Digging in the Wrong Place: “Blood and Treasure” S01, E01 & E02

Pic: The promotional image for Blood and Treasure showing the main characters, Lexi Vaziri (L) and Danny MacNamara (R). Blood and Treasure airs Tuesday nights on CBS and Global

It’s been a while since I’ve written an entry for my Digging in the Wrong place series. The last post was about a book, and I’ve got a couple more book-related posts in the works. In the meantime, let’s talk about a TV show. Blood and Treasure is a new CBS drama that aired its first episode on May 21, 2019. The plot is simple – a bad guy steals artifacts to fund his bad guy stuff, and an antiquities expert teams up with an art thief to try to stop the bad guy. Of course at the mention of “stolen artifacts” and “antiquities expert” archaeologists ears perked up. How often is it, after all, that a prime time TV drama is focused on archaeology? That fact alone almost makes it possible to ignore the fact that the lead woman’s character is clearly playing into the Lara Croft/Tomb Raider stereotype that women in archaeology still have to deal with today.**

**Spoiler: It does not make it possible to ignore the fact that once again we have a man (antiquities lawyer Danny MacNamara) as the professional expert and a woman (art thief Lexi Vaziri) as some form of Lara Croft. Seriously, TV producers, it’s absolutely possible to include a woman in an entertaining archaeology-themed show who isn’t based on Lara Croft and/or Tomb Raider. We exist. And we’re awesome. I promise.

A screenshot from Blood and Treasure from inside the tomb, showing Cleopatra’s sarcophagus is missing

The series starts in 2 parts over two episodes with a popular and well-known topic – the missing tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. A quick recap: An archaeologist and Cleopatra expert, Dr. Ana Castillo, finds the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Antony inside one of the great Giza Pyramids. Inside the tomb, surprise awaits. Firstly, only Mark Antony’s sarcophagus is present – Cleopatra is missing. Secondly, the remains of Nazi archaeologists are also found inside on the floor, below a set of hieroglyphs supposedly describing some sort of curse (of course there’s a curse – there’s always a curse). And thirdly, immediately after entering the tomb Dr. Castillo finds herself kidnapped by Karim Farouk, the series bad guy, who seeks to steal artifacts and weaponize them. By the end of the episode we find out that the series revolves around a secret cult seeking to collect a bunch of little amulets needed to unlock…something. Not sure what just yet, but based on everything else in the episodes I’m assuming it will be some sort of world-threatening weapon.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony

The story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony is probably one of the most famous stories from the ancient world, and the first two episodes of Blood and Treasure are based on part of their history. By the end of the second episode at least Cleopatra also seems to have been set up to be part of possibly the entire first season. Just in case you haven’t heard of them – their romantic relationship caused a bunch of turmoil that lead to a big battle, which they lost, and ultimately to their deaths by suicide. Here’s a brief, very simplified timeline of what happened:

Much of what we know about the relationship between Cleopatra and Antony comes from Plutarch’s Lives, which was a collection of biographies Plutarch wrote some time in the 2nd century C.E. about famous Greek and Roman men. Though Octavian is recorded as having granted Cleopatra’s wishes that she and Antony be entombed together, the exact location of their tomb was either not recorded or the records haven’t been found yet. As a result, the tomb itself has not been found, even if the Mirror seems desperate to make us think it has. So far, unlike Blood and Treasure, there’s absolutely no reason to think that their tomb might be hidden within the Giza pyramids. Based on certain artifacts being uncovered at the site of Taposiris Magna, near Alexandria, the dramatic Egyptologist Zahi Hawass has speculated he believes that their tomb may be there, though even he has recently reminded us that it hasn’t been found yet.

Ahnenerbe Archaeology

At the beginning of the first episode when Castillo steps into the tomb, she sees the remains of a soldier. She notices a pin on his jacket and realizes he was a Nazi soldier. In the second episode, we learn how that soldier ended up dead inside of the tomb. I’ve talked about Nazi archaeology before when discussing the dangers of nationalistic pseudoarchaeology, so I’ll just give a quick summary here. The Nazis needed to prove their superiority, so in 1935 Heinrich Himmler and Herman Wirth founded an archaeological research institute in order to do exactly that. Himmler was known to have interests in mysticism and the occult and had bought what Madame Helena Blavatsky (the founder of Theosophy) was selling – that Atlanteans, who had spread their advanced civilization all around the world, were ancestors to the most superior human race of all: the Aryans. The goal of ahnenerbe archaeologists was to find the worldwide evidence of this and archaeology became a major part of Nazi Germany. And where they couldn’t find evidence all they had to do was invent it themselves. But keep they that part secret.

Archaeology and Mysticism

Archaeology has long been entangled with mysticism and the supernatural, especially with regards to Egypt. Artifacts and sites have for centuries been claimed to hold special powers, which only a select number of esoteric individuals or small groups of people could access. For centuries, Egypt was believed to be the origin of knowledge/wisdom, magic, and alchemy. Secretive occultists like the Rosicrucians (and the Freemasonry influenced by the Rosicrucians) of the 17th century believed that their members had esoteric knowledge of the ancient past which in turn granted them access to the alchemy of Egypt. As Egyptian hieroglyphs began to be translated in the 19th century, the Theosophists claimed that the Egyptians had shared their secret knowledge of the origins of the world allegorically through their hieroglyphs. Further more, Helena Blavatsky argued that only the “initiated” could understand the truth behind the hieroglyphs and the Egyptians themselves had erased anything that might be “too revealing” of information to the uninitiated. As time carried on into the 20th century, the idea of secret esoteric knowledge in Egypt continued when Theosophist and psychic Edward Cayce claimed that all Egyptian knowledge was contained in a library called the Hall of Records, located beneath the Great Sphinx.

A screenshot from Blood and Treasure showing the amulet of Serapis Castillo takes from the dead soldier.

The mystical, esoteric archaeology trope is a major part of Blood and Treasure. At the end of the second episode our attention is drawn back to an amulet that Castillo found on the dead Nazi in Cleopatra and Antony’s tomb before she was kidnapped. The amulet included the symbol for Serapis on the front and the word “VICI” inscribed on the back. Fortunately Castillo has a drawing of the amulet because the amulet itself is confiscated by a police officer who visits her office, claiming it as “evidence” for the case looking into her kidnapping. As it turns out, this police officer belongs to a shadowy cult and the amulet is added to a wall containing hundreds of nearly identical amulets. We learn that he is part of the cult of Serapis, which is said to be responsible for protecting Cleopatra. Castillo, Viziri, and MacNamara realize that to find Farouk they’ll need to find Cleopatra, and to find Cleopatra they’ll need to find the cult. We don’t learn what the wall of amulets is for, but given the history of archaeological mysticism and its use as a popular TV and movie trope, I’m willing to bet that some sort of secret esoteric knowledge containing the fate of the world will be released should all the amulets be found.

A screenshot from Blood and Treasure showing the wall of amulets being collected by members of the Cult of Serapis

So there you have it, my review of Blood and Treasure’s first two episodes. It’s VERY Indiana Jones-esque, right down to the dramatic, adventurous music. If you enjoyed Indiana Jones and you enjoy the combination of adventure and history, you’ll probably enjoy Blood and Treasure. As I’ve just discussed, there are elements of real history included in the show. Cleopatra and Mark Antony were real people, and their uncovered tomb is still a hot topic today. Nazis were heavily invested in archaeology. And even the Cult of Serapis was a real cult (though it wasn’t secretive or shadowy). But all of these are heavily dramaticized with added elements for entertainment purposes, making it obvious the show is fictional. I’m not too worried [yet] about the show riding too fine a line between fictional and non-fictional with regards to pseudoarchaeology, but I’ll have to keep watching to see if that holds true. Now, if only they can find a way to address the annoying, over-used Lara Croft trope…

Additional Reading

If you want to learn more about the connections between mysticism and archaeology, as well as the general development of pseudoarchaeology, I highly, highly recommend Dr. Jeb Card’s new book Spooky Archaeology. It’s seriously fantastic, informative, and enjoyable to read. And since it’s pretty obvious Blood and Treasure is going down the mystical archaeology route, Spooky Archaeology will give you lots of fun background information to understand the inspiration for what we’ll likely be seeing as the show’s first season progresses.

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