For decades, Hollywood and other entertainment outlets have depicted archaeologists as globe-trotting treasure hunters with a thirst for adventure, a taste for shiny trinkets, and a flagrant disregard for the integrity and safety of the ancient sites they’re trespassing on. Lost cities are a staple plot point of your average archaeological adventure and encounters with the mystical and/or paranormal are almost a certainty. Despite the best efforts of professional archaeologists and academics to portray their profession in a more accurate light, the “adventurer archaeologist” trope shows little sign of abating. And, let’s be honest, the Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider franchises might not have had the success they’ve had if the protagonists had spent their time excavating and writing up reports…
In his Samantha Sutton novels, author and archaeologist Jordan Jacobs went to great lengths to not only introduce his readers to the theories and practice of scientific archaeology but also contrast real archaeology with that seen in films and video games. Enter “Pillager of the Past”, the fictional video game series which makes several appearances throughout the first two Samantha Sutton novels and stars a wily female treasure hunter bearing an uncanny resemblance to both Indiana Jones and a certain Ms Croft. And, yes, the similarities are entirely intentional.
The Pillager of the Past first appears early in the first novel, Labyrinth of Lies, and happens to be Samantha’s brother Evan’s favourite video game series. The object of the games, we’re told, is to dig up and sell ancient artefacts with the goal of making as much money on the black market as possible. Each game highlights a variety of different locations and ancient civilisations, ranging from the Neolithic ruins of Stonehenge in England to the Scythian settlements of the Central Asian steppes, and features a number of mythical or historic bosses, such as Ötzi the Iceman, who throws exploding mammoth tusk spears and shoots ice beams from his tattoos, and a Chinese dragon that can be killed by a stab to a weak spot on his tail, which reminds me of a certain final boss from Tomb Raider II.
Samantha harbours a strong dislike for the games due to their focus on looting ancient sites and the historical and geographical inaccuracies within them, such as the presence of European Neanderthals in Africa’s Olduvai Gorge and the presence of Aztec calendars in a level based in Peru (just like in Tomb Raider I). So, at one end of the spectrum, you have Samantha who rolls her eyes at any misrepresentation of archaeology in popular culture and at the other end, you have her brother, Evan, who wishes archaeology was more like the variety he’s used to in his video games. In reality, most archaeologists seem to fall somewhere in the middle: condemning the treasure-hunting and looting aspects of Indiana Jones and similar franchises while also being grateful to these franchises for popularising archaeology. You’d be amazed how many academics cite Dr Jones or Lara Croft as one of the reasons they got into archaeology.
Regardless of our personal feelings towards them, these fictional adventurers have become the faces of archaeology and have influenced the way the general public view the profession. In a bid to sensationalise “real” archaeology and appeal to the masses, the media will often refer to professional archaeologists as “the real-life Indiana Jones”. And some archaeologists, perhaps hoping to cash in on that particular connection, have embraced this and have taken to wearing fedoras in front of the camera (the controversial Egyptologist Zahi Hawass being a prime example). Archaeology has become almost inextricably linked to the exploits of these fictional adventurers and author Jordan Jacobs will be drawing further parallels between his novels and the Tomb Raider games in his upcoming novel, Samantha Sutton and the Temple of Traitors.
The third Samantha Sutton novel, which will be out in spring/summer 2015, will be set in Cambodia and will explore the way archaeology and archaeologists are depicted in popular culture. In Warrior Queen, Jacobs hinted at one of the major plot points of his upcoming novel: a movie adaptation of Evan’s favourite game series, Pillager of the Past. And where better to set his novel than a place made famous by our own beloved pillager, Lady Lara Croft? Let’s see what adventures lie in store for the Sutton family later this year… 😉
An Interview with the Author
Jordan Jacob’s Pillager of the Past is set to play a major role in his upcoming novel, Samantha Sutton and the Temple of Traitors, so I took it upon myself to ask the author and archaeologist what he thought of the Tomb Raider franchise, how he felt about the depiction of archaeology in popular culture, and whether his Samantha Sutton series could inspire a new generation of young aspiring archaeologists.
Kelly M (KM) – The similarities between the Pillager of the Past series in your novels and the Tomb Raider series are pretty unmistakable. Are you a fan of the Tomb Raider games/films?
Jordan Jacobs (JJ) – I’m a long-time, unabashed Tomb Raider fan. Of the games, mostly, but I enjoyed the movies, too! During my freshman year in college, I burned through my keyboard on a demo of the then brand-new Tomb Raider 2. Yeah, a DEMO! Just one small piece of the Great Wall level! I knew every nook and cranny pretty quickly, but was too cheap to buy the whole game. It was only when I had my first job that I sprang for Last Revelation and Chronicles. Of these, Last Revelation was – well – a revelation. I eventually got to know every nook and cranny of that one, too. Fast forward to last year, when the reboot served as downtime during a great but exhausting stretch of paternity leave. I loved all the back story, and am excited to see where it gets taken next.
KM – I think it’s fair to say that paperback novels, Hollywood, and the gaming industry are largely responsible for depicting archaeologists as little more than treasure hunters and looters. Did you write the Samantha Sutton novels as a way of introducing younger readers to the realities of archaeology as an academic field and career?
JJ – That’s definitely been the plan. There’s this horrible mantra you hear when many archaeologists describe their work to the public: “Archaeology is not as exciting as Indiana Jones“. I say “Baloney”. It’s different, but it’s just as big a thrill. Think of the big stories in the last year alone: Richard III, Amphipolis, the LiDAR discoveries in Cambodia. Better than anything in movies or games. And sure, your typical contract, CRM excavation doesn’t involve royals or revolutionary insights into how a mighty empire was structured, but I have yet to experience awe as humbling and intimate as finding the thumbprint of an ancient potter on a tiny potsherd, or finding all the ceramic limbs of a long-ago child’s treasured doll. Samantha’s adventures encompass both sorts of excitement – the thrill of scientific discovery, and the various conflicts, values and very real dangers that surround archaeological work. If it convinces more kids to pursue archaeology as a profession, I’ll be pleased, but I’d be satisfied if it just raises consciousness of what unique experiences and information the science has to offer.
KM – I’ve heard that your upcoming novel, Samantha Sutton and the Temple of Traitors, will be set in Cambodia and will tackle the issue of how archaeology and archaeologists are depicted in video games and movies. Do you feel these entertainment industries have a duty to improve the way they portray archaeology and would it make a difference? Are people just naturally more attracted to the action-packed adventures of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft?
JJ – For the most part, I have no problem with individual movies or games that sensationalise certain aspects of archaeology. This makes me less like Samantha Sutton and more like her uncle Jay in that I tend to give even the most egregious fictional representations of the science a pass. What Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones both do well, and why I think they’re both successful, is that they tap into the very real and very unique excitement of encountering physical remnants of the past. Yeah, Lara would be a horrendous archaeologist–though of course she’s not an archaeologist at all. Indy’s skills are a little harder to gauge, since I think anyone facing off against the entire Third Reich should get the benefit of the doubt. But both series are escapism and entertainment, and I trust that most people–kids included–are not so impressionable as to think that these stories or characters mirror the real world in any substantive way.
That said, I do think that the totality of how archaeology is presented in pop culture is problematic. Worst of all are the schlocky TV shows purporting to be truthful, which are really anything but. For example, I have no patience for the “Archaeo-alien-ology” shows, which, for the most part, feed off the racist idea that non-Western peoples had to have some kind of help to produce amazing things.
There needs to be something to balance out the sensationalism. I hope that my series demonstrates to young readers that archaeology is exciting and interesting in its actual practice.
KM – Last but not least, do you have plans for a fourth novel? It’s a big world with countless archaeological sites to explore so there’s no shortage of places for Miss Sutton to visit.
JJ – I hope so! It’s a big, big world out there, indeed, and I’d love for Samantha to explore more of its archaeology. But let’s first see if she gets through book 3 alive…
I’d like to thank Jordan Jacobs for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions and for his spectacular work on the Samantha Sutton series.
Would you like to know more about the Samantha Sutton series? Then check out my review of the first two books, Labyrinth of Lies and Winter of the Warrior Queen or visit the author’s website.
- Book Review: The Samantha Sutton Series by Jordan Jacobs
- 10 Biographies of Early Female Archaeologists & Explorers
- Article: Romancing the Stones: Archaeology in Popular Cinema
- Article: Heroes, Mummies & Treasure: Near Eastern Archaeology in the Movies