“Spooky Archaeology: Myth and Science of the Past” by Jeb J. Card. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2018. 424 pages, $70 (hardcover).
Not too many fields of study are as romanticized as archaeology. It wouldn’t be an “Indiana Jones” movie without an archeologist, and an accountant would never work as the lead in “The Mummy.” No, for a sense of the mysterious, Hollywood knows it has to be an archaeologist. And yet why is this? Ask anyone who has ever worked on an archaeological site and they would tell you it is hard, tedious work. Archaeologists can get excited by the smallest of things, an ash layer, a spear point or bits of broken pottery. These are the real finds, the bits and pieces of past lives left behind for us to find and hold as we try to see the past world and the people who lived in it.
Jeb Card’s book “Spooky Archaeology” is an excellent look at why we have romanticized this one science more than other field of study. Even in today’s computerized world, legends still exist. Many in Iceland believe in elves, to the extent that some building projects are reworked or even canceled so as not to disturb the creatures. Ghost-hunting shows remain popular in America. We still enjoy a good story about our past and archaeology is how we relate to that past. Therefore, it is romanticized and thus linked to our willingness to believe in things magical.
In “Spooky Archaeology,” Card does an outstanding job of tracing the rise of archaeology as a scientific method in the Victorian era, similar to the appearance of great horror and mystery writers such as Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood and their use of the fictional archaeologist pulp culture. Even as the early professional archaeologists were attempting to explain in a natural way the remains of ancient peoples, these writers were using archaeology as a way to uncover secret magical knowledge from the mystical past.
As “Spooky Archaeology” shows, many of today’s popular fantasy tales like those of the Holy Grail or Pandora’s box or Atlantis were becoming popular at this time. In many ways, this was a reaction by the Victorians to the new scientific authority. The science of archaeology may have grown away from the fanciful worlds envisioned by the Victorians, but these ideas and images have haunted popular culture and the popular image of the archaeologist ever since.
Card’s book illustrates this very well with a 2011 newspaper article that appeared in the Belfast Telegraph and asked if the ruin of Sean Quinn, Ireland’s richest man, was the result of a curse brought on by Quinn’s disturbance of a Neolithic site. People continue to be drawn to the romantic notion of a past time of secret knowledge, ancient curses and forgotten power even as archaeological evidence shows a much more common view of the past.
Other examples of this from “Spooky Archaeology” are the many sites from the English countryside like Stonehenge, the Tor of Glastonbury and Salisbury, which are credited worldwide with being everything from portals to the fairy world to proof of UFOs or the work of secret magical societies. Those sites have always had a folklore of their own that not only remained popular after archaeologists began looking at them, but often grew and became more fantastic. As professional archaeologists made new scientific discoveries, the occultist began to cherry-pick from the facts and used them as independent proof of the myths and legends they believed. As Card’s work points out, this is often the case because archaeology itself has deep roots reaching into the ground of folklore.
Another reason for the connection between the professional archaeologist and the adventurers is that some archaeologists have blended the mystical and occult with their own studies, thus blurring the line between the two. A study from the 1990s showed that many archaeologists still used dowsing as a way to find objects or building features such as walls. The idea that there was or is some lost knowledge can be traced back in Europe to the ancient Greeks, making it a hard habit to break, but this trope is not limited to Europe. From Card’s own archaeological research, which focuses in Mesoamerica, he understands how strong the image of a lost civilization can be. A lost civilization is simply a hole in history, a little bit of the collective history of humanity that was overlooked for a while. The pull of the unknown, be it of a place, like a blank area on a map or lost knowledge, is easily envisioned when uncovering artifacts.
This book fully shows that all cultures have a tradition of folklore, magic and mystery when looking at their past. These roots are universal, reaching from past to present. However, none are more recognizable as those of Egypt. Ancient Egyptian imagery can be found on both ancient Greek and ancient Roman amulets. The Renaissance kept the tradition alive and it continues to exist outside of mainstream archaeology to this day. Egyptian images have become the most common in our popular culture, where myth and archeology meet.
“Spooky Archaeology” follows the use of hieroglyphs from the ancient world all the way to the supposedly hieroglyphic writing on crashed UFOs. Card follows the rise of the Egyptian curse, pointing out that our popular stereotypes of archaeologists owe much to Universal Studio’s 1932 horror classic “The Mummy.” The real archaeology behind the imaginary world of that movie is an excellent example of how history and mystery mix. Boris Karloff’s mummy makeup may even have been inspired by actual mummies housed in the Cairo Museum, showing that while “The Mummy” may have become a stereotype, it willingly attempted to represent a sense of the true archaeological practices from that era.
In turn, “Spooky Archaeology” states that many of today’s museums create Egyptian exhibits to resemble the “Mummy” movies. The lore of the mummy’s curse is a collaboration between the ancient myths of Egypt, the silver screen, popular writers such as Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, the media of the 1900s and a little dish of real archaeology.
No book on the mystical side of history and archaeology would be complete without a look at, or should I say for, Atlantis. The chapter on the creation of a lost continent mythos is as good as any movie plot involving adventurers, novelists, archaeologists, forgers and more than a few questionable artifacts and museums. Real or fake, the final resting place for many artifacts is of course a museum. Museums, especially archaeological displays of museums, are often credited with paranormal qualities.
Spiritualist, occultist and paranormal investigators all began to move into the neighborhoods around the British Museum in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As late as 2011, museums were still playing on similar trends: The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology held a paranormal investigation of its galleries. The event was called “We See Dead People” and included the use of “ghost hunting” equipment and psychics. The same museum also mixed movie props and fictional artifacts with real artifacts for the Indiana Jones exhibit. So, can it really be that odd that a sense of mystery and adventure still is associated with archaeology?
This is just a fun book. What else can be said? It’s an outstandingly interesting subject, which has been well thought out by Card, excellently researched and very well written. It’s educational and entertaining. It takes the reader on an adventure full of professional archaeologists as well as shady characters, mysterious inscriptions, haunted museums, magical places and to continents that never were. It has magic and mystery and murder; truly it’s no wonder pulp writers and Hollywood directors still use archaeology as a starting point for their stories.
– Reviewed by Lyrae Borders of Glasgow.