Imaginative Reality or Realistic Imaginings

Archaeologist using a bronze antique transit

On an antique transit

History can be gritty, romantic, riveting, and even page turning. Artifacts are not only part of our past, but also can be mysterious. Small truths in history can lead to fantastical revelations. Large truths can lead to mind bending ideas. Creativity has given history and archaeology many new pop culture imaginings.

Before discussing worlds beyond dreams, lets discuss what history and archaeology actually are. History is the study of past events particularly in human affairs. Archaeology is a subset of anthropology. While Anthropologists study humankind, archaeologists study human activity in the past through materials and environments that were left behind. One way to irritate an archaeologist is to ask them about dinosaurs. Humans did and do interact with the animal and plant kingdoms so there is overlap with other areas of study. If you ascribe to certain beliefs you may have an interesting take, but so far evidence suggests that dinosaurs died out around 65 million years before people roamed the earth. For your own safety, remember, archaeologists study humans of the past through material remains. They do not study dinosaurs.

A bit more WARNING: Do not practice archaeology as shown in film or video games. It is most likely illegal, could result in death and will probably cause a supernatural disturbance of insane proportions. The Mummy, Tomb Raider, and Indiana Jones all manage to break every rule in the archaeological handbook as well as numerous international laws. Yet… I don’t know an archaeologist who admits to disliking Indiana Jones. In fact, raise your hand if your dog is named Indie (or if you wish you could name a dog that, but your friend’s dog already has it.) While the depiction of archaeology in each of these series is clearly preposterous, sometimes these stories include touches of real information.

The last Indiana Jones feature film focused on what is likely an interesting archaeological hoax:
the pre-Columbian crystal skulls. Paramount turned some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the skulls into an imaginative story. The most enjoyable parts to me are where the movie pokes fun at itself. The younger Henry says to Indiana Jones, “you are some type of grave robber or something” which seems closer to the truth than Indiana’s response that he is a tenured professor of archaeology. Or are those things sometimes more related than I would prefer? Sometimes reality is sadly more complicated than it should be.

One of my favourite websites is The Archaeology of Tomb Raider. The blog is entirely dedicated to the sites, artifacts, and ancient cultures within the Tomb Raider films and games. Fabulous. I often find modern games have done a good deal of research in order to include a range of real items or provide settings with historic accuracy. I have previously mentioned the abolition symbol created by Wedgewoood that can be seen during the gameplay of Bioshock Infinite. Bioshock Infinite is not alone in providing us with alternative histories. Several periods have been tackled by the gaming industry. Asassin’s Creed goes so far as to have extensive facts you can stop to read. Cities are in pain staking detail and close to what they would have been like at the time. Sure, characters do things that are impossible and inventions appear before their time. Science fiction and history weave a fascinating tale with you at the helm. Red Dead Redemption brings a less scifi approach to the field with it’s sand box game that lets you experience the Wild West from the safety of your living room. Even the guns are all modelled after real weapons of the period. If you know of the game, 1’s conversation with Andrew Needham, an Assistant Professor of History at New York University, is worth reading. Some liberties are taken with the timeline for the sake of play, but discovering the accuracies and inaccuracies is an interesting comment on both our past as well as our present.

Remembering that historical fiction is indeed fiction can be difficult when engrossed in a novel. It’s easier when science fiction and fantasy get involved. Scifi and fantasy have a torrid love affair with alternative history. Naomi Novik’s, Temeraire series is a fascinating rendition of the Napoleonic Wars with one major difference. Dragons are an Air Force. The graphic novel, The Watchmen, takes very complicated wars from our history and inserts superheroes. Then the author, Alan Moore, thought provokingly critiques this “real world” of superheroes. While The Watchmen is truly unique, a novel extremely worthy of a different note is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke. It is partially incredible because it comments on history while completely creating its own and Susanna Clarke manages to write in the style of past authors so well that her work has the feel of a classic. I don’t want to forget Michael Crichton’s novel, Timeline, which takes much more direct approach. Medieval historians and archaeologists go back in time. It has been a while since I read it and at the time was only dabbling at an interest in medieval history. I cannot recall but feel the book a situation where more accuracy would enhance and less would indeed distract.

One book I have not read, but is now on my list is Pastwatch: the Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card. It has been highly recommended to me and frankly sounds phenomenal. The description from GoodReads “In one of the most powerful and thought-provoking novels of his remarkable career, Orson Scott Card interweaves a compelling portrait of Christopher Columbus with the story of a future scientist who believes she can alter human history from a tragedy of bloodshed and brutality to a world filled with hope and healing.”

Archaeologists and historians aren’t all forgiving. Each individual has a different tolerance for story telling. To go back to the cinema for a moment, I drew my line at National Treasure Book of Secrets. I found the inaccuracies insurmountable. IMDB has a list of goofs and factual errors that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Sometimes in a movie when things are given at least one insane explanation, I can get over the total displacement of cultures, items and facts. When no reason is offered, I find the ride difficult to enjoy.

I’m sure you can think of a hundred more instances of history and/or archaeology becoming a part of entertainment. There can be a fine line between misrepresentation, the absolutely imaginative, and the sneakingly informative. Always be aware that historical fiction is just that, fiction. Remember that often news reports and documentaries fail at fact checking, so the entertainment industry is certainly not pressed to do actual research. The surge in entertainment to follow fact at times better than our news is certainly impressive. I certainly vote for a future with more of the sneakily informative. There is no reason why we shouldn’t learn more while being utterly entertained.