I was gifted Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune during my undergraduate studies in Anthropology. The Uncharted series grew with me as I went through undergraduate and graduate studies to become a professional archaeologist. As I learned theories, ethics, and methods of the discipline, a lot of things became clear about how the general public views and depicts archaeology. The archaeology depicted in film and other media is not the archaeology conducted around the world today. Over the last few decades, the misconceptions and stereotypes from the 19th century have continued into the 21st.
Archaeology is the study of the lived experiences of past human groups through analysis of artifacts (material culture) and often via digging into the earth (excavation). It is confused with the study of dinosaurs, which is called paleontology. It is important to make this distinction as 54% of the American population equates the two disciplines, according to a 2018 Ipsos study. In the last decade, archaeologists have been in a constant struggle to take stewardship of how the discipline is depicted in media (see Dr. David S. Anderson). Between misrepresentations by the media and confusion of the distinction between differing practices, the archaeological discipline struggles to present the intricacies and scale involved in studying the past. Due to the new release, and success, of the Uncharted film, I wanted to explore the potential ramifications and further dichotomy between real and fictional depictions of studying the past.
Art by DiegoLlorente (Source)
Familiar representations of archaeology in popular fiction include Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. The newest contender, borne from the video game franchises and newly released theatrical production, is Nathan Drake. What separates Drake from his pop-culture predecessors is that he is a self-proclaimed treasure hunter and thief. Whereas, Indiana Jones and Lara Croft both come from academic backgrounds in archaeology. And yet, Jones and Croft have both imbued misconceptions, mythical fallacies, and a gross lack of documentation into the public perception of archaeology, that continues to seep into the general (mis)understanding of preserving our real, shared history. Though the Uncharted series doesn't directly link the storylines to archaeology, many are already seeing the similarities between Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake (see here and here).
The Uncharted film introduces Nathan Drake as a young orphan in an attempt to create a chronological path for future films, whereas the games begin with Drake as an experienced thief 10-15 years later. Characters brought to life on the big screen adaptation include Nathan Drake (Tom Holland), Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg), Chloe Frazer (Sophie Taylor Ali), and Sam Drake (Rudy Pankow). The franchise bases itself in reality with real locations and historical characters. The treasures are often tied to fabled cities and items. Histories explored include El Dorado (Uncharted: Drake's Fortune), Shambala (Uncharted 2: Among Thieves), Atlantis of the Sands (Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception), and Libertalia (Uncharted 4: A Thief's End). The theatrical film's premise is similar to that of the fourth installment of the video game franchise, searching for a treasure associated with the lost fleet of Magellan. Similarly to Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, the Uncharted video game series often veers from historical fiction right into science fiction and pseudo-archaeology, introducing supernatural elements to its ancient items and locations. The film, however, keeps the treasure grounded to reality (well, when it's not suspended from a helicopter).
Perhaps one of the most harmful aspects in pop culture depictions of historical adventure is one propagated myth: finders keepers. The film doubles down on this twofold: the protagonists believe since they found the clues, they deserve the treasure, and the antagonists believe they are owed the treasure seeing as the original pirates that stole the ancient artifacts were financed by his great-x grandfather. The film pits two groups of thieves in a race to find that lost trove and keep it for themselves, or worse, sell it to the highest bidder. How many people will leave the theater wanting to achieve something similar? In fact, since the lost fortunes placed within the Uncharted franchises are based in reality, some may try to go on the hunt — to which the actor Tom Holland seemingly supports.
In an interview with BBC Radio 1 to promote the film, Tom Holland joked, "Mark [Wahlberg] and I are secretly hoping that someone will find it, and because we made that film, we will be entitled to a certain percentage… just a little 'thanks for the idea' kind of thing." While an off the cuff small joke, for the archaeological realm this sentiment is worrying. If the Uncharted franchise becomes as popular as Indiana Jones (which it will be based on opening box office numbers) this series will introduce new generations to action and adventure via pillaging the past.
While I obviously have my criticisms, I did enjoy the games and the film. The newest release is a love letter that does a fantastic job of evoking the same emotions and experiences from the video games. Introducing the characters and bringing viewers along for the ride on a fantastical adventure, solving clues and being the 'first' to discover a forgotten past. Adventure fiction is playing the part of the explorer, which most archaeologists probably can agree is often what also draws them into the field. Many aspire to create their own history by being the 'first' to discover an archaeological site. But I want to be clear by saying that is not what archeology should be. You are not the conqueror or first founder of any ancient relics. You are uncovering the lost experiences of people from the past, with the shared goal to preserve and share your findings with the public — not just your peers. There is nothing about history to keep for yourself, and it most certainly should never be something that you sell for your own personal gratification.
We as archaeologists are somewhat lucky that Nathan Drake and his cohorts never call themselves "archaeologists," but we are still left with a far worse connotation. He is our worst fear; the antiquarian colonialist doused in the guise of a charming adventurer. His journey is entertaining and he may have a heart of gold, but he leaves destruction in his wake, both in media and in perceptions of society.
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