Random fiction question: non-magical archaeology [entries|reading|network|archive]

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Mon 2015-08-03 10:37
Random fiction question: non-magical archaeology

A question occurred to me last night. Perhaps the two best known fictional archaeologists (taking the term somewhat loosely), across fiction in all media, are Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. Both of them have in common that they investigate things about which there were rumours of ancient magical powers, or gods, or other such supernatural and powerful stuff. And they're right – the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, the Dagger of Xian, etc, all really do perform as advertised.

What are the best known examples of fictional archaeologists who do not unearth ancient magical artefacts, and the only thing they ever find out is information about what happened in the past?

For these purposes, I think I'm going to rule that the actual archaeological discoveries have to be part of the plot: having a character who happens to be an archaeologist isn't sufficient, if the story only focuses on some other aspect of their life. (Even if it's a somewhat work-related aspect, such as worries about career progression, or conflicts with co-workers.)

I only managed to come up with one example of this at all, namely Asimov's Nightfall. I'm sure there must be others, though.

[xpost |http://simont.livejournal.com/242421.html]

[personal profile] pseudomonasMon 2015-08-03 10:03

Lintilla (×3)?

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[personal profile] simontMon 2015-08-03 10:10

Ah, yes, unearthing the shoe stratum! Well remembered.

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[personal profile] rmc28Tue 2015-08-04 08:13

City of Gold and Shadows by Ellis Peters is all about an archaeological dig (Romans on the Welsh borders)

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[personal profile] azurelunaticSat 2015-08-22 09:53

The Amelia Peabody series is sort of archaeological soap opera, in that there's a lot of stuff concerning the logistics and relationships. It's been long enough since I read them that I'm not sure how integral the actual archaeology is.

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[personal profile] lnrMon 2015-08-03 09:46

Currently re-reading Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space. Does weird alien stuff count as magical? I suppose it's not unearthing if it's not on Earth ;)

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[personal profile] simontMon 2015-08-03 09:57

Hmmm, I think I did read that once, but a long time ago and it didn't stick in my head.

Since my (not really well articulated) initial point was to try to avoid the trope that the only way archaeology can possibly be interesting in fiction is to have it conclude 'OMG all our ancient cultures' myths and religions were true after all!' (not to mention the bits about having to shoot lots of people and dodge rolling boulders), I think archaeology on alien planets is perhaps not disqualified for this exercise but probably ought to fall into a separate category.

('But wait,' you object, 'your own example of Nightfall is set on an alien planet!' Well, yes, but it's not alien to the characters – they're doing archaeology on their own home planet and investigating their own civilisational history, regardless of whether that planet and civilisation is also that of the readers.)

I can't remember what the Revelation Space archaeologist(s) found out, but I think that if they were to dig up massively powerful and still working (or fixable) SF tech from a departed alien civilisation, that's definitely out of scope for much the same reason as digging up the Ark of the Covenant, because that too would push the idea that archaeology that only finds out information is too boring to bother with. (The IPX digs in Babylon 5 are also disqualified on this basis, come to think of it.)

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[identity profile] ewx.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-03 21:13

The Engines of God (Jack McDevitt) certainly falls into the category of plot-relevant archaeology on remote planets. What they are digging up - or in some cases finding lying around in space - are inert objects constructed by a departed civilizations, rather than the high tech detritus of Revelation Space, and interpretation becomes critical as the plot progresses.

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[identity profile] cartesiandaemon.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-03 10:00

Hm. Have you read the Anthony Price cold war books? I've often recommended them as having non-stupid plots and non-stupid characters. The main character, David Audley is a historian rather than an archaeologist, but I think there are one or more other characters who are an archaeologist, and the plots often involve excavating something.

And sometimes the historical mystery is relevant and sometimes its fabircated, but it's always "knowing about what happened" rather than "following ancient secret instructions..." :)

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[personal profile] simontMon 2015-08-03 10:08

No, I haven't read those, so thanks! Perhaps I should attempt to borrow one from you.

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[identity profile] cartesiandaemon.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-03 10:26

I don't know if you'd like them, but I think it's worth trying. The first is Labyrinth Maker, I'm happy to lend you any time.

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[personal profile] gerald_duckMon 2015-08-03 10:18

Wikipedia has everything.

Frankly, most of those are utterly obscure to me. But for your stipulation that their archaeology has to be part of the plot, Jean-Luc Picard stands out!

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[personal profile] simontMon 2015-08-03 10:26

I haven't done the 'middle-click every link' exercise to check, but I wonder if some of them might become more obvious if the name of the fictional work was listed as well as the name of the character. I couldn't tell you off the top of my head what the Nightfall archaeologists' names were (though I suppose, given the Nightfall culture's distinctive personal-name system, they'd probably at least be easily recognised in a list of that nature).

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[identity profile] timeplease.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-03 10:18

Here's one: Echoes of an Alien Sky by James P. Hogan (http://www.baenebooks.com/p-121-echoes-of-an-alien-sky.aspx).

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[identity profile] atreic.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-03 11:06

What about the Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis? It won a hugo, so it's pretty famous, and the protagonists are on the border between historians and archeologists - I think described as historians, but definitely excavating graves and old buildings etc. It's timetravel, so maybe that breaks your No Magic criteria, but it's not Magic in that the stuff they find out is Definitely Just As History Was, it's just Magic in the way they find it out...

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[identity profile] cartesiandaemon.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-03 11:35

Oh, good example. Come to think of it there must be other time-travel stories which fulfil the spirit of "finding out about the past" even if there's 'magic' involved. Asimov's Ugly Little Boy. And surely I can think of others though I can't right now.

ETA: And I guess there's the reverse, like Da Vinci Code, where what's uncovered may or may not be magic, but is a matter of "ancient secrets which we need to re-learn"...

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[identity profile] ewx.livejournal.comTue 2015-08-04 09:17

Cowl (Neal Asher) arguably includes some very-distant-past paleontology by means of time travel, although that's incidental to the plot really.

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[personal profile] simontMon 2015-08-03 11:52

I haven't read it – perhaps another one to go on my list!

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[identity profile] atreic.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-03 11:53

I read it as part of my 'read books by people I will hear at Worldcon' project, and I enjoyed it, but it didn't rock my socks.

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[identity profile] songster.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-03 13:31

Pretty much anything by David Gibbins would fit the bill. It's a bit Dan-Brownish with various revelations of what REALLY happened back in the past, but it doesn't involve magic / the supernatural at all.

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[identity profile] songster.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-03 13:33

Also, Robert Harris' 'Fatherland' involves archaeological discovery within the alternate-history Nazis-won-WW2 premise, so that plausibly counts.

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[personal profile] simontMon 2015-08-03 13:58

Ah, that one I've read, so yes, I should have thought of it!

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[identity profile] writinghawk.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-03 13:57

Agatha Christie had a keen interest in archaeology and travelled widely with her archaeologist husband. Murder in Mesopotamia is set on a dig, and the principal character is an archaeologist. It's moderately well known, I suppose; it's been done with David Suchet and all.

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[identity profile] geekette8.livejournal.comMon 2015-08-03 19:04

Do you count the Jurassic Park lot? They were technically palaeontologists rather than archaeologists I think. If we do count palaeontologists then Ross Geller in Friends definitely made it very clear how boring it was.

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