Wrapping the Fear: Egyptian Mummies and the Portrayal of Archaeology in the Cinema (I)

It is obvious that these day of grant applications are not being very productive from the scientific point of view, since the only posts I can think of are based on the movies I watch to relax at the end of the day. So, let us take advantage of this and analyse in a new series of posts the cinematographic history of the most prominent creature in archaeological films: the Egyptian mummy.the_mummy_1932_film_poster

Almost all films I am going to review in the following weeks share a some common traits and leitmotifs, regardless of the story they tell. And this is indeed a very interesting point, because these traits have greatly influenced the vision society has of archaeology and, at the same time, demonstrates how society has not moved much on how non-western cultures are perceived, despite some of these traits are, to say the least, not comfortable at all. Why is the mummy, and not any of the other monsters of the rich mythologies of the Mediterranean, the most successful cinematographic creature? Many will think that Tutankhamen is the culprit, but as we will see soon, he is a surprisingly late guest on this story. The mummy has worked better than, let us say, the Cyclops, because it is from “a far away land”, it is exotic, which is basically the same thing that saying it is not white. The peplum genre, even in the cases where mythology plays an important role (see my post on Jason and the Argonauts), tends to look for more historical, hence more “real” narratives in their movies. Egypt is a far away land covered in mystery, where superstition tries to prevent the triumph of science and order, of enlightenment, this is, of the white archaeologists working in excavations.

Before getting into the topic let me clarify one aspect of this series that may get confusing on my analyses of the different films. They reflect the audiences and values of the time they were shot and, whether we like it or not, they also reflect some of the premises and values of how archaeology was practised at the day. I do not intend to spoil the fun of watching any of them by being hypercritical, at least with most of them (some just cannot be saved), but it is important to remember that beyond the story line there is a social and historical context we need to acknowledge and reflect upon. This is, in fact, one of the goals of this series.

mummy
Cast of The Mummy 1999, one of the best (and less problematic) films of the genre.

The analysis of “mummy films” and their gender and colonial narratives has taken place from multitude of angles: scholars specialised on the history of the cinema have produced extensive studies on both the historical development of these films and some of the narratives, especially colonial and post-colonial ones, that take place on the story. Archaeology plays a central, mostly negative role in these analyses, with one study in particular even equating it to rape (Corriou 2015). But which archaeology is analysed, the fictional one of the film or the real one? Is it thehe one coetaneous to the time the film was made or to the time the film was set? These posts intend to analyse both earlier debates and these new questions in an attempt to explore how these mummy films have shaped the social perception of archaeology. Archaeology, especially as practised in the Interwar Period, is guilty of some of the negative images presented in the cinema, but the contributions of archaeologists who faced their work in these supremacist conditions and worked hard to protect the interest of local communities deserves as well some consideration. Unfortunately, some of these topics never abandoned us, and we still need to work hard as a discipline, not only as isolated scholars, to banish for example eurocentric perceptions of the past and gender biases.

In the next post I will analyse the origins of the myth of the vengeful mummy, and how Victorian and Edwardian literature helped to shape the narrative that got later depicted on film. Many of these works, such as The Ring of Thoth (1890) and Lot No. 249 (1892) (published in a collection of short stories by Doyle 1919) or The Jewel of Seven Stars by the very author of Dracula (Stoker 1903) can be accessed at Gutenberg Project under a Creative Commons license, so if you want some spooky bedtime reading have a look at some of the short stories before next week’s post. You can also check some of initial reflections on this topic in an earlier post about the classics 1932 Mummy film. One thing you can be sure about, you will never see archaeology and mummies in the same manner.

Further Reading:

Corriou, N. 2015. ‘A Woman is a Woman, if She had been Dead Five Thousand Centuries!’:Mummy Fiction, Imperialism and the Politics of Gender Miranda. Revue pluridisciplinaire du monde anglophone / Multidisciplinary peer-reviewed journal on the English-speaking world. http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/6899.

Doyle, A.C. 1919. The Great Keinplatz Experiment and Other Tales of Twilight and the Unseen. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/32777.

Stoker, B. 1903. The Jewel of Seven Stars. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3781.

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