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.

pic0105-colette007

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.

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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.

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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.

800px-2009_1027_165328AA_Petrie_Museum,_London

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

Occasionally I am a little bit serious

I am presenting at a conference on November 2nd! You can read more about it here.

It’s called Monstrous Antiquities: Archaeology and the Uncanny in Popular Culture, and my presentation is on Archaeology, Memory and Identity in the Fiction of H P Lovecraft. There’s a lot of other stuff I’m excited to see, too — if you don’t look at the titles in the link above and go “ooh,” I assume you are a close personal friend who reads my blog out of niceness.

I haven’t done a conference in like … four or five years? So that will be interesting. I am really looking forward to it.

Sorry for this short post; I have an early start tomorrow. Something a little more robust then, perhaps.

Occasionally I am a little bit serious