Years of pestilence
The medieval fleet
Editor Simon Denison
Lara Croft, a hitherto unknown archaeologist, at least in learned journals, has appeared on the scene bringing a novel technical approach. She goes into action not with a trowel, a bucket of pegs and a hand tape but with some serious weaponry. Her excavating strategy is to arrive at speed, briefly survey the scene, suss out that the answer is, for instance, to amalgamate small find a with small find b, follow this up with a mighty shoot up with the statuary, blow up the site and then away home to her base - a Jacobean mansion.
(By the way, for those not yet up to speed with Lara, she is a Tomb Raider. Boys help her fire her guns on their PCs upstairs - that's what the noise is - and she has now made it to the big screen.)
It's unlikely that her methods will catch on. If Lara Croft were to direct excavations the research aims would be, for example, to gain world domination, mastery of the universe or the ability to reverse time, while the risk assessment results would look promising for the director, fair for site supervisors, but poor for the trowellers.This approach isn't going to win many tenders, though some might wonder briefly whether world domination could speed up the post-excavation process - before laughing hollowly.
A further plus might be the absence of finds and hence no need to book space in the local museum. But judging from the mess Lara made of Angkor Wat in her film, English Heritage might be unwilling to see their sites simply disappear and scheduled monument consent would be highly unlikely.
But the interesting thing is, where does the idea come from that sites are wholly malevolent? Lara's role as tomb raider means that she has to get around all the carefully constructed traps beneath which lie the bones of her predecessors. Archaeologists may find a faint echo to the idea of the malice of sites in the well-known Sod's Law, which maintains that everything will be just fractionally in the wrong place or turn up where least expected, as anyone will tell you who has explained yet again that that exciting find unfortunately came from the spoil heap (ie, it was brought into the finds hut by a toddler).
But in this law, Sod emerges as someone who has suffered like us, and the law is simply a reflection of the hand that fate deals us. Lara's law on the other hand is one of a definite enemy to be overcome through superior fire power.
Perhaps it is the extreme slowness of our methods and the modesty of our research aims in comparison to Lara's that save us from being clubbed to death in our tents at night by the site's guardians. Archaeology is, methodologically, one of the great examples of the principle of deferred gratification. We know the pay dirt is 2m down but we start with painstakingly recording absolutely everything that's immediately under the topsoil as though this might tell us anything. Then we dig the boring peripheral bits first in great detail, and approach the real nitty gritty as circumspectly as possible. It takes us an age to get where the tomb raider would be in ten minutes.
If there is a vast protective system round each site then we breach it by boring the guards to sleep. A computer game based on real archaeology would see our children through a complete holiday.
What we share with Lara Croft is the idea that the answer lies in the past. However the questions we are asking are rather low key - objectives like establishing a pottery type series set the blood racing rather less than conquering time.
Inevitably in the film Lara ends up chucking the key to time away (Was it time? With so much shooting I could hear nothing). She prefers life as it is, and we too tend to find that something alters between the beginning and end of the project, usually the realisation that if we were to do it again we would approach the whole thing rather differently. And that's not something that detains Lara.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005