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.

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.

Archaeology saved my life

My life wasn’t by any means terrible, but I had a number of my own demons to deal with while growing up. I had a constant urge to restyle myself, I had deep seeded insecurities from being badly bullied during primary school and secondary school. It wasn’t until the ripe old age of 27 silently twiddling my thumbs under the shrewd eyes of my therapist when I realised that much of my issues had stemmed from extreme bullying. These issues materialised in a constant fear of being judged, of being secluded, and ultimately of being abandoned.

I had tendencies of ‘running away’ when the tough got going, that’s how I dealt with my problems especially the bullying. This running away took me to Japan, where I lived for nearly five years. I had interests, but nothing that I felt utterly passionate about. Life became a cycle of dreary days and spiteful arguments. Not one thing in my life gave me any sort of satisfaction, especially my job. The cycle of running away had some negative impacts on my relationships and work. I had no clue what kind of person I was, because I was constantly running away from myself. My depression had become an aspect of my personality that many thought was just a quirk of mine.

After taking a job as a journalist, I decided to take the leap and study Archaeology at UCL, may be it was the thirst for some kind of adventure that I wanted. I knew my depression at this point had led me to believe that I was again running away from adulthood and responsibility. Whatever the reason I found a foundation in my life that I desperately needed. My first brush with university was nothing but a disaster of bad choices, misty regrets and unhealthy friendships. This time around, I focused on my work and allowed myself to be immersed in my own ideas without fear of rebuttal.

When my depression started to take a grip of me again, I found a sanctuary in the British Museum, learning a new aspect of an ancient culture to silent the dark thoughts in my head. Archaeology had given me a new lease of life, not an escape but a reason to stay. When my depression likes to rear its ugly head, (which it often sometimes does) at least I now have the tools to deal with it (no pun intended).