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Thursday, 14 December 2017

Archaeology, Star Wars and the Power of Memory

So, I've just seen Star Wars: the Last Jedi [no spoilers - don't worry] and whilst I understand that it's not to everyone's taste (personally I can't see the attraction of The Lord of the Rings, but that's another story and, indeed, another franchise), may I just say 'WOOHOO' punch the air with joy and get all that out of the way.

Where was I again?

Oh yes, it got me thinking about the way memory works...




As an archaeologist, memories are my staple, my raison d'etre, my reason to be; spending my life finding, sorting and sifting through the accumulated mental detritus of past millennia. In fact, to quote another element of pop culture of which I'm inordinately fond, MacKenzie Crook's wonderful series Detectorists:




"we unearth the scattered memories. Mine for stories" - indeed yes

Memories are tricky things though. Hugely subjective, always different (depending on who is doing the remembering) and constantly shifting with time. I guess that's why, to return to the Star Wars analogy (thank you) the recent three films (Force Awakens, Rogue One, Last Jedi) have proved so popular at the box office and with fans (myself included) - yes they play with memories, but they do so in an affectionate and really rather clever way - taking bits of music and dialogue here, set and space ship designs there, to create something familar, comforting and yet ever-so-slightly new and exciting. 

Repeating the past, only making it more so (if that makes sense). 

That's why (in my own humble opinion) the first 3 prequels (Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith - and, if you want to be totally completist and pedantic the Clone Wars too) went badly awry, being so out of kilter, po-faced and (dare I say it) rather dull, they took the memories of the first 3 films and cheerfully defecated all over them 




Of course, the advance of special effects meant that, never one to leave well alone, director and creator George Lucas subsequently went on to tinker, add, delete, move around and generally mess with the 1977-83 originals, so that the versions we see on TV today bear only a passing resemblance to the big screen originals from back in the day




I was discussing this very point with some of my colleagues at work (sometimes we talk about archaeology too). They were convinced (and really quite adamant) that the 1977 film Star Wars had always been Star Wars: A New Hope and had similarly always been credited as 'Episode IV'




I wasn't so sure. I do vividly recall seeing the film on its second run in 1978 (3 times in 3 birthday party treats for 3 friends over 3 days). I remember the screen crawl, I remember the first shot of deep space, I remember the awe-inspiringly big space ships that filled the screen so dramatically and the first epic battle that launched a franchise...




...I do not remember 'Episode IV' appearing anywhere (in fact if it had I think we would all have been asking ourselves what the hell happened to episodes I to III and demanding our money  back - not that it was our money paying for the cinema tickets back then). 

It took a quick google check (what did we do before the internet - other than read books - obvs) to discover that the title Episode IV : a New Hope wasn't actually added until 1981, when the idea of retro-fitting prequels was first mooted. 

The film I saw in 1978 was called Star Wars...



...end of.

Hence, in respect, and recalling that old pop-culture statement of sci-fi rejection 'I've Never Seen Star Wars' - it follows that anyone who saw the first of George Lucas' movies (set in a Galaxy far far away) in 1981 or after hasn't actually seen Star Wars at all.

No, what they've seen is a film called A New Hope




George Lucas is a man who is clearly unhappy with memory recall and has, since the early 1980s. been doing his level best to keep messing with our minds. Sad though it is to say, if stories are to be believed, the original cuts for films 1-3 (or episodes IV-VI in the brave New Order - or is that First Order? - of things) have been deleted, so as to enforce the legitimacy of the shiny new editions. Of course, that hasn't stopped fans from trying to recreate the original versions from what they remember and from what little has survived, but that's not the same as having the originals themselves (and it's also playing fast and loose with our poor scattered memories).

As a consequence of all this, I find myself in even more difficulty when I'm working on site for, when I recover an artefact that hasn't seen the light of day for hundreds, if not thousands, of years - something that meant something to someone long long ago - whilst I am indeed overjoyed to be recovering a scattered memory, I am also perplexed as to whose memory it was, what it ultimately means, what version of the memory it is and, most important of all, whether or not it's real or has been subtly re-rendered in CGI