Friday, June 21, 2013

Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets

So I have been planning on writing a new post recently. I even have ideas for it and kind of know what I want to write, but the last few weeks have been pretty crazy. I started a Finnish course at the end of May, the children I look after started holidays the next week, and I also started an online course or MOOC about archaeology. Needless to say with that and also making new friends and spending time with them I haven't been left with much time to write... plus I would feel incredibly guilty if I wrote a blog post without having done my archaeology course homework.

So anyway.... the course I started is through a website called Coursera. I came across it thanks to the Time Team Facebook page where they recommended the course that I signed up for. The course is called Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets and into the third week now I am loving it! I have always enjoyed history and especially archaeology- I wanted to be an archaeologist for many years, and I am not really sure I've given up on that possibility yet, so it's fun. The course itself is through Brown University in the USA and the Joukowsky Institute which is situated at Brown.

So the course itself consists of video lectures, some required reading, weekly quizzes and weekly exercises or assessments if you want to call them that. The exercises are all peer assessed as with the sheer number of people who enrol in the course as well as the free nature of the course, there is no way that the staff could mark everyones exercises.

I just got the results of my week 1 exercise today and I was very happy. I got a 3- which is the top mark, and some really nice comments. As a result, I thought I would share what I wrote here. I will first post the requirements, then my response, then the comments I recieved.


Option #2: Archaeological expressions

Find one form of artistic expression (poetry, film, literature, trash fiction, music) that draws on archaeology and archaeological uses of the past*. Write a reaction piece in which you:
  1. Identify and describe the artistic work you have chosen.
  2. If it could be helpful to your classmates, provide a link (URL) to any relevant online content (e.g., YouTube clip, SoundCloud sample, IMDB page, etc.).
  3. Explain why you chose this particular piece.
  4. Critique the piece. Does it convey an accurate impression of archaeology? Is it significant, either artistically or archaeologically? Do you like it? Would you recommend it to others, and if so, who?


The work chosen for this archaeological comparison is called "The Curse", and it is episode thirteen of season four of the television series Stargate SG-1.

In this episode, one of the team members - Dr Daniel Jackson of SG-1, discovers that his archaeology professor from college - Dr David Jordan was killed in a lab explosion that has been attributed to the Curse of Osiris as he was working with artefacts recovered from a shipwreck of an expedition carried out in 1931. He attends the funeral and catches up with former colleagues he has not seen in five years. He stays behind after the funeral and discovers that items from the collection have either been stolen or misplaced, and works to help discover what has happened to them.

I chose this piece because it shows some of the issues that archaeologists and institutions face with regards to artefacts and ownership once recovered as well as the storage, testing and treatment of artefacts. It also addresses the beliefs of many people in curses being placed on items from tombs especially those of Egyptian mummies.

The episode starts with the characters of Dr Jordan and Dr Steven Rayner discussing some artefacts that had been recovered from a shipwreck of an expedition known as the Stewart Expedition undertaken in 1931. Dr Jordan lets Dr Rayner know that the opportunity has come up to have scans done on a canopic jar. Dr Rayner suggests that they just crack open the canopic jar to which he is told that the Egyptian government expects the items to be returned intact. He expresses some disagreement with this pronouncement stating that it is the find of a lifetime and they are "just handing it over".

This reflects on an issue that is facing the archaeological community and institutions around the world more and more often these days. Many artefacts were taken at times in the past when countries were either colonised, under occupation or before there were laws regarding what could be taken or even what could be excavated. As a result more and more countries are trying to recover items that they consider to have been looted from their past causing much controversy amongst those who believe they have a right to the items who make arguments on both sides of the divide as is the case with the Parthenon Marbles.

When Dr Jackson discovers the report of the death of Dr Jordan, the article states that the Curse of Osiris has returned. This alludes to the belief that curses will afflict those who disturb the tombs and holy places of ancient civilisations- in this case those of ancient Egypt. Later in the episode when Dr Sarah Gardner is showing Dr Jackson the artefacts, she says that they are supposedly cursed and that all the members of the original expedition died within a year of the discovery and Dr Jackson says that it had been attributed to mould spores. Her response states that mould spores do not make front page news.

These instances as well as later deaths of two more people show the pervasiveness of beliefs in "Mummy curses" which started in the 19th century with very little truth behind them as well as their common use as a trope in television and movies to make a plot more interesting or entertaining.

When Dr Jackson goes to find the museum curator in the storage area for the artefacts, she blames the state of the storage area on budget cuts. She also states that the crate in which another item was stored, was mislabelled and, that she had therefore only discovered the item a few days prior. She appears to be the sole person working in the department possibly due to the budget cuts she has stated and has a large number of items to catalogue. The sheer number of items shown to be in storage show the fate of many archaeological finds today with many artefacts remaining in storage for long periods of time after discovery and initial study, if study commences at all.

On a whole I believe this piece to show a somewhat accurate depiction of archaeology. It shows that not all archaeologists work in the field and that there is more to archaeology than digging up treasures and, that there are issues faced by those who work in the field of archaeology. I enjoyed it and would recommend this piece to people who like history and science fiction as well as people who like to see fictional archaeologists on film and not blowing up temples.

Gateworld: The Curse - - Last accessed 9 June 2013

Wiki: The Curse - – Last accessed 9 June 2013

National Geographic: Curse of the Mummy - - Last accessed 9 June 2013

Peer 1 → You completed and clearly expressed your response. Very well done.
Peer 2 → Having watched a few episodes of SG-1 in the past I was familiar with it's format and the the origins of some of its ideas in ancient Egypt. I found the piece both interesting and well researched. Although fictional representations of archaeology and archaeologists are often ridiculous you have pointed out that this does not necessarily always occur and that they can sometimes put forward ideas and concepts that are very representative of the truth.
Peer 4 → Good use of an excellent episode from SG1 to illustrate the required topic. Certainly original and clearly expressed. Do you watch the Abydos videos with the same slant as I do? Thanks.

I hope you enjoyed, let me know what you think.

~~Random Logic~~


  1. SG1 certainly did come to use :D it was interesting to read!! :)

  2. By this, you seem to have been lucky to experience a number of Stargate fans in the comments section. Maybe everyone secretly loves SG-1?

    And I am still to think of the same topic, but I am going to do it soon. Laziness really should be a crime...

  3. Lol. I just know which friends would be interested and who likes Stargate... by the a number of comment I assume you are one of the number or you are seeing more comments than the two I see.