Topic: "Archaeology - Movie - Museum"

Von Pinsel & Spaten zu Pixel & Daten

As Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER, Angelina Jolie is once again in the thick of battle. After she successfully fights against pirates in the East China Sea, one of her combatants claims he has discovered a new market: archaeology.

30 years ago this statement in an adventure movie might well have given rise to mild surprise for its rather naïve view of a way to earn big money, but no one would have considered it as a serious tip about the contemporary situation of global markets. Archaeology as a science and the image of its representatives were marked in the public consciousness by the description that resounded in the triad of C.W. Ceram's ingeniously titled "Götter, Gräber und Gelehrte" ("Gods, Graves and Scholars"). The scholars of antiquity were surrounded by an aura that offered no room for new media. For dramaturgical reasons there were more villains in movies and adventure stories than in reality. The archaeologists were normally scholarly individuals such as can be found in any discipline, driven by jealousy or the search for fame and carrying out the tricks of their trade out of manic, ideological or occasionally political obsession. The classic example of the nearest approach to reality was the archaeology professor played by Max von Sydow in MARCH OR DIE. Serious archaeology very seldom made use of the medium of film as a means of information, school films in the video libraries offered adolescents little attraction to enter this field of study, and the large video cabinets of the Germanisch-Römisches Museum in Cologne, which actively publicized the innovation of "video", soon disappeared because the loud noise of the commentaries disturbed the visitors.

25 years ago the action-packed adventures of archaeologist Indiana Jones electrified millions of film fans around the world, but everyone knew that his existence only functioned due to Hollywood's good old trick technology. This made humourless scholars of antiquity suspicious of the entire medium.

20 years ago the first archaeological film festivals were established (Verona, Paris, Brussels, Bordeaux) and offered the audience the chance to inform themselves about excavations around the world in a concentrated form on the big screen within a circle of interested professionals and non-professionals and to learn about the latest techniques employed in this field of study. Films were sometimes also offered in museums as optical icing on the cake, but often set up in some darkened corner. It was only the newly built Viking Museum Haithabu that had its own little film theatre and could thus screen films made especially for this exhibition – simultaneously in four different language versions.

15 years ago serious archaeology entered the consciousness of a large sector of the population in a popular way due to a surprisingly successful German TV series on ZDF – the C-14 series initiated by Gisela Graichen -, and since then there has been a veritable boom of programmes about archaeology. Subsequent programmes battled for high ratings, which became the measure of their suitability for broadcast. The impression soon arose that this young science consisted only of tracking down new excavation sites and presenting brilliant objects. Findings blown up to sensations justified the programmes; the drudgery that accompanies much of the work of archaeologists remained veiled in secrecy. From the very beginning CINARCHEA concerned itself critically in seminars with the media presence and saw archaeology as a paradigm for the way television deals with science, as it were. (Cf. the symposium topics and publications ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE NEW MEDIA, CIN 1998, and FINDS, FILMS, FALSE FRIENDS – THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL FILM IN THE SERVICE OF PROFIT AND PROPAGANDA, CIN 2002).

For 10 years now the TV viewer has known, thanks to computer-generated images, how beautiful the interiors of Pompeian houses were before the deadly rain of ashes buried them. Due to the ever increasing memory capacity of computers(1) it is now possible to enter the Roman villas by means of a virtual camera, possibly recognize the position of the sun through shadows on the walls and calculate the time of day of each reconstructed situation. The summer breeze blowing through the curtains gives us a chill, as it is the first sign of approaching misfortune. Emotionalization by means of digital technology was launched; the corresponding symposium was called: THE BACKLIT BOG BODY – GREAT EMOTIONS IN ARCHAEOLOGICAL FILM (CIN 04). Since the glacier finding on Similaun the interested TV viewer knows how concerted cooperation among different branches of science has allowed them to make reliable statements, based on the slightest bits of evidence, even after bungled ski pole archaeology, about the life of our ancestors 5000 years ago and what it must have been like to cross the Alps at that time. Expensive productions of up to an hour in length took up the topic, livening up the broadcasts with staged interludes, the so-called re-enactment scenes, which soon became a must in television reportages. Digital technology also helped to generate pictures of the remains of old, meanwhile broken down temples and restore them to their former glory, with people acting in them as if they were real settings. Computer-aided programmes were able to work them over so that they appeared more and more lifelike. The practical DVD technology now contributes to making such productions available for private viewing at home. The symposium at CINARCHEA 7 called itself accordingly: "More Beautiful, Longer, More Colourful – but Better? New Directions in Archaeological Film".

For 5 years now the number of noteworthy films dealing with the looting of archaeological sites has greatly increased. Although Susanne Offenbach's TREASURE HUNTERS, FENCES AND SCAVENGERS, which received an Honourable Mention at CINARCHEA 96, was still a rare treatment of this topic, such works are now on the increase – parallel to the plundering of the museum in Baghdad. Spectacular objects, such as the Nebra sky disk, on offer at the marketplace fuel the discussion, and the exposure of highly sophisticated forgeries, as can be seen for example in KING SOLOMON'S TABLET OF STONE (CIN 08), shakes people's confidence that there is respectable way of dealing with ancient cultural objects. NETWORK (CIN 08) shows the worldwide trade of such objects, the returns of which, amounting to more than 9 billion dollars, exceed even the takings from the international drug market. Museums are also involved in these deals, and the discussion about returning precious treasures of cultural heritage to their original owners is meanwhile of interest to the non-professional public as well.

Dr. Kurt Denzer

(1) Strictly speaking, the increased storage capacity is not enough. It is above all the drastic increase in computing speed in connection with improved algorithms that enables the virtual camera to produce such results.

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