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Taking a Stab at the Past July 24, 2003
by Mark Rose

Will archaeology survive another Tomb Raider movie?

Well, Lara Croft is back. The character, played again by Angelina Jolie and based on the Tomb Raider video game, hits the big screen on July 25 in "Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life."

The film begins in a sweeping rush over the water toward Santorini, the volcanic Greek island best known for the Late Bronze Age site Akrotiri with its magnificent frescoes. We don't get to see the frescoes, however, because an earthquake strikes! The quake has shaken loose wonderful things from an ancient seafloor site, and the next day treasure hunters are diving in the area and pulling up bronze statues. When Croft makes her appearance, her crew of looters complains, "Half the world's raiders are here and you make us wait." But she has pinpointed the source of the antiquities--the Luna Temple, built, she says, by Alexander the Great, and swallowed up by the sea in 330 B.C.

©2003 Paramount Pictures

In reality, scuba diving in Greek waters is highly restricted and anyone lifting up bronzes like this would be arrested in a flash, such actions violating laws dating back to 1932. So the movie would be over in ten minutes, if this were reality. Since it isn't, Lara Croft can simply grab something and say, "It's mine!"

A Chinese tomb-raiding gang intervenes, however, stealing from Croft the mysterious glowing orb she was stealing from Greece. The gang is obviously up to no good, but it's interesting to note, later in the film, they take more care with artifacts they're plundering (packing them in crates) than Lara's associates (who are of the stuff-a-big-sack-full-of-loot old school). It turns out the gang is in cahoots with the real bad guy: Jonathan Reiss, Nobel Prize winner, bioweapons designer, and "modern-day Dr. Mengele." Says the disease monger Reiss, "I've branched out--archaeology." He's using the orb to find Pandora's Box, which Croft warns is "A weapon more powerful than you can imagine." (Well, given anthrax, nuclear bombs, etc., I think I could imagine.) In the myth, of course, Pandora's Box was opened and all the evils it contained, like gout, escaped. The box should be as empty as Al Capone's vault, but this is Hollywood.

©2003 Paramount Pictures

So that's the basic idea--the movie is one long chase sequence, including motorcycling on the Great Wall, little wonder China refused permission for them to film there. The stand-in for China? Llyn Gwynant, near Beddgelert in Wales, and a computer-generated Great Wall (according to a BBC report, the film industry in Wales had been hard hit by foot-and-mouth disease). Other archaeological window-dressing in the film includes a cave filled with terra-cotta warriors, copied from those in the tomb of China's first emperor, Shihuangdi. Oh, yes, it isn't strictly archaeological, but what looks like Grendel, the monster from Beowulf, and a number of his siblings do make a guest appearance.

As in the first movie, Lara Croft employs a number of special archaeological skills and gear, stuff they don't teach you about in fieldschools: use of the bo (staff) in fighting (in case your guns and knives aren't handy), lots of knives (good for stabbing people and prying out medallions from statues), extra-loud motorcycles (for sneaking up on bad guys), piloting space-shuttle-like gliders (to avoid immigration when entering foreign countries), rappelling upside-down and shooting at bad guys (but missing your own toes), more knives (so you can slash your own arm and make yourself into shark-bait to escape bad guys), parachuting from buildings (to escape more bad guys), jet ski stunts (just to show you can do it), rifle and bayonet drills (for sticking it to persistent bad guys), special-edition jeep (for terrorizing flocks of flamingoes and ostriches), etc.

©2003 Paramount Pictures

The movie is better than the first--which hauled in more than $274 million worldwide and had a $48 million box-office opening weekend, the most ever for a female-driven movie, according to Viacom--so it is sure to be a commercial success. In the pantheon of archaeology-related adventure movies, it recalls the original Indiana Jones movie, "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and uses the tried-and-true formula, replacing the Ark of the Covenant with Pandora's Box, and Nazis with a bioweapons merchant who thinks many of the world's inhabitants are unfit to live.

For all its entertainment value, there's nothing here of any redeeming value in terms of archaeology. It's unfortunate; I don't think it has to be that way, even with a character based on a video game. Oh well, maybe they'll do a third movie in which we'll see Lara Croft at a scholarly meeting presenting a paper on long-distance trade and kinship ties in Assyria based on her trace element analysis of metal artifacts (maybe ancient knives?) and newly translated cuneiform tablets. I can see it a distinguished professor in a tweed jacket and bow tie raises his hand to object to her conclusion, Croft reaches for her cutlery.... Hmmm. Maybe it's better to not worry about archaeology if you go to this movie.

Lara Croft is back, chasing the insidious bad guys and trying to stop them before they get hold of Pandora's Box. In "Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life," the mythology is shakier than Santorini in the opening scenes, the history plays fast and free with Alexander the Great's life, and the archaeology--well, maybe the less said the better.
What did you think?

Lara Croft has saved the world, again!

Put the film back in Pandora's box.

Is it the best in this genre since the first Indiana Jones movie? A formulaic recycling of an overused plot? A cause for despair? Or better left to teenage boys? Let us know what you think about it.

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What's Wrong with this Picture?

Pointing out the archaeological flaws in "Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" is probably an unnecessary undertaking, but here are a couple of things I spotted in the one viewing of the movie I had. There must be others, so let us know what you see and we'll post them.

Big problems with the Luna Temple. Luna was a Roman moon goddess (actually the Oxford Classical Dictionary says Sabine), so Alexander wouldn't have erected a temple to her. The Greek equivalent would have been Selene. The temple sank in 330 B.C., says Lara, but Alexander didn't get to the Indus River--where the box supposedly was found--until 326, so there's a chronological disjunction there. Also, the box is said to have been responsible for a plague among Alexander's army, but the ancient author Arrian's The Campaigns of Alexander makes no mention of a plague there, the box, or, of course, the Luna Temple. Moreover, I don't think there's any record of an earthquake in 330 or the following years. There was one in 373 B.C., which produced a tsunami that destroyed the Greek city of Helike, near Corinth, and another earthquake must have been responsible for the tsunami that devastated Tryphon of Apamaea's army as it marched along the Syrian coast near the city of Ptolemais in the second century B.C. But not in 330.

©2003 Paramount Pictures

Meanwhile, in China, the gang of looters is busily plundering a Buddhist cave filled with terra-cotta warriors. Well, the Buddha lived ca. 563-483 B.C., and the emperor Shihuangdi, whose warriors were copied for the film, ruled from 221 to 210 B.C. But the problem--aside from what such statues would be doing in a Buddhist cave in the first place--is that the religion didn't spread to China until the first century A.D. Ooops!

Mark Rose is executive and online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America