Indiana Jones must retire: Archaeology, imperialism and fashion in the digital age

Indiana Jones must retire: Archaeology, imperialism and fashion in the digital age

As Eminem would say: “Guess who’s back? Back again? Indy’s back! Tell a friend!” Indeed, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford have announced that a fifth film will soon be added to the Indiana Jones franchise. Details of the plot have not been released yet, but we know that Ford will then be a 77-years old white, male, American “Professor of Archaeology, expert on the occult, and how does one say it… obtainer of rare antiquities” in charge of saving the world from yet another “exotic” evil. According to Disney Chairman Alan Horn, “Indiana Jones is one of the greatest heroes in cinematic history, and we can’t wait to bring him back to the screen in 2019”. If you say so.

Indiana Jones has been – and still is – both a blessing and a curse for the fields of archaeology and ancient history. A blessing because it has served for more than a generation as a misleading yet efficient passion-trigger for all things related to Antiquity. I was 3 years old when the first installment of the Indiana Jones franchise came out. I still remember vividly the feeling of utter amazement I experienced when, a few years later, I watched on tv Harrison Ford’s tanned, beige-dressed character “find” the “Lost Ark”. There was something about the ancientness and mystical sacredness of Steven Spielberg’s sandy Middle East – that is, his totally Orientalist depiction of the region, but the child version of myself could not grasp that just yet – that bemused me. Fifteen years after The Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, I saw a dubbed version of The English Patient at a movie theater in Québec city. The experience led to my only true actor crush (apart from Idris Elba, but he doesn’t really count for he is kind of a universal crush). I thought that Count Almásy (aka Ralph Fiennes with a tan and Enrique Iglesias’ sad dog eyes) was so sexy, all the more so since he seemed to have survived all his adventures, desert “explorations” and love tragedies by holding on to a worn-out copy of Herodotus’ Histories, which he made a point of casually reading and quoting pretty much any time he had a chance to. Indiana Jones and Count Almásy.

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Figure 1: The English Patient’s Count Almásy with his copy of Herodotus’ Book II

Two white, male explorers in the 1930s and 40s “Orient”. One American boosted with testosterone-fuelled heroism and on the “right” (that is, American) side of history. The other, a European forced to work with the evil Nazis in order to save the love of his life. The latter’s fate, and therefore the more dramatic nature of the story on which Michael Oondatje’s novel then Anthony Minghella’s movie are based, must explain why he, contrary to Indiana Jones, never made it in the mainstream as the archetype archaeologist.

How many times have I heard questions like “You work on Egypt? So you do like Indiana Jones?” It can be hard for scholars working in the field to not meet these topoi with an eye-roll. In general, the view is that they show how the “masses” don’t understand nor appreciate what we, highly educated and overworked nerds, do. But don’t they, really? Or to put the question differently: To what extent have archaeology at large, and Egyptology and the Classics more specifically, themselves contributed to the creation and ongoing popularity of the Indiana Jones archetype?

Whether we like it or not, Egyptology, Classics, and archaeology are products of the colonial context that characterized late 19th and early 20th centuries European and North American scholarship. As such, they were put to the service of European and American empires, whose élites have been legitimizing their dominion and “civilizing” mission through a complex array of historicized identity constructs, starting from the still conspicuous Us/West/Graeco-Roman vs Them/East/Orient paradigm[2]. As a result, most high school and university curricula are still comfortably reproducing colonial ways of conceiving and performing historical, philological, and archaeological work. To paint the situation with bold strokes: Generally speaking (I exaggerate, but just a little), the “Greeks” and the “Romans” are still portrayed as the ancestors of the “West”; philological knowledge (and the mastery of Greek and Latin in the case of Classics) is deemed essential, followed (in decreasing order) by literature-based historical knowledge and the mastery of material – that is unwritten – evidence; despite the increasing anglicization of the field, scholars are expected to master the four European languages that dominated 19th and 20th geopolitics and academia (English, German, French and Italian); in formerly colonized countries, power dynamics and the division of labour/living conditions between foreign “researchers” and native “workers” have not evolved much since the late 19th century[3]. In the classroom, besides ancient Greece and Rome, Mesopotamia pops up in some survey courses because this is where agriculture and writing were invented, so it’s kind of a must. Mesopotamia’s close contender, “eternal” Egypt, remains the utmost exotic of all ancient civilizations, and a temporary source of obsession for almost every child (in some cases, this phase never dies out and some of the children in question go on to study Egyptology or, for lack of it, Classics). As for the many other peoples and cultures that made up the ancient Mediterranean world, they tend to be, depending on the level and institution, superficially brushed over, confined to the “enemy” (the Persians, Carthaginians, Gauls, Parthians/Sassanians) role, or simply ignored. Such dynamics surely explain, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, why, beyond the 1st year survey classroom, Classics remain overwhelmingly white.

Another issue, which partly stems from the previous one, is the quasi-absence of compulsory training in post-colonial theory at the undergraduate and graduate levels. As a result, apart from a few exceptions that tend not to make it to the mainstream, scholarship on the ancient Mediterranean and Near East is most often conservative-to-belatedly-trendy in its theoretical and methodological approaches. This is especially true of Egyptology and Classics. When scholars venture out of the beaten tracks and produce what is, within their specific field, an innovative work, they most often capitalize on what has been done many years before in other disciplines within the Humanities and Social Sciences[5]. There are, of course, exceptions (for instance, the digital work done by papyrologists, which started over 3 decades before the “digital Humanities” became a thing). But more often than not, full-on innovation and transdisciplinary conversations that venture beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries still tend to be met with resistance.

The same can be said when it comes to real, thorough, self-critical engagement with the roots, history, and current ethical challenges faced by the disciplines that focus on the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world. Instead, there is a tendency to worship the “good old days”, those when a small group of mostly white, male scholars trained in the most exclusive academic institutions of their time, could chat in Latin, recite all of Homer by heart while sipping whiskey at the faculty club, and confidently review the last opera they attended in a plethora of modern languages. While several of these early scholars were truly inspiring minds who did absorb and produce a formidable amount of knowledge (and while there is absolutely nothing wrong per se with sipping whiskey and enjoying good opera!), the time might be ripe to balance these heroic portraits by properly assessing and analyzing their often racist, imperialist, elitist, and therefore Orientalist conception of scholarship. Otherwise, we run the risk to fossilize ourselves in an outdated, Indiana Jonesque bubble, further and further away from the realities of the rest of academia, of our classrooms, and of today’s world.

The problem is, the Indiana Jones archetype sells very well and, accordingly, seasoning one’s public persona with a bit – or a hell of a lot – of Indy magic is a tempting self-promotional strategy for archaeologists in need of funding, attention, or both. It is also one that, alas, contributes to perpetuate the imperialist stereotypes associated with the “explorer” and the places/periods that are subject to his/her “exploration”.

The open affection of many American archaeologists for Indiana Jones’ characters is such that in 2008, the AIA awarded Harrison Ford the Bandelier Award for Public Service in Archaeology. The announcement was made a few days before the première of the 4th installment of the franchise:

“”Harrison Ford has played a significant role in stimulating the public’s interest in archaeological exploration,” said Brian Rose, President of the AIA. “We are all delighted that he has agreed to join the AIA’s Governing Board.””

In the video issued by the AIA, a few archaeologists go on to emphasize how Indiana Jones contributed to initiate young people to archaeology and, in many cases, encourage them to turn their newly found passion into a subject of study, if not a career. The video mixes shots of scholars with scenes from the Indiana Jones movies. We notably see Indy walking in a thick jungle, Indy facing an Arab mob (clearly recognizable because they wear gallabeyas and turbans; the badest of the bad guys is dressed in black and holds a spear); a turban-clad, alla Lawrence of Arabia Indy doing some magic on the replica of an Egyptian temple. In his pre-recorded thank-you speech, Ford confesses that “it is quite disarming to see that the Indiana Jones films have been an inspiration to archaeologists”. Judging from his facial expression, he seems honored, yes, but perhaps also slightly amused, if not uncomfortable to see the character he played lauded by the USA’s main archaeological association. In her book Lives in Ruins, Marilyn Johnson sums up the relationship she’s observed between American archaeologists and Indiana Jones in those words:

“Every archaeologist I interviewed worked Indiana Jones into the conversation, usually with affection, as if mentioning a daredevil older brother. Wherever they happened to stride, archaeologists absorbed his swagger. Grant Gilmore told me, “It’s tongue-in-cheek, but if you scratch any archaeologist, deep down inside they want to be him, one way or another”. Battered Indy-style hats bobs across the archaeological landscape, among the bandannas and keffiyehs (Arab head wraps) and baseball caps. Archaeology departments costume parties double as Indiana Jones conventions. “For whatever reason”, one female grad student confided, “the guys all own fedoras and whips”.” (Johnson 2014, 129)

Nowhere on the AIA site or in the video do we find an acknowledgement of – or distancing from – the utterly Orientalist and at times racist and sexist tone of the Indiana Jones movies. Nowhere does the AIA fully reconcile its decision to celebrate that Indy did indeed make 1930s-style archaeology more widely known and popular with the fact that it also helped spread an utterly inaccurate and highly colonial image of the discipline as well as of several non-white communities (including some that have been increasingly marginalized and stigmatized in the USA since 2001– Indigenous, Arabs, South Asians, Muslims). As much as one could argue that I lack humor and that this award should be taken with a witty detachment, it is hard not to also see it as a vivid testimony of the still highly white, male, and, whether we like it or not, colonial nature of American archaeology.

What about Indy’s fate beyond the USA?

The most famous case is no doubt Dr Zahi Hawass. The former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities has been astutely portraying himself as the Egyptian Indiana Jones for years, to the delight of all the Discovery Channels of the world and of his fan base worldwide. Given the unmistakably colonial nature of Indiana Jones’ outfit, one can but marvel at the ironic genius through which it was appropriated by an (US-trained) Egyptian Egyptologist, all the more so one as powerful as Dr Hawass. An article published in a 2009 issue of the New Yorker describes his public persona in those terms:

“Hawass’s brusque manner does not make him a natural television personality, but he has the keys to the country, and has no objection to seeing himself—an Egyptian politician with a formidable management style—reflected in the Western media as Indiana Jones. He makes an astute trade: access for attention. He can make the red tape fall away, and, in return, television tells a story of Egyptian Egyptology.”

Dr Hawass has, indeed, a true understanding of what western – and especially American – audiences want to hear and see about ancient Egypt, and he is excellent at using his position of authority and personal charisma to both educate them and comfort them in their fantasies whenever he is on outreach duty (which is, still today, very often). His regular interventions in western media have no doubt contributed, at least until the 2011 Revolution, to swell the already large number of western tourists travelling to (and spending money in) Egypt. Given that the Ministry of Antiquities’ budget comes in large part from the entrance fees paid by visitors to Egypt’s museums and archaeological sites, his strategy, which has been decried openly or behind closed doors as too mercantile, makes sense financially speaking.

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Figure 2: Dr Zahi Hawass at Giza

Dr Hawass also used his iconic Stetson hat and Indiana Jonesque look for philanthropic purposes. While exiting the Toronto leg of the touring The Discovery of King Tut exhibit in 2009, I was stunned to see Zahi Hawass-style hats sold in the gift shop. The success of the initiative was such that a new series of hats have been produced recently, as this witty post from Dr Hawass’ website reveals:

“People ask me all the time, Why is your hat more famous than Indiana Jones’s hat? I always answer them that the Indiana Jones hat is a fake one, mine is the real Egyptologist’s hat!

Replicas of my hat were sold by a company before, and all the profits from selling the hat went into the construction of the Children’s Museum in Cairo. Now, King Tut Tours are making a new replica of the hat, the profits from its sale will go directly as donations for Al-Orman Cancer Hospital in Luxor, the first hospital for treating cancer patients in Upper Egypt.”

Sold 75 US $ each, the USA-made hats can be bought online via the website of King Tut Tours – a California-based travel agency specializing, as its name indicates, on Egypt. Dr Hawass’ fashion venture did not stop with his hat. Indeed, in the spring 2011, an article from The New York Times detailed how Dr Hawass had lent his name to a man’s wear brand that was scheduled to go on sale at Harrods’, in London:

“[A] line of rugged khakis, denim shirts and carefully worn leather jackets that are meant, according to the catalog copy, to hark “back to Egypt’s golden age of discovery in the early 20th century.”

“Zahi Hawass is a novel fashion line, not just for the traveling man, but the man who values self-discovery, historicism and adventure,” says the Web site for the company that designed the line.”

In this case too, the profits are said to have gone to charity[14]. According to James Weber, who shot the line’s glossy ad campaign, the photo shoot took place in the Fall 2010 on the NYC site of the King Tut exhibit. Weber published the ad’s pictures on his blog – including one featuring a young, white, Indiana Jones-looking male model seated on what looks like one of the gilded chairs that belong to the royal treasure of Tutankhamun. The translation of the blog’s content and its publication, along with the pictures, on several Egyptian websites, led to a wave of critics in Egypt. A group of activists and journalists also sought to have Dr Hawass prosecuted for “endangering Egyptian artifacts”. Dr Hawass refuted these accusations in a statement published on his blog, and stated that the chair was a replica[17]. This controversy happened shortly after the Egyptian Revolution, that is at a time when many of the high officials in position under Mubarak’s rule were under intense scrutiny, if not accused of abuse of power. The time also corresponds to the short period during which there was a relatively open freedom of press in the country. Given that, the negative reaction to Dr Hawass’ clothing line ad in Egypt might also be symptomatic of a local discomfort with, if not resistance to, Dr Hawass’ flamboyant strategy for the promotion and the financing of ancient Egypt’s heritage abroad. In mid-2011, that is a few months after the clothing line scandal, Zahi Hawass left the Ministry of Antiquities. He nevertheless remains very active as a public speaker and ambassador of Egypt’s ancient history, as his personal website and presence of most social media platforms show.

To come back to Zahi Hawass’ short-lived fashion venture: Who is the target audience for these clothes? The two passages from the catalogue quoted above are telling. The line is, it is said, meant to reference Egypt’s “golden age of discovery in the early 20th century”[18] and should therefore appeal to the “traveling man who values self-discovery, historicism and adventure” is. Who could such a man be?

What about those who, among the western archaeologists working in Egypt, have a particular taste for early 20th century, colonial-style attires, both on and off the field? You thought pith helmets – one of the most easily recognizable symbols of British colonial might – 1930s gaits, and Crocodile Dundee-esque outfits were a thing of the pre-Nasser past? Well, you’re wrong. Not only are such outfits still deemed acceptable by many western archaeologists, but some of them also willingly advertise their “vintage” tastes on social media. One such Instagram account, which is managed by an academic, transports us in the realm of The Great Gatsby meets The English Patient. The numerous hashtags added to the images’ captions include #archaeology, #history, #egyptology, #explorers, #explorersclub, and #indianajones. Less than a handful of Egyptian workers (three of whom are referred to as “our Egyptian family” in one instance) appear in the pictures; when they do, they are mentioned by name and appear to be members of the mission the main protagonists of the account are part of. Apart from a couple of early 20th-c. hotels (whose presence seems to result from the fact that they are remnants of a “glamorous past”[19]), no modern settlement is represented. What is shown of Egypt is reminiscent of the frontispiece of the Description de l’Égypte: A deserted landscape cut through by the Nile river and dotted with impressive Pharaonic monuments covered in hieroglyphics, ready to be “explored” by white “experts”, whose lavish and civilized lifestyle matches the long-gone sophistication of ancient Egypt’s mystical grandeur. In that regard, the Classical-style frieze (which shows an Apollo-looking, Muses-leading Napoléon driving the Mamluks out) surrounding the Description’s frontispiece’s rendition of Egypt serves as a powerful statement of the power relationship at stake: Egypt is defined by and for the male, European conquerer’s ability to penetrate, occupy, and, to paraphrase a now famous political slogan, “make her great again”.

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Figure 3: Frontispiece of the Description de l’Egypte

The erasure of post-642 AD Egypt and of the Egyptians themselves from the frontispiece of the Description de l’Égypte is a stunning Freudian slip, a powerful window into the enduring (sub)conscious relationship that links a large proportion of western scholars to Egypt. Let’s be real, here: In general, what matters to a substantial number of such scholars is only ancient Egypt and the ancient Egyptians. Accordingly, unless you’re an archaeologist, to specialize on aspects of ancient Egypt’s history and culture without ever having visited the country is not deemed a problem within the field. Based on my experience, the overall proportion of scholars specializing on Predynastic-to-early-Arab Egypt who also genuinely love and respect the country as it is today is relatively small. Instead, it is common to hear western scholars specializing on ancient Egypt complain about its contemporary state, including its population, which is described using the whole array of usual Orientalist topoi. I once had a world-renowned Coptic scholar confess to me that he didn’t like going to Egypt because of “the Egyptians”, while a senior white archaeologist who has been excavating there for decades told me that he “deeply hates the country and detests its people” (when I asked him why, then, he kept working in Egypt, he answered that it was “because this is where the work has to be done”). The subtext of such assessments seems to be that as far as Egypt is concerned, ancient=greatness and modern=backward. Therefore, ancient Egypt’s presumed greatness legitimizes the time and efforts western scholars dedicate to it, while encounters with its modern equivalent appear to be an optional-to-irritating distraction. This logic is similar to the one underlying Egypt’s touristic appeal among the “masses”. Finally, since we’re at it, shall we also talk about Arabic, which is still not commonly accepted as one of the main languages in the field? In that regard, the situation is comparable to other “colonized” languages within the broader field of ancient history and archaeology, such as modern Greek and Turkish. When the suggestion of adding modern Arabic to the official languages of the International Association of Papyrologist (IAP) – i.e. French, English, Italian, and German – was made by Usama Ali Gad, Rachel Mairs, and myself last summer at the IAP’s conference in Barcelona, one of the responses we got from a white scholar during the Q&A was: “I want to attend conferences where papers are in languages I understand”.

How can one be so passionate about the remote, highly abstract past of a place, yet not care the slightest about – or even, in some cases, despise – the diachronic trajectory of these environments and of the peoples that have, later on and to this very day, called it home? My intention is not to point fingers nor to judge individual colleagues here. Rather, I want to pose the question of the overarching sets of representations whereby such positionings have come to be deemed viable.

Such a zoomed-in, myopic image of Egypt belongs to a Eurocentric set of representations of colonized lands by colonial powers that is, alas, still very much kept alive both within and outside of academia. Take the case of the Explorers Club. On March 31 2017, the “Explorers Club Annual Dinner 2017 took place on Ellis Island. The Club, which was founded in the early 20th century, defines itself in these words:

“The Explorers Club is an international multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore. Since its inception in 1904, the Club has served as a meeting point and unifying force for explorers and scientists worldwide. Our headquarters is located […] in New York City. Founded in New York City in 1904, The Explorers Club promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air, and space by supporting research and education in the physical, natural and biological sciences. The Club’s members have been responsible for an illustrious series of famous firsts: First to the North Pole, first to the South Pole, first to the summit of Mount Everest, first to the deepest point in the ocean, first to the surface of the moon—all accomplished by our members.”

The Explorers Club is a colonial-era club that managed to remain in activity despite (or thanks to) the evolution of post-WWII geopolitics, and whose elitist nature is protected by a strict co-sponsorship policy[21]. More generally speaking, the idea of “exploration” is, in itself, a colonial construct, which stems from the idea whereby the world outside of white, European dominion remained to be “explored”, “conquered”, and “civilized” (or enframed, to paraphrase Timothy Mitchell[22]) by the superior rationality of white men. It is, as a matter of fact, an environment where Indiana Jones and Count Almásy would not have felt out of place. Unsurprisingly, Zahi Hawass was a distinguished guest of the club’s Northern California chapter in 2013[23].

The aesthetic and timing of the Instagram account mentioned above coincide with a recent interest for the history of tourism and archaeology in Egypt and the Near East. Yet while several recent publications[24] provide critical and politically-informed perspectives on various sets of primary evidences, including archival pictures, the account doesn’t offer any acknowledgement of the potential issues raised by the colonial nature of the outfits and social scenes it promotes. Wearing vintage clothes from the 1920s is certainly not a problem per se. But having white scholars appointed as faculty in western universities set up a photo shoot in Egypt, on the archaeological concession they direct, wear for that occasion a full-on Lord Carnarvon-style outfit, including pith helmets and genuine WWII-era gaiters, and complete the scene with a darker-skinned Egyptian worker dressed in a gallabeyah and positioned from behind is a problem (or if one thinks it isn’t, then a justification note would be more than in order). In the absence of any self-critical assessment from its author and actors, the account appears to be showcasing, in the name of academic and artistic self-promotion, insensitive, white-privileged gazes onto Egypt’s (and more generally, Near Eastern and Asian) ancient and modern history. The account’s curatorial anchoring resides in the realm of the Orientalist fantasy, far, far away from anything written since Edward Said, and in disjunction with the historical experience and sensibilities of most inhabitants of modern and contemporary Egypt.

This makes me think of Beyoncé. Despite all the narcissism that shows in the pop icon’s latest work, she has been able to brilliantly subvert artistic references and aesthetic codes traditionally associated with American whiteness (Secession war era fashion and architecture, Renaissance Art, Catholic iconography) in order to propose a complex, politically-engaged reflection on contemporary America, its history, and the plight of its Black communities. Whoever has watched Formation or Lemonade cannot not see that.

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Figure 4: Caption from Beyoncé’s Formation video

Zahi Hawass’ appropriation of Indiana Jones’ looks offers another example of a colonizer’s outfit being recuperated by a member of a historically colonized community for self-assertive purposes (in this case, the “self” can potentially be all at once Dr Hawass himself, Egypt’s heritage, and Egypt as a whole). To see, in contrast, white scholars trained in prestigious institutions display utter disregard for the complex, historical and sociological references their outfits, photographic work, and attitudes allude to is baffling. Or is it? What if such cases are symptomatic of more complex, pervasive issues within the fields of Egyptology, archaeology and ancient history?

It is too easy to mock the examples provided so far without questioning the mechanisms that allowed such public personae to fully manifest themselves in the first place. The AIA’s tribute to Harrison Ford, the long-lasting popularity of Zahi Hawass and the following of Indiana Jonesque pages on social media are testimonies to the ongoing popularity of and nostalgia for colonial imageries/memorabilia/fashion among large segments of western (especially North American in the cases mentioned here) populations. As written above, this phenomenon is not disconnected from more open forms of apology of colonialism and imperialism [25]. Moreover, the image of Egyptology and ancient Mediterranean history in general (Classics included) among the “general public” (whatever that means) is remains largely Orientalist. While scholars are very prone to laugh at the many clichés and stereotypes that shape the way ancient civilizations are portrayed in mass media and seen by non-specialists, we should not forget that these very stereotypes have been, for most of us, the starting point, the spark that ignited our passions, fueled our initial interest for Antiquity. They are also an important getaway to private funding, something which many archaeologists understand perfectly.

Addressing the issue of the colonial roots and structure of these disciplines is a scary can of worms because it poses the difficult question of their very legitimacy and raison d’être. If “the West” is not the solely the “heir” of “the Greeks and Romans”, then why should “Classical” history and literature be compulsory in high school? And why should the Greeks and the Romans matter more in western school curricula than ancient, Native American cultures and peoples, or than the Phoenicians, the Persians, or ancient China and India? If “the Egyptians” were not a “spiritual”, “mysterious”, and “millennial” civilization, then what’s the point in studying them, financing digs, and preserving Egypt’s Pharaonic heritage?

The past year has seen an increase in the hijacking of ancient history and the uncritical rerouting of the aesthetic codes associated with early 20th century archaeology by ideologically-minded individuals and groups. One can think of the selective and tendentious recuperation of Greek and Roman imagery by “alt”, i.e. extreme right, white supremacist groups; of the apology of western-style looting (including the defense of the British right to own the Elgin Marbles and the coverage of “findings” done in the UK by local “treasure hunters”); of religiously-motivated acquisitions of undocumented or poorly documented artifacts from Egypt and the Middle East; of death threats against Sarah Bond, who published a work on the coloring of ancient marble statues; of the surreal online bullying Mary Beard was subject to after she defended the documented reality of ancient Britain’s diversity. It is as irresponsible from scholars working on the ancient world to deflect the question of the decolonization of the field by appealing to a white-privileged nostalgia for the “good old days” as it is to contemptuously ridicule the proponents of such nostalgic discourses. In the era of Trump, Brexit, white supremacy, neo-fascism, and globalized forms of terrorisms, in an age, in other words, where the Humanities are at the most relevant yet most threatening crossroad they’ve faced in decades, we cannot afford to sweep our existential issues under the rug anymore. Lest we see the Indiana Jones franchise never come to an end, it is up to us, through a more widespread and enduring array of small-to-large scale initiatives, to decolonize Antiquity-related learning, teaching, and research, within and well beyond academia. Who’s in?

Katherine Blouin

[1] Works by Barbara Goff, Timothy Mitchell, Malcolm Reid, and Phiroze Vasunia are a great start.

[2] See, regarding Egypt, Stephen Quirke’s excellent Hidden Hands (2010).

[3] A few years ago, I attended a keynote speech by a world-renowned ancient historian. Two friends who are socio-cultural anthropologists came with me. I myself enjoyed the talk, and thought that it proposed an innovative argument. Yet my two friends both shared the same puzzling feeling: This conversation took place among anthropologists over 30 years ago, so why are ancient historians only jumping in now?

[4] “Any profits he makes, Mr. Hawass said, will go to the Children’s Cancer Hospital in Cairo, which offers free care to children with cancer. The director of the hospital, Dr. Sharif Abul Naga, confirmed that in an interview, although he said that there was not yet a written agreement. He said that Mr. Hawass had contacted him about the possible donation this month.”

[5] Neither the company’s website nor Zahi Hawass’ blog post responding to his critics are accessible anymore.

[6] This period might as well be called “the height of the British Empire” or “the time when Egypt was under British occupation”, but that would not sell as well, so fair enough.

[7] I’m referring to a quote from a high-profile archaeologist regarding “old legendary hotels” that appears in Johnson 2014, 133.

[8] Marilyn Johnson’s Lives in Ruins dedicates pp.130-133 to the Club (which she visited with long-time member Greek archaeologist Joan B. Connelly).

[9] See on the matter Timothy Mitchell’s seminal Colonising Egypt (1988).

[10] A “Grand celebration” in honour of Lawrence of Arabia and Lowell Thomas is also taking place at the NYC branch of the Club in September 2017 .

[11] See notably: http://www.aucpress.com/p-4942-on-the-nile-in-the-golden-age-of-travel.aspx; http://www.aucpress.com/p-3536-vintage-alexandria.aspx ; http://www.ifao.egnet.net/publications/catalogue/978-2-7247-0695-6/ ; https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/hidden-hands-9780715639047/ ; https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/archaeologists-tourists-interpreters-9781472588791/ ; http://www.aucpress.com/p-4927-wonderful-things.aspx ; Malcom Reid’s two most recent monographs are also relevant here.

[12] Let’s just, also think of Boris Johnston’s, Nicolas Sarkozy’s and, more recently, Emmanuel Macron’s remarks regarding colonial and post-colonial subsaharian Africa.

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One thought on “Indiana Jones must retire: Archaeology, imperialism and fashion in the digital age

  1. Interesting, Katherine.

    I probably belong to a minority of people who dislike “reception” and don’t know most of the contemporary music and movie stars you mention, but from that perspective, I am not too bothered by the entertainment industry if they want to appeal to a certain type of public ─ they always do. It is true, though, that a big new film may increase enrollments in first-year classes with students we never see again because the field ─Egyptology, Classics, etc.─ is not what they expected. (As a grad student at the University of Ottawa, I taught a one-week Archaeology “minicourse” to high school students. One of them was bored to death and, to paraphrase her, eventually asked me: “When are we finally going to do levitation?” She had gotten that from the first Indiana Jones film, though I’m not sure which part.)

    On the other hand, Egypt is a rare country in the “Middle East” where there are departments (not many) of Social Sciences and Humanities. Turkey seemed to be doing better all the time with the secularization of the urban centers, but this is now being challenged under Erdoğan. In the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, I don’t think there’s any Social Sciences or Humanities departments. The universities in that part of the world are strongly focused on technology and the physical sciences. There seems to be no willingness to introduce the Humanities and Social Sciences, partly because it may cause a re-reading of certain religious texts from a critical point of view. There are English programmes in some of those universities, but the purpose is first and foremost “technical”, i.e. to prepare students to the job market. I thought I had found a linguist at Qassim University, but I pity his students if he teaches them the same farcical research that he publishes, for example this:

    http://www.journals.aiac.org.au/index.php/IJALEL/article/view/830

    I’m saying all this because it seems to me that much of the problem is due to the fact that disciplines such as Egyptology, Classics, and even Middle Eastern Studies (modern history, anthropology, etc.) are primarily taught in the “West”. When I was at McGill in Middle Eastern Studies, I don’t think any of the Gulf foreign students were doing their B.A. with the idea of going into an academic career in that field back in their country. Some of them knew they would get a job from the government once they returned home with their degree, and that’s all they were looking for (that attitude and that of their governments, is a product of colonialism and imperialism). Others (including royalty) were not at all considering any job or career after their B.A.

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