Troweling Theme Parks: Creating Cryptozoological Remains in Expedition: Everest

Bigfoot. Mothman. The Loch Ness Monster. Even if you’ve never heard of the word “cryptozoology” or “cryptid” before, you definitely know at least one or two. One of the famous forms of pseudoscience, cryptids are the monsters and creatures that often originate from local folklore and spark the imagination of people all over the world through their constant appearances in pop culture – like theme parks and attractions!

Expedition: Everest opened in 2006 at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Florida. It was a fantastic achievement of engineering and expenses – costing over $100 million, the roller-coaster held the Guinness World Record for “Most Expensive Roller-Coaster” (Acuna 2018). The attraction runs through the “Forbidden Mountain” hidden in the Himalayan Mountains, where the Yeti lurks, attempting to catch the guests at every turn. After a series of dips, turns, and drops, the attraction reaches a climax with the giant Yeti, one of the largest animatronics in Walt Disney World, attempting to grab at the train before the ride comes to an end.

It’s not surprising that the Yeti was chosen to be the terrifying mascot of the attraction – despite the mythical creature’s origins as part of Nepalese folklore (sometimes also referred to as “Meh-teh” or “Dzu-teh” among other names), the Yeti has since become a part of mainstream pop culture. There have been numerous expeditions since the 1930’s into the Himalayan Mountains specifically to locate the Yeti. Even the locals capitalise on the legend, with various tourist shops selling “real” Yeti fur, replica Yeti footprint casts, and “actual” photographs proving the Yeti’s existence (Loxton and Prothero 2013).

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Expedition: Everest’s Yeti makes one last grab for guests at the end of the ride (Photo Credit: Notes from Neverland)

The Imagineers at Disney have always been known for creating engaging and lore-filled queues for their most popular rides and attractions. For Expedition: Everest, they chose to use a portion of the long queueing area to house a museum dedicated to the legendary creature at the heart of this roller-coaster. Various paraphernalia related to the Yeti as both a mythical creature from Nepalese tales to an actual cryptid roaming the mountains are on display – from the remains of the legendary beast’s rampage through camps to even a replica of the infamous photograph of a “Yeti footprint” by Eric Shipton from 1951 (Sim 2014). It is an extremely well done and elaborately detailed museum, using real skeletal casts of similar, real life creatures (primates, bears, etc.) and replica Tibetan artefacts to convey the history of the legend.

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Part of the Yeti Museum located in the queue – note the alleged Yeti footprint cast (Photo Credit: Craig Shukie, Orlando Insights)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this isn’t the only cryptozoological museum in the United States. From the famous Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise of “odditoriums” to more local museums like Expedition: Bigfoot! The Sasquatch Museum located in Cherry Log, Georgia, there are numerous examples of roadside attractions that continue the tradition of investigating

In fact, the tradition of creating “real” cryptids actually has a rather long history. Fascination with mythical creatures is perhaps old as time itself, but the idea of finding and collecting physical evidence of these creatures can be more associated with the creation of “curiosity cabinets” and various natural history exhibitions. These were, in turn, inspired by the exploration of what Europeans considered to be “undiscovered” and “uncharted” by well-funded academics and scientists (Leone 2016). Prior to blurry videos and photographs, most cryptozoological hoaxes were created through creative taxidermy – by combining the remains of different animals, you could easily falsify proof of cryptids in the same manner that natural history museums presented specimens (Jobling 2013).

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An example of a famous taxidermy cryptid, the Fur Bearing Trout (Image Credit: Cryptidz User Sanya266)

Even today, many roadside attractions still continue the tradition of including cryptids alongside their real taxidermy collections – some of the most popular cryptids include the “fur bearing trout” (so cold that the trout has to grow fur to stay warm!) and the infamous “Jackalope”, which usually is a combination of rabbit remains with antlers (Krejci 2015). Perhaps by far the most famous taxidermy cryptid is the “Fiji Mermaid” – originally introduced to the American public by P.T. Barnum in the 1840’s, this cryptid is usually created by combining the upper half of a monkey with the lower half of a fish through taxidermy (Krejci 2013). Even with most people recognising the illegitimacy of these creatures, cryptids are still incredibly popular, with many loyal fans out there visiting their favourites across the country and even starting their own private collections.

Hmm…maybe I should make a point to include in my Will that I’d like my skeleton to be combined with another animal’s (a whale, perhaps?!) so I can become my very own taxidermy cryptid…

References

Acuna, K. (2018) Expedition Everest is Disney World’s Most Underrated Roller Coaster – But Its the One You Absolutely Need to Ride. Insider. Retrieved from www.thisisinsider.com/expedition-everest-review-disney-worlds-best-roller-coaster-2018-7

Jobling, M.A. (2013) The Truth is Out There. Investigative Genetics 4(24).

Krejci, J. (2013) Straight Outta Fiji: The Merman. The Carpetbagger. Retrieved from http://www.thecarpetbagger.org/2013/01/straight-out-of-fiji-merman.html

Krejci, J. (2015) North Carolina Taxidermy Hall of Fame, Creation, and Antique Tool Museum. The Carpetbagger. Retrieved from http://www.thecarpetbagger.org/2015/02/north-carolina-taxidermy-hall-of-fame.html

Leone, M. (2016) Travel, Monsters, and Taxidermy: the Semiotic Patterns of Gullibility. Religacion. 1. pp. 9-26.

Loxton, D. and Prothero, D.R. (2013) Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. Columbia University Press.

Sim, N. (2014) 17 Hidden Secrets on Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Theme Park Tourist. Retrieved from https://www.themeparktourist.com/features/20140319/16970/17-hidden-secrets-expedition-everest-disneys-animal-kingdom?page=1

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An Exercise in Archaeological Analysis: Fandom, Fealty, and Funko Pops

The Funko Pop. Anyone who has had even a passing interest in pop culture will have come across these figures. Although they have a basic template (large, squared head with tiny bodies and beady eyes), these figures cover a huge range of franchises, from the most mainstream, popular series to niche, cult classics. Funko Pop collecting has become a huge hobby of its own, with the #funkopop hashtag on Instagram showcasing the huge collections of (often unboxed) figures that many fans have amassed over the years.

Given their enormous popularity, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to suggest that, centuries from now, future archaeologists will be finding giant hoards of Funko Pop figures. But what will they think of them? Let’s use these popular collectables to flex our archaeological interpretation skills!

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Funko Pop figures at WonderCon 2016 (Photo Credit: Frazer Harrison)

The Funko Pop: The Fandom Collectable

Let’s first look at Funko Pop figures as they exist right now: as a popular pop culture collectable. The first “Pop” figure was introduced in 2010 in the form of various Batman characters. Originally starting with only three major licenses (Marvel, DC, and Star Wars), the Funko Pop brand has now extended to covering 454 licenses (Cheng 2018).

Although each figure is representative of different pop culture characters, there is a sort of “basic template” that gives each Funko Pop figure a specific “Funko flair” – each figure has a large, square head, with beady eyes, and small, little bodies. Although Funko Pop figures are sold everywhere, they are most often associated with fandom conventions, with certain figures being sold exclusively at certain events, such as Comic-Con. The popularity of Funko Pop figures has led to the creation of other Funko Pop items, including clothing and homeware.

The Funko Pop: The Votive Offering

So now, let’s change the perspective. What will archaeologists in 1000 years think as they recover huge collections of Funko Pop figures from the ruins of our generation?

Humanoid figurines recovered from the archaeological record are often correlated with religion, specifically during prehistory where we lack written sources to tell us otherwise. By ascribing certain characteristics to the figurine – such as anthropomorphic traits, ritual significance, or some other supernatural aspect – the figurine is set apart from other material goods, allowing it to be used for dedication and offering to an otherworldly being, such as a deity or spirit (Osborne 2004). This idea, as applied to Funko Pop figures, is probably best described by Pulliam-Moore (2018), who has pointed out that the general uniformity of the figures heightens the fact that they are ultimately physical symbols “meant to represent the emotional relationships we have to characters and stories that they love”.

Additionally, we may also see the Funko Pop as a sort of offering – literally representing the exchange of money for these figures, which in turn can be seen as an offering to what the figures represent. As Funko CEO Brian Mariotti has said, “The idea of chasing things you love based on fandom is really, really important”. And this is true with Funko Pops – fans will spend hundreds of dollars collecting exclusive figures that are only sold at certain events (Cheng 2018). Although many Funko Pop fans are interested in collecting all things Funko Pop, there are many other fans who are only interested in certain fandoms and franchises. By buying and collecting only one particular franchise’s Funko Pop figures, a fan is expressing their fealty and dedication to that franchise – both as a performance and financially.

The Funko Pop: The Sign of Status

So, as future archaeologists, we have now established the significance of the Funko Pop figure. But how do we explain the huge quantities of figures that individuals may “hoard”, for lack of a better word? Just as we now find hoards of Viking Age treasures, will future archaeologists find hidden stashes of Star Wars Funko Pops?

Perhaps this can be explained by looking at the Funko Pop as a sign of status. By having the most Funko Pops, a person is showcasing not just their fervent fanaticism, but also displaying a sort of “wealth” that places them in a specific role in the overall hierarchy of both monetary class as well as “fandom class”, or how much of a “true” fan a person is.

In historical archaeology, it is often useful to examine material goods through a more “consumerist” perspective, especially when dealing with larger “collection”-type assemblages. Consumerism studies allow archaeologists to analyse material goods not just for their functional value, but also for their cultural value as well, as consumerism often results in utilising quantification of certain material goods as a means of marking or expressing one’s hierarchical status (Martin 1993, Van Wormer 1996). Collecting Funko Pops is also not just a display of monetary wealth (each figure is roughly $10), but also a display of cultural wealth – arbitrary ideas of “fandom credit” means one must have a certain about of “cultural capital”, which can refer to simply having the “right” knowledge about a certain franchise to, in our case, having a certain amount of material goods (Fiske 1992).

The very act of collecting itself has its own hierarchies as well. For example, a person who is able to obtain certain figures, such as the exclusive “chase” Funko Pop figures, is in itself an achievement that creates more cultural capital for the collector. This is especially heightened with the recent popularisation of documenting collections via social media – the Funko Pop fandom is able to see, in real time, who are the “top collectors”, which adds a new dimension to accumulation as achievement (Heljakka 2017).

All hail the Tom Servo Funko Pop figure!

Of course, this all sounds silly to us in the modern day – as fanatic as Funko Pop collectors are, I don’t we would consider their collections as “altars” or “offerings”! But this exercise provides us with an idea of how the intentions and use behind material goods can change over time. It reminds us, as archaeologists, that ultimately we are “interpreting” what we find – there are so many nuances that we will miss along the way, some which could totally change our current interpretation!

I’d also like to think that this exercise can also provide us with different perspectives of the things we consider “normal” right now, like how we express our “fandom allegiances” and how consumerism is entwined to create an economy of “cultural capital”. That’s one of the best things about archaeology – by thinking about the past, we can further explore our present and future!

Also, I would love a Funko Pop figure of Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, thanks.

References

Cheetham, F. (2012) An Actor-Network Perspective on Collecting and Collectables. Narrating Objects, Collecting Stories: Essays in Honour of Professor Susan M. Pearce. Routledge.

Cheng, R. (2018) At Comic-Con 2018, Funko Reigns as Unofficial King of Pop. Cnet. https://www.cnet.com/news/at-comic-con-2018-why-funko-is-the-unofficial-king-of-pop-culture-fundays/

Fiske, J. (1992) The Cultural Economy of Fandom. The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. Psychology Press. pp. 30 – 49.

Heljakka, K. (2017) Toy Fandom, Adulthood, and the Ludic Age: Creative Material Culture as Play. Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. New York University Press. pp. 91-108.

Martin, A.S. (1993) Makers, Buyers, and Users: Consumerism as a Material Culture Framework. Winterthur Portfolio. 28 (2/3). pp. 141 – 157.

Osborne, R. (2004) Hoards, Votives, Offerings: the Archaeology of the Dedicated Object. World Archaeology. 36 (1) pp. 1-10.

Pulliam-Moore, C. (2018) My Love for Funko Pops is What Made Me Stop Buying Them. Gizmodo. https://io9.gizmodo.com/my-love-for-funko-pops-is-what-made-me-stop-buying-them-1823725462

Van Wormer, S.R. (1996) Revealing Cultural Status and Ethnic Differences through Historic Artifact Analysis. Proceedings of the Society for California Archaeology. pp. 310 – 323.

Troweling Theme Parks: Archaeology as Narrative in the World of Avatar

As someone who has spent a very large portion of her lifetime in various theme parks, it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve started to write about them through an archaeological lens! Troweling Theme Parks will be an occasional writing series where I’ll look at how many immersive theme park experiences use a sort of archaeological-type of narrative to get stories across…and of course talk about the Indiana Jones rides later on. Our first foray into this series will look at the World of Avatar, located at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, FL.

Remains of the original expedition to Pandora from the first Avatar film. (Photo Credit: Ricky Brigante, Inside The Magic)

In the spring of 2017, Walt Disney World officially opened up the newest addition to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, FL. It was called “Pandora: the World of Avatar” and was based on the James Cameron film of the same name from 2009.

The conceit of this additional “land” is that it takes place a generation after the conflict between the exploitative human Resources Development Administration (RDA) and the native Na’vi of Pandora. With peace between humans and Na’vi, a company called Alpha Centauri Expeditions now leads research and ecotourism trips throughout Pandora, leading to the creation of the outpost that guests can now visit at Animal Kingdom (Martens 2017, Taylor 2017).

This backstory is not explicitly stated, however – instead, environmental clues are designed into the decoration of Pandora to suggest the revitalisation of the area after the invasive mining excavations. In some respects, this is a sort of archaeology to this narrative, allowing for guests to peel back the layers of time to interpret for themselves why they may stumble upon old, rusted signs that say “RDA Scientists Only”, or why the rusting husks of military equipment, overgrown with plants, can be found among the lush, alien landscape.

Na’vi rock art from the Flight of Passage queue. (Photo Credit: WDWMagic.com)

Probably the best example of this can be found in the queue for the land’s most popular (and innovative) attraction, Flight of Passage. This simulation attraction has guests using the Avatar technology used in the film in order to ride a species of flying alien known as “Banshees” to tour Pandora. Further backstory, however, is explained through the queue for the attraction – guests first enter through a series of winding caves that showcase traditional rock painting and other artwork from the Na’vi (perhaps from their prehistoric ancestors?). The queue then transitions into the rusty metal corridors of a now-abandoned base, where the destructive RDA group from the film first occupied Pandora. These corridors are separated by the lush, bioluminescent greenery, which has slowly overtaken the human-made base over time. As the queue gets closer to the newly repurposed part of the RDA base that hosts the Avatar technology, murals of Banshees and their Na’vi riders have been painted over the originally bare walls, perhaps reflecting a more respectful perspective of the Na’vi and their cultural from their human colleagues at Alpha Centauri.

The rusty old RDA base transitioning into the overgrowth of bioluminescent flora. (Photo Credit: WDWMagic.com)

This immersive type of storytelling isn’t new to theme park development. Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers arguably first pioneered the idea of “environmental narrative” with the original opening of Disneyland in 1955, where the story is told through environmental clues that are purposely designed into the setting of the theme park (Mitrasinovic 2016). It has since spread to other big-name theme parks – for example, see Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a land based on J.K. Rowling’s wizard franchise.

Murals painted over the original RDA buildings, placing the present emphasis more on the Na’vi and the native species of Pandora, rather than exploitation of Pandora’s resources. (Photo Credit: WDWMagic.com)

This sort of “archaeology” in narrative storytelling, through environmental clues that allow for guests to further interpret the story on their own, is not only a subtle way to further expand on the sort of messages that are encouraged in both the original film and the overall theme park – the importance of conservation, the evil of exploitation of nature, etc. – but also reflects the sort of cultural conflict that can only be illustrated through material remains. The traditional art of the Na’vi, permanently showcased on the natural formations of cave walls, which in turn gives way to the invasive RDA expedition that replaces the natural with the artificial, to the “present-day” repatriation of the RDA’s land and equipment to not only the Na’vi and their human allies, but also to the natural environment of Pandora itself.

Of course, there is something to say about the anthropological discourse surrounding ecotourism in the real world and problematic aspects of the practice, especially with regards to Indigenous communities…but perhaps that’s a blog post for another day.

References

Anonymous. (2017) Pandora – the World of Avatar. Walt Disney World Resort. https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/en_GB/destinations/animal-kingdom/pandora-world-of-avatar/

Martens, T. (2017) A Visit to Disney’s Pandora – What We Learned. Los Angeles Times. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/herocomplex/la-et-hc-disney-pandora-avatar-20170502-htmlstory.html

Mitrasinovic, M. (2016) Total Landscape, Theme Parks, Public Space. Routledge.

Taylor, D. (2017) The Inside Story of Why Disney Spent Half a Billion Dollars on an Avatar Theme Park. Vulture. http://www.vulture.com/2017/07/disney-world-pandora-avatar-theme-park.html

Fallout Finds: Recreating Romans in New Vegas

In Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment 2010), the post-apocalyptic world of Nevada has split up into various factions (sometimes referred to as “tribes” in-game) that are in a constant struggle to regain control of the land, specifically the New Vegas Strip.

Arguably the major antagonistic faction (although your player character can choose to join forces with them near the end of the game) is Caesar’s Legion. Within the game’s lore, Edward Sallow, originally part of a faction called the Followers of the Apocalypse, came across a cache of books during his travels and became obsessed with those detailing the Roman Empire. Soon after, Sallow began to conquer and absorb local tribes into his ever-growing army through enslavement. By the start of the video game, Sallow has now taken the mantle of “Caesar” and rules over a sizeable army of soldiers, spies, and slaves and represents a significant threat to the New Vegas area.

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Vulpes Inculta, part of the Legion’s Frumentarii, in his military uniform.

So how does these post-apocalyptic Romans compare to their real life, historical counterparts? Aesthetically, the New Vegas legionnaires have done their best to recreate Roman Imperial armour, but while historical armour had the luxury of gilding and other fancy embellishments depending on the status (MacMullen 1960), armour in New Vegas was restrained to whatever material that could be scavenged. This touches upon one of the major recurring themes of the Fallout series, which is the reuse of the debris of the nuclear war to create new weapons, tools, and armour. All legionnaires in New Vegas are outfitted in what appears to be repurposed American football gear and jerseys. Higher status officials, such as Centurions, will have have certain ornamentation to differentiation themselves from the average foot soldier – this may include metal spikes and paint on shoulder pads, animal furs, or helmet decoration, such as feathers. The Legate, as the leader of the army, wears specifically created metal armour, displaying his commanding status over all soldiers .

As a means of staying true to the historical Romans, Caesar’s Legion is mostly outfitted with melee weapons such as machetes and spears. However, advanced technology has also made its way into the ranks – guns are usually scavenged by soldiers and used when found, and higher officials will often have weapons based on the (futuristic to us) technology of New Vegas, such as thermic lances and pneumatic power fists. Like the Romans, the Legion also made use of crucifying as a method of punishment.

The organisation of the New Vegas Legion is a fairly accurate recreation of the historical Roman military, albeit rather simplified and re-appropriate several titles in roles that are only somewhat equivalent to their real-life counterparts (Sumner 1970, MacMullen 1984, Roth 1994). In New Vegas, the Legion has a hierarchical structure made entirely of men, with Caesar atop as dictator. Below him is the Legate, who leads the army, and the Centurions, who were commanders underneath the Legate. A Praetorian guard personally guarded Caesar himself, while the Frumentarri, based on the name given to food supply officers turned spies in the Roman Legion, were Caesar’s spy network. Those captured from conquered tribes and towns were promptly enslaved and fitted with bomb collars to prevent escapes; most slaves were put to work doing menial tasks, with those deemed too weak to be useful crucified or otherwise killed.

Edward Sallow
Edward Sallow in command of the Legion as Caesar.

From an archaeological perspective, the Legion is a interesting example of selectively recreating and repurposing the past for the sake of organisation and domination. Prior to his reign as Caesar, Sallow was known to look down on other tribes as “lesser” and “inferior” creatures. To Sallow, Ancient Rome spoke to these imperialistic and fascist tendencies, and so he created a totalitarian dictatorship in its image to dominate the land with his ideology.

Like many leaders in Ancient Rome, Sallow also claimed divine right as leader – as Caesar, he claimed that he was the Son of Mars, who had brought nuclear war upon the United States to cleanse it for Caesar’s eventual rule. This divine right to lead created the propaganda needed to not only present the Legion as a powerful force to enemies, but it also kept Sallow in power as the sole dictator.

This propaganda, like in real life, also takes form in the shape of art, specifically coinage. Currency in Caesar’s Legion are decorated with depictions of Caesar  and inscribed with Latin propagandistic phrases, such as “Pax Per Bellum” (Peace through War). The importance and value of the New Vegas denarius (silver coins) and aureus (gold coins) can be seen in their creation, as these were difficult-to-find materials and most likely also difficult to create in the current post-apocalyptic landscape.

The tag line of the Fallout video games is “war never changes”, a sentiment that could also be expressed as “history repeats itself”. The Legion of New Vegas is a prime example of how the ugly head of imperialistic forces will rear its head time and time again, sometimes in the same form it once held many, many years ago.

The Fort, the headquarters and main camp of Caesar’s Legion in Nevada

References

Anonymous. (2011) Caesar’s Legion. Nukapedia: Fallout Wikia

MacMullen, R. (1960) Inscriptions on Armor and the Supply of Arms in the Roman Empire. American Journal of Archaeology. (p. 23-40)

MacMullen, R. (1984) The Legion as a Society. Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte. (p. 440- 456)

Obsidian Entertainment. (2010) Fallout: New Vegas

Roth, J. (1994) The Size and Organization of the Roman Imperial Legion. Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte. (p. 346-362)

Sumner, G.V. (1970) The Legion and the Centuriate Organization. The Journal of Roman Studies. (p. 67-78)

Fallout Finds: A New Series

While I was explaining the idea of the Studies in Skyrim series to my partner, he suddenly cut in – “Why aren’t you doing a series on archaeology in Fallout 4? Isn’t that the most archaeological video game out there?”

And he was right – the Fallout series, which takes place after a nuclear war that devastates most of the United States in a post-apocalyptic landscape that is slowly repopulated by “Vault Dwellers” who escaped the destruction, is a great look at how future civilizations repurpose the past. A lot of the video games’ humour comes from hilariously misunderstood interpretations of “Pre-War” artefacts (for example, the belief that baseball bats were weapons used in the bloodthirsty fighting game of baseball).

So, starting in 2018 I’ll be writing a new series called “Fallout Finds” examining not only the archaeology of some of the Fallout games, but also what it may say about how future archaeologists will look at our material culture, and how future peoples may repurpose it for their own use. Stay tuned!

This Fallout 4 character is obviously the spitting image of me.

Keeper of the Archives: Sith Archaeology and Propaganda

Keeper of the Archives is a new series I’ll be formally introducing to the blog next year, but because of the release of the latest Star Wars film, I felt like I had to provide a sneak peek! This series will be a fun look at archaeology in popular culture, specifically in the Star Wars (expanded) universe! Keep your eye out for more installations in the upcoming year.

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Sith archaeological excavation sites outside the Sith Academy on Korriban

Unsurprisingly for a fictional universe that takes place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”, there is a fair amount of representation for archaeology in the lore of Star Wars. This is especially true for the Expanded Universe (recently made uncanonical with Disney’s acquisition of the franchise, but still canonical in the hearts of many fans – including my own!).

For Jedi, the role of the archaeologist was an alternative to following the path of becoming a Jedi Knight. Jedi archaeologists would train at the Academy of Jedi Archaeology before heading off with the Jedi Exploration Corps for excavation alongside other researchers, such as biologists and zoologists (Wallace 2010). On the other side of the Force, however, the Sith were also actively pursuing their own archaeological research.

In the video game series Knights of the Old Republic (Bioware 2003), for example, the Sith academy on the planet Korriban appears to be in the midst of a large scale excavation of the “Valley of the Dark Lords”, similar to Egypt’s own “Valley of the Kings”. The ruins of the tombs of several Sith lords have been uncovered here – Ajunta Pall, Ludo Kressh, Naga Sadow, and Marka Ragnos. As you enter the excavation site, you encounter numerous Sith students and droids at work – often in dangerous circumstances, as predatory creatures are also found throughout the ruins.

So why would the Sith care this much about archaeology? Most likely the same reason why archaeological research has been used by fascists and dictators in the real world’s past: propaganda. For example, excavations under Nazi Germany were led with the intent of producing results that would become part of the proud nationalism that so identified their political party (Galaty and Watkinson 2007). As a political tool, archaeology can be used as “proof” for a distorted past that gives credit to whatever propaganda a political party is rallying behind; that one race is better than another, that one’s beliefs are more true, etc. History can be a powerful tool for oppression, and the misuse of archaeology makes for an excellent tool in legitimising (Arnold 2008).

In the Star Wars universe, the same can be said of Sith archaeology. The Sith, unlike their Jedi counterparts, believe that one should be proud of the power they wield, and constantly seek more. The tombs of the ancient Sith, as well as most of the walls of the Sith Academy itself, are lined with massive iconography depicting towering statuary that lord over the valley itself, creating an oppressive aesthetic that fits the Sith ideology well.

Statues in the Valley of the Dark Lords
The giant statuary standing above the Valley of the Dark Lords

Of course, there’s another level of practicality in archaeology of the Star Wars universe – the past can actually talk back. Holocrons are common methods of recording information by both the Sith and the Jedi, allowing for users to be taught by the recorded holograms of those from the ancient past (Wallace 2010). Spectral beings, through the Force, can also be encountered and spoken with – this may come in the form of a benign spirit, such as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, or in a malicious spirit ready to fight and kill any mortal that dares to intrude, as seen in the many tombs of the Sith.

The Sith use this interactivity with the past as a tool not only for pushing their own propaganda, but also instilling the lessons they live by – that power is key, and only be defeating those around you can you succeed (Veitch and Anderson 1994). In Knights of the Old Republic, you infiltrate the Sith Academy as an apprentice  and are put to work diving into the ruins of the Sith tombs. The usefulness of this practice is twofold for the Sith masters – on one hand, the defence mechanisms placed into the tombs, which consist of dangerous creatures as well as dark Force spirits, can weed out the weak from the strong, an important aspect in Sith ideology. On the other hand, this also aids in the retrieval of many Sith artefacts – again, a showcase of power that works as propaganda, as well as a transfer of power itself. A Sith who wields the mighty sword of Ajunta Pall, for example, could lay some hefty claim on power within the Sith hierarchy.

In the Star Wars universe, the Sith are an example of the corruptibility of power – how greed for power, even if it begins with good intentions, can lead to the Dark Side. The same can be said for archaeology in a sense – although it may have started with the intention of discovering the past, in the wrong hands it can be used as a political weapon as powerful and as deadly as a red bladed lightsaber and corrupt any good that may have once come from it.

Valley of the Dark Lords II
The massive ruins of Sith tombs in the Valley of the Dark Lords

References

Arnold, B. (2008) The Past as Propaganda: Totalitarian Archaeology in Nazi Germany. Antiquity.

Bioware. (2003) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Galaty, M. L. and Watkinson, C. (2007) The Practice of Archaeology Under Dictatorship. Archaeology under Dictatorship. pp. 1-17.

Obsidian Entertainment. (2004) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II The Sith Lords

Veitch, T. and Anderson, K. J. (1994) The Quest for the Sith. Tales of the Jedi: Dark Lords of the Sith 2. Vol. 2. Dark Horse Comics.

Wallace, D. (2010) The Jedi Path: A Manual for Students of the Force. Chronicle Books.