The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Archaeology as Screwball Comedy

I was listening to the radio today (that is, the day that I wrote this, not the day that it drops into the feed) and hearing a show in which the host and guests discussed whether or not it matters if Hollywood acurately portrays various professions. Of course, an archaeologist wrote in to state that Holywood always gets archaeology wrong (although the writer succumbed to the usual false impression that only academic archaeology exists). But, it got me thinking, is it possible to accurately portray archaeology in a film or television show?

I have already made known my thoughts on whether or not public mis-perceptions of archaeology are a good or bad thing.

Although our jobs do sometimes require us to do adventurous things, most of our field time is spent doing slow and monotonous work, and our lab time is the same. Then, of course, there is the writing of reports, working out of budgets, and bickering with clients. In other words, for every adventurous moment that we have, there are thousands of moments that are simply not that interesting to anyone but us. So, while archaeologists figure prominently in adventure stories and action movies...well, that's just not even vaguely like the way that it actually is.

Of course, archaeologists also figure into horror stories, sci-fi stories, etc., usually in the role of Dr. Exposition - the guy who explains everything that is going on by deciphering ancient writings, knowing all there is to know about a wide variety of cultures, etc. etc. As much as I like the Dr. Exposition role, it's not accurate either.

I think that the first problem that comes into play is that, when you get down to it, archaeology is a job. Yes, it's a job that involves travel and discovery and ancient artifacts, but it is also a job that requires I-9 forms to be completed, W-2s to be sent at the end of the year, reports to be written, clients to be sought and bids to be won, timecards to be signed, budgets to be maintained, and a regular schedule either at the office or at the job site.

The vast majority of archaeology isn't fun, it's simply work. Those aspects of work that might be fun to watch involve the strange things that archaeologists say or do, the practical jokes that we play on each other, the conversations that we have about difficult clients (and, likewise, the conversations that our clients have about us are probably equally amusing), and the sometimes just plain weird discussions we have with government agencies (my favorite: I once spoke with someone at an agency who would not release the required parameters for a study until after the study in question had been completed...and they failed to see how this might inhibit the study being done). And what makes these things entertaining is the fact that they are frequently quite funny.

The next problem is that the parts of archaeology that are fun - seeing new places, digging into interesting sites, finding unexpected sites in weird places - are great to do, but they are difficult, if not impossible, to convey in images. And, again, much of what happens in these places that could be conveyed via television or movies is the archawologists bickering with each other as they get lost on their way to the new place, or realizing that the fact that they have found an interesting site means that they will have to continue living out of a crappy hotel for another few weeks, or the unexpected site makes so little sense that it inspires the archaeologists to start making up bizarre and goofy new hypotheses to explain it (a friend once joked that an entire site complex originated because someone was searching for a missing shoe).

In short, the things that might be fun to watch in archaeology involve the inter-personal strife and funny happenings that are common on any project. It resembles Arrested Development more than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

So, if the television and movie execs ever decided that they wanted to show the true "essence" of archaeology, they can foget adventure movies, sci-fi, "reality" shows, and all the rest. Archaeology can only accurately be portrayed as a screwball comedy.


The Lonely Traveler said...

you can have an entire season just about Makar.

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised that movies would skip the tax filing aspects of archeology, like they do with every other job. I mean, who wants to see Harry Callahan sitting at his desk for hours doing paperwork? (Nobody).

I imagine it's always a struggle trying to emphasize the cool, dramatic parts of you profession without being too unrealistic. Probably why so many writers just say "screw it" and go for alien skulls and mystical arks.

Anthroslug said...

Kelly: Makar would totally be one of the motive forces behind the series. Hell, I could see the data sharing two parter, with Makar providing most of the dialogue.

Anonymous (if that is in fact your name): Very true, but I can still say with certainty that a comedy would be both more accurate and more entertaining in describing what archaeology is really like.