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Multimedia: Is Archaeology Ready for Prime Time? Volume 52 Number 3, May/June 1999
by Neil Asher Silberman

[image] Hamming it up: Maury Povich and Zahi Hawass pose before pyramids in the Fox Network's Opening the Lost Tombs: Live from Egypt, viewed by nearly 30 million Americans. (Courtesy Fox Network) [LARGER IMAGE]

You have to admire the scriptwriters' skillful handling of what may be the two most highly publicized and widely viewed archaeological television shows ever. Their challenge was to translate the slow, painstaking, and often inconclusive process of archaeological exploration into the rapid-fire, visual, emotionally charged language of prime-time TV. It's a challenge that scholars rarely appreciate. While archaeologists can spend weeks struggling to record an ancient burial or building, or work for years trying to make sense of a jumble of inconclusive data, television writers cannot allow their viewers even a moment of boredom. They must make an instant connection with a nation of fidgety channel-surfers who know that other forms of titillation, intrigue, breaking news, and mindless amusement are just a click away.

Underwater explorer Franck Goddio stars in Discovery's Cleopatra's Palace. (Hilti Foundation) [LARGER IMAGE][image]

In terms of ratings, Opening the Lost Tombs: Live From Egypt (Fox) and Cleopatra's Palace: In Search of a Legend (Discovery Channel) were unqualified successes. Nearly 30 million viewers across America watched the tombs being opened. Ten million more in the U.S. and in 141 other countries tuned in to follow the underwater search for the palace of Cleopatra. It's easy to see why TV programmers might have thought archaeology would make good prime-time entertainment. The enormous success of films with archaeological themes, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The English Patient, Stargate, and the even the shopworn Karloff classic The Mummy (with a big-budget remake coming this spring), was an obvious incentive. Throw in some theme-related merchandise, a glossy book tie-in, and the sale of commercial time to prestigious sponsors and you have a potentially profitable media enterprise. Content is, of course, quite another matter, but as the media theorist Marshall McLuhan taught us in the 1960s, the medium is the message. The entrance of the Discovery Channel and Fox into the archaeology business has far-reaching effects on both exploration and the archaeological entertainment it inspires.

Neil Asher Silberman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America