Archaeology and animation

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In popular culture, the true nature and history of archaeology is often distorted through fictional story lines and fictional characters. A specific area where this is present is in animated movies and television series.

Archaeology and Animation can refer to various associations and subject matter. For instance, there are forms of animation in which archaeological subjects are explored, as a medium used to teach and share archaeological knowledge. Also, forms of animation can be used to enhance archaeological research, study, and practice; to see things or reconstruct artifacts and/ or sites that could not be explored in such detail otherwise. Animation essentially provides more ways to understand and interpret the ways of the past and modes of existence throughout history. The following article will focus on select forms of animation that involve/ are involved with archaeology, such as examples of archaeology themed television shows and episodes in animated series, and also different ways in which forms of animation enhance archaeological study.

Archaeology & Animated Television Series[edit]

There are many examples of Western animation television series and specific episodes that are centered around archaeological subject matter. There are some entire series that focus on archaeologist characters, such as Jackie Chan Adventures, The Mummy: The Animated Series, and Revisioned: Tomb Raider Animated Series. There are also notable episodes of popular animated series that focus on an archaeological subject matter and/ or "adventures", which include: The Simpsons, Spongebob Squarepants, Phineas and Ferb, Scooby Doo, Kim Possible, Ben 10, DuckTales, Batman the Brave and the Bold, Galaxy Rangers, Storm Hawks, Tale Spin, Emperor's New School, Mummies Alive, The Magic School Bus, Muppet Babies, ReBoot, Jem and the Holograms, My Little Pony, Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers, Tintin, Hey Arnold!, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Inspector Gadget, Tiny Toon Adventures, Futurama, The Busy World of Richard Scarry, The Woody Woodpecker Show, Rupert, Sabrina: The Animated Series, and Babar and the Adventures of Badou. There are also Japanese anime series such as One Piece, Phantom Quest Corp, Love Hina, Mai-HiME, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles, Yu-Gi-Oh!, axis Powers Hetalia, Mahou Sensei Negima!, Explorer Woman Ray, Lord of the Unknown Tower, and Cardcaptor Sakura.[1]

Jackie Chan Adventures[edit]

The title character is modeled after real life actor/ martial artist for the most part only in likeness. In the show he is a fictional archaeologist/ adventurer searching for lost ancient talismans that supposedly have unwavering power when assembled and could be dangerous if fallen into the wrong hands. The show follows his adventures in searching for the artifacts and the villains he continuously faces along the way. He often spends more time fighting “bad guys” than conducting accurate archaeological study or fieldwork. However, he often remarks that he would rather spend more time doing “proper” archaeology and when he attends his niece's career day; he gives an accurate explanation of what archeology is like in real life.

The Mummy: The Animated Series[edit]

The series originated from the feature films The Mummy and The Mummy Returns and around the central characters of the O’Connell family but deviates from the original storyline of the films. It follows their travels around the world (especially across Egypt) and numerous adventures to recover ancient artifacts, such as the lost scrolls of Thebes and the Manacle of Osiris. One of their main goals being to keep such valued and potentially dangerous artifacts them out of the wrong hands, which for the post part are those of High Priest and major nemesis, Imhotep.

Archaeology & Animated Movies[edit]

Animated movies have received a great deal of criticism for manifesting American popular culture as well as expressing corporate and hegemonic ideologies. Films are created to attract a large audience, and while sometimes attempting to educate the public, many movies that have any inference of archaeology (studying or representing the past) use themes of adventures, and wondrous magical worlds that we should all be interested to explore. It is interesting to question, however, whether the portrayals of the past carry any accuracy or elements of truth. In some cases, they do. However, in many more cases the truth is covered by the excitement of the story lines. Some familiar titles that involve minimal to explicit reference to archaeology may include: Mummies Alive, Curious George, The Rugrats Movie, The Wild Thornberries movies, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Wall-e, The Secret of Kells, and The Emperor's New Groove.

A Look at the Story[edit]

The Secret of Kells[edit]

The Secret of Kells is an Irish animated film set in the Middle Ages. Through the eyes of the main character, a twelve-year-old boy named Brendan, the movie begins by showing life at the monastery of Kells. Brendan and fellow monks appear to live a peaceful life, but the audience soon discovers that danger is approaching. Brendan has never before been outside of the walls of Kells and knows little of the world outside of them. His uncle, however, is only concerned with protecting the walls and forbids him to go outside them.

Soon the monastery has a visitor, Brother Aiden who brings with him the Book of Iona. After fleeing Iona because of an attack from the Vikings/Northmen, Aiden is in search to have someone continue writing and illustrating the Book of Iona. In the film, Aiden’s character says that “If there were no books, all knowledge would be lost”, signaling that record of knowledge and of their past is kept in this book. Brendan is convinced to enter the forests to help with the illuminations of the Book. During this time Brendan “finds new adventures, wonders, dangers and a friend – a girl named Aisling, who is a kind of fairie creature that becomes a great white wolf and is the new protector of the forest”.

The film is believed to give children a sense of how difficult and dangerous life could have been during the Middle Ages, whereas it is not a Disney story set in the Middle Ages and bad things happen. The film may be a little confusing for young children, but they are still able to enjoy the interactions between characters. Most images of violence are kept off-screen, with the Vikings being nothing but dark shadows.

Some scenes in the movie, however, are inspired by the pages from the actual Book of Kells, which is a compelling aspect of the efforts of the filmmakers to incorporate mythological imagery, and add some elements of the truth into what they are presenting to audiences.[2]

A Look at the Context[edit]

The Emperor’s New Groove[edit]

The Emperor's New Groove is an animated movie about a young emperor (now arrogant) who has been cursed by an evil woman to turn into a llama, as well his relationship with a peasant and his daily adventures within the society that he ‘rules’.

This movie does not explicitly name the archaeological society in which its action is situated, which is Inca Peru. This movie potentially manifests objectifications, essentializations, exoticizations and appropriations. However, there has seemingly existed an ‘artistic license’ with the past, in that people like those at Disney have been able to avoid issues of authenticity with the material they are presenting to large audiences.

Currently, there seems to be a disappearance of history and a disengagement from reality. This movie is one of many to misrepresent stories of the past. The Emperor’s New Groove presents an exoticized society, called ‘Lake Wobegon’ where the men are strong, the women are beautiful and the children are above average. To watch this movie is to expect to be entertained happily no matter the implausibility (though there is some element of this expectation with every movie that we choose to sit down and watch). This movie then, among others created by Disney carry an element of predictability, calculability, efficiency and control, which are all present in organizational principles, not something you would expect from a movie created for young audiences.

Audiences are interested in seeing historical reconstruction, and this movie is no exception. Included in discourses about the past are history, archaeology and filmmaking, making these ripe for reconstruction. The plot of The Emperor’s New Groove is not presented as history, which is where things can get confusing. As other typical Disney films, this aims to present moments that are recognized universally so that people can see themselves on the screen. Promotions for this movie have been aimed at highlighting humour and action, as well as family values, and teaching courage and cooperation. The title of this movie had been disputed in the beginning. Before becoming what it was, there was reference to the cultural setting in the title, however because this was too explicit in relating it to the past and to the history of the culture, the creators chose a different title. Even the main character, the emperor’s name had changed from being named after the first emperor of the Incas to a fictitious name.

The movie has been made to display a US universalizing ideology of gender roles and domesticity, something that rarely occurs in traditional Andean communities. The production team did go on a research trip for this movie, but despite their true findings this movie has been made to completely uphold stereotypes set out by Disney and the rest of Hollywood. For this reason, context is very important when looking at and trying to understand the true authenticity of representations of the past, as well as sites and artifacts which can be made to entertain rather to inform or educate. In this case, with this movie belonging to Disney, it is suggestive that appealing to audiences comes at an interesting cost, just not a financial one.[3]

Archaeology & Computer Animation[edit]

Computer animation is bringing archaeology into the future with various benefits to enhancing the study and practice of the field. Computer animation technology is currently being used to recreate sites of the ancient past.

Specific Example - Cyprus Site Project[edit]

A specific example of the use of the integration of computer animation into archaeology is a project to recreate a five-thousand-year-old Chalcolithic roundhouse in Cyprus. The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) is funding the project with a Site Preservation Grant to finance the use of 3-D and computer animation technologies to reconstruct and study of the Kissonerga archaeological sites in Cyprus. Site visitors/ viewers will be given an intimate look into the building and its use from the physical reconstruction of the building and using 3-D computer imagery to recreate artifacts found inside.

Overall Objective of Project[edit]

The animated reconstruction project is part of a larger project of the University of Manchester which involves the investigation concerning the Kissonerga Village from around 10,000 years ago to present day and their continuous occupation with the overall goal of shedding light on the human experience over periods of time. The AIA President says of the project, it (the project) quote “is very exciting because it not only preserves the actual ruins, but allows visitors to immerse themselves more fully in prehistoric Cyprus using virtual reality so they can experience what life would have been like at that time."[4]

Narrative and Further Goals[edit]

The narrative of Cyprus’ islands often excludes the prehistoric sites because they are not easily visible and therefore harder to preserve, especially due to the growing tourism industry on the island. Another goal of the 3-D animation project and technologies is to help teach and share knowledge throughout both the local community and tourist populations about the Kissonerga site and to improve the appreciation of the island’s historical periods and sites of population.


The use and relevance of 3-D technology in terms of archaeological study is steadily increasing. As noted by the AIA Site Preservation Committee Chair, quote “Technology is playing a much more important role—not only preserving our heritage—but in providing new ways for people to experience archaeological sites and learn about the past first-hand."[5]


  1. ^ "Archaeologists in Anime and Reality". Madhouse and Beyond. Retrieved 6 March 2012. 
  2. ^ "Movie Review: The Secret of Kells". 
  3. ^ Silverman, Helaine (2002). "Groovin' to ancient Peru: A critical analysis of Disney's The Emperor's New Groove". Journal of Social Archaeology (2): 298–322. 
  4. ^ "Computer Animation Not Just for Video Games". Archaeological Institute of America. Retrieved 6 March 2012. 
  5. ^ "Computer Animation Not Just for Video Games". Archaeological Institute of America. Retrieved 6 March 2012.