Pic: A screenshot of the opening sequence of Legends of the Lost
In December 2018, the Travel Channel aired a 4-episode special (ratings were so low that I highly doubt a second season will be ordered, so I’m calling it a ‘special’ for now) titled “Legends of the Lost”. Hosted by actress Megan Fox, each episode examined a different archaeological topic and featured Fox travelling to various sites and institutions to talk to experts about whatever topic she was exploring in that particular episode.
If you’ll recall, I had reservations about this show when it was first announced. My worries, shared by several colleagues, stemmed not only from the general descriptions of the shows but also from comments made by the show’s host and producer Megan Fox with regards to archaeology. Fox admitted to having a lifelong passion in archaeology and history, which is awesome! But she also claimed that what made her a great host was that she hadn’t spent her life building a career in academia and therefore she didn’t have to worry about her reputation or disagreements from colleagues. In other words, she was free to push back against accepted theories, because “so much of our history needs to be re-examined.” Given that Fox has cited the show Ancient Aliens as being a large inspiration for her interests in history and archaeology (she’s even appearing on an episode in early 2019), there was definitely some cause for concern with what exactly was going to be portrayed in Legends of the Lost.
Now, I know I’m a little late to the party with regards to sharing my thoughts on Legends of the Lost. There has already been plenty of discussion online from many of my colleagues, which I’ll share links to below. I’ve been reading and listening to all of these discussions while I’ve formed my own thoughts on the show. And after having seen the show and listened to what many of my colleagues have shared, I have to say that I share many of the same feelings of disappointment and frustration with Legends of the Lost. I’m not going to go through each episode and offer critiques (you’ll see in some of the readings I share my colleagues have already done this), but I do have some thoughts I would like to share.
Admittedly, the first episode, featuring viking women, gave me a little bit of hope for the show. Representation matters. Whether it’s a kid reading a comic or watching a TV show, or a student at their first conference, people want to be who they can see (for example, the Scully Effect). For that reason, I was impressed by the first episode of Legends of the Lost. Here we had a woman up on the screen leading the discussions about archaeology. Not only leading the discussions, but also talking about women in archaeology with a lot of women archaeologists. As a First Gen (student and archaeologist) and a woman, I thought Fox made for some pretty good representation (see my recent public talk at Carleton University where I talk about the connections I found between my experiences as a First Gen and pseudoarchaeology).
Unfortunately, however, Legends of the Lost didn’t stop after just one episode. And by halfway into the second episode my initial reservations and concerns for the show came back. And any sort of positive representation Fox had instilled in my mind quickly left for exactly that reason – representation. To a non-archaeologist viewer, Fox as the host represents archaeology. She is telling the viewer what to look at, what to focus on, and who to listen to for the answers she needs to unravel these archaeological “mysteries”. She shows us who she considers as representative of archaeology through those she chooses to interview and involve in her explorations. Unfortunately Fox gives the power of representation to pseudoarchaeologists Graham Hancock and Jim Vieira. For those who don’t know, Hancock has written a number of popular books covering all sorts of pseudoarchaeological theories (i.e. a comet hit the Earth 12,000 years ago and wiped out any evidence for the highly advanced civilization that existed at the time) and Vieira believes the Smithsonian Institution is hiding the truth about a civilization of giants who once roamed North America.
The problem with Fox involving Hancock and Vieira in Legends of the Lost is that they now represent archaeology. Fox has shown the viewers that these two men and their ideas are worth listening to, just as much as the other archaeologists involved. Fox herself even admits to believing these pseudoarchaeological theories (especially the giants). If the audience is a non-archaeological audience and Fox has just shown them that these two men are experts who know what they’re talking about, then we can’t blame the audience if they also start to believe what Hancock and Vieira are saying. These moments, even if they are only 8 minutes out of 41, can have a serious and negative impact on archaeology and archaeologists. Especially when it’s 8 more minutes in another show. And another show. And another…
We can’t fault the Legends of the Lost viewers for believing what has been presented to them, should they choose to believe it. But we as archaeologists can and should speak up about the problems in shows like Legends of the Lost. We can share why and how we know theories like Hancock’s and Vieira’s are wrong. We should speak up about the racism in these theories and why Legends of the Lost shouldn’t get a free pass just because one episode or small parts of several episodes were interesting. Because the fact is that as archaeologists, pseudoarchaeology affects Every. Single. One of us. Sometimes it’s directly – someone asking you a question about giants or emailing you photos of rocks they’ve collected which they claim to be proof that vikings settled in Ohio. Other times it’s indirectly – simply by being a professional archaeologist you’re deemed to be hiding some sort of truth. I’ll save my rant about being a woman archaeologist living with the curse of Lara Croft comparisons for another day. But we’re all affected in one way or another by pseudoarchaeology and what is put out to the public in television (and film, and books, and comics, etc.). To be completely honest, we really should be thanking our colleagues who put in a lot of time and effort to try to change these misrepresentations and abuses of archaeology. Because just as pseudoarchaeology affects us, so does the work of these colleagues who are sticking their necks out for the rest of us. That deserves some recognition and appreciation. And if they’re telling us there are problems with shows like Legends of the Lost, perhaps it’s best that we take some time to listen to and learn from them just as we hope the public will listen and learn from us.