Cartoon Corner: Spider-Woman (1979)

I have written in the past about superheroes and archaeology, largely inspired by the papers given at the Monstrous Antiquities conference back in November. Today, I just want to point out that there is a surprising amount of archaeology in the 1979 Spider-Woman cartoon … or, well … sort of. 

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Spider-Woman cartoon, but it seems to have been largely an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Wonder Woman, right down to the spinning transformation, here called a “spider-spin.” And yeah, you know you’re back in the olden days when Marvel is trying to cash in on a DC property. 

Anyway, the cartoon basically resembles what you’d get if you got one of the less grounded Bronze Age creators (poor old Bill Mantlo, perhaps, or maybe Bob Kanigher (I may mean Bob Haney)) and just fed them an absolute shitload of cough syrup and told them to have at it, oh, and to try to work in something educational to satisfy the FCC. Maybe the easiest way for you to see what I mean about this show’s bizarre mix of earnestness and foolery is just to watch an episode. 

Our very first episode is “Pyramids of Terror,” and it kicks off with Spider-Man being in Egypt (for some reason) where he is captured by a villainous mummy. Spider-Woman, her bumbling sidekick and her plucky sidekick go off to Egypt following a series of mummy attacks, and then … erm … 



It turns out, right, that these mummies came from space in their pyramid ships and were buried under the sands of Egypt lo these many years ago, and I guess they inspired ancient Egyptian culture, because why not? The classic motif of the Sphinx shooting beams out of its eyes is gone one better here — not only does it have eyebeams, but if the beams hit you, they turn you into a mummy!


Eventually, Spider-Woman realises that the motive force behind the alien spaceships is, no fooling, Pyramid Power and uses her webbing to turn the lead ship into a cube. 


It’s like a checklist of pop culture Egypt: 

  • ambulatory mummy
  • did ancient astronauts …?
  • Pyramid Powah!

So this is all well and good, but what’s weird is that it keeps happening. Spider-Woman is a very globe-trotting sort of heroine, and she winds up in contact with a lot of past-type stuff. 

She goes back to the 10th century to fight some Vikings: 


Fights some Amazons in a vaguely Mexico-ish sort of Amazon temple thing:

Seriously, I think the statue:eyebeams ratio is about 1:1.
Seriously, I think the statue:eyebeams ratio is about 1:1.

And there’s a few more temples and castles as well. Apparently it all gets a bit more UFO-y in the later seasons, but I’m not there yet. I really just wanted to share that mummy episode with people because, you know, pink pyramid spaceship with sphinx-shaped mummy-ray turret. 

Cartoon Corner: Spider-Woman (1979)

People will do unbelievably fucked-up things with corpses: 1

OK, before I begin, I had as many entries to the contest as prize packets. Which is cool — everyone wins — but I don’t want people to think that they only won for that reason! I really liked all of the entries. I don’t know if I can pick a grand prize winner, so I’m just going to spread them out evenly. Watch this space for the actual banners. 

Anyway, with the admin out of the way, let’s talk about burials. Obviously, this is a subject near and dear to my heart, because a) I spent the better part of a decade thinking about burials like every day, and I still think about them quite a lot, and b) burials are way more interesting to most people than most other archaeological topics. You tell someone about the domestication of wheat (or whatever), chances are they’re probably not too excited. But a plastered skull, that’s some shit. 

Now, in my period, the middle ages, you get some odd stuff. For instance, hoity-toity types like the house of Habsburg-Lorraine in the late middle ages and post-medieval period had a lot of commitments. They needed to show their connection to several different churches, monastic orders, you name it. The solution was ingenious. 

When a Habsburg died, he or she was eviscerated. The heart was put in one urn, the intestines in the other and the eviscerated body in a coffin. The deceased was then buried in three different places, spreading the royal patronage around a bit and encouraging pilgrimage. It’s an extreme example, but that kind of thing was not uncommon throughout the medieval period. In this case it went on well into the modern era. They mixed it up a bit, too, in a complex pattern of who was excluded from where that is detailed in a fascinating article by Estella Weiss-Krejci. For instance, the body of Habsburg wife Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg (d. 1829) is buried in the main vault — and so are her entrails and heart, which should usually have been sent to different churches. Henrietta’s body was included in the family vault, but her Protestant innards weren’t welcome in the other churches. 

They also left out the guy who assassinated a close relative. Fair enough. 

But to achieve true creep-power overload, let’s go back — way back — to the origins of human civilisation. Let’s take a look at some skulls from Jericho: 


Holes filled in, eyes replaced with shells … that is a pretty fucked-up ancestral memento to want to keep in your house. Here are some other examples from a site in Israel: 


Look at the shifty expression that guy on the left is wearing.

I don’t have a good image of this but there’s a burial from some Neolithic site of a woman cradling one of these goddamn things, looking into its fakey dead eyes for all eternity. I think the idea is that your grief over your dead relative will be driven out by the stark nightmare of her burial? 

But then again, they may not be relatives. At Catalhoyuk in Turkey, burials under the floors of houses were long presumed to be dead ancestors. Creepy, but you get the idea — they are the “foundations” of the house or whatever. Observe: 



Only they may not be ancestors after all. An article in 2011 pointed out that there isn’t really any evidence from the skeletons that the people buried under the floors were related to each other. The authors suggest that this means there was some other principle of association going on here other than boring old biological kinship, like the house itself was some kind of family unit. But that is putting quite a brave face on it, surely. Maybe the basis for a family’s success in Catalhoyuk was the collection of murder victims they hid under their floors. 


People will do unbelievably fucked-up things with corpses: 1