The Double-Edged Sword

Let me begin with a reminder of my subtitle: 'A Double-Edged Sword'. I believe a good image is truly a double-edged sword. A good image may provide a superb sense of a particular monument or place from the past, but, at the same time, it may convey to the viewer far more than we as archaeologists really know and, because of the level of realism, it may overpower the viewer's normal scepticism. Let me give you two non-archaeological examples of this concern over confusing image and reality to describe the problem before going on to suggest some remedies. To do so, I will talk briefly about two movies: 'JFK' and 'Z'. 'JFK' is Oliver Stone's movie about the assassination of John Kennedy and the investigation of the crime by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. 'Z' is an older movie, taken by Costa-Gavras from the book of the same name by Vassilis Vassilikos. The movie, made in 1969, was about political and financial intrigue ending in murder; it took place in Greece during the period just before and shortly after the junta took power in 1967 (after which the author of the book was imprisoned). Both of these movies deal with real events and real people, but each is fictionalised to some degree. I have not seen JFK but I have seen Z.

I know little or nothing about the reality underlying Z; what I do know comes from the movie. Even with little memory of specifics, I retain a general sense of the level of political and financial corruption of that time and place, corruption so deep that a prominent reporter could be murdered without fear of any consequences. That sense of the situation comes from the movie, not my study of the history of the time. I chose not to see JFK, in part because of the experience of seeing Z and similar movies. In the case of JFK, I not only knew about the Kennedy assassination, I watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on television live, so to speak. I've seen the Zapruder film on TV, watched the analysis of the parade route, and so on. I do not want to confuse what I know with the fiction of JFK the movie. But I know that the movie will be strong enough to do that - to put into my memory bits and pieces of its fictional parts. My point here, of course, is that fiction can be as easily conveyed as fact in a good movie. Indeed, most movies are entirely fiction, and good fiction presents no problem. It is a problem, however, when fact and fiction are confused, because an effective movie will overwhelm viewers with the image and sound of apparent reality, leaving the viewer with a permanent and strong memory that cannot easily be dislodged.

My second example is from the newsreels rather than the movies. When the Hindenberg exploded in 1936 in New Jersey, the news cameras were at hand. As a result, that accident is one of the best photographed events in history. Most of us, I suspect, have seen the explosion more than once. We know that the hydrogen in the ship was responsible for this disastrous event, and the image is very clear in our minds' eyes. Unfortunately, it is now understood that the fiery explosion was unrelated to the hydrogen gas used to give the Hindenberg lift. The facts have been established, but for many the reality was established by the film and its narration; most people will retain the film, not the truth.

These examples, I hope, illustrate the extent to which images can overpower reality or, at the least, influence our perceptions. Movies and news films are probably more powerful than most computer technology today, but I am quite sure that the technology coming tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year will be remarkably effective and will be able to confuse us and often to persuade us. I have personally been through one extensive VR experience. Although the images used were very crude, the total experience was very compelling. I am convinced, therefore, that we must be careful just what is presented by this powerful technology, and how that presentation takes place. If we are to have presentations so compelling that the monuments are defined by the visualisations of them, as I believe we will, we must take care.


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Last updated: Tue Aug 22 2000