financial gain,” Scarlett says in some interview footage that plays at the end of the film.  Obviously not, because if she tried to get this little adventure published, her professorship will be in the dirt much like the friends she took down there in the first place. Unfortunately, we never get delve into Benji’s regret, and many of the characters apart from George and Scarlett (I mean Dr. Marlowe) are used as death fodder.

Overall, As Above So Below is a semi-decent horror movie with a tense creepy atmosphere.  However, the use of  predictable archaeological tropes to progress the story fails to allow the movie to embrace its weirdness. While Scarlett makes for a decent horror-film protagonist, she has the attributes: resourceful, intelligent, brave, and of course a complex relationship with her father (Indiana and Lara I’m looking at you)  – I doubt she’d make a very able archaeologist.

Lara Croft: the problematic archaeologist

She proved to the world that women can make exceptional protagonists. She embodies woman empowerment, wit and adversity, but Lara Croft also represents the colonial values of old school archaeology.  Like many archaeogamers, I’m a huge fan of Lara Croft, even Classic Lara, who stole artefacts and disseminated archaeological sites just because she felt like it. In the first Tomb Raider, she says it herself: “I’m sorry, I only play for sport.” But as the reboot series tried to transform Lara to less of a female avatar built for the male gaze to a relatable hero, she fell more victim to Western imperial privilege. Oh the irony.

This wasn’t an issue with her character in 2013’s Tomb Raider. When the game was released we were introduced to a very different, much younger and inexperienced Lara. She eventually becomes reminisce of the fierce warrior we all know and love. Her trials throughout the game proved that she could take care of herself no matter what was thrown at her while still taking a moment to awe at the ruins and artefacts she encountered. I loved 2013’s Lara Croft, she reflected the metaphorical journey of becoming an archaeologist that it was hard not to root for her.  In the game, Lara voyages to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai on an expedition (not to look for her lost father, thank you kindly Alicia Vikander) funded by her best friend Sam. The trip turns into a fight for survival as she finds herself stranded on a desert island with cultists and a supernatural force who refuses to let her leave. The story focused on her trying to break into the archaeological world with a huge discovery, and that’s the key difference to its successors.

Rise of the Tomb Raider shows us quickly that Lara has changed, she’s become more interested in hunting an organisation known as Trinity, (who she believes is behind the death of her father) than in archaeology. Before in 2013’s Tomb Raider, Lara was mesmerised (as much as she was afraid) of the island she was stranded on. But the narrative device of seeking revenge leaves her more in John Wick territory than Howard Carter’s trench. In Siberia, Lara joins the Remnant (descendants of the prophet Jacob) in order to defeat Trinity. Lara is less interested in discovery and the excitement of the archaeology she finds, and more the need to prove that her father was right (about Trinity and the supernatural). Rise of the Tomb Raider gives Lara less agency in her decisions, which only makes her less competent as an archaeologist and explorer.

But her incompetence doesn’t equate to British imperialism, she might make bad decisions, but she’s not a looter or a thief. That however changes in 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider, everything I had loved about Lara was shattered with her intro in Cozumel, Mexico. As Lara Croft “takes” a knife protected within a pyramid, she becomes part of the gang of white folk traipsing around the world, stealing treasures from other cultures.

Even the antagonist, the leader of Trinity and esteemed archaeology professor, Dr. Dominguéz underestimates Lara’s entitlement  saying “It never occurred to me that you would just take it.” Not only does she freely steal a clearly valuable piece of cultural heritage she also triggers a massive tsunami that kills almost all the inhabitants of Cozumel. The relatable Lara that Crystal Dynamics wanted us to so truly love in 2013’s Tomb Raider had disappeared. The consequences of her actions and her remorse are left out of the rest of the game. The empathetic Lara, who went to immeasurable lengths to save her friends in 2013, unintentionally drowns a whole town and she hardly manages a shrug. But it only gets better, Lara then “discovers” the ancient and still living city of Paititi, where she does simple tasks for the indigenous people, who seem incapable of doing any sort of action before Lara came swooping in. This is obviously a citadel purposely built  for Lara to steal plenty of Indigenous souvenirs along her way.

There aren’t many more ways for it to get worse in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, right? Wrong! The introduction of good old human sacrifice elevates the game to Apocalypto level of racism and inaccuracy. It’s true sacrifice was practiced by many different cultures of pre-columbian South America, but that’s true of almost every culture in the last millennia. Humans were killed because of contemporary ideological beliefs, be it religion, politics and/or conquest. The use of sacrifice in Shadow of the Tomb Raider reflects the savage Indian trope. In order to implement sacrifice into the main storyline, the developers needed to recontextualise parts of the practice separate from white colonialist ideas of good and evil. Later in the game, Lara replaces Unuratu (the leader of Paititi) as the hero of her own people.  Lara doesn’t just steal artefacts in this game, she steals people’s destiny. Unuratu can’t save her people, she needs Lara for that.

After Lara does indeed save the day, she returns to her manor in the British countryside with a butler bringing her a fresh pot of tea. In typical colonial fashion, she returns to her comfortable life and her crimes are left unpunished.

Why we need Indiana Jones

The media is often our strongest ally and often our greatest enemy. Drones of students decide to follow the footsteps of their heroes (Richard O’Connor, Lara Croft, Indiana Jones), allowing them to break the norm and enter a world quite unlike their own.  The media has painted archaeology as a profession of discovery, uncovering visually attractive finds, sites and civilisations. But often the journey to find our truths leaves many unanswered questions and because of this archaeology is often linked to mysticism and mystery. These mysteries are often supernatural in nature and it’s often up to the archaeologist to figure them out, think Relic Hunter, Bone Kickers, and of course Tomb Raider. It’s a victim of the Bond-effect creating a powerful brand for the the archaeology profession but posing no resemblance of reality. 

I suspect not many people watched Indiana Jones believing that archaeologists went around destroying archaeological sites and shooting sword wielding henchmen, but you’ll be mistaken if depictions like Indiana have little impact on the profession. Despite producing a sharply divided reaction among archaeologists, media representations of us are some of the most powerful. 

These stereotypes allow for more than just an appealing career, they form the public opinion on the profession. You can often find TV programming which focuses on the words like Ancient Lost Secrets Reveal the Hidden Mysteries of the Dead. There is a reason for this, if archaeological programming used words which reflected the profession it would be along the lines of Excavations Identify Farming Tools Reflecting Migration Patterns which of course sounds far less sexy.

However, these depictions of archaeology inspire real interest across the world. We want people to be motivated by the past, enough to support our work or even venture into the profession themselves. Even if these embellishments are far from the truth, they are the catalyst to get interest in the human past. And no matter what my colleagues might say, Lara Croft will always be my favourite archaeologist.

Archaeology of Video games

For many, video games offer a distraction from the harsh cry of reality. They grant us a chance to delve into a world unlike our own. I loved being able to shut off the demands of homework when I got back from school. One of my favorite games was Final Fantasy VII, the steampunk world that Square Soft invented was so far from my own mundane existence it was very easy to switch off and immerse myself into its story. But, my favorite games were the ones which took place in a medieval fantasy world, they had just the right blend of anotherness and familiarity to make me feel content. I loved running around derelict towns, and fantastical ruins that it awoke a part of me that I never thought about before – a love of history and archaeology.

I can name a few video games which use archaeology as it main premise, there is of course Tomb Raider, and her male equivalent Nathan Drake’s Uncharted.  These games mashed with the supernatural make archaeology a world not left to the dead. Although the realities of archaeology are hardly ever shown, it allows for the mystery to draw you in. For archaeology to truly be effective in video games, it’s not the truth or accurate depictions of history that need to be implemented. It’s the aesthetic quality of the archaeology, seeing ruins and the degradation of civilization is just as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying.

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An ancient elven temple in the Dragon Age: Inquisition’s DLC Trespasser  ©  Bioware

One of my favorite visuals in video games comes from the fantasy series Dragon Age, in the DLC Trespasser, your character travels to a number of abandoned and ruined temples to uncover a plot to take over southern Thedas during a period of political uncertainty. The temples and structures are ancient elven, although they could be picked right from the North York Moors or the Scottish Highlands. 

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Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire a “real” ancient elven temple.

The aesthetics for ancient elven ruins weren’t plucked from the artist’s imagination although there is definitely a degree of creative licensing. These ruins are based mostly off medieval monasteries, most of which were destroyed during Henry VIII’s reformation.  Ruins tend to inspire a distant world long gone, one that sparks our imagination. In 2013’s Tomb Raider Lara voyages to the land of Yamatai, a forgotten feudal kingdom off the south coast of Japan, the island is full of ruins, most which are remarkably still intact. Although running around the island killing cultists had some fun, I was taken back by the beauty of the Kofun-period ruins. Just like the elven ruins of Dragon Age, they aren’t picked from an artist’s imagination.

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The reboot of Tomb Raider in 2013, took place in Yamatai, an insland full of ruins  ©  Crystal Dynamics

When I lived in Japan, I visited a place called Nokogiriyama home to a sprawling Nihon-ji temple complex. There are a number of reliefs carved into the side of the mountain which definitely are reminisce of Yamatai’s Queen Himiko’s statues. Game environments like these allow us to explore the past from more than just a player’s perspective. Interaction is a key to gaming, a medium that has allowed us to explore ancient environs. When it’s done successfully, a la Tomb Raider and Dragon Age, it can inspire gamers to seek the real truths, or spark their own creative imaginations.

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Nokogiriyama definitely had some real life Yamatai vibes. It is home to one of the biggest buddhas in Asia.

There are the plenty of other examples of the use of archaeological ruins and artefacts, but these two are my favorites. There is something very much ingrained into our psyche about archaeology and the mystery of what our ancestors left behind. When we interact with these environments in game it allows us to think of its functionality, its beauty and its past. In Trespasser when we go further and further into the evanuris to discover the truth of the plot, we discover a past that in fact is very much like our present. A world full of conspiracy, intrigue, betrayal but yet one full of beauty and humanity.

Wishful Drinking: Alcohol & Archaeology

I was an alcoholic. Yes, I said it. Whoa. That feels awfully cathartic. I am now a recovering alcoholic (or the preferred the term teetotaller). Fuck, I’ve fallen in the trap like so many Francos before me have, despite my best efforts to moderate my drinking. But, I can’t blame my addiction on some sort of genetic defect, because most of my family can have a drink without making a complete brat of themselves or being a complete arsehole.

It had been a sordid secret of mine for so long that I never fully confronted what alcohol was doing to my mind, reputation, and self-esteem. Why? Because how else would I escape?  I had multiple issues with living in a world I didn’t fit in. I cared too deeply, a painfully shy introvert as a kid, who as an adult needed alcohol to “come out” of her shell. I cared what people thought of me, I wanted everyone to like me. I suppressed the nerdy side of me throughout most of my life, the weird girl who picked up bones in the school playground and wondered if she had discovered a new dinosaur. Or the kid who would run home so she caught the season finale of Dragon Ball Z. How does a person process the world around them without a light buzz throughout their day? Even if its with a (blistering) hangover.

My love affair with alcohol only fuelled my low self esteem issues. That guy doesn’t like me? Fine – I’ll have a whiskey, I failed my first year of uni? Fine – I’ll go out on an all night bender. Drinking was my only (known) coping mechanism. There was something rather reassuring about coping with an identity crisis in a midst of alcohol addiction – it gave me reason to drink even more!

When I discovered archaeology at the ripe old age of 25, I knew I’d found a part of me that  had been missing for so long. But archaeology had opened up so many drinking opportunities too. Any undergraduate student can tell you the mischievous they got up to during field school.  Or the brain crushing hangovers and trying to use a trowel the day after. During my undergraduate, I studied creative writing,  because you guessed it! Yes! I wanted to be a writer (I STILL am, just not just a pen for hire). I drank a lot there too, but it wasn’t shoved in my face like it was when I studied archaeology.

There were plenty of lectures, which you betcha had wine receptions. Oh and wine receptions were my kryptonite.  I could drink without having to worry about my poor student bank account. What a horror the day after when I learnt of all the embarrassing and nauseating things I said to some of the most esteemed professors in the discipline, and the futile attempts to avoid them on campus. There was a lot of ducking behind walls and 360 turns.

Separating my addiction and my passion became almost impossible, and the more I delved in this world of lithics and pottery, the more I found solace at the bottom of a glass. I had imposter syndrome once I had a couple of drinks in me I believed I came up with the most profound observations and theories. There goes that low-self esteem rearing its ugly face  yet again. But, don’t get this twisted, while self-esteem was a chink in my low-levelled armour I was my worst enemy.  I went to lectures drunk some times and despite my best efforts to hide it I probably stank of booze and made no coherent sense as I tried to form futile counter arguments on a paper I probably hadn’t read.

When I finally graduated my masters with a distinction (after taking six months off because my addiction had swallowed me whole) , I worked briefly as a commercial archaeologist and almost like an extension of university, the drinking kept going and going and going, and I found myself unable to hold trowels due to the shakes. Like journalism, which is a very boozy industry, so is commercial archaeology but instead of attending fancy press conferences with a free champagne bar, archaeology was devoid of free booze. So not only was I abusing my body, I also abused my bank account.

In the sober community, there’s not a clearly defined rock-bottom, like when you wake up in a parking lot wearing a pink wig stinking of fags. For me, and like so many recovering alcoholics (or teetotallers), it was multiple small events. There were too many times to count where I had crossed the line of assholery. A Jerkyll and Hyde scenario that was easy to fix, but my refusal to admit I had problem prevented any solution. Rock-bottom came in the form of not knowing how to process grief. I know – shit. Emotions had never been my strongest point. I am devoid of them, like a blackhole or so I’ve been told by many exes and former friends. I had a succession of friends who had passed on and my answer was to drink the pain away.

However, there is a magic moment when you realise you have a problem. Mine was sitting on the train home with a can of budweiser, a lady next to me had handed me a tissue. She looked concerned, not like I was going to nab her handbag type of concern, but the concern a mother has for her daughter. As I looked at my reflection in the train window, my eyes were red and puffy – I didn’t realise I had been crying. My body was trying to process the emotion of grief without even letting my brain know about it. I got off the train and decided enough was enough and at 31 I couldn’t carry on like this. The rest of the budweiser was tossed in the bin.

When I had decided to stop drinking, it was a minefield. How do I tell people? How do I avoid or attend the post-work drinks? I wanted to know how was it possible to stop drinking without thinking of my internal conflict with addiction. Firstly, I had to divide archaeology from my drinking, they had become too intertwined and murky that I might as well been drinking in the trench.

Archaeology wasn’t the cause of my addiction, but it did facilitate my urges. I made a very public announcement to friends and family that I had decided to quit the booze for good, not for a month, not for spring, forever. FOREVER. This admission was the best thing I could have done not only for myself, but everyone around me; no awkward discussions, no suggestions of drinks, no pretence from me.

Despite only being three weeks sober I’d discovered that I am immensely more happy about this new found freedom and less worried about the awful things I could possibly do. I also started loving archaeology again, I read books, attended all the free lectures London had to offer. I rinsed my British Museum membership, attended all the exhibitions I could, solo and with others. The desire to reconnect with the one part of me that I wasn’t actively trying to conceal from the outside world allowed me to be that young grad student again, that girl who on rare times didn’t attend lectures immensely hungover, who assisted professors with symposiums, wrote essays with enthusiasm. This was me NO is me, just minus my addiction.

 

 

My love/hate relationship with UNESCO

I’d long decided that while in someways I hated subjecting archaeology to the realm of needless hierarchy, UNESCO or The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was a necessary evil. The list of world heritage sites now comprises of more than 1,000 sites across the world, and the list keeps growing with economically more developed countries obtaining relatively more listings.

When I worked at a UNESCO world heritage site, I believed like many that UNESCO was a privilege bestowed on some of the most important and well-preserved monuments in our history.  But, I soon became jaded when I saw the endless tour buses deposit overeager tourists on our doorstep early every morning.  There was a plague of invasive tourism that UNESCO bought along with the prestige. Naivety led me to assume that these initiatives unite people in a common effort to protect shared cultural heritage. While that may work in developed countries, the influx of tourists in countries that lacks the infrastructure to support them contributes to the deterioration of many historical (and natural) monuments.

This is what makes UNESCO status divisive; like most things there is a negative side to every positive. While the UNESCO may damage archaeological monuments by promoting tourism, they have spared countless of heritage resources from the bulldozer. We should care about every world heritage asset not only only our own.  There is more to culture and our heritage than DNA, we construct our identities from stories, objects and buildings that conjure up our ancestors’ past: their glories, tragedies, or simply their day-to-day lives. So when Penny Mordaunt suggested pulling out from UNESCO due to budgetary concerns, it felt like a betrayal not only to our national past, but the world’s collective identity as people.

Currently UNESCO has no clear guidelines or effective methods to control the commercialisation of world heritage sites, and its talk on sustainability is more a verbal exercise than enforceable. So unsurprisingly when the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from UNESCO, many had cited the reasoning was that it provided no real protection for archaeological and historic treasures.

Of course the reason behind US’s withdrawal from UNESCO was to convey a political message.  In October 2011, UNESCO admitted the Palestinian territories to the organization as an independent member-state called Palestine. This triggered a US law which cut off American funding for any organisation that recognised an independent Palestine.

After studying archaeology for years, I’ve learnt that you can never separate politics and heritage, because ultimately heritage relates to people’s identity. Despite what World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald S. Lauder  wants you to believe, “In recent years, despite the best efforts of outgoing Director General Irina Bokova, UNESCO has strayed from its mission to preserve history and has allowed itself to become politicised, demonstrating a continuing and disturbing bias against Israel.”

Take a look at other countries such as Egypt, where during a night of riots young activists formed a human chain around the National Museum that borders the square, helping security guards protect the treasures within. In places, where competing political narratives force the public to try and keep hold of their heritage. But it’s crucial to remember that largest part of UNESCO’s budget is spent on education initiatives in developing countries. Leaving UNESCO is not necessarily going to impact the heritage of the UK, but it would definitely convey a message of how disconnected we are with the  shared heritage of people around the globe. Political or not.