Why We Don’t Need More Films About White Archaeologists

When I heard about the new Netflix film, “The Dig” (2021), I’ll admit I wasn’t that excited.

Maybe I’m disillusioned by all of the talks, conferences, and workshops on anti-racism, and the ongoing commentary on Classics’ white supremacist foundations. My first thought when I saw the trailer was: “Do we really need more films about white archaeologists?”

It’s 2021; we know BIPOC archaeologists exist. Where’s the representation?

The Dig was released on Netflix on January 29, 2021

Anyway, I watched it, more so that I could say that I did and so that I could write this blog post from an informed perspective. This is not a review of the film. Consider it instead a review of the great mess that is the lack of diversity in films about archaeology.

Disclaimer: I know that this is a film based on a real story, and that it’s possible that there were simply no people of color involved in this particular dig. But the point I’m trying to make here isn’t just about why there aren’t any POC in this film. It’s about why we don’t get stories about archaeologists of color in popular media in general.

If you want to learn more about Sutton Hoo, check out this video by TashArchaeo:

Now I have no real, tangible way of rectifying this glaring lack of representation in archaeology films. But if you know any television and/or film executives, feel free to share this post with them.

Archaeologists in film

“Those of us who aren’t white have been subjected to having to identify with the lives of white main characters since film began” – Reni Eddo-Lodge

I always feel like a fraud whenever I reveal that I only watched the Indiana Jones films as recently as 2019. They weren’t a big part of my life growing up.

I’d been conditioned to view them with disdain since I didn’t want to be associated with the Harrison Ford brand of archaeology. I was a real, serious archaeologist. (This was mostly because I’d often be asked during pottery washing at the Athenian Agora if what I did was like Indiana Jones.)

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones

This is a common concern with films about archaeology: the accuracy of the film’s depiction of archaeology. It’s never about the people who are cast in the film as archaeologists.

But looking back on the films that did inspire me, I’ve noticed an underlying trend regarding representation. All of the depictions of archaeologists I was exposed to featured white main characters.

This is not a dig at those films. I still love The Mummy and the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. But it’s disheartening to think that all of my role models growing up were people who didn’t look like me. 

It’s a wonder I wasn’t put off from archaeology by that realization alone.

Why should we care about representation?

“We are told that black actors and actresses cast as central characters in works of fiction are unrealistic. We are told that they are historically inaccurate, or that they are too far a stretch of the imagination” – Reni Eddo-Lodge

I come back to Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race often these days.

In particular, Eddo-Lodge’s discussion of the lack of representation in popular media really jumped out at me. She discussed the uproar that occurred over a Black Hermione Granger. However, I thought instead of the more recent commotion around the casting of David Gyasi as Achilles in the Netflix series Troy: Fall of a City

Representation in popular media has always been a thorny subject

The claims of “inaccuracy” simply don’t hold water for films like Indiana Jones, The Mummy, or The Royal Tenenbaums. We know that the individuals studying the ancient world come from diverse backgrounds. Therefore, BIPOC archaeologists in film shouldn’t be such a stretch of the imagination. 

Of course, some might say that simply putting a BIPOC actor into a film about archaeology would be a form of tokenism. This is a very real possibility in diversifying popular media if done improperly.

Tokenism and how to avoid it

Tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself if you think you might be tokenizing BIPOC in your anti-racism efforts:

  • Is the scholarship you’re using actually relevant to the discussion? Does it play a role beyond just padding your syllabus?
  • Are you compensating the labor of BIPOC scholars (whether they’re physically present or not)?
  • If you’re inviting a BIPOC scholar to give a lecture (at a departmental event or in your classroom), is it because you want them to speak about their own research or do you have an agenda?

Similar things can be said about the incorporation of more diverse actors in popular media.

If a filmmaker puts a BIPOC actor into an archaeology film just to ‘diversify’ the cast, this is often manifested in their relegation to a supporting character or villain. This is harmful. The work they’re doing on screen should be integral to the plot, just like BIPOC are integral to our field.

My hope is that we will eventually see more BIPOC main characters in archaeology films. Then BIPOC studying and practicing (and aspiring to) archaeology can see themselves doing this work and really feel like they belong.

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