Picking up where The Da Vinci Code left off, this controversial documentary from executive producer James Cameron attests to how archaeology in recent years has again become a highly contentious subject in popular culture.
The Lost Tomb of Jesus, the controversial documentary from executive producer James Cameron, attests to how archaeology in recent years has again become a highly contentious subject in popular culture. Not only is historical truth at stake in the interpretation of the past, but also the traditional method of archeological inquiry and religious belief. Where does the general public stand in relation to previously accepted authorities? How do representations of archeology reflect their stance, and conversely, to what extent does the public view itself manifest in archeology today?
The history of archaeology in the present-day, like all archaeological histories, begins and ends with stories.
When Napoleon marched his forces into Egypt, he could not have known that his imperialist expedition would capture the imagination of the 19th century. Subsequent archaeological discoveries -- ranging from the penetration of Egyptian tombs to the unearthing of the palaces of Greek antiquity -- inspired exotic tales of adventure in foreign lands, filled European museum cases with excavated artifacts, and opened exciting horizons for a young discipline. In other words, the narration of the past through archaeology assumed a central place in popular culture from its very inception.
The fascination with searching for the mysteries of the ancient times continues well into the digital age, whether in the form of popular cinema (Indiana Jones), video games (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) or print media (The Da Vinci Code). However, while interest in stories of archaeology hardly diminished, interest in the discipline itself certainly suffers in popularity. Perhaps this shift rests in archaeology’s gradual professionalization in the early 20th century. Whereas archaeology was once the hobby of rich, mildly educated, and eccentric antiquarians who pursued the mysteries of the past to satisfy personal theories, its transformation into a more empirical scientific discipline dependent on expert knowledge has drained much of the romance out of the pursuit, relegating what once filled grand exhibitions to the dusty back rooms of university libraries and museum collections.
Indeed, perhaps the most crushing moment for any college student who has grown up watching Indiana Jones is when he or she realizes the real business of archaeology: meticulous cataloging, endless research, and “x” never “marking the spot". Real scientific discovery, which replaces the imaginary with data tables and fact-finding, has largely escaped the general public, but pseudo-scientific discovery, mediating between the fictional and the factual, has arguably never been more popular.
Take for instance, the insanely positive response of readers to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Brown begins his novel with a bold declaration of “FACT”, insisting that “[a]ll descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate". Easily missed, this statement blurs the distinction between archaeological fact and archaeological fiction, framing Brown’s novel as a scientifically viable alternative to not only traditional Christian belief, but also academic research. It is for this reason that The Da Vinci Code, a novel of hardly competent prose and questionable factual veracity, managed to incite controversy as well as popular mania: it claimed to make the “truth” available to a wider audience, and did so in such a digestible form that a new generation of self-styled “experts” began emerging, eager to refute standard forms of archaeological knowledge.
Without the fervor awakened by Brown’s book, James Cameron’s The Lost Tomb of Jesus might never have seen the light of day. Brown met with outrage from both the scientific and religious community for claiming that Jesus, contrary to the gospel accounts, was not only married to Mary Magdalene, but fathered a royal blood-line by her. The author also made millions doing it, proving that people wanted to revisit the accepted truths of the past. Public appetite revived, the time came for an even more daring move, one which would make even more astonishing challenges to archaeological knowledge available to an even wider public, this time in the documentary format.
Cameron takes Brown yet one step further, both in terms of form and content. While The Da Vinci Code, for all its claims to fact, remains quite obviously a work of creative fiction, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, taking the form of a documentary, makes even more compelling claims to factual realism. These claims help support a hypothesis sure to make both Christians and scientists anxious. Whereas Brown did not tinker with the central Christian belief of Jesus’ resurrection, Cameron alleges to have discovered the messiah’s lost tomb, complete with burial ossuaries for his entire family, in suburban Jerusalem. Oh yes, and Jesus’ ossuary allegedly contains his DNA. “It doesn’t get bigger than this", Cameron explains, “We've done our homework; we've made the case; and now it's time for the debate to begin".
Indeed, Cameron and his crew of certified experts do appear to have done quite a bit of homework, whether studying evidence previously locked away in massive archaeological warehouses, sending DNA away for scientific testing, enlisting statisticians to calculate probabilities, or consulting biblical books rejected from the Christian codex. From this research, the documentary builds a somewhat compelling case and the findings it contains are sure to ruffle some feathers.
Nevertheless, the construction of the documentary makes one wonder about how much archaeology might rely upon narrative structure as much as scientific fact. Anyone who has read the 5th century Greek historian Herodotus will be familiar with this problem. Herodotus told fantastic stories full of rampant hyperbole and plain, flat-out unverifiable lies when a historical episode proved lacking in necessary scale. In doing so, the historian perhaps ensured that great men would remain great through great stories, but he also revealed how the framing of history according to narrative concern can have a profound impact upon how archaeological material is understood. Where is the real history if not in the telling and where would archaeology be without this telling? In the case of Herodotus, one of the only sources for the period, the answer would have to be “not very far". If the past speaks to us through objects, it is such stories that give them voice, arrange them into categories, fill the occlusions between fragments and imbue them with the aura of significance.
Take for instance the case of antiquarian Heinrich Schliemann, who used Homer’s epic The Illiad to locate what he believed to be the authentic Troy, upon the shores where the Greeks once fought, as the ancient bard tells us, to reclaim the beautiful Helen. Or perhaps instead consider Nazi archaeologists, who used material remains to prove that the German people were a more advanced race than those surrounding them, thus confirming the narrative of ethnic supremacy. In both of these cases, stories long preceded the evidence necessary to confirm them and even helped determine what qualified as evidence in the first place.
The bible has traditionally represented the primary framing device for archaeologists seeking to confirm that real figures like Noah and Jesus actually existed with hard scientific evidence. The Lost Tomb of Jesus, however, lacks any such biblical narrative of its own upon which to base its findings, except insofar as a story created in the construction of the documentary itself. It is here where the project tries to make archaeology exciting again.
The camera lends archaeological inquiries a sort of veracity that cannot be achieved through conventional presentations in academic journals or even popular books. On the surface, the public today demands of archaeology a transparency that the lens seemingly provides: the viewer sees the evidence practically as it is discovered, long before it can be arranged, categorized and narrated by either scientific or religious authority. Yet, like reality television, capturing the “real thing” of archaeology with the camera has always already been arranged, categorized, and narrated in advance.
The Lost Tomb of Jesus begins in the middle of the action as a group of archaeologists and their production assistants eagerly pursue a clue that Jesus’ tomb is buried beneath an apartment building in modern-day Jerusalem. Their investigation has revealed that a pipe leads directly into the tomb, but when they attempt to snake a camera through, the pipe is blocked by debris. Before they can fix the problem, the documentary cuts away to some slightly drier explanation of why they are doing what they are doing. Already from the opening sequence, the film, otherwise unromantic, takes on the appearance of a typical quest narrative in which the intrepid heroes seek a lost object and the audience is made to anticipate its discovery.
The documentary only returns to their problem towards the end, after framing what they find in all of the research mentioned above. By the time we reach the presumed climax (which proves to be only a false ending), the poorly lit tomb we enter by way of the camera, full of uncertain contents, and sealed as quickly as it is unsealed, takes on the significance already created for it. What is otherwise just a heap of fragments kept in a dark, underground room becomes a remarkably gripping story of fighting against all odds to bring the truth to light. By extension, the archaeological findings become exciting in a way they have not been for a century.
Science and even religion have long since lost their ability to enrapture us. Whether the documentary gives us the real truth or not seems irrelevant. Bringing archaeology back to the public has entailed supporting apparent transparency with just such fantasies of mystery, adventure, and conspiracy as Cameron's film provides. What we seem to want much more desperately than facts is to put the story back into history.