Lara Croft

Like Snow for Eskimos: The Zen of Archaeology

There’s this funny thing about archaeology.

Like astronaut or first female/gay/deaf/alien (fill in the underrepresented blank as you wish) American President, archaeology seems to attract more than its share of would-be practioners.

Even people you’d never expect. Famous people.


Ben Stiller, Daniel Radcliffe, and Megan Fox are just some of the Hollywood A-Listers who’ve gone public with childhood dreams (or future hopes) of becoming an archaeologist.

And they don’t mean onscreen. Fox reportedly passed on the chance to play the “new’’ Lara Croft in a 2010 Tomb Raider revival.

It’s ironic, really.  Because Hollywood aside, field archaeology is < 1% adrenaline rush.  Golden idols are tough to come by, and the closest thing to a weapon most of us bring onsite  is a sturdy pickaxe, wielded – if at all – against bone-jarring earth and rock.

Apologies for all the bubbles I just burst, but truth must be told.

Unless you’re reading from a script next to Harrison Ford or Angelina Jolie, should you find yourself on an archaeological site someday, take it from me:  It will be some of the hardest work you’ll ever do. It’s a unique mind-body balance, where physical and intellectual efforts oddly align.

And it will be boring.

But it’s a one-off, switched-on, slow-burn kind of boring.  Baking patiently in the sun, bent over a shovel or on your knees, scraping soil in noisy but even layers. Watching and waiting for minute color shifts to hold against your Munsell Chart (the archaeologist’s version of Pantone color chips – just heavier on the browns).

You’d be amazed at the hairsplitting distinctions to be made between shades of dirt.  And textures.

Like snow for Eskimos.

Sipping from a water bottle gone melty hot.  Soporific. But sustained by all kinds of unexpected thoughts about what we do in life, and why we do it.  Sharpened by the mix of hard graft, mental focus, heat, and glare.

Methodical and mindful attention to the little patch of earth in front of you is the baseline requirement for good, responsible archaeology.

‘Responsible’ because archaeology is always destructive, no matter how carefully you do it.  You take something out of the ground and you can’t ever put it back as it was.  So you’d darn well better take careful notes and good photographs.  Make maps, collect soil samples, create cryptograms – whatever you need – to document what you find as you go, along with the context in which you found it:  What else was there? Above or below it? Was it placed deliberately, or carelessly dropped, on its own or with a whole heap of other trash?

Because once you take it out, that context is gone.  Forever.  And you’ve got just a pile of stuff in bags and boxes to be washed and labelled.  Mostly broken, mainly ugly.

Other people’s trash. But precious clues to the people who used them in daily lives we would glimpse through them.

And so the stakes only grow from there, in the phase where we fit together the bits and pieces we’ve taken from earthen patches we’ve so painstakingly disarticulated.

We’ve collected artifacts, but mostly, we’ve gathered reams of data to be crunched and compared to what others have found. To be pored over alongside library and museum collections, seeking clues in discoveries others have made, to help us weave it all into a coherent and compelling – however tiny – chapter in our shared human history.

And this is where the good part kicks in. Sadly, it takes place long after Hollywood’s cameras would have stopped rolling.  It’s a shame, really, because let’s be honest: knowing where we’ve been is the only way to chart a mindful course for our future. This applies in the collective sense to the cultures that archaeologists study, but also to our individual journeys through this thing called life.

So on this Day of Archaeology, as you think about what interests you most about those who’ve gone before in this journey, think about what you’dlike to be remembered for.

It’s all there in the record of human life: the one already made, and the one we create a bit more each day, just by going about our daily lives.

No Hollywood spin needed.

Thoughts of an Aspiring Archaeologist

I often feel like I missed my true calling as an archaeologist. Despite being attracted to archaeology and ancient civilizations from an early age, I was dissuaded from a career in archaeology by teachers who warned me that there was no future in studying the past. It’s too late to turn back the clock but I haven’t let this deter me from pursuing my passion, albeit alongside a full-time job and other commitments.

Much of my spare time is spent on reading books, blogs and articles on Chinese archaeology, ancient Egypt and Pre-Columbian civilizations or on writing new posts for my blog, The Archaeology of Tomb Raider, which looks at the artefacts, sites and cultures featured in the Tomb Raider video game series. Whilst Lara Croft’s exploits cannot be considered archaeology by any stretch of the imagination, I was surprised to find out that many Tomb Raider fans are actually interested in learning more about the historicity of the places and characters that appear in the games. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to combine my own personal interest in archaeology with my love of the Tomb Raider series and my passion for lifelong learning…and, thus, The Archaeology of Tomb Raider blog was born. Whoever said video games can’t be educational? 😉

I will be spend this year’s Day of Archaeology doing pretty much what I do every day: keeping up to date on the latest archaeological discoveries, sharing articles and educational resources on Twitter and Facebook, conducting background research for future blog posts (I’m currently reading up on Minoan art for an upcoming feature), working through a self-study course on Egyptian hieroglyphs, and networking with archaeologists and historians from around the world. Even though a career in archaeology will most likely remain an unfulfilled dream, it’s comforting to know that there are still many, many ways for me to fit archaeology into my life. I might not ever take part in a dig or discover some long-lost civilization but with so much to learn and think about in my spare time, I can’t really complain.

Now, back to Minoan art…

Kelly M

Twitter: @TRArchaeology

Loot Busters

What can we do about looting? Lots of people like to theorise, but I tend to prefer to be more practical.
I used to work on field projects, trying to prevent looting of archaeological sites on the ground. Partly because one project in Central Asia went very wrong – several archaeologists died, I was treated for PTSD – and partly because I realised that it was futile to try to police every square inch of land, often in war zones, I decided to try another approach.
Rather than trying to stop looting often done by poor people desperate to feed their families, I decided to try to identify the material and “burn” it at the art market, in effect prevent it from being fenced. My theory is that most (not all) art dealers and collectors are basically scrupulous people, who want to be able to collect but do not support looting.
So I came up with a very simple solution – to create a web site where all the material reported stolen could be listed and therefore identified. It sounds obvious, but no-one has done it before.  Rather than giving the site a long academic name I went for the catchier “Loot Busters” (and yes, it has been hard to resist adding the Ghostbusters theme tune to the web site):
Does it work? Surprisingly, yes. And most dealers are thrilled with the project, as it means they can identify the dodgy pieces. (Okay, a few are not happy with it). I keep thinking that, for example, Nazi loot has mostly been found by now, but a few weeks ago whilst going through the database of material stolen from Poland I noticed an 18th century piece which I happened to know was in a collection in London. Ditto a Venetian painting reported stolen by the Italians I’d seen with a London art dealer. And we’ve even found some antiquities!
There are various databases already of looted art, but most concentrate on one area – for example the exemplary Turkish Ministry of Culture web site which lists stolen Turkish material – or are hard to use. The Interpol Database only makes a couple of hundred of recently stolen items available to the public. The Art Loss Register makes no material available to unregistered users, and charges a great deal for searches – an academic wanting to look up a piece they spotted somewhere and think it stolen is unlikely to pay to check …  The Carabinieri Database is unwieldy, with very hard to use search parameters and more often than not returns this message:
These days there seem to the thousands of people working on cultural property, and dozens of conferences a year. Honestly, I don’t go to any of them – I hate theorising, and prefer practical projects.
I also don’t like the “gotcha” attitude of a lot of people who theorise about looting, so when Loot Busters find a looted piece we tell both the representative of the country from which it was stolen and whoever has it (dealer, collector or museum), so that they can sort it out – we also have a policy of confidentiality, so we can’t boast about our successes … sometimes frustrating, but keeping a low profile and letting whoever is returning the item take the credit works better in the long term.
This week I’ve been busy updating the web site, so it’s all sitting at the computer loading photos and typing … Plus we should send out another newsletter soon, so I’ll be working on that this week-end.
Most archaeologists’ main concern when it come to looting is Syria at the moment. We keep hearing reports of looting, but little precise information about pieces looted. We’ve posted photos of material that has been reported missing. Damascus Museum seems to be untouched, thank goodness, but Homs, Hama and Apamea have suffered badly. I found photos of the Hama and Apamea Museums on a web site, and the photographer, Dick Osseman, has kindly allowed us to re-post them.
This mosaic from Hama Museum is extraordinary, and pretty unique in showing women playing musical instruments – so it should be pretty easy to identify if it appears on the art market:
I’ve also been busy this week re-posting images from the Carabinieri Database of material stolen from Italy. It’s going a little slowly as I am trying to sort the material as I go into categories, and then sometimes I break them down further, but the material I’ve added can be accessed through the index here (lots more coming soon):
Some of the stolen material is so generic I doubt it will ever be possible to identify it (other material I wonder why anyone bothered to steal it, as the financial value probably won’t justify the crime). Other pieces, such as the mosaic above, is extraordinary – I was at a conference in Copenhagen in early May and several of the archaeologists were amazed at some of the stolen material, which they didn’t know about.
This Roman relief depicting a theatrical performance on the upper level and a horse race in a Circus below is pretty unique and would be easy to identify on the art market (see:
I try to make people aware of the more important pieces, so I often beg David Meadows to blog about pieces on his fabulous blog Rogue Classicism, which is on every archaeologist and Classicist’s must-read list. I’m hoping that he’ll blog this relief soon, just as he blogged this stolen Afghan glass vessel with a relief depiction of the Pharos of Alexandria (here):
I tend to downplay the excitement of dealing with looting and looted antiquities – it ain’t nothing like Lara Croft – because most of it is research rather than swinging from vines. One of the things I do love is going through the material and coming across items I probably would have missed, or which bear witness to history. This gold fibula, for example, can be very precisely dated to AD 306-7 by it’s inscription, and was owned by a supporter of Constantine in the years before he became the sole ruler of the empire (
This week has been quiet, just sitting at a computer, loading up information. Sometimes things are more exciting, for example when we find a looted item and trying amicably negotiate its return. I know collectors come in for a lot of criticism for buying looted antiquities, as do auction houses and dealers for selling them, but my experience has been that the vast majority of them co-operate when they are told they have looted items, and go out of their way to help.

Dorothy King’s Day …

I grew up watching the Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark movies. Then later came Lara Croft the Tomb Raider – Lloyd Levin is an amazing film-maker and storyteller, but I’m sure he wouldn’t pretend they have anything to do with reality* … and the ‘reality’ of archaeologists’ days is what The Day of Archaeology is about.

We know that digging up old tombs has been going on forever – the Abbott Papyrus in the British Museum deals with tomb looters, and several Roman legal texts deal with the looting of tombs and sanctuaries. In the Medieval period Western Europeans thought the ground mummies were a magic cure-all, so there first developed a thriving trade in real mummies being bug up and shipped, and then mummy faking in Egypt (the Muslims were slightly repulsed by this European penchant for cannibalism, but if Francois I of France wanted to wear a purse with ground mummy around his neck for emergencies, then they were happy to take his cash)+. The ancient Egyptians were looking for loot to sell off for cash, the Romans were more interested in collecting. Collecting and archaeology went hand in hand for much of the modern period, with excavations undertaken in Rome during the Renaissance, then around the bay of Naples in the 18th century, as much to find relics of the past as to understand it. Nowadays archaeologist hunting for relics and tomb raiding in the manner of Indie and Lara is frowned upon.

I first ‘dug’ in the summer of 1981. My brother had just been born and I was sent to cousins in the country. Aged 8, I got them to excavate their garden and our ‘finds’ are now in the storeroom of the local museum. (At French schools, we had learnt about the Gauls and Romans, so this seemed normal). My first ‘real’ dig was at Sparta, where the team worked on the theatre. I’m still proudest of my personal find there: the remains of the Augustan theatre built into the foundations of the later stage buildings (I was meant to be drawing an elevation, tied away the ground to even it out at the bottom, and hey presto out popped some finely carved marble fragments). These days I have links with a few excavations, but tend not to dig day to day.

I had originally planned to study History of Art, but seriously fluffed my Courtauld interview due to pneumonia, so I thought I’d study Classics instead since that was the Renaissance education and would give me insight into their mind-set. I tried a few other jobs, but I did post-grad partly because I was raising my baby brother, and I’d managed to schedule my undergrad courses around his school runs, and a PhD seemed easier to work around that than a job at an investment bank. I’ll never make as much money at archaeology as I would have at Fleming’s but I love what I do, and nobody that chooses to do archaeology can be all that interested in money. I did a post-doc at the ASCSA generously funded by the Onassis Foundation, then went on from there.

The two themes of many of the posts that make up The Day of Archaeology seem to be about emails / paperwork and children. I managed to combine the two this morning thanks to my trusty Blackberry, without which I couldn’t have answered hundreds of emails from colleagues (academics love to cc each other) about a few exhibitions that might or might not happen in the future, working with three museums on two continents. I also love Twitter ( and last night, for example, ended up discussing women gladiators with and Other recent Twitter discussions have included annoyance at portraits of random women being labelled Cleopatra and assorted other topics.

The “children” part is that … this photo of me I took at lunchtime might suggest khakis and archaeology, but … the dirt is the result of dogs and children, and a nanny failing to turn up … although Ellie the Jack Russell is proving rather fond of “her” trowel …

I’ve been blogging for years, as it’s a handy way of sharing ideas and research, and the Blackberry is also handy for that: … I keep track of info through links, so that version of this post on my blog will have lots of links to others’ work. Maybe I should have followed the more traditional career path, but these days I am a Fellow of or on the Board of assorted projects / institutions.

The main project keeping me busy these days is trying to set up a database of looted archaeological material to help track antiquities that went missing in wars or the looting of sites or museums. At the moment photos of some objects are available various places, but there is no central place on the web where someone can look up an item they see and suspect is dodgy to see if anyone has reported it missing. Previous attempts to create such a database have failed, so this may all turn out to be a house of cards but I feel I have to give it a go. I’m talking to museums, universities, governments, law enforcement agencies, and we’ll be looking for volunteers to help with it – so if you want to get involved, just drop me a line.

Jesper Jensen and Peter Schulz have organised a conference in Copenhagen next May, and kindly invited me to speak, so I’m also working up my paper for it: Kings, Tombs and Ruler Cult Before Alexander: new evidence from Vergina and Caria. I’m re-examining the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus based on the monuments that copied it, and on the newly found sarcophagus in the Tomb of Hecatomnus his father at Mylasa. I also think I’ve identified Mausolus’ mother as a woman named ABA, based on an inscription.

So anyway, that’s my day of archaeology on a typical summer holiday day … dogs, children, answering emails, chatting with colleagues, trying to do some research, trying to get people to collaborate on projects – no tomb raiding or fighting Nazis.

Dorothy King

* = I was thrilled to read that not only does Michigan State grad student Kathryn M. Meyers blog at Bones Don’t Lie, but she also works on video games to make the archaeologists more “real” … (if she’s interested in research, I’ve done high kicks in four inch wedges, so that bit is very possible)
+ = I wrote more about the mummy trade in my 2006 book, The Elgin Marbles

Gaming in Archaeology

Today for me is probably not what you would call a typical archaeologist’s day; although it has become quite typical for me. I’m the head video game designer on the project Red Land Black Land. The game we are designing is a modification of Sid Meier’s Civilization V and is going to serve as an educational game about the development of Ancient Egypt. The game has an archaeological spin to it, in that we are modifying the advisors to be archaeologists instead of economists, diplomats or scientists.

Today I’m primarily working on the development of dialogue and content to the game. Instead of making witty remarks and pithy banter, the characters will have historically and archaeologically accurate facts to teach the players. Every word that comes from the advisors is based on archaeological, historical, or textual evidence. The work itself is actual quite similar to trying to prepare to do any fieldwork or analysis of Ancient Egypt, except instead of applying this knowledge to create questions for fieldwork I am developing questions that players can explore in the game.

Archaeology has had a bumpy relationship with video games. Characters like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft play on stereotypes that we as archaeologists have worked so hard to dispel. Through mainstream video games, the archaeologist is akin to an imperial looter, stealing from ‘primitive’ cultures and disregarding any from of academic or scientific process. Its not like Dr. Jones took the time to take careful notes on the provenience of the golden idol before having to make a mad dash out of the tomb. By creating accessible and most importantly fun video games that accurately represent archaeology and the process of interpreting the past we can help to create a better public understanding of what we do.

But the digital archaeologist/video game designer is only a third of who I am. For my mortuary archaeology, check out my site Bones Don’t Lie, and for public archaeology check out MSU Campus Archaeology


[Image from Flikr user Marta Manso and used under Creative Commons License]