Archive | October, 2012

Star Wars and Anthropology

31 Oct

Happy Halloween!  I’ll be wearing a simple Darth Vader t-shirt for a costume.  Did you know that Star Wars was inspired by anthropology?

As you’ve probably heard, Lucasfilm, production company of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, was purchased yesterday by Disney.  They have plans to release multiple new Star Wars films, beginning with Episode VII (set after Return of the Jedi) in 2015.  Nothing could have surprised me more, since George Lucas has always suggested that Episodes VII, VIII, and IX would never be made.  I’ve written before about the relationship between Indiana Jones and real-life archaeology, but Star Wars was also shaped by anthropology, though I certainly didn’t realize this as a child.

Like many kids who grew up in the 1980’s, it’s hard to overstate the influence of Star Wars on my childhood.  I played with Star Wars toys, slept on Star Wars sheets, drank from Star Wars cups, listened to the Star Wars soundtrack (on vinyl records!), dried myself with Star Wars towels after a bath, and on and on… (The character Yogurt in the Star Wars spoof Spaceballs was only exaggerating a little bit with his “Spaceballs: The Flame Thrower!” line).  Star Wars was everywhere and my generation was culturally immersed in it.

It was only many years later that I learned about anthropology and thought of Star Wars and anthropology as being related in any way.  The parallels between Indiana Jones and anthropology are fairly obvious.  Indy was an archaeologist in our world, albeit a fictional version of our world with lots of supernatural occurrences.  Star Wars is, of course, set in a completely fictional galaxy far, far away.  The Star Wars galaxy is a product of George Lucas’ human imagination and it includes many aspects of real-world anthropology, history, and mythology.

In college, I read Joseph Campbell’s classic of world mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I was especially intrigued by the cover art on my paperback edition of this book which featured archaeological motifs, ancient heroes, and a picture of Luke Skywalker from The Empire Strikes Back. Although Campbell’s book was first published in 1949, Luke was pictured on this edition as an example of a hero for my generation; a generation increasingly removed from more traditional sources of mythological storytelling.

When George Lucas made the original Star Wars (1977), he was very interested in using film to tell modern mythological tales.  And he was very familiar with Joseph Campbell’s research, frequently citing it, the films of Akira Kurosawa, and anthropology as inspirations for Star Wars:

“I’d started out studying anthropology, and I’d learned about mythology, and eventually went into film.  But I was able to, sort of, use some of my earlier educational experience to help me go through a movie like this.”

As Lucas’ education inspired Star Wars, Star Wars has inspired educators in many fields.  Next month, Wiley is publishing a book called Star Wars and History.  Here is the publisher’s description:

“From Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire to the French Revolution and the Vietnam War, Star Wars and History explores the major historical turning points, heroes, and villains in human history and their impact on the creation of the Star Wars saga. Star Wars and History shows how the atomic and hydrogen bombs led to the Death Star; how Princess Leia’s leadership in the Rebel Alliance resembled the daring work of intrepid women in the French Resistance during World War II and the Mexican Revolution; historical parallels between the Jedi Code and Bushido as well as those linking the Jedi culture with that of the Templar Knights and other warrior monks; and all of the history that underlies the Star Wars galaxy. Read how our own civilization’s civil wars, slavery, international corporation states, and teenage queens were transformed into the epic Star Wars history and discover how Tatooine reflects the lawless frontiers of the past and Coruscant our own history of glittering and greedy capitals.”

It definitely sounds like a book that I need to read.  Beyond history, I once heard about a college course titled “The Anthropology of Star Wars.”  I often use examples from Star Wars in my cultural anthropology, archaeology, and even linguistics lectures, but doubt I could convince my academic institution to let me teach an entire course on Star Wars – somehow the prospect of getting paid to talk about Star Wars seems too good to be true!

Now that Disney has purchased Lucasfilm, and Lucasfilm is headed by Kathleen Kennedy, George Lucas will be less directly involved with the production of the new Star Wars films.  Who knows what the new movies will be like?  Will they still have anthropological themes?  Will they disappoint many people the way the prequel trilogy (Episodes I-III) did?  We don’t yet know anything about their characters, storylines, parallels with the real world, etc.  But, starting in 2015, I hope to be here discussing their anthropological relevance.

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

National Archaeology Day

17 Oct

Saturday October 20th, 2012 is National Archaeology Day, with events being hosted throughout the United States and around the world.  Here is a description from the Archaeological Institute of America:

“National Archaeology Day is a celebration of archaeology and the thrill of discovery. Every October the AIA and archaeological organizations across the United States, Canada, and abroad present archaeological programs and activities for people of all ages and interests. Whether it is a family-friendly archaeology fair, a guided tour of a local archaeological site, a simulated dig, a lecture or a classroom visit from an archaeologist, the interactive, hands-on National Archaeology Day programs provide the chance to indulge your inner Indiana Jones.”

Check out to find an event in your area.  Have fun!

There’s Always Next Year…

15 Oct

Thanks to the Maya Long Count calendar, the year 2012 has become something of a pop culture phenomenon.  You’ve probably seen plenty of TV, movie, and internet references to the upcoming “end of the world” on December 21st or December 23rd (it depends).  It’s a real bummer because the hope of “next year” is the only thing that has sustained me as a lifelong Seattle sports fan; once the Mariners win a World Series, then the world can end!

But, seriously, Maya scholars are not worried about 2012 being Earth’s last year.  I’m neither a Maya scholar nor Maya descendant, so most of what I know about Maya calculations of time comes from popular sources like books, magazines, and documentaries.  In other words, despite being an anthropologist, I make no claims to being a Maya expert.

Here’s what I’ve learned: The Ancient Maya constructed elaborate calendars to mark the passage of time – everything from the length of a human pregnancy to the age of the universe.  Time was extremely important in Maya daily life and cosmology (the November/December issue of Archaeology Magazine – and final issue if the world does end this year – has a great summary of Maya calendars).  The Long Count calendar counts the number of days since the mythological date of Maya creation, and includes 1,872,000-day cycles called bak’tuns.  There are few known glyphs covering the 13th (current) bak’tun, but it is calculated to end on December 21st (or 23rd), 2012.

Obviously, most of us aren’t fearful about units of time coming to an end.  For example, seasons, decades, and centuries all end and new ones begin, usually without mass hysteria (Y2K was one recent exception).  It’s important to remember that the Long Count calendar marks the passage of time from a mythological date of creation.  This date is ritually significant, but we now know that time didn’t actually begin on August 11, 3114 BC (Maya date), October 23, 4004 BC (Ussher date), or any other date based on religious speculation.  Therefore, as Stephen Jay Gould wrote about Millennium panic in the year 2000, 2012 is an observance of a “precisely arbitrary countdown.”  Most of the end-of-the-world stuff comes from outside of the Maya world.  A recent AP article noted: “Such apocalyptic visions have been common for more than 1,000 years in Western, Christian thinking, and are not native to Maya thought.”

Modern Maya are excited about this year’s potential to spur interest in ancient Mesoamerica and archaeological tourism.  Guatemala has a great Bak’tun Route ad campaign which focuses on 2012 as a beginning, not an end.  Modern Guatemalan Maya communities still have “Daykeepers” who keep track of time: “’The world is going to die on December 23rd,’ says Christenson [Brigham Young University anthropologist], explaining that the Maya believe the world dies each day when the sun sets, or when crops are harvested.  ‘The world is constantly dying,’ he says, ‘and the role of the Daykeeper is to make sure they get things going again.’”

So, despite the end of the 13th bak’tun, I still have time to learn more about ancient Mesoamerica and, hopefully, enough time to see my Mariners win a World Series.  There’s always next year…

A New Dimension to Our Existence

1 Oct

I recently came across an inspirational old quote from Egyptologist Flinders Petrie:

“The man who knows and dwells in history adds a new dimension to his existence…He lives in all time; the ages are his, all live alike to him” (Methods & Aims in Archaeology, 1904).

In just a few words, Petrie eloquently expresses what I love most about archaeology: it allows us to take a step outside of our own time and imagine life in different times and places and, in doing so, add a new dimension to our existence.

Do you have a favorite anthropology-related quote?  If so, please share it in the comments.