Lara Croft, Grave Robber?

When I tell people that I’m studying Archaeology, the response often goes one of two ways: ‘Oh, like Tomb Raider!’, or ‘Like Indiana Jones!’ It is no surprise that many people’s first impression of the discipline is of pop culture icons, given mass media’s love of stories about adventures in wild lands (See Figure 1)- and at least they’ve got the right end of the stick, unlike those who misunderstand and get dinosaurs or architecture- that ends up being a very different conversation. In all reality, you are unlikely to be in charge of locating a lost civilisation at 21 years old (as in Square Enix’s Tomb Raider, the 2013 reboot of the Lara Croft game series), and much more likely to be at university still. However, despite the implausible circumstances, the impact of these pop culture icons on the public’s view of the discipline cannot be understated.

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Figure 1: The dramatic landscape of the fictional island of Yamatai provides the background for the 2013 game Tomb Raider(Square Enix, 2013)

In games such as Tomb Raider, the story and game mechanics limit the player to simply picking objects up, examining them briefly, then pocketing them and continuing. Breger states that the only factor preventing the player from collecting everything is Lara’s health, (2008, pg. 53) and so the game encourages looting. Whilst this is perhaps not surprising in a game named Tomb Raider, for students of the history of archaeology this is can be an uncomfortable reminder that the subject that we study has quite an unfortunate history. Even in antiquity, the ancient Romans would avidly collect Greek works (Ede, 1995, p 211), and Archaeology, particularly Egyptology, began as little more than grave robbing, taking advantage of developing countries’ instability to remove their history from its context.

These days, it is harder and harder to argue for developed countries to keep hold of the artefacts that were stolen during colonial rule. While an argument can be made that the objects may be conserved better in these richer countries, this undersells the growth and ability of the countries that had been stolen from. For example, Egypt can only display a covertly made copy of the bust of Neftertiti, rather than the original, which has been in a German museum since it was taken from the dig site in 1913 (Speed, 2016). Although the museum claims it had a ‘legally indisputable’ transaction with the Egyptian authorities, others state that the archaeologists didn’t show the object itself to the inspectors, and underplayed its importance. This means that for Egyptians to see this vital part of their history, they not only have to take a flight to Germany, but must also pay a €12 entry fee. Once inside, they are not allowed to take photos (which is what makes the scanned version of the bust so scandalous).  People should not have to go to such lengths to see their own culture, when their own country is able to maintain the artefacts just as well as those that took it.

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Figure 2: One of the stolen relief fragments (Brodie, 2015)

Unfortunately, this theft of culture is not restricted to the past. Traffickingculture.org is full of reports of artefacts recovered from auction houses, such as the 2013 case of six relief fragments that were sold at Christie’s London (See Figure 2). The man attempting to sell them claimed they had belonged to a relative that had lived in Egypt in the 1940s, but one of the pieces was recognised by a curator of the British Museum. The pieces had been originally discovered in 2000, in the temple of Amenhotep III, but were then stolen from a storage depot (Brodie, 2015). The culprit confessed to buying the artefacts in a tourist shop, and had also sold thirteen other fragments to various auction houses previously. This example shows that whilst a trained archaeologist will know the law and usually obey it, for many, the history of a country is little more than a money-making opportunity, and mass media has no small part to play in that view. Showing archaeologists literally as tomb raiders means that that is what people assume we do, and nothing more. Whilst the seller of the Amenhotep reliefs was caught and fined, the sheer volume of case studies on the Trafficking Culture website shows that the antiquities trade is still, unfortunately, going strong.

Obviously, efforts are being made to halt this trade. The fact that Trafficking Culture exists shows an improved awareness, and increased drive to prevent heritage being lost. Huffer (2009) put forward an example of how games could be used to educate and protect heritage. He created a game, ‘Looter!’, to be used in Cambodian schools, that had you play as a local. The first level has the player fall in with a looting gang, with the game ending with either death or arrest. Then the game is played as a local archaeologist-in-training, earning more points for artefacts saved from looters, and unlocking multiple endings. The point may be being made a little directly, but this is a fun and accessible way of educating the public, and, although at the time of writing the results have not been published, would appear to be effective. Educational games will be explored further in a future post.

The effect of games and pop culture on archaeology is not all bad. Having such iconic figures as the most recognisable part of the subject may mean that actual archaeologists are erased, but they are also an easy way to hook people into conversations about the discipline, and can be used to open up the subject to those who may be otherwise turned off by the academic nature of archaeology. The ways in which games can be used to educate will be explored further in subsequent posts, but suffice it to say that these figure heads are a vital link to the modern day, in a subject that is so focused on the past. While they are not role models for the modern archaeologist, characters such as Lara and Indy mean that people are aware of the subject, and interested in it.

And hey, if people think my studying archaeology makes me nearly as badass as Lara Croft, then I’m not totally inclined to re-educate them on that part.


Breger, C. 2008. Digital Digs, or Lara Croft replaying Indiana Jones. Aether: The Journal of Media Geography. Volume 2, pg. 41-60.

Brodie, N. 2015. Egyptian objects sold at Bonhams and Christie’s London in 2013. Trafficking Culture. [Online]. Available at: http://traffickingculture.org/encyclopedia/case-studies/egyptian-objects-sold-at-bonhams-and-christies-london-in-2013/[Accessed: 4 March 2016]

Ede, J. 1995. The Antiquities Trade: Towards a more balanced view. In: Tubb, K. eds. Antiquities- Trade or BetrayedLondon: Archetype Publications, pp. 211-214

Huffer, D. 2009. Conserving the Past Through Play: Educational Gaming and Antilooting Outreach in Cambodia. Bulletin of The Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association. Volume 29, pg. 92-100.

Speed, B. 2016. Nefertiti for everyone: returning Egypt’s cultural history with the help of a 3D printer. New Statesman.  [Online]. Available at: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/art-design/2016/03/nefertiti-everyone-returning-egypt-s-cultural-history-help-3d-printer [Accessed: 5 March 2016]

Square Enix. 2013. The wild landscape of the fictional island of Yamatai provides the background for the 2013 game Tomb Raider. [Photograph]

Words: 1052

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4 thoughts on “Lara Croft, Grave Robber?

  1. Really enjoyed your comments and the interesting specific examples quoted. Is there room in further blogs to look at the current state of archeological vandalism? Isis would seem to be the obvious, as it ties with the British historical examples. The idea that by destroying the past then history will be rewritten in favour of the glorious victory that is about to be won! In fact the reality is that these priceless work of art are being sold on the black market, probably to rich, unscrupulous capitalists in the west who are, in turn, supporting the ‘holy war’. The blog cOncept makes for a more intersting read whilst keeping the academic rigour. Are you also going to look at the benefits of technology such as the sharing of ideas with other academics through Twitter and the like? I look forward to the next instalment.

    Like

  2. Keep posting, it’s an important subject. Let me know if you need any contacts or blogs to read. I am a digital archaeologist at the University of Tulsa, OK. I] am currently a phd student as well.
    Cheers.

    Like

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