UW News

May 13, 2010

Class Notes: Archaeology in Film

Class title: ARCHY 101: Archaeology in Film, taught by Ben Marwick, an assistant professor of anthropology.

Description: ARCHY 101 is an introductory level class open to students from all majors and all years in school. It looks at how archaeology is represented in Hollywood and is designed to appeal to anyone with a general interest in archaeology, the human past and popular culture.

The syllabus opens with, “Archaeology and archaeologists are disproportionately well represented in big budget films… most [of these films] are written by non-archaeologists and reflect a non-specialist view of archeological questions and archaeological findings for public consumption.

“The commercial success of these films suggest that their archeological content resonates with the values and ideals held by the viewing public. This course will help you understand the archaeological content of popular films.”

Movies the class watches and studies include: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tomb Raider, Planet of the Apes and The Exorcist.

The course explores:

  • How and why do filmmakers use archaeology in their films?
  • What do these films tell us about how the viewing public thinks about their origins, the past of humanity and archaeology as a profession concerned with producing knowledge about the human past?
  • Why is it important that we think about films, archaeology and the viewing public?

Instructor’s view: This is the third time ARCHY 101 has been offered, and Marwick said, “The aim of the class is to understand the messages that films contain about popular culture’s ideas of human origins and archaeology as a profession,” and at its core, “it’s really a course in critical thinking wrapped in archeology and blockbuster films.”

The class asks students to use the Society of American Archaeology’s Code of Ethics to examine the films. “We look at how the archeologists in the films do their work and get along with indigenous people, whether the artifacts were stolen or taken legitimately, etc. This activity helps to show what the profession is actually like, but I don’t want to get nit-picky either,” explained Marwick.

“It’s really a fun class,” he continued, “It broadens our horizons and it’s fun for both them and me. … Students here are surprisingly brilliant. It’s fascinating to hear what they think and see the creative, scholarly research they’ll do.”

Marwick emphasized that the class is designed for students of all levels and all majors—there are no pre-requisites, but he believes “an ability to tolerate B-grade movies is advantageous.”

Unexpected experiences: “Just by coincidence,” Marwick said, “I got this e-mail from a local production company involved with a feature film about archaeologists and they wanted a professor of archaeology and some students to do an excavation scene. So, a group of students from the class came with me. We borrowed artifacts from the Burke Museum and carefully used them to create a site. The film hasn’t been finished yet, but to be an archaeologist in a film, while teaching about it, was certainly unexpected and great fun.”

Recently, two films made by students in last year’s ARCHY 101 class were selected for screening at the 2010 Archaeology Channel International Film Festival. Marwick explained that he was approached by a main organizer at a recent academic conference. “They’d heard of the class somehow and were very keen to know more about it, so I offered to send the top two student films for the festival”. Marwick plans to send more student films to the festival next year. He said, “The student films are usually put together over just a few weekends, but they’re often ingenious and entertaining.”

Student views: Students who take this class come from academic backgrounds ranging from accounting to anthropology.

Sophomore Kelcey Simpson took the class mainly to fulfill general education requirements, but she found the class to be “exciting and interesting. … It’s fascinating to see what Hollywood does with such an interesting field of study.

“My favorite thing about the class,” the accounting student continued, “is my professor’s involvement with his students. He strives to help out whenever he can. That means writing personal responses to our work, responding to e-mails in a timely manner, going above and beyond when answering questions, attending out of class functions, and so on. It’s things like this that make classes interesting because there is a purpose to be engaged. The more you put in, the more you get out.”

A marketing student, Jonathan Metz, said, “This is by far the best non-business class I have taken at UW.” He especially loves how the class was constructed “to apply archaeological themes to popular American films.”

Flora Cao, a freshman, said that the class is “fantastic—great professor, plus great TAs.” She said that a highlight was the week “we discussed a caveman movie. We also learned about Neanderthals—one mysterious species,” she continued. “Even though we know they are not our main ancient ancestor, I was surprised to find out they may have interbred with humans. In class, Professor Marwick introduced us to a 4-year-old child buried in a Portuguese shelter as an example.

“Before this quarter,” Cao said, “I hadn’t declared my major yet. This is the class that made my mind up to be an anthropology student at UW.”

Reading list: There is no textbook for this course, although there are weekly readings that come from scholarly journals and websites. Marwick said that the class’ longest required reading is a small, 60-page book, The Bluffer’s Guide to Archaeology, by Paul Bahn.

Assignments: Class assignments include student responses during class, using the common clicker question format, and weekly online five-question quizzes. The larger assignments are a multimedia project and a research paper. The multimedia project is a film between three and 15 minutes long. It must include typical film components such as a title, soundtrack, plot, characters, dialog, and opening or closing credits. The films, made in small groups, are organized around the common archeological film themes learned in class (archeologists as a central character that release the past and danger, possession, reincarnation, lost worlds, etc.). The purpose of the paper, according to the syllabus, “is to demonstrate scholarly communication skills” and skills for thinking about archaeology in films that the student has gained from taking the course. There is also a midterm and a final.

Class notes is an occasional column highlighting an interesting and unusual class at the UW.