In my flash fiction story, “In the Ruins of Shambhala” (published in audio format with 600 Second Saga), UN employee Amar Chatterjee encounters a booby trap while exploring an ancient Buddhist temple. But the trap Amar encounters is far from your typical Indiana Jones-style booby trap. It’s something much more real and sinister.
Indy might step on paving stones that shoot blow darts through slots in the wall and he might run away from giant rolling boulders, but these traps are unrealistic and not the kind I’m talking about.
While researching “In the Ruins of Shambhala,” I wanted to know more about the all-too-real dangers archaeologists actually face. But archaeology rarely involves greater dangers than you might encounter on a camping trip: snakebite, heatstroke, dehydration, and other environmental and health hazards.
However, there are some cases where archaeologists do run great safety risks. The difference here is that these traps typically use modern technology. I’m talking about landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) here.
Many countries with a rich distribution of archaeological deposits also happen to have endured highly destructive–and explosive–wars. Nations like Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iraq, Syria, and Georgia have extensive minefields that occasionally make archaeology a highly risky profession.
The landmine Amar defuses is much more than a new spin on a cliché. It provides a commentary on the issue of cultural heritage at risk–a theme I believe archaeological thrillers could explore more fruitfully.
Mes Aynak in Afghanistan, the site of an ancient Buddhist monastery, is one prominent example of a threatened cultural heritage site. Brent E. Huffman’s documentary Saving Mes Aynak tells the story of the bold Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori, who leads an excavation of this monastery. The site itself is currently threatened by the development of a Chinese copper mine. To add to his difficulties, Qadir must endure repeated death threats by the Taliban to cease his excavations.
Landmines enter into it because the hill of Mes Aynak contains many of them, buried right alongside the artefacts. At one point in the film, the director interviews a digger who once swung a pickaxe directly onto a landmine, triggering an explosion. He was badly maimed, but other diggers were not so lucky.
What Saving Mes Aynak shows is that the real archaeologists who face danger in their jobs are not guys like Indiana Jones. They’re guys like Qadir.
Archaeologists working in war-torn countries, under the pressure of dictatorships, or in the presence of ongoing civil wars–those are the ones who run the greatest risks in their profession. The explosive legacy of present-day wars alone makes learning about the distant past a dangerous job. No tombs with pressure-triggered blow darts required.
Initiatives have attempted to correct the problem of unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan, notably in the region of Bamiyan. Bamiyan is the site of a medieval fortress and the gigantic niches where the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan once stood, before they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. As Lindsay Aldrich, Suzanne Fiederlein, and Jessica Rosati report in The Journal of ERW and Mine Action, action was taken in 2008 and 2009 to demine the region.
This operation, led by the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan (MACCA), in coordination with UNESCO and the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), was an initiative that parallels my own fictional treatment of the demining of the mystical city of Shambhala in the aftermath of skirmishes between Tibetan insurgents and the Chinese army.
The Amar Chatterjees of this world are the kinds of people who work with organizations like MACCA and UNMAS, the ones who, like Qadir, face extreme danger for the sake of cultural heritage preservation. They are the ones who rally under the 1954 UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which states that “cultural property has suffered grave damage during recent armed conflicts and that, by reason of the developments in the technique of warfare, it is in increasing danger of destruction.”
Amar is courageous, a workaday hero who preserves ancient antiquities at great personal risk, all while operating within the mission statements of international conventions. I hope you will listen to my story and enjoy my attempt to find an alternative to the fedora-swaggering heroes of yesterday.
Last week’s post discussed the Indiana Jones series and the works of pulp fiction author A. Merritt, who may have partly influenced the movies. One modern (or postmodern) narrative continues the tradition of what I call archaeological adventure fiction: the video game series Uncharted.
Hero Nathan Drake is a professional thief, who believes he is a descendent of English explorer/pirate/privateer Sir Francis Drake, who is most famous for sailing around the world. Like Sir Francis, Nate travels to various exotic locales in search of treasure. And he has a crew: ex-Marine Victor Sullivan, who is nearly a father to him, Elena Fischer, a reporter and love interest, Chloe Fraser, an excellent getaway driver and competitive love interest, and Cutter, a Jason Statham look-alike.
The Uncharted series breaks boundaries in the fluidity of its third-person gameplay and in the quality of its storytelling. It is possible to play the game straight through without consulting any level-select menus, for example, and the narrative is supported by many cut scenes that play out almost like a movie. The games offer the pleasure of imagining that there still might be uncharted locales around the globe in this age of satellite imagery and Google Earth. The world has been thoroughly mapped now, but Nate follows in the footsteps of those first explorers like Drake, Marco Polo, and more modern figures such as T.E. Lawrence. Spoilers lie ahead.
The first game, Drake’s Fortune, involves the classic search for Eldorado, which Francis Drake was supposed to have discovered shortly before his supposed death. It is both Nate and Sir Francis’ fortunes that are at stake. Nate discovers Drake’s journal in the explorer’s barnacled, but otherwise empty lead coffin off the coast of Panama, and is soon on the trail after the fabled city, which turns out not to be a golden city at all, but a large statue.
Picking up the trail from where a Nazi U-boat expedition failed horrendously–the crew mauled by some kind of animal–Nate ventures to an island in the Pacific with Elena. An old forgotten Spanish colony, the island is where the conquistadors brought Eldorado. After their plane is shot down, it’s a race to find the statue before some old creditors of Victor Sullivan get their hands on it.
Evidence emerges that Eldorado is cursed somehow. A ledger reveals that the statue was the last shipment the colony received, before Sir Francis set gunpowder to the town and sank the fleet in the harbour. A precautionary measure to keep people out, or keep something in? Deep in the catacombs, they find Francis Drake’s skeleton, his true final resting place, and are soon swarmed by a race of naked zombies who crawl around on all fours like possessed things.
In the end, the bad guys get the statue, which the leader of the expedition opens, only to find a rotten mummy within. Immediately, he turns into one of the zombies, attacking his own second-in-command in pure instinctual rage before he gets shot through the eyes. It turns out the number-two knew about this strange effect all along and was only waiting for a moment to steal the statue and sell its dark properties to the highest bidder. Nate grabs onto the statue as a chopper hauls it away and later fights the villain on the deck of his ship. The final blow is one of poetic justice: Nate knocks the statue overboard so the rope holding it wraps around his enemy’s leg, dragging him into the ocean along with it. You want your treasure? There, take it, pal.
A classic move similar to some I might have seen in movies such as Indiana Jones and National Treasure. Evil punished for its lust for wealth, so that it gets just what it wants, only too much of it, so that it is beaten to death in a shower of gold–like the villain in The Mask of Zorro. Why does this kind of ending prove, on wider inspection, to be such a key part of a good formula across so many narratives?
If you read Drake’s Fortune seriously enough, you discover that it dramatizes the problems associated with imperialism. In fact, I argue that the quasi-supernatural disease that underlies the golden idol of Eldorado is an expression of an anxiety about capitalism. Beneath the luxurious facade of the statue–the treasure par excellence that really did impel so many conquistadors to drive out the Aztecs and Inca and establish their own rule over South America–there lies the reality of exploitation and thievery. This unfairness and its accompanying guilt is expressed not directly, but through the metaphors of disease and zombie.
If capitalism finds a monstrous metaphor in the figure of the vampire–who sucks the blood of its subjects without producing any blood of its own, the same way the higher classes never work in production but exploit workers–then late capitalism, the socio-economic condition of our consumerist, postmodern society, finds an apt metaphor in the zombie, which is reduced to blind instinct and an appetite for brains. Brains are the very thing that make us human subjects and the zombie’s urge to consume becomes a metaphor for ‘the age of consumption.’
That such a potent symbol lies behind the gold facade of the statue that was supposedly Drake’s fortune, should be read as highly suggestive.
The Spanish colony being destroyed by the zombie virus further suggests how colonialism, and capitalism more generally, are not sustainable practices. The acquisitiveness of the Spanish–and Sir Francis Drake’s crew–results in their own undoing, their transformation into zombies. This sixteenth-century disaster finds a link to the modern-day phenomenon of neoimperialism in the arms dealer’s attempt to sell the statue in a black market auction. The zombie disease would have not only become a commodity, but a weapon. In a world where ‘Third World’ countries, frequently in turmoil, are exploited and impoverished by wealthier nations, Eldorado would have gone to the very mercenaries who maintain that instability through constant warfare.
On whether or not Drake’s Fortune is fantasy or at least scientifically plausible, it would all have to depend on whether the curse is scientifically explained. In fact, it is not given such an explanation in the game, although the various zombie films in recent years, such as I am Legend and World War Z, have provided now-famous scenarios of a rabies-like epidemics going rogue. Gamers are left, therefore, in an ambiguous state of mind in which science and the supernatural provide competing explanations. Whatever the case, the disease does make a certain moral point that makes such explanations unneeded.
Of course, to really decide on the extent of Drake’s Fortune‘s use of the fantastic, one would have to factor in awkward questions like whether ancient civilizations really had the technology and manpower to construct elaborate temples underground fitted with counterweights, rising platforms, and wall-climbing footholds simply for the purpose of constructing an enormous puzzle. Nate runs into these Legend of Zelda-style temples frequently in Tibet in Among Thieves and in the castles of Drake’sDeception. But the hidden question of who provided the labour to build these enormous buildings–slaves, perhaps?–is elided by the game’s need to make a complicated level.
Continuing on the thought of puzzles, it is worth noting that Uncharted, although filled with similarities to archaeological adventure fiction and the Indian Jones movies, is not so much about archaeology as treasure hunting and antiquities in general. The quests follow an ‘X marks the spot’ pattern rather than one of scientific excavation. All the temples are accessible above ground, even if they later lead to subterranean levels; there is nothing actually buried. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones does dig up the chamber where the Ark of the Covenant is kept, but even the fabled city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the Sands in Drake’s Deception, is accessible by a front door.
The ‘X marks the spot’ formula for an adventure story has a history. “The Gold-Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe tells how Mr. William Legrand, his black slave Jupiter, and his dog methodologically follow a trail of clues to the location of the buried treasure of Captain Kidd. Poe, while mostly known for his morbid first person narrations, is also credited as the inventor of the modern detective story, for example, in “Murder on the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” The same obsessive interest in signs and symbols that characterizes his detective stories leads Poe to develop the treasure-hunter story.
Legrand is bitten by a golden scarab beetle and might be going mad. He invites the narrator over so he can see his sketch of this scarab, but the narrator sees a human skull instead of a beetle. When the narrator returns some weeks later, Legrand leads him outside in search of buried treasure, and orders him to climb a tree, find a skull resting on a branch, and pass the scarab on a string through the skull’s eye. He uses the place where the scarab touches the ground as an indication of where to start digging. Legrand then elaborately begins to describe how he knew that treasure was buried there. In an extended retrospective speech, he describes how he heated the parchment with the sketch on it because he suspected the skull the narrator saw was a sign of a pirate’s treasure map. He discovers a code written on the parchment and deciphers it step-by-step in one of the first examples of a cryptogram in literature.
The resulting paragraph is still a cypher: “A good glass in the bishop’s hostel in the devil’s seat forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north main branch seven limb east side shoot from the left eye of the death’s-head a bee-line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out” (95). Upon close analysis, these words are separated into sentences, and then the locations and angles are deciphered.
In this kind of story, maps, cyphers, and old texts hold the signs needed to locate treasure. The quest traces a horizontal line towards a goal, rather than a vertical line into the earth. It is this paradigm of sign interpretation that forms the basis of Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake’s searches after lost cities. Usually a main text, such as a diary of an explorer who has gone before–whether Henry Jones’ Grail diary, or Sir Francis Drake’s lost journal–supplements a map and some kind of key, like the Tibetan ritual dagger in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which can unlock special secret doors.
The interpretation of signs on these artefacts–scrawled symbols for example–add hints and clues to the location of the quester’s goals–but also enables the antagonist to steal the items needed to find the treasure. Such maps, journals, and keys almost become McGuffins–items around which the narrative revolves, with all the characters having their reasons for pursuing them. It is no surprise then that Uncharted and Indiana Jones contain not only a quest but a race.
This sense of competition runs strong in Among Thieves, in which Nate must discover Ximbala (aka Shangri-La), where the fabled and unspeakably powerful Cintimani Stone is kept, a legendary sapphire supposedly discovered by Marco Polo. Nate races against the sinister leader of a mercenary army–Zoren Lazarovic–who uses the instability caused by Tibet’s civil war to search for the powerful stone with brutality and impunity. The medieval past of Polo’s voyage becomes the path which Nate must follow through the chaotic world of modern urban warfare. Lazarovich wrecks a Tibetan city, slaughtering resistance fighters while searching for a certain temple that will lead to his goal. He later attacks a peaceful mountain village with a tank, in his extreme obsession to have what he wants.
“The quest for the Grail is not archaeology,” says Sean Connery, playing Henry Jones in The Last Crusade. “It’s a race against evil.” What begins as a simple quest to retrieve a valuable treasure becomes a race to prevent Lazarovic from becoming unstoppable. The Cintimani Stone lends whoever holds it the power to subdue all their enemies. An elderly German in the village, Carl Schaffer, tells Nate that Genghis Khan held a mere fragment of the stone and conquered all of Asia with it. The Nazis had been searching for it too, but Schaffer, seeing the power of the Stone, shot the SS who were trying to discover it. Lazarovic leaves a path of destruction in his wake, demolishing statues and flattening buildings–everything that stands in his way. Just when Nate feels like turning back from finding Ximbala, Schaffer, echoing Henry Jones, tells him he cannot simply walk away.
The archaeological themes fall away when the story becomes about good versus evil. Although Nate and his companions are thieves who work for various clients, they have no pretension of being archaeologists like Indiana Jones in the first place. They are not necessarily highly educated, although Nate does know Latin from his Catholic boarding school education. This sidesteps the problem of representing archaeology as a romantic profession. The quests in Uncharted are therefore “Gold-Bug”-style treasure hunts with pistols, rifles, and RPGs that retain the Jones movies’ themes about evil’s lust for power, wealth, and dominance.
Whether Nazis, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, Communists, as in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, or the arms dealer in Drake’s Fortune, Lazarovich in Among Thieves, or the occult secret society in Drake’s Deception, evil represents the forces that seek too much power for themselves, who are willing to use objects considered sacred, cursed, powerful, or simply valuable for their own selfish and world-destroying ends.
There is a connection between antiquities and power expressed by these narratives. Something is being expressed about how society imagines history and the deep past–as a place of wonder and yet of danger. Cheering on Indy and Nate as they fight, we are hoping to preserve the past from those who would corrupt or destroy it. Archaeological adventure fictions symbolically resolve tensions about capitalism and imperialism, while imagining the defeat of the bugbears of history such as the Nazis, from ever claiming possession of the past.
In light of the recent advance of ISIS into Palmyra, the site of awe-inspiring Roman ruins, and their explosive demolition of the ancient cities of Babylon and Nimrod, I hope I am not alone in observing who the bugbears (the Nazis, the Commies, the Lazarovics, the Genghis Khans) of today are. Their so-called ‘caliphate’ is a real-life force bent on destroying the past. They wish to obliterate all memory of pre-Islamic antiquity, and have, like Lazarovic, brought ageless statues to dust, although they do it for the additional reason of abolishing idolatry. If only there could be a hero, we might pray, who can come around to stop them.
“Archaeology is the search for fact. Not truth. […] So forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. You do not follow maps to buried treasure and “X” never, ever, marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library. Research. Reading. We cannot afford to take mythology at face value.”
These words were rather hypocritically spoken by none other than Harrison Ford, in his role as Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, to a classroom of eager archaeology students. The funny thing about this speech is that it accurately describes the real study of archaeology, which has nothing to do with chasing Nazi caravans through the desert or running away from massive, rolling boulders. Yet the Indiana Jones series pretends to be about archaeology and the discovery of the past.
The romanticized view of the archaeologist tends to reduce the real work associated with the profession–including excavation, survey, applying for funding, and all that library time–to what amounts to a treasure hunt. A certain set of clues leads Jones to a particular location, where the Grail or the Ark awaits discovery. Rather than reading soil samples, Jones reads his father’s diary and the inscription of a knight’s shield, which tells him exactly where he has to go.
What this does is speed things up to the pace suitable for an action movie. It also makes the plot more linear. It eliminates any scientific processes that would stretch out a long search for an ancient city over months and years. In short, it makes the archaeologist’s journey into a quest instead of a complicated search for evidence.
Archaeological quests imply something else than the analysis of dry data. Quests bring the archaeologist into the search for truth, and not just fact. The cities they discover become more than remains scattered in a certain area of land; their job ceases to be about conducting empirical analyses of whatever they might find. It becomes a journey towards a specific goal. In The Last Crusade, that goal is none other than the Grail, a modern-day medieval romance, heavy with incident.
The Indiana Jones movies belong to the genre of ‘archaeological adventure’ that finds precedents in literary works. Published in Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, an anthology that republished some long-unknown pieces of fiction, A. Merritt’s novella “The Moon Pool” involves a band of scientific adventurers who attempt to map the ruins of a fallen Pacific Islands civilization, only to be haunted by a mysterious, supernatural force that eliminates the members of the expedition one by one. Merritt wrote in the early part of the century. Several of his works were turned into films in the 1930s.
The editors, Hartwell and Cramer, confirm in their description of the novella that “this kind of pulp fantasy is the source of such contemporary off-shoots as the current  Indiana Jones movies” (540). The novella creates an “aggressive blend of what we now call science fiction with the fantasy, using scientists and professionals to heighten the contrast between the scientific present and the magical past, mysterious and wonderful and very dangerous” (540).
Although the Jones movies do not emphasize science so much, the ‘science versus magic’ dichotomy reflects the contrast between Jones’s rigorous attention to fact in the classroom and his experience of the healing power of the supernatural Grail at the end of the film. Jones’ inner journey is towards what his father, Henry Jones, played by Sean Connery, calls “illumination.” A new faith that facts are not all what’s important.
Dr. Throckmartin, Merritt’s protagonist, encounters what appears to be the supernatural, but always finds a way to rationalize it, at least until the very end of the tale. The fantastic in Merrit is more dangerous here, however. Madness waits for Throckmartin if his rational faculties fail, if he lets himself be taken in by illusions.
A giant door opens to an inner temple–triggered only by the light of the moon. The natives claim that the ani, or spirit, opened it. But Throckmartin says, “The assertion of the natives that the ani had greatest power at this time might be a far-flung reflection of knowledge which had found ways to use forces contained in the moonlight, as we have found ways to utilize forces in the sun’s rays” (567). A mysterious sleep befalls the adventurers. But this might “have been some emanation from plants or gaseous emanations from the island itself” (567). The adventurers seek out scientific causes of the effects they must endure. They enact the kind of demystification of nature that Sir Francis Bacon outlines in his treatise on the Great Instauration: the depersonalizing of nature and the reduction of forces to matter that acts on other matter. Everything explained, no mysteries, and above all, nothing beyond or above natural causes.
“The Moon Pool” also illustrates certain themes of imperialism. Throckmartin’s request for white men to join his team rather than natives might appear racist to modern audiences; he justifies himself saying the white man is less superstitious. Scientific men who hold no irrational fears of haunted places make better workers. This dynamic of the archaeological adventure reflects the politics of imperialism, which accompanies enlightenment. The white man has science, while the natives are represented as ignorant animists who believe in spirits and carry prehistorical or medieval beliefs. Yet, the white man is at a certain disadvantage: he is ignorant of the dangerous secrets the island stores for him, while the natives are more familiar with these dangers–and are wise for avoiding them. The result is an encounter of the white man with the unknown supernatural other, a conflict that threatens to undermine the certainty of empirical discovery and rational explanation.
I would like to speculate that the imperialism of “The Moon Pool” is reflected to some extent in the Indiana Jones movies, in which a highly educated Western archaeologist–American no less– ‘discovers’ the secrets of the East, while the East remains incapable of discovering its own treasures. To an extent, I find this dynamic replicated in certain of Lord Dunsany’s Orientalist fantasies in The Book of Wonder, in which the object of wonder is usually a valuable gem or other glistening item that becomes a target for thieves. When Jones steals the golden idol at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, no one asks if he has the right to steal what the natives clearly worship and value. It seems like an act of American imperialism in the name of increasing the collections of Western museums.
Returning to the dialectical tension between science and magic in “The Moon Pool,” it is interesting to note how this dynamic strongly reflects one definition of fantasy that Brian Attebery provides in his essay “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” He suggests that fantasy might simply be the “meeting ground between empirical and traditional world views” (10). An older world (historical materialists would say, an earlier mode of production) meets the empirical, ‘rational,’ and capitalist present. The result is a conflict between the epistemologies and beliefs of ancient and modern societies, whose systems are thrown into conflicting simultaneity. The archaeologist does not unearth the past as a past, but encounters it in the present, where it can affect and change him.
The powers of the Grail and the Ark of the Covenant may not be explained away by Doctor Jones. But the continuity between the movies and this novella by Merritt is there, suggesting that there does exist an archaeological fiction genre, little named or acknowledged, that possesses a certain set of rules that distinguishes it from fantasy, historical fiction, and science fiction. The tension between conflicting epistemologies in this genre could make it a fascinating object to excavate and survey more deeply, as a way of discovering how they encode ideas about enlightenment and imperialism.
In the twenty-first century, there is one return to archaeological fiction that explores the dynamics of science and magic in popular culture: the Uncharted video game series. With its placing of importance on old diaries and maps, rather than on archaeological excavation, and given its obvious debt to the Jones movies, I would like to discuss aspects of this series next week. Also, I will speculate about how Edgar Allan Poe may have influenced this genre since its inception, in one of his short stories, “The Gold-Bug.”
Continued next week.
Attebery, Brian. “The Politics (If Any) of Fantasy.” Modes of the Fantastic. Ed. Robert A. Lantham and Robert A. Collins. Westport: Greenwood, 1995.
Hartwell, David and Kathryn Cramer. “The Moon Pool.” Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Script. Courtesy: dailyscript.com.