As the next Star Wars movie hits our screens, I find myself returning to a question that’s been asked before: should the crumbling film sets of Tataouine that still stand in the Tunisian desert be considered an archaeological monument?
It’s easy to dismiss the thought as laughable, but it’s a question that gets to the heart of what constitutes archaeology. As archaeologists, we spend our lives exploring the remains of past cultural events so how could we possibly ignore looking back at something that is one of the biggest cultural phenomena of our time?
Let’s get back to basics; many archaeological sites are considered archaeological sites simply because that’s where a culturally significant event once took place. So what if that event is the game-changing, generationally-defining film Star Wars, rather than something like a battle, or a festival?
Individuals, and society, are today defined by cultural affiliations to music, film and television; maybe we should preserve the physical traces of such a defining moment, in the same way that we would honour an actual historical event.
Performance spaces that we have already had the sense to preserve absolutely capture the imagination in a very unique way. If you have never sat on the steps of the amphitheatre of the ancient Greek site of Delphi then I suggest you do, and soon. It is an overwhelming and possibly life-changing experience. For those whose lives were impacted by Star Wars, I can easily imagine feeling the same sense of awe and reverence wandering in and out of little fake sand huts in the desert.
It’s a really nice idea in principle, but in practical terms these movie sets face the same problems as all archaeological sites when talking about a universal global standard of preservation. And then some…
I have no idea how popular Star Wars was in Tunisia, but I’d bet that it was nowhere near as important to them as a nation as it was to the Americans, or to us British. This ‘it might matter to you, but it doesn’t matter to us’ issue is nothing new when talking about heritage management, but it could be a sticky wicket if we add film sets to our endangered monuments lists. Studios make films where it is cheapest to do so, and that often means not in the country where the film is likely to have most impact on release.
With that in mind, when a film becomes something more than just another film, who should stump up the cash to make that set a permanent fixture? And how will the local population feel about having money spent to preserve a modern location that is quite literally alien to their culture, rather than something of historic or even ancient significance?
It seems to me that the Tunisian government have much bigger fish to fry right now. And, problem is, the set is in Tunisia; and that’s a bit of a hike for Disney to make any money off of it, which means Tattooine won’t be getting the Hogwarts theme-park treatment anytime soon. Is Harry Potter more important than Han Solo? Should we demand George Lucas turn over a proportion of the vast wealth he earned from the film, in order to preserve the structural remains? I’m sure many people would see that as a fitting punishment for inflicting Ja Ja Binks on the world.
If the set of Tattooine will not be preserved in Tunisia, should we forcibly remove it piece by piece and stick it next to the Harry Potter sets – or would that then embroil us in an Elgin/Parthenon Marbles type dispute in the years to come?
As is so often the case in archaeology, there really is no time to get into the nitty gritty of these complex arguments because the site is under threat. At this very moment an enormous sand dune is busy engulfing the set of Mos Espha, the home of Anakin Skywalker in Stars Wars: A Phantom Menace, and so far no one seems willing or able to make it stop.
If nothing is done, the landscape of Star Wars will at least benefit from its remote location, in that it may not be doomed to total destruction. The remains will be slowly subsumed by the dunes, and one day will make an odd mysterious find for future archaeologists – something that fits with the landscape but not quite, looks like a place of habitation and yet bears no evidence of it. I can already hear future archaeologists crying: “It’s RITUAL…!”
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