Monstrous Antiquities: Wrap-up

So, there you have it. The four posts below sum up my experience of the conference, and they are full of links and goodness.

As for me, obviously I had a great time. Like I said, I am still trying to get the lid back on my head. This may be because the things I’ve been thinking about recently have been largely Victorian adventure and horror fiction as well as comic books and so on. I think I may be doing that thing that we all do when we reach a certain age where we attempt to locate ourselves within the general progress of Western culture. It’s like when you realise that Jack Kirby was a genius and Roy Lichtenstein was … not. Or that wargame miniatures draw on the vocabulary of monumental sculpture. Or … something.

I’m not making sense, which is probably because it’s late. I guess what I’m saying is that for me (and probably for no one else; I’m just an outsider to the topic) the conference really showed me the ways in which archaeology and art and folklore and occultism and charlatanism and quackery are all bound up with each other. And that isn’t necessarily weird — there was a book some years ago now about the influence of archaeology on Seamus Heaney, and if it’s influencing modern poetry then why can’t it be influencing video games? Blah blah blah everything is interconnected. Maybe that’s it.

I think that for me personally the history/archaeology impulse and the sci-fi/horror/nerdery impulse are very closely linked, in the sense that they are connected to my love of incompleteness and systems and the feeling of being on the borders of the unknown. That’s why I always like things that are weird and fragmentary and marginal.

As for the conference itself, it was brilliant. I liked that it was thematically tight enough that the papers wound up commenting on and tying into each other (especially the Egyptology ones) and that it was still broad enough to admit a lot of very diverse papers. It felt like a sweet spot to me. I thought the Petrie film night was fantastic, and I would have loved to have seen more of that kind of thing, although maybe not more 90-minute films. But surely there must be some way to work in, I don’t know, an art show or a field trip or something? Not necessarily this conference, I just mean in general. But if people want it to be this conference that would be fine too. I’m just saying the variety was great. Crowd was good, conversations were good, and there wasn’t one paper where I went “uff, I’m just sitting through this one.” And that’s a one-track conference. I’ve been to conferences where I was in a session that was entirely about my specialist field and found myself thinking “I have no idea why I’m listening to this.” Not that a paper is bad necessarily, just that it says nothing to me. But not here.

I’ve thanked everyone already, I think, but I know that doing a gig like that is a lot of work, so, you know, thanks again to the organisers, to the other speakers, to the volunteers, and to you, reader, for coming along to the blog to read about it. I hope you stick around. Not to be a shill or anything, but there’s a contest on Friday and you could win some inexpensive prizes. I’m just saying.

Monstrous Antiquities: Wrap-up

Monstrous Antiquities: 3

OK, we’re back for the third in what will probably be a four-part series on my time at the Monstrous Antiquities conference at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL last weekend. As you have probably gathered by now, I had a grand old time. Today we’ll be covering the papers that closed out Saturday, the film night that evening and, if there’s time, the first couple of papers from Sunday. That said, onward!

The first paper after lunch was by Marek Kukula from the Royal Observatory: “‘The Accursed Galaxy’: Astronomy, archaeology and the appeal of cosmic horror.” And it was the business. You know, here’s the public face of British astronomy talking about Jack Vance in a way that indicates that he actually knows what he’s talking about. He opened up with a Pascal quote: “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me …”.

So, key points: astronomy is, in many respects, looking directly in the past. When you look up at stars, you are of course seeing light that took hundreds, thousands, even millions of years to reach you. And the scale of astronomical antiquities is vast. Prehistorians can have ten-thousand-year margins for error in their work, longer than the entirety of history. Geologists think prehistorians are fooling themselves about their work being old. And astronomers think geologists are on some bullshit.*

(*If you are an angry geologist, that was me, not him. I mean, it was me, not him whether you are an angry geologist or not, but you know what I mean.)

“Alternative” theories came up again, and we were introduced to the technical term used in astronomy, which is the same as the one we use in archaeology:


waaaaaaaaait for it ….


And then it’s a bewildering tour of the history of ideas in proper Fortean style, best represented by a lunatic with some coloured string, but here represented for technical reasons by bullet points:

  • The Curiosity rover is doing digs on Mars. Dont’ look in the hole!
  • The eruption of Tambora in April 1815 coloured Turner’s sunsets, caused the Year Without a Summer, which in turned caused Mary Shelley et al. to be stuck inside in bad weather, which in turn caused Frankenstein, which in turn basically caused science fiction.
  • Lovecraft was scared witless by the implications of astronomical deep time. (And interestingly, unlike most people, astronomy rather than geology was where HPL got his deep time fear — he loved astronomy. Even the name Necromonicon may be derived from a poem called the Astronomicon.)
  • Plus also Jack Vance, whose deep-time-ness extends into the future rather than the past.
  • And M. John Harrison, come to that.
  • And a whole lot of other stuff I haven’t put in my notes, like the face on Mars, astronomical alignment of the Pyramids (which caused the above comment), archaeoastronomy in general, all that kind of thing. In twenty minutes!


Anyhow, this actually did me a big favour, since I was up next and my talk had been haphazardly cut down from its hour-long version. I rushed through a bunch of stuff about Lovecraft and the post-Lovecraftian Mythos, especially focusing on the use of archaeology in “The Rats in the Walls,” The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Long story short: Lovecraft feared being cut off from his heritage, which he regarded as an actually meaningless but symbolically very important source of strength. (And if you want to say that this is how Pillars of Sanity work in Trail of Cthulhu, I think that makes sense.) But naturally, since it was something that Lovecraft relied on to keep himself happy and healthy, he spent his fiction smashing it to bits, and archaeology here serves as the wrecking ball. Post-Lovecraft Mythos authors have not pursued this theme, possibly because they don’t share HPL’s concern with heritage.

Last up was Egyptologist W. J. Tait, whose talk was about monsters — and specifically why Egyptian legend doesn’t seem to have a lot of the kinds of monsters that other types of folklore have, such as giants or ogres. Even in the story of Sinuhe, which has been described as the Egyptian David and Goliath story the antagonist isn’t a giant. This is another presentation where I wish I had been taking photographs, because I know less than nothing about Egypt, so my main concern is monsters, and ancient Egyptian monsters look either very cool or completely fucked up. (Interestingly, Lovecraft wrote a story that ends with this as the dramatic reveal.) They’re often a combination of (to paraphrase the talk) “dangerous beasts, fire and knives,” which not coincidentally is the new title of my forthcoming album.

I don’t think I caught the answer to why there are no giants, as I was frantically scribbling scary monster descriptions in my notebook, which shows you where my priorities are. So apologies for that.

So then it was movie time. Well, more accurately it was dinner time. I ran off and ate, taking the opportunity to finish This Book Is Full of Spiders. Then back to the Petrie Museum for Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm.

Oh lordy.

Now, as it happens, I like a good bad movie, so I was well-served by the movie evening. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, because if you are the kind of person who is reading my blog, then there is a better-than-average likelihood that you are the kind of person who wants to see this film. But let me make a brief digression.

When I was young (judging by the date of the film, about 10 or 11), there was a poster for this film in the Horror section of my local video store, Midtown Video. And this was in the glory days of the local video store, of course, before the big chains dominated but after VHS had been around long enough for places to have a good selection. I was in there pretty frequently, and I always looked at that poster with a mixture of weird chills and incipient adolescent perviness.

Oh, don't look at me like that.
Oh, don’t look at me like that.

Now, here is a small spoiler: this poster represents an actual scene from the film, in which Hugh Grant puts speakers on the top of his house and plays snake-charmer music in order to lure evil snake-woman Amanda Donohoe out of her house so that Peter Capaldi and, erm, thingy, his love interest, can break into the place and rescue her sister. The love interest’s, that is, not Amanda Donohoe. And when the music plays, she rises up out of a basket and does a little sashay-y snake dance to the door and leaves.

I just want to see what was going on five minutes before that. What could she possibly have been doing in a basket? Like, it’s Thursday night, nothing on, so I’ll put on my vinyl villain outfit and four-inch heels and sit in a wicker basket. With the lid on! How did she even get it closed? And what did she do once she had closed it? Did she have her library book in there?

But what you’re asking yourself is “yes, James, the plots of horror movies don’t make much sense, but does this have the necessary level of anarchic goofiness and over-the-top shock?” And the answer is, well, yes, kind of. It is full of suspect acting, and the last fifteen or twenty minutes are just a carnival of absurdity that I wish I could tell you about but can’t without spoilers.

Anyway, see for yourself. Note: not even remotely safe for work and also probably copyright violation, so you should, you know, buy it if you can. It’s less than a tenner on DVD.

I have also just downloaded the book by Bram Stoker for the ol’ Kindle. I’ll be interested to see how much of the original survives into the film. I’m going to go ahead right now and say I bet the attempted dildo murder is not in the original. But I could be wrong.

I love this idea. I love the fact that the Petrie Museum has a film club. If the Whipple Museum of the History of Science had sci-fi film nights I’d die of dehydration in there. I love all that arts-engagement stuff, as who doesn’t, but naturally I’m particularly fond of it when it’s trashy, geeky and disreputable. I am sad I didn’t have any popcorn, but you can’t have everything.

OK, I know I said I would try to do Sunday morning next, but this is pretty long already and I need to be getting back to work. Stay tuned on Friday for Sunday, I guess.

Monstrous Antiquities: 3

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