Sunday, 27 April 2014

James Bond enters the archaeological record

The James Bond films have occasionally shown archaeological remains (whether real or props) in the background to the action. In From Russia With Love, Bond accompanied Kerim Bey through the late Roman Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, For Your Eyes Only saw scenes of underwater archaeology (even if Melina Havelock's sense of chronology was a little out), and the recreation in Skyfall of a flight of steps, which Bond ascends on his motorbike to reach the roofs of Istanbul, was so detailed that it included replica Roman, medieval and later stonework. But now, after 50 years of the Bond films, James Bond is himself beginning to enter the archaeological record.

Since 2008, an archaeological project has been recording and analysing the remains of one of the numerous 'peace camps' which were established around the Greenham Common US airbase in Berkshire between 1983 and 2000. The Common Ground Research Group, working with the University of Southampton, has surveyed and collected artefactual material from Turquoise Gate, a short-lived camp occupied from 1983, with the aim of producing a social history and archaeological study of the site using survey and mapping data, artefact analyses, photographs, videos, and interviews with the camp's inhabitants.

As with any archaeological fieldwork, the field survey and data collection were carried out in a systematic manner. The site was gridded into metre squares and any surface material within each square was collected and logged. Among the many structural, personal and domestic objects recovered, such as concrete fragments, bottles, and toys, was an empty promotional bag of Smiths crisps. The promotion was linked to the release of Octopussy in 1983 and advertised a watch offer and a competition to win a holiday. (The packet pictured below - courtesy of a tweet by @misterdv - is not the one found by the project.)

The crisp packet found at the camp is noteworthy for at least two reasons. From an archaeological perspective, it can be closely dated. Clearly referencing the film, the packet cannot have been discarded before 1983. Like a newspaper recovered from a time capsule, or a Roman coin found at the base of a wall, the packet provides a terminus post quem – the earliest possible date for its deposition and any activity or other material associated with it.

It is also notable that the packet, which promotes a film in which James Bond prevents a nuclear bomb planted by a Soviet hardliner from detonating in a US airbase, was found in a camp established outside a US airbase by women protesting against the presence of nuclear missiles at the base. It is uncertain whether the consumer was aware of the plot of Octopussy or simply did not place much importance on the promotion or the film, but the packet's contents were obviously eaten nonetheless.

The packet of crisps is not the only object relating to Octopussy (apart from vehicles and props which appear periodically in temporary exhibitions celebrating the Bond films) to have been curated. For a while, the Nene Valley Railway held in its collection an LMS CCT (no. M37066M) railway carriage, which had been used in the film. In May 2009 the organisation wished to dispose of the carriage and noted that it was complete, but in poor condition. (On reading this appeal, I contacted owner of the 'Cars of the Stars Museum' in Keswick, who said that he'd look into acquiring the carriage. I didn't hear further from him and since then the museum closed and relocated to Miami.)

The mass of material generated in response to the James Bond films – books, posters, promotional objects and so on – has been acquired, consumed, hoarded, curated, or discarded. Some of this is seeping through to the archaeological record, having been recovered by archaeologists and analysed to provide insight into economic and cultural aspects of the objects and their context.


  1. Fascinating piece there on a subject about which you are an expert. It is ironic indeed given the plot of the film and General Orlov's comments in the film about daily CND marches in Britain and across Europe that this crisp packet was found on one of the commons. Another film which deals with this subject matter if The Fourth Protocol (1987) based on the 1984 novel by Frederick Forsyth.

  2. In addition I suppose that TWINE also had archaeological digs - such as the torture chair unearthed by Elektra King and which featured very heavily near the end of the narrative.

    1. Good point about the Fourth Protocol (which of course has another Bondian link with Pierce Brosnan). Octopussy tapped into the same Cold War/nuclear concerns. You're right about the archaeology in TWINE. I make a mental note about that every time I watch the film, but then forget about it. There's also the pyramids in TSWLM and an anomalous-looking Mayan temple in Moonraker.

    2. I think that when it comes to Bond you remember more things than most, Edward! And I admire how regular you are in updating your blog with new and interesting articles. If only I could emulate you on my pet project The Bondologist Blog.

      And you are right on those two - with perhaps some of the palaces in India in OP thrown in for good measure!

    3. Thanks for your comments. Really appreciate it. I get a lot of satisfaction writing these posts, and I'm glad you enjoy them. Quantity isn't necessarily quality, though. Your Bondologist posts are great reads too, and very well researched. And I don't think Martin Amis has ever read one of my posts!


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