Between ‘what is presented’ and ‘how is presented’: historical re-enactment through popular culture

The following is a guest post from Dawid Kobiałka, a doctoral candidate at Adam Mickiewicz University (Poznan)

The times in which we all live are quite interesting and paradoxical. On the one hand, there is an injunction to enjoy, to carpe diem; seize the day. According to this point of view, human beings have one life in a world abandoned by God. The only meaning of life is to live (experience, enjoy, etc.) one’s own life. Here, the present and the future seem to be only of interest to human beings. On the other hand, it seems that the past has never before been so popular and captivating. For example, TV series that are about different visions of the past like Game of Thrones (2011-) or Vikings (2013-) are very popular. Also, who of us do not know Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, two great archaeologists? Another example that concerns with the increasing role of the past in the present is historical re-enactment by means of which I understand any attempt to recreate a historical event of a specific historical period (Petersson 2010:5) (fig. 1). In Europe, for example, historical re-enactment of the Viking Age and Late Middle Ages is especially popular. There is not much exaggeration in the assumption that nowadays there are more Viking swords than we know from all excavations. In a homologues way, more knights’ tournaments are organised nowadays than during the whole Late Middle Ages…

Fig. 1. Historical re-enactment of the Viking Age (contemporary Viking) (author D. Kobiałka).

However, the abundance of the references to the past in the present causes some theoretical problems. In other words, usually analysing different manifestations of the past in e.g. computers games, Hollywood films and so on to much attention is paid only on content (what is presented). Formal aspects of each film, computer game and so on are omitted. I want to explore this problem a little bit in this short text by taking as an example a historical re-enactment movement of the Viking Age.

The curse of content

Archaeology deals with material culture from the distant past. From time to time archaeologists also analyse how the past is presented in the media. Here Indiana Jones, Lara and Lara Croft’s films and computer games are the best example. By the same token, some archaeologists are interested in historical re-enactment because it is a way of presenting some visions of the past. And this is what I mean by the curse of content of staging (playing) the past: one as an archaeologist is interested in computer games, Hollywood films, TV series as long as there are clear and obvious references to the past: the domain of archaeology (fig. 2). The first banal question that pops up here is the following one: why is allegedly Indiana Jones more interesting from an archaeological point of view than, let’s say, The Mask (1994) directed by Churck Russell or Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007, 2009, 2011)?

Fig. 2. Artefacts that imitate material culture from the 10th century (author D. Kobiałka).

By focusing on the obvious references to the past, one obliterates the fact that the past is also presented in the form of e.g. films. In short, a film without any clear references (content) to the past might be still profoundly about the past. Here of interest is not ‘what is presented’ but rather ‘how is presented’. Due to the fact that films and computer games about archaeology and the past in most cases simplify archaeology and its object of study, no wonder then archaeologists have been very critical about them. For example: Indiana Jones has nothing to do with a real archaeology – something like this I used to hear many times as a young student of archaeology. In contrast to such perspective, concentration on form of each film gives broader perspectives also apropos the role of the past in the present.

The advantage of form: Transformers watch The Mask

Historical re-enactors of the Viking Age gather during special markets where they can live for a while if they were in the 10th century. I have participated in a few such events in Poland and Sweden between 2011 and 2013. One of the research questions concerned with the problem of how contemporary Vikings use material culture and what kinds of things they produce. Two distinctively different attitudes towards material culture that imitates better or worse artefacts from the Viking Age were observed by me. I discuss these ways of playing the past through focusing on form of some films.

Fig. 3. Contemporary craftsman of the Viking Age: transformer (author D. Kobiałka).

A relatively recent trilogy, one of the most successful and well-known, is Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007, 2009, 2011)[i]. The storyline follows two races of robots. On the one hand, there are the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, the good guys who are always ready to save the Earth. On the other hand, there are the Decepticons and their leader Megatron, malevolent and just waiting for the chance to destroy the Earth. To put it simply, the main motif of the trilogy is typical Hollywood: the fight between good and evil. However, the interesting aspect from an archaeological point of view is the very way in which the robots are transformed from cars, tanks, planes, etc. into humanoid warriors. At first sight, it may seem that every transformer transforms from one being e.g. a car into another e.g. a warrior. Nonetheless, the problem here is that each transformer does not really transform the very substance of its own being. In other words, Optimus Prime as a truck and Optimus Prime as a warrior are one and the same. It is as if, in changing his shape, Optimus simply dresses up.

His ‘pseudo-transformation’ is like wearing new clothes yet still being one and the same person/being. This attitude of using material culture was characteristics to some older craftsmen at historical re-enactment events. For them, participating in an event was a way of earning money. They look like people from a different reality because it is a prerequisite to participate in a historical re-enactment event as a historical re-enactor (fig. 3). Otherwise you are not allow to sell your stuff. In other words, here material culture from the past (or more precisely, material culture that imitates objects from the past) is a means to an end. However, most of women and contemporary Viking warriors perceived material culture in another way; the way that is nicely presented in The Mask.

The Mask (1994), directed by Chuck Russell, is the story of Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey) a young, shy and unassuming clerk who works at a bank. His life is a total catastrophe. He has neither a girlfriend nor friends and is the butt of many jokes. One evening he wants to visit a nightclub, but is refused entry. On the way home he accidentally finds – or rather not because there is always some deeper historical necessity in such stories – a wooden mask. On initial inspection the mask is just like any other mask. This one however, when placed on the face, causes a change in the person. The shy, romantic and clumsy Stanley becomes a green-faced superhero. What needs to be clearly pointed out from an archaeological point of view is the very nature of this transformation. It is not simply that Stanley (the human being) wearing the mask (the object) is still one and the same person. The mask changes Stanley. He does not hide beneath the mask, rather an interaction with the artefact and Stanley changes them both. Something completely new is born out of this assemblage of the thing and the human being (fig. 4).

Fig 4. Contemporary warrior of the Viking Age: the mask (author D. Kobiałka).

There are formal similarities between The Mask and contemporary Viking warriors. A sword, a helmet, a knife, and other things they wear during historical re-enactment events are not simply ornaments. They are rather objects that enable to travel in time, in this case, to the Viking Age. By having on themselves all these objects that imitate material culture from the Viking Age, they change, transform into other beings. By the same token, they are no longer people from the grey reality of the 21st century: they are Vikings. And they are (contemporary) Vikings because of material culture. They are assemblages of human beings and things. In this sense, historical re-enactment of the Viking Age starts and ends with material culture: without proper objects, one is not a true historical re-enactor like Stanley who without the wooden mask is not a superhero (human-thing). 

Conclusion

This post was intended to just signal two ways of analysing the past in the present. On the one hand, one can focus on clear references to the past in Hollywood films or computer games. Such analyses have their own advantages. They discuss how the past is commonly perceived, used, manipulated and so on. Nonetheless, what needs also to be remembered is that advantages are always their own disadvantages. That is to say, by focusing on how the past is presented in the media, one overlooks that sometimes the past is in form itself.

At first side Transformers and The Mask have nothing to do with the past and historical re-enactment of the Viking Age. When one however focuses more on formal aspects of the films and the historical re-enactors, there are interesting parallels. It can be even claimed that the films might be one of the keys to understanding the different ways of using material culture among contemporary Vikings.

Acknowledgements

A few paragraphs of this text going to appear in one of my papers (Kobiałka 2013).


[i] Producers of Transformers plan to release a fourth film in 2014 though.

Bibliography

Kobiałka, D. 2013. The Mask(s) and Transformers of Historical Re-enactment: Material Culture and Contemporary Vikings. Current Swedish Archaeology. Vol. 21.

Petersson, B. 2010. Travels to Identity. Viking Rune Carvers of Today. Lund Archaeological Review. Vol. 15-16 (2009-2010). Pp. 71-86.

 

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