Monstrous Antiquities: 2

So, after a relatively small amount of sleep, I got gradually back up and headed in for the third day. Unfortunately, I had mistimed my entry a little bit and missed the first half of Michael Bintley‘s paper on Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles. Now, I have written about both historical fiction and pseudo-Romano-British Arthuriana previously, and I feel like I have a pretty good grip on the genre, so I didn’t feel lost even though I’d missed the beginning, but what he seemed to be mainly talking about was the use of archaeology specifically in the Warlord books, like the quest for all the different artefacts and whatnot, and the sort of things it says about how Cornwell portrays people’s relationship with their past as expressed through material culture. This may be relevant to my next post about Skyrim! Assuming that ever happens: I haven’t picked up a controller since Thursday. But yeah, the half of this I got to hear was super interesting and I hope to read it in some form eventually. Also, I am reliably informed you should buy his book. 

Next up was Edmund Connolly, talking about “Facing the Fear of the Past in E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet. This was one of the ones I felt least able to comment on, because what I know about Edith Nesbit you could write on my shoe. I have a very vague memory of having read Five Children and It when I was little, and somewhere on my backup hard drive is a copy of the Forgotten Futures supplement with the Psammead stories in it. In the course of writing this, I discovered the novel is free on the UK Kindle store, though, so I guess I’ll be reading it soon. Anyway, Connolly explained (and I speak subject to correction here) that Nesbit deploys this sense of fear relating to things that predate our own memories in all three of the Psammead books, but that the first two have sort of distancing or insulating mechanisms that aren’t present in the third one, which has higher stakes and “darker and more fearsome” adventures. He also pointed out that the book is dedicated to E. A. Wallis Budge. A member of the audience (I don’t remember who) suggested that this was tied in to a crush that Nesbit apparently had on Budge! Archaeological gossip and artistic gossip: it’s that kind of interdisciplinary thinking you read this blog for.

I write too much, and I thank Ethan Doyle White for letting me get some images up in this post, because I foolishly didn’t take any photos or anything. His talk was “‘To worship me, take wine and strange drugs’: archaeology and occultism in the work of Kenneth Anger.” Now, the only thing I knew about Kenneth Anger is that other filmmakers like to name-check him, so I was pleased that we got a bit of a beginners’ intro before an explanation of how Anger’s work was influenced by Thelema which was, in turn, of course, influenced by Crowley’s ideas about Egypt. Anger liked to use historical and mythic symbolism in his film, and his (now lost) documentary about Crowley’s Italian abbey is in itself a piece of archaeological filmmaking. So yeah. For example:

So, to be completely honest with you I have not watched either of those films all the way through, but I would suggest you probably don’t want to look at them in the office.

Now what really struck me about the role played by Egyptology in this piece and others during the conference was the prominence of bullshit Egyptology, and it occurred to me (as it occurs to everyone who thinks about Egypt more than I do, i.e. ever, I’m sure) that bullshit Egyptology, like several other bullshit fields of knowledge, has a longer pedigree than its authentic counterpart. Quackery is older than medicine, astrology is older than astronomy, and we like to talk like the one has replaced the other, but it ain’t so. I was reminded of the concept of Aegypt, which is Christopher Lehrich‘s word for the fictitious but more-or-less coherent Egypt dreamed up by medieval Renaissance philosophers and their ilk. I’m probably grossly oversimplifying that idea, but if you are interested you can check out his book.

And then it was time for tea.

You know, with the best will in the world I don’t think I’m going to get through this day of the conference before bedtime, so what I’m going to do is do the first two sessions today, then the last one and the film night tomorrow, and then see what I can do about Sunday. You can see why it’s taking me so long: three sessions in and my mind was already boggling, although Ethan assured me that there was no connection between Anger and John W. Parsons, which would have been all I needed to lose my shit.

Right, next up: Louis Greenberg, who although an academic was there in his capacity as an author. He read a section from a short story he has in The Book of the Dead, an anthology of modern mummy fiction edited by conference co-organiser John J. Johnston, and the which you can purchase here. It even supports a good cause, so you have no excuse. My notes seem a little sparse on this one, probably because I was just chilling and listening to the story and therefore didn’t get my note-taking going, but I seem to have written down a) that the monumental architecture of Paris and the monumental architecture of Egypt get juxtaposed (and I thought of Adele Blanc-Sec at that moment) and b) that women’s bodies and monsters’ bodies are constantly being described in fiction, whereas men’s are usually much more sketchily delineated. That’s very true, I thought to myself, but I never thought of it before. And once you’ve said that about something, that’s a good paper.

Speaking of woman and monsters, next up was Ellie Dobson to talk about “Uncanny statues: female mummies as art(efacts) in Victorian and Edwardian culture,” and this one went on to talk about how in some ways female mummies are often portrayed as statues or objets d’art, to be admired for their beauty, while male mummies (in both cases, the rise-up-and-walk kind) are portrayed as artefacts. I think she may have got through this without using the phrase “sex object,” which was pretty good. But maybe not. And of course, the Victorian era is the time of the public unrolling, which it doesn’t take much imagination to characterise as creepily sexual. Apparently Sidonie-Gabriel Colette (that’s just Colette to you) once appeared in a mummy-unwrapping inspired burlesque (with a woman in drag in the role of Egyptologist) that sparked a riot.


Next up, “Stratigraphy and Super-Strength: exploring the role of archaeologists in graphic novels” by David R. Howell. All week I’d been thinking to myself “what’s going to happen is that he’s going to say the Blue Beetle (the original one, that is) was an archaeologist, and then I’m gonna say, well, no, originally he was a police officer, then he was retconned into an archaeologist, then he was killed off and replaced by a scientist, and then he was killed off and replaced by a kid armed with the original Blue Beetle’s magic scarab only it was retconned to have been technological all along.” And then I would give a little nervous laugh and be like “man, I’d better not say that kind of shit in public.” Three guesses what I said.

You talk like that, people will think you’re the kind of dude that has a Blue Beetle action figure on a shelf in his living room in front of God and everybody.

This one, to be precise. Thanks, Jason.

Anyway, so this was a good overview of archaeologists in comics, and it identified them as basically people who get murdered, which I think it largely for the reasons discussed yesterday — ie that unless the archaeologist is actually the hero, he or she exists to a) start the trouble, or b) show how the trouble works, and the most efficient way to do that is to get devoured. But Howell also pointed out that there are this batch of archaeo-heroes from the 40s: you got your Hawkman, your Dr Fate. And I think it’s interesting that Hawkman was also retconned to be sci-fi in the 80s, and then eventually unretconned again, but who cares about Hawkman?

But interesting, again, that archaeology and magic, rather than science, go hand in hand. Hawkman’s powers definitely come from Aegypt, not Egypt.

Oh, and Planetary uses archaeology as a way to explore not just history in general but the history of comic books specifically, such that a comic book about archaeologists is about the archaeology of comic books. That’s clever. Also, Howell says “graphic novels” throughout, which I totally respect but there’s no way you will catch me doing that. I already showed you my Blue Beetle action figure (well, one just like it) so it’s not like you’re going to think I’m a bigger nerd than you already do.


Man damn, that was long and we are only 1/3 of the way through this whole thing. Excitement! And more excitement tomorrow, as we explore why archaeologists are wimps compared to astronomers. Also: THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD or, as I like to think of it, my paper.

Monstrous Antiquities: 2

Monstrous Antiquities: 1

So, as I mentioned, I was away from the computer this past weekend because I was attending the Monstrous Antiquities conference at UCL. It was the business. Over the next few days I’ll be posting about the talks that happened there. You can see the Storified version of the tweets that people (including me) put out during the conference here.

So the first night, Friday, saw two papers: the first was on  Druids, Deities and Daemons: Archaeological Horrors in Doctor Who, and it was by conference organiser John J.  Johnston.

There’s quite a lot of archaeology in Doctor Who, from Tomb of the Cybermen to The Daemons and so on. I think my personal favourite is the archaeologist from the Daemons, who plays the skeptic part with such obvious contempt that you can’t help but like him. There’s a great part where the news presenter asks him “professor, can you explain (such-and-such)” and he just goes “no.”

That's not tea.
That’s not tea.

As an aside, since occultism was going to be coming up all weekend, I think it’s interesting to note that the Master’s chant in The Daemons sounds to me like a variant on an honest-to-goodness Wiccan chant: Eko Eko Azarak.

As a pretty die-hard Doctor Who guy, I was familiar with most of the stories and themes covered in the talk, which was more of an overview of the subject. It introduced a couple of key things that were going to come up. For starters, it hit the whole alien-astronauts thing, which was a huge thing in Doctor Who from the 70s on. Secondly, I think it anticipated a key question that would come up on Saturday: why are archaeologists usually portrayed in an unfavourable light in Doctor Who? If they’re not just releasing evil on the world and getting killed, they’re actual bad guys. This, Johnston suggests, is probably because Doctor Who messes with the usual structure of heroes in an archaeological horror story. You usually have the dumb and/or bad archaeologist who releases the horror, and then a good one who saves the day. But of course, in a Doctor Who story, it’s the Doctor and his companions who fill the role of the heroic archaeologist, leaving only the bad one. We’re going to see this come up again.

You can say what you want, this scene is chilling as fuck.
You can say what you want, this scene is chilling as fuck.

Fringe archaeology and popular culture go hand in hand — Von Daniken is a big influence on Doctor Who. I guess it makes sense for a show which combines history and sci-fi.

Next up was a talk by Jean-Marcel Humbert: it was about the portrayal of mummies in childrens’ books, and it was very, very comprehensive. I don’t actually feel like I have that much to say about this one — it was very visual, with examples from dozens or probably even hundreds of books about mummies. On a purely professional level, I think what I admire most was that he wasn’t either extemporising from his slides nor clicking through them to go with his paper. He just had his presentation timed so exactly that the slide show and the reading went together.

After that, hey for the reception at the Petrie Museum. Wine cups were crushed as though they were the skulls of our enemies. I had been feeling a little unsure of myself, socially, since I’m not very good at meeting people, but with a buzz on and some presentations to talk about it was all good.


On a personal note, I was off to the leaving party of a friend, but I decided to stop in on the way at, you guessed it, Treadwell’s Books. A little more wine, some good chats, books, maybe a little occultism. Then finally to Chiswick for the remaining party.

By the end of Friday I knew I was in for an exceptional weekend: my brain was humming and my feet hurt like hell. Saturday would be more of the same.

Monstrous Antiquities: 1

Movie Monday: El Cid (1961)

If you have been following the blog long, you may have noticed that updates have been a little thin on the ground lately. That’s because I’ve been away, at the aforementioned Monstrous Antiquities conference. Basically, I am still screwing the top of my head back on, and am still prone to walking around exclaiming. In short, it was pretty good. I’ll be summing up the things that I learned over the next week, possibly involving some kind of diagram that includes Julie Schwarz, all of modern horror and lots of bits of string, like Jeffrey Combs in Justice League Unlimited. 

But not now, because today is, after all, Movie Monday! and our movie for this week is another billion-hour-long historical epic, Chuck Heston vehicle El Cid!


Now, as you may know, I both love and hate the Hollywood historical epic: love because they are big and beautiful and there are horses thundering across the landscape and castles and stuff, and hate because they are super creepy sexually speaking. I was going to call them “violent porn,” but actually that’s not right, because I believe that people are at least mostly OK with separating porn from reality, and certainly from dating advice, but I do think that portraying this kind of stuff as an idealised relationship is … well.

What double-grinds me about it is that mostly these types of things misuse the history in order to provide some image of a violent, more “natural” world where primal sweaty men lack modern scruples in a way that women are supposed to find attractive, and I just don’t know what to call it.


Ah, thanks, The School of Venus. I knew it was something like that.

So am I going to find this in El Cid? We’ll find out in a moment. But first, a little background.

The legendary hero El Cid was a real person, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar. He wasn’t known during his lifetime as “El Cid,” a term which comes from Arabic sayyid, “lord.” He does seem to have been known as the Campeador, or “Master of the Battlefield,” during his lifetime — he even signed his name with that title — and that sounds pretty hard all by itself. Most of the stories relating to El Cid come from a series of poems and stories written about him in the middle ages. There aren’t a huge number, which is one of the nice things about him. You could read all of the textual sources on a day where you had nothing else to do, or over a week where you had a couple of long train rides. At least one of them, Poem of the Cid, is available in Penguin.

The historical Cid fought in the 11th-century wars of the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain. These are conventionally called the Reconquista, or reconquest, even though that “re” is a bit of a cheek. It’s not like the Visigoths had been in Spain that long when Muslim invaders turfed them out, but “Reconquista” makes it sound like a grim resistance against invaders rather than conquering some kingdoms you had once held for a bit hundreds of years previously. Whatever.

Anyway, the interesting thing about El Cid (or maybe not so interesting) is that he fought for Christian states against Muslim ones, for Christian states against other Christian ones, and even for Muslim rulers. Borders and sides weren’t as clear-cut in the 11th century as you might expect. Anyway, the poems probably aren’t accurate about the historical Cid, but they give you some kind of idea of his badass reputation, and the contemporary sources give an outline of his career. It’ll do. Anyway, the film:

I watched this once before, on a really beat-up VHS copy that came from a public library during a period of unemployment. It was so dark that I didn’t really appreciate the film. In fact, it looks pretty good. It has all the things I like about the 50s-and-60s Hollywood epics, with the sumptuous colours and the big boomity-boom score and the horses and so on. And it’s got a good cast: I mean, say what you like about Heston, and I have, but he can act.

Now, we see the usual thing here, which is that you have the basic outline of the Cid legend: good relationships with Muslims, the enemy within, the marriage to Dona Jimena, working for Sancho but being on the outs with Alfonso. The love-story aspect is way played up, and it’s handled … interestingly. More on that in a minute.

Obviously, it’s a bit heavy-handed. The thing that really gets me is the first scene, where Chuck helps a priest whose church has been burned down and literally carries a cross.


And throughout the film there’s a lot of bravest-of-the-brave, truest-of-the-true stuff about him. And that’s consistent with the Cid stories, but it’s still a bit much. However, the film does portray how being that guy can really mess someone up. When he decides to not just shank his Muslim captives, the movie gives Rodrigo some really confused lines:

I’m not sure it was right … it happened strangely … Suddenly, I thought, why are we killing each other?

It’s a bit half-assed, but it does suggest that he is at least a little confused about what happens when you go against core societal tenets, whereas historical-movie heroes often act like they just travelled back from the 21st century and have never even heard of the society they grew up in.

That same kind of awkward inevitability of violence pervades the love story. So, Heston’s going to marry Sophia Loren, but when he’s accused of treason (for the aforementioned non-shanking) his dad defends him, insulting her dad in the process, and her dad slaps him in the mug, and one thing leads to another and before you know it he’s killed her dad. Paradoxically, this gets him back in the king’s good books, and he even agrees to let him marry her, but she is not having it, getting married to the guy who stabbed her beloved father.

So there’s all this doominess to it: you get the impression she still loves him, but he killed her dad. He doesn’t want to fight her dad, but he won’t apologise. And the dad even says he’d like to apologise to Michael Hordern (Chuck’s dad), but he doesn’t know how to. I mean, it’s pretty basic honour-tragedy stuff, but it’s nice to see some ambiguity about the stabbing.

So when they get married, Heston is just kind of bumbling around trying to make things right but kind of making them worse, Loren runs off to a nunnery, he does the force-kiss thing and she just backs off. It’s kind of great. Whereas in The Vikings and The Conqueror the sweaty leatherface kisses the girl and she initially hates it but then gives on, here she responds (because, you know, she did once love him) and then goes “wait, wait, no, you killed my dad”. Which is quite reasonable. And then he lets her go.

I’m not saying that makes him a great guy, it’s just nice to see a character in this thing acing like a fucked-up and confused human being instead of a leathery dickbot.

The main baddies in the film are the Almoravids, who are portrayed as loonbag religious extremists and contrasted with the moderate, reasonable Andalusian Muslims. That may be a grotesque oversimplification, but it’s always nice to see Herbert Lom in things, so I can’t complain.

The portrayal of the Muslim characters is … I want to say that it’s really good for 1961. By that I mean that they’re portrayed as humans, some good, some bad, and not automatically worthy of murderising. On the other hand, they still look like this:


So you can’t have everything.

The Spanish costumes are a bit more reasonable, although like a lot of films about the 11th century and earlier, they draw on later medieval designs and have a bunch of Hollywood fantasy in them. Some are so outrageous that they have to be authentic:

Hell yeah.
Hell yeah. Castille what.

There is some pretty good use of things like wall painting to help liven up the castles and whatnot:


So, yeah. It’s pretty OK. There are anachronisms, and there’s a lot of fantasy, but a lot of it is genuine medieval fantasy. For instance, one of the Cid poems calls Jimena’s father Gomez de Gormaz, while another calls him Count Diego of Oviedo. Neither is known to history. The movie calls him Gomez of Oviedo, which I think is kind of neat.

At two and a half hours, it really shows its length. Every so often, you wish that Charlton Heston would stop hitting the other guy on the sword and just get it over with. For the most part, though, it keeps the attention — a lot of stuff happens in it, which as you know is something I appreciate.

So yeah. I’m not sure if I rate it so highly because it shows a little bit of interest in the history, because it is as pro-not-having-racial-hatred as a 1961 film can be, because it is less sexually questionable than its predecessors or what, but I quite enjoyed it. When I do Movie Monday I usually have the movie open on one monitor while I work on the other one, and this week I kept finding myself getting caught up in the film and forgetting what I was doing, which is a good sign. Mind you, was also true for Becket, it’s just that that is an easy movie to get all of by just listening.

Tomorrow: ghouls and ghosts and what have you.

Movie Monday: El Cid (1961)