Fact in Fiction: Examining archaeology’s influence on the speculative genre

By Catherine Hill

Anyone who has a passable knowledge of the works of novelist HP Lovecraft is probably aware of the prominent role that archaeology and intrepid archaeologists hold in some of his more famous works, particularly his classic novel At The Mountains of Madness (1936). There is also reason to believe, as archaeologist Dr. Jeb Card has recently argued (Smith and Card, n.d.), that Lovecraft’s famous Call of Cthulhu (1928) was largely inspired by and draws directly from Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun. Lovecraft’s writings have become a cornerstone of the science fiction genre, so it is therefore not a stretch to say that because archaeology demonstrably influenced Lovecraft, archaeology has also had a role in shaping modern science fiction (Brophy 2014).  However, I think that if one looks elsewhere across media, including not only books and movies but also the plots of video and board games, it becomes apparent that archaeology has had an impact on the formation of speculative fiction as a whole. Speculative fiction has several definitions, but in this case I am using the broadest sense of the term, as defined by the Oxford Research Encyclopedia, which states that speculative fiction is “…a super category for all genres that deliberately depart from imitating ‘consensus reality’ of everyday experience. In this latter sense, speculative fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror.” Through this lens, I think it can be argued that archaeology has had a role in shaping much more than just Lovecraftian inspired science fiction, though to see this influence one might need to take a more detailed look at a wide range of speculative fiction media.

Howard Carter provides a good jumping-off point for this discussion of the relationship between speculative fiction and archaeology, even if one sets aside Carter’s influence on HP Lovecraft. Beyond the realm of science fiction, there is a great deal to be said for the influence of archaeology on the fantasy and horror genres as well.  Though earlier archaeological endeavors inspired many mummy-themed works of horror literature, including Louisa May Alcott’s Lost in a Pyramid (1869) and Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), there was a renaissance of mummy and curse themes in popular media throughout the Egyptomania phase of the 1920s and 30s (Sooke 2014), perhaps best evidenced by the classic 1932 Boris Karloff film, The Mummy. Of course, this fervor over Ancient Egypt reached its peak after the media coverage of the supposed ‘curse of King Tut’ (Pfeiffer 2017), which led to the widely held public belief that the ancient tombs housed vengeful spirits, a superstition that spawned a number of fictional works in the early 1900s. Although the excavation of tombs in Egypt mostly petered off by the mid 20th century, the fascination with ancient Egyptian culture has remained as evidenced by the 1.1 million titles that appear during simple Google searches for things like ‘Pharaoh’s curse novel,’ and, of course, the entire series of Mummy films that began in the 20th century and continue today, drawing big-name actors like Brendan Fraser and Tom Cruise.

However, Egyptology is far from the only type of archaeology to have had such an influence on speculative fiction throughout the years (Anderson 2003). There are many archaeological sites and cultures throughout the world that have long captured the imagination of the public. Accurately or not, the perceptions of these excavations still play into modern fiction in myriad ways. Some prime examples of this phenomenon of fixation on the ancient world include Stonehenge and related megalithic monuments, ancient Greco-Roman sites, and a multitude of American Indian cultures spanning from South America to Canada. These types of sites and cultures make appearances in a wide array of speculative fiction works, such as Bernard Cornwell’s Stonehenge (1999), the The Troy Game series by Sara Douglass, or the horror novel Mapping the Interior (2017) by indigenous author Stephen Graham Jones. While the first two examples mentioned here are fictional stories that take place directly within the framework of known archaeological sites (Stonehenge and Troy, respectively), Mapping the Interior is unique in that it’s plot exists within the wider framework of American Indian culture. While not strictly archaeologically inspired, Mapping the Interior is the product of a long tradition which plays on the mysticism commonly perceived to be part of AmerIndian cultures, which has in turn been informed by centuries of archaeological investigation into indigenous cultures.

While there are plenty of novels that bank on our cultural fascination with well-known ancient cultures and sites, there is also another form of fiction in which these themes are liberally applied–gaming. There is no shortage of games, both video and otherwise, that are based around the stories of discovering lost cities or collecting ancient artifacts. On the board game side, for example, there are the popular games of  Labyrinth or Forbidden Island (in which one can play as an archaeologist, among other things). There is even an entire board game called Stonehenge which includes miniature trilithons (the arrangement of two vertical stones with a horizontal lintel on top, as frequently seen at megalithic sites)! I recently made a quick stop at a local bar that offers a wide selection of board games for customers and was shocked by how many archaeologically-themed games jumped out at me from the shelves; titles such as Imhotep: Builder of Egypt, Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean, Passing through Petra, and the succinctly titled Tikal were just a few of the many ancient-world-themed games based on real knowledge gained from archaeological investigations in places such as Egypt and Mesoamerica.

When it comes to video games, these themes of archaeological discovery and ‘lost treasure’ are no less apparent. Many fantasy and mystery games borrow themes from a wide array of ancient cultures and archaeological discoveries, banking in on exotifying themes of ‘lost’ civilizations, ancient mysteries, and discovery, and often mix multiple cultural sources simultaneously. For example, in the intro to a fantasy/horror themed puzzle game I recently played called Adam Wolfe, a circle of ‘druids’ chanted in Latin while wearing cloaks embroidered with both Celtic iconography and Greek symbols! This mixing phenomenon is frequently the result of ignorance combined with a disregard for the extensive scholarship regarding the unique aspects of various ancient cultures; in the minds of the uninformed, all things old are equivalent to interchangeable arcana. However, other video games, such as Assassin’s Creed, attempt to fully immerse the player in their rendering of the ‘ancient world’- or at least a Western version of it-  and the stories they have created within it. These worlds and stories that are a product of the results of archaeological investigations, such as Howard Carter’s aforementioned discovery of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb or Heinrich Schlimmen’s excavations at Troy. After all, what would videogame designers be basing their worlds off of if they didn’t know anything about the ancient temples of Greece or the pyramids of Egypt?

Secret Chamber in Assassin's Creed: Origins, via Forbes

Secret Chamber in Assassin’s Creed: Origins, via Forbes

A prime example of the reliance of the gaming industry on the knowledge of archaeologists can be found in Assassin’s Creed Origins, who’s parent-company, Ubisoft, hired Dr. Stephanie-Anne Ruatta, a well-known Classicist, to consult full time on the accuracy of the ancient world being digitally recreated in the game (Reinhard). The resulting scenes in Origins are considered to be so accurate and well-done that the new Queens of Egypt exhibit at the National Geographic Museum cooperated with Ubisoft to incorporate multiple life-size projections of quiet scenes from the game’s Egyptian locales . There are also, of course, the numerous HP Lovecraft-themed games, both in digital and board game form, that further solidify the connection between mixed media fiction and archaeological influence.

While it is clear that themes of a mysterious ancient world and lost secrets have had a large impact on the formation of speculative fiction genres, what is less clear is why this is the case. Obviously there is no one definitive answer, but I believe that at least in part it has to do with the fact that fiction and archaeology often view the same cultural notions of death, the past, and folklore, but through different lenses. Whereas fiction conceptualizes these ideas as vehicles for ‘spooky’ or ‘eerie’ themes, in archaeology these remnants of past humans and their cultures are very real, very objective things to be studied in a scientific manner. The systematic study of the past through clues in material culture is not dissimilar to the ways in which fictional characters often have to ponder clues in order to unravel information or forgotten stories in speculative fiction. In fact, I think Robert Heinlein’s definition of science fiction offers a good explanation for the inherent connection between speculative fiction and archaeology: “ ….a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method” (Heinlein 1957). And as archaeologist Dan Shoup points out on the Stanford-based blog Archaeolog, if you change Heinlein’s phrasing to say ‘past events’ instead of the future, you have the basics of archaeology (Shoup 2009). Essentially, the building blocks of a good science fiction story (i.e. speculation based on empirical evidence) are the exact same as the building blocks of archaeological study, the only difference being that science fiction often focuses on the future where archaeology speculates about the past.

In this light, it makes quite a bit of sense that there should be so many of the same recurring archaeological themes of ‘lost’ cultures, discovery, and piecing together stories of the ancient world throughout fiction; in essence, both archaeology and speculative fiction play into humanity’s innate sense of curiosity and desire to thoroughly understand the world around us, through both the past and the future. Archaeology and literature also share the basic goal of exploring what it means to be human and telling the stories of how diverse groups of people have lived (Anderson 2003). So, whether you’re an HP Lovecraft fan or not, if there is a mystery, horror, sci-fi, or fantasy novel out there that has struck a chord with you, maybe you should thank an archaeologist.

Catherine is an archaeologist, avid reader, and all-around geek. After graduating from Longwood University with a degree in Anthropology, she completed a Master’s degree in Archaeology and Heritage through the University of Leicester. She currently works at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History as a contractor in the Anthropology Department, and loves the diverse range of tasks that accompany her position. Her research interests are broad and include landscape archaeology, institutional memory, and the ways in which pseudoarchaeology can be combated. Her non-academic interests include board games, all manner of books, dogs, and tea. She can be reached on Twitter @ckhill94 or via email at cgkinsley2@gmail.com.

Works Cited

Header Image taken from Cthulhu Tales–Elder Secrets by Scott Purdy.

Anderson, David (2003). “Archaeology in Science Fiction and Mysteries.” In Ancient Muses, 152–61. University of Alabama Press. https://www.academia.edu/15625668/Archaeology_in_Science_Fiction_and_Mysteries.

Brophy, Kenneth (2014). “Lovecraft Archaeology.” Blog. Almost Archaeology. Jhttps://almostarchaeology.com/post/88944940718/lovecraft-archaeology.

Collins, Samuel Gerald. “Sail on! Sail on!: Anthropology, Science Fiction, and the Enticing Future.” Science Fiction Studies 30 (2003): 180–98.

Cornwell, Bernard. Stonehenge, 2000 B.C.: A Novel. New York: Perennial, 2004.

Douglass, Sara. Hades Daughter: Book One of The Troy Game. New York: Tor, 2003.

Heinlein, Robert (1969). “Science Fiction: It’s Nature, Faults, and Virtues.” In The Science Fiction Novel; Imagination and Social Criticism, 160. Advent. http://sciencefiction.loa.org/biographies/heinlein_science.php.

Jones, Stephen Graham, and Ellen Datlow. Mapping the Interior. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2017.

Oziewicz, Marek (2017). “Speculative Fiction.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, March. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.78.

Pfeiffer, Oliver (2017). “Where Does the Legend of the Mummy Come From?” BBC. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170420-where-does-the-legend-of-the-mummy-come-from.

Reinhard, Andrew (2019). “Consulting for Ubisoft on Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.” Archaeogaming. https://archaeogaming.com/2019/04/19/consulting-for-ubisoft-on-assassins-creed-odyssey/.

Shoup, Dan (2009). “Archaeology, Science Fiction, and Pop Culture | Archaeolog.” Blog. Archaeolog. https://www.stanford.edu/dept/archaeology/cgi-bin/archaeolog/?p=253.

Smith, Blake, and Jeb Card (2018). “161: The Call of ’Tut’-Thulhu.” Produced by Skeptic Magazine. MonsterTalk.  https://monstertalk.skeptic.com/the-call-of-tut-thulhu

Sooke, Alastair (2014). “Why the World Went Wild for King Tut.” The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/10973256/Why-the-world-went-wild-for-King-Tut.html.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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