Archaeologists as Fictional Heroes

Don’t we all want to travel the world, discover ancient treasures and punch Nazis? Archaeology may make a great backdrop to serial-style Boy’s Own adventures or schlocky horror, with archaeologists portrayed either as action heroes or crusty academics, but it can also inspire more serious fiction.

Archaeology is the perfect field for fictional adventures and mysteries. For a start every archaeologist is a detective, actively seeking to discover facts and knitting these facts together into conclusions. When our trowel turns up a piece of pottery we are the first person to see it and touch it for perhaps two or three thousand years. It is testimony to the humans that gathered clay, water and wood, to the potter who threw the vessel, the merchant who sold it, the shopper who bought it, the cook that used it. Then the person who dropped it or saw it shatter on the hearth, the one who swept it out of the house, the children who played with the pieces and ultimately whoever finally buried it in soil. Step back and consider 10,000 pieces of pottery from an excavation and a story can be built; the ultimate cold case.

We are also adventurers in our hearts. Whether it’s Upper Egypt or rural Essex, fieldwork takes us out of our home and our comfort zones. A dig can be hot and dusty, wet and rainy or bitingly cold on frost-hard ground. An excavation can be in a jungle clearing or five metres down amid the noise and industry of big city redevelopment. There’s a selection of uniforms: hard hats and hi-viz jackets on the construction sites, jeans and t-shirts on student digs, pith helmets and shorts on the fringes of the Empire. For the most part these are safe adventures for the explorer-at-heart, though I have acquaintances who have been shot at, arrested, robbed and hospitalized. Others have been expelled from countries where they have crossed the wrong official and banned from returning.

The sons and daughters of empire who forged the profession in its early days were often wealthy or well connected. However, modern archaeology is a terribly badly paid occupation, with little job security or chance of advancement. It does not fit well with the comfortable middle-class life to which someone who holds a PhD might be expected to aspire. Young, poor archaeologists who stick the course are likely to retire as old, poor archaeologists. This helps explain why the majority are left-of-centre politically, often cynical about authority. Taught to question, studying dozens of ancient civilisations and religions they are critical of the failings of our own society.

Fieldwork toughens the body and the mind, but the balanced ratio of male and female and the demands of being both an intellectual and adventurer stops it becoming a whip-cracking macho profession in reality.  The work is usually tiring, often tedious, and spending long evenings in sparse lodgings miles from anywhere can be dull. Unsurprisingly there is a fair amount of drinking, good friendships are made and relationships quickly blossom among the young workforce.

From this background springs Indiana Jones, the archetype of the adventurer-archaeologist. The seeds of this character are seen in Ryder Haggard’s Allan Quartermain in King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and Horace Holly in She (1887). Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger throws science into the mix, and of course dinosaurs, in The Lost World (1912). In early novels archaeology often interfaces with the fantasic or supernatural, such as in many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. Movie adaptions usually mix in horror and a dose of orientalism such as The Mummy (1932) and its various sequels and remakes. White men take the lead, often supported by caricature ethnic sidekicks and an inevitably pretty young woman; thankfully she can display skills beyond screaming and falling over such as the scene-stealing librarian played by Rachael Weisz in The Mummy (1999). Female archaeologists such as Gertrude Bell were adventurers in their own right but are largely ignored as fictional heroes with exceptions such as the rather limp Sphynx (1981) and the female-Indy Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider game and film series from 1996. The 1976 French graphic novel series The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc Sec and its frankly bonkers 2010 movie adaptation subverts the genre by including mummies, dinosaurs and a little gratuitous nudity. The treasure-hunting theme runs into video games series such as Uncharted (2007) and was spoofed in the recent Sandra Bullock romp The Lost City (2022).

Which brings us to the archaeologist as detective, because the field is rife with mystery and the motives for deception, theft and murder. Agatha Christie’s second husband was of course the archaeologist Max Mallowan, and their travels inspired Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and Appointment with Death (1938), among others. Priceless artefacts, long-forgotten secrets and academic jealousy are genuine staples of the field. Although in reality few murders are ever solved by amateur detectives, at least the archaeologist has the investigative skills to have a fair bash and can be plausibly close to the crime in both a physical and intellectual sense. This was the genesis of Dr Jeffrey Flint, as suggested by my then agent Lisanne Radice, and first saw form in Shadow in the Corn (1993) and Byron’s Shadow (1994). Flint is a flawed academic frustrated by the realities of British archaeology of the 1980s and 1990s, and has no qualms about cutting across authority. Starting with The Merchant’s House (1998) Kate Ellis’ DC Wesley Peterson is assisted by archaeologist Neil Watson in a series of investigations in which an event in the past has echoes in modern times.  Elly Griffiths solves the plausibility problem by having Dr Ruth Galloway working closely with DCI Harry Nelson in The Crossing Places (2009) and the highly successful series that followed.

Two more of my colleagues are currently writing archaeology-mysteries so it will be interesting to see how they fare. Meanwhile, I’ll be appearing on the ‘Old Bones’ panel at Shetland Noir this week, at which we will be talking how writers, not just archaeologists, can have adventures in the past.

PS. For the record, modern archaeologists don’t hunt treasure, and we don’t dig up dinosaurs!

Featured image – the ‘Monastery’ tomb above Petra, November 2022

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