Ancient Egyptian Curses and Bog Bodies: The Role of Pseudoarchaeology in Tumblr's Subculture

Published on 26 January 2024 03:15 PM
By Emma Verstraete
This post masthead

Introduction: Tumblr's Denizens and Ecosystem

Tumblr is weird. The word 'weird' gets thrown around frequently when it comes to things on the internet, but if the most devoted users of the website fondly refer to it as a "blue hellsite" the term has probably been rightfully earned. Tumblr is a strange ecosystem of over 505 million individual blog pages, averaging over 10 million posts in a single day (Tumblr 2020). Reported demographics of Tumblr find that nearly half of the user population is under the age of 25, as the site is favored for its micro-blogging platform, robust photo sharing, and tagging system (Grant 2015, McCracken et al 2020). These features lend itself to a market that favors the aesthetics of hand drawn comics, softly lit photographs, succulents, mood boards, and quotations (Grant 2015, Tiidenberg et al 2021, McCracken et al 2020). This predilection for aesthetics above all has yielded a platform that is ripe for history misinformation and pseudoarcheology. So how do you correct misconceptions and highlight the truth? With well tagged and witty text posts sprinkled with a healthy dose of memes and sarcasm. This article will present a broad overview on the history and mechanics of Tumblr's unique ecosystem and subculture to contextualize a variety of pseudoarchaeology and ancient history memes. Archaeologists on Tumblr strive to promote outreach and stop the spread of misinformation in memes and posts with responses that range from corrected memes, to informal discussions, or even carefully researched and cited literature reviews. This article overall seeks to show how archaeologists and historians on Tumblr seek to disrupt the problematic discourse of pseudoarcheology by providing engaging science discourse.

I don't know why the media insists on writing headlines with lines such as "Archaeologists baffled by new discovery" as if we just start digs at random in order to sit there after we've discovered something and say "Well [heck], Gerald. I never thought we'd find a mummy in this 3000 year old Ancient Egyptian cemetery" like a bunch of idiots.
Archaeologists baffled that apparently reporters think they just dig random holes expecting nothing most of the time. [1]

So what is Tumblr? On the obvious front, it's a social media site. The site functions a little like Twitter, a little like Facebook, and a lot like a social media site designed around the discourse of media or information. The post quoted here above shows how the unique sphere of interaction allows users to engage with posts with witty quips and additions, while still preserving the text of the original piece (Tiidenberg et al 2021). Like most social media sites, users have the option to like or favorite posts they enjoy by pressing the heart at the bottom of a post. Users can comment on posts, which shows that interaction but doesn't reblog it, similar to a reply on Twitter or commenting on someone's Facebook post (McCracken et al 2020).[2] If a user likes a post enough, they can choose to reblog it by pressing the reblog button. Then, users have the choice to reblog it without any commentary or to add their own information or comments underneath the text with a tag of their username indicating their contribution. This is similar to Twitter's retweet option, but it doesn't nest reblogs like retweets and therefore allows users to interact with all the information in a reblog thread of replies- sometimes spanning over a dozen users and their unique additions (Grant 2015). Additionally, users do not have restrictions such as character limits on their usernames, allowing for elaborate references and titles to the blogs. Separate from reblogged commentary is the ability to tag posts. You can reblog something without adding your own commentary, but you can add your own tags to the post. This allows the user to search themes and subjects within a single blog as well as across the site as a whole.[3]The notes tally in the bottom left corner of a post shows the aggregate number of interactions the post has had since its creation including: reblogs, comments, and likes (Grant 2015, McCracken et al 2020, Tiidenberg et al 2021). Tags are also freqently used as a way to "stage whisper" ideas and beliefs in unique form of engagement- by writing something in the tags you are simultaneously publicly saying something directly to the people who follow your blog, while still keeping it secret from the broader lines of discourse since tags do not get added to the reblog chain unless someone directly screenshots them and adds them in (Brett and Maslen 2021, Bourlai 2018).

Tumblr is unique in its heavy reliance on text based posts and humor. While screenshots, memes, gif sets, and photos are common on the site most conversation happens in reblogs and captions of this media. A holdover from when loading images took a long time, a large portion of the most popular and influential posts (referred to colloquially as 'world heritage posts' on Tumblr) are completely text based and reflect long form conversations and discussions between multiple individuals in a way that lends itself to the written word. A single image might kick off discourse or be used as a witty addition later in the reblogs, but most of the user-to-user interaction happens in text (Grant 2015).

This multi-modal interaction scheme and the unique culture that the insular and fandom-oriented community has fostered means that devotees will stay with the social media site that caters to their niche interests, despite ill-timed staff responses, coding errors, spam bots, and multiple mergers and policy overhauls.

Yall can be edgy and talk about how much you hate tumblr all you want but I will be real chief I value my undeserved clout on here and its also the only place that shoots all my niche interests directly into my brain at the speed of light
The idea behind Tumblr, namely the dashboard, how posts and reblogs work (kinda like mini-threads that stream endlessly onto your dash), and the tagging system, is actually superb and I have yet to find another social media site on par with this format. Hence why we all stay here.
But then there's also the incompetent staff and the extreme cultural madness of the website, hence why we hate it despite staying.[4]

The users quoted here reflect the prevailing opinion of so-called Tumblr Olds. The designation of an Old is usually given to users over college-age who also have used the site for several years who remember major changes and cultural shifts within the Tumblr community and community guidelines. While sometimes derided by the younger fans of the site, it is generally acknowledged within community culture that listening to your elders is a wise choice, as they often carry oral traditions and memories of major fandom events and the source of specific nomenclature styles and references that have become ingrained within Tumblr. The act of knowing the origins of specific memes and ideas is often worn like a badge of honor, with the history of strange turns of phrases and pictures explained earnestly and in great detail to blog followes, similar to how Vr4300 explains the finer details of the more simple statement by orcbulge that proceeds it. Many of the archaeologists and users quoted in this article have earned the title of Tumblr Old, including the author herself. Specific syntax styles and grammar choices like Capitalization for Emphasis or bredlik (a specific type of poem that is often parodied on the site) are used in the quotations and have been left in as artifacts of Tumblr's impact on linguistic structure and in-jokes for long-term users (Grant 2015; McCulloch 2020).

Tumblr, the Ancient World, and Curated Affect

The idea of the ancient world and its exotic marvels and delights is a trope that is capitalized on in multiple media platforms. Typically, it is difficult for experts to correct misinformation that stems from the idea of the exotic in archaeology and history. Comments on Facebook posts can be deleted or hidden, retweets are seen by the expert's followers rather than the followers of the original post, and everyone knows not to wade into the comments of a conspiracy vid on YouTube. However, with Tumblr posts users can reblog the post in question, add their own commentary and corrections. The content and information they add in a reblog will be automatically pushed into their follower's timeline, while effective tagging practices can further disperse the information to anyone who searches for that tag across all Tumblr posts (Brett and Maslen 2021). Reblogs are visible in the notes of the original post, allowing users who chose to interact with the original to see any additional information or corrections that have been added by others (Woods 2023). The example here focuses on a blog that compiles information from history that is carefully curated to reflect an exotic and 'other' view of people in the past. While this approach doesn't openly disparage peoples of the past, it can still be harmful due to the ways in which it can disconnect the reader from history and dehumanize the individuals and societies from the past (Calvito 2020; Card 2018; Fagan 2010; Halmhofer 2020).

Ancient Egyptian artwork from the New Kingdom to the Ptolemaic Period (so 1549 BCE to about 30 BCE) frequently depicts Egyptians wearing cones perched on their heads. But despite their common appearance in artwork, no physical examples of the cones have been found – until now. Excavations at Amarna unexpectedly found the remains of such cones, worn by the deceased in two non-elite tombs. Results of analyses show these were hollow cones constructed out of wax.
Why people wore hollow cones of wax on their heads, however, remains a mystery.
The leading theory for many years is/has been that it was perfume, in kept in a solid state for long acting release. It's super cool that we know that they were real now, and what they were made from - animal fat was speculated, and while wax is still very messy, it's much more appealing.[5]

Very few posts on Tumblr rely on the racist tropes of aliens and fantasies of Atlantis. Instead, posts tend to emphasize the uniqueness of their favored historical cultures and curated aesthetic of choice to perpetuate counterclaims to established science. In order to help users curate the right visuals and 'feeling' on their pages, multiple blogs such as the one referenced above only post specific types of content or photos. Feminist quotes, historical scenes, archaeological artifacts, and obscure facts and events from history are peddled on the blogs with little more than a quick source attribution and photo description. While these types of posts are useful in the particular stylistic choices of so-called 'aesthetic blogs', the posts do little to educate or inform those who interact with them. Of course, it is not always necessary to educate or inform- things can simply exist to entertain and delight. However, without education and facts it is easy to twist images and quotes into weaponized media that can assist in furthering misinformation around the peoples of the past.

Here, the reposter has chosen to interact with the original poster (OP) in good faith, or assuming good intentions. While OP leans slightly on the common 'ancient people are so strange' trope to communicate with followers via shorthand, they seem to be doing it for a bit of punchy humor at the end of a post rather than outright calling ancient Egyptians stupid and/or primitive. The phrasing of the response to the post indicates that the hope of the response isn't to invalidate the way OP presented the new discovery, but rather to contextualize it with information and research that provides a glimpse of everyday life for ancient Egyptians. Reblogging with a neutral and informative response like this makes it more likely that the OP will see this new information and reblog the response, sending this new nugget of information back to their followers and adding more information and contextualization for all involved (Tiidenberg et al 2020).

However, the presentation of new facts and education do not always have to be responses and corrections. Sometimes, the most informative posts can be ones that are conversational in style and simply focus on the cleverness and timelessness of humans across time and space. The post below discusses a seeming mundane topic, while situating it a way that encourages organic conversation across reblogs in both the tags and text of the post (Brett and Maslen 2021).

I love how humans have literally not changed throughout history like the graffiti from Pompeii has people from hundreds of years ago writing stuff like "Marcus is gay" "I f***** a girl here" "Julius your mum wishes she was with me" and leonardo da vinci's assistants drew d**** in their notebooks just for the banter and mozart created a piece called "kiss my a**" so when people wish for 'today's generation' to be like 'how people used to' then we're already there buddy we've always been
The Hagia Sophia has inscriptions that were considered sacred for centuries until they were deciphered in the 70s to be Nordic runes saying "Halfdan wrote this"
my old english prof told us that theres a cave in Scandinavia where a viking gratified some runes like 14 feet up on the wall and when they finally reached it all it translated into was "this is very high"[6]

In this case OP's goal was to talk about certain invariable aspects of the human experience- such as the tendency to make jokes, leave meaningless graffiti, and insult your friends' mothers. The original user who posted this decided that a conversational approach to explaining how people acted throughout history would be an accurate reflection of the self that they presented to their wider Tumblr audience (Tiidenberg et al 2020, McCracken et al 2021, Grant 2015, Greenhill and Fletcher 2004). These types of posts are also common because historians and archaeologists and writers are citizens of the site. Anyone who has met someone of those professions will confirm that they are often driven by a love of people and culture, a love of the quirks that are the foundations for weird rituals, and the certain immutable facts of how humans behave when placed in social groups. This is reflected in the posts we make and the interaction chains we choose to reblog. My personal blog frequently uses the tag 'humans are fascinating'. I occasionally mean this be read with excitement and occasionally I mean for it to read with a tongue in cheek tone as a way to communicate my exasperation to the other archaeologists and historians who follow me (Brett and Maslen et al 2021).

Iconic Memes

Tumblr is known for its unique infrastructure, which allows users to curate their own experiences, interact with specific tags and topics, and converse globally about the human condition. This unique set up allows for construction of niche spaces focused on conversations of our own human reality and our reactions to those experiences throughout time (Grant 2015, Tiidenberg et al 2020). Situated within the broader Tumblr ecosystem and the many subcultures are a number of popular anthropology and archaeology focused memes and text posts which circulate on this active social media site. Some of these posts may be familiar- maybe they popped up as screenshots in different contexts via Facebook meme pages or viral Twitter posts, though it might have featured a different reblog thread since memes pages frequently highlight the most humorous responses rather than the most factual responses. The posts here feature archaeologists and historians, both professional and avocational who have attempted to clarify information with sources and text links, refute false claims, or even join in the fun with a healthy dose of sarcasm and wit.

Time spent in mundane activities (such as doing dishes, showering, or running) can provide time for unusual or unexpected thoughts to surface. The meme of 'shower thoughts' as a funny and often unexpectedly 'deep' time of introspection is a phenomenon seen across several platforms- Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr all have latched onto the concept in various manifestations. This 'shower thought' posted by a blog of the same name provides a meta-analysis that conveys the idea that life expectancy was short in the time of 'cave women' and so perhaps, women have another big physiological change coming up if our lifespan suddenly greatly increases. Obviously, there are a lot of different disciplines and subfields that could refute this outlandish claim. But the quickest, and most detailed of the bunch were anthropologists who described the grandmothering hypothesis that showed how important female elders are to the development and advancement process as individuals and a society (Blell 2017).

Cave woman would have not known about the menopause until the life expectancy increased. Maybe there is another human hormonal change that we are not aware of as we have not reached the particular age it happens.
Totally incorrect! Actually, the fact that human females live past their reproductive life span is responsible for a great deal of human evolution, especially the ways in which we differ from our close ape relatives. This is called the Grandmother hypothesis.
So, Humans have known about menopause since the beginning, and it's actually a huge part of our evolutionary history. Other apes do not live past their reproductive life span, as their bodies degrade shortly after ceasing to be fertile- evolution is all about how many offspring can be produce after all. …
Tldr [too long, didn't read- a term indicating a synopsis]; humans have always had unusually long lifespans BECAUSE menopause occurs, and this is an integral aspect of our evolution, causing us to be as intelligent and adaptive as we are.
Even better, one of the ways we know about the grandmother effect is because you also see it in orcas! They can live to 80, but generally stop breeding in their 30s. There are three known species that have this kind of menapause– us, orcas and the Short-Finned Pilot Whale (also another very social species). [7]

Sometimes the discourse is polite and measured, as seen above. But sometimes, Tumblr earns its reputation as a "blue hellsite" populated by heathens and rabble rousers. This depiction is not always earned, as the occasional outburst or meme is 'good for moral' as some say. However, sometimes Tumblr posts can go entirely off the rails in a way that quickly becomes memorialized and ingrained into the collective memory, in the same way that the original sources or context of idiomatic phrases are often forgotten. Eventually, Tumblr users may forget why exactly they reference "tomb juice" as an act of rebellion or "deadly cheese"; but the idea and understanding will have adhered to the collective consciousness of the masses and be told as deep lore by future Tumblr Olds.

It is difficult to forget the media storm that ensued when Egyptian archaeologists uncovered a large black sarcophagus in the summer of 2018 (Daley 2018; Sapra 2018). While society and the media only temporarily fixated on the prospect of an ancient curse or Alexander's lost tomb, Tumblr held onto these tropes particularly tight. Rather than dashed hopes and disappointment when the sarcophagus was found to hold putrid liquid instead of ancient wonders, much of Tumblr responded with a certain twisted delight. Quickly after the discovery, multiple people petitioned to drink the sludge found in the tomb and were met with a resounding 'no' from all archaeologists involved. The threat of 'drinking the sarcophagus juice' became shorthand for 'don't tell me what to do!'. When the world's oldest wheel of cheese was uncovered later that summer, it spawned a site-wide in-joke about being prevented from 'drinking the sarcophagus juice' and the 'deadly cheese' (BBC Editors 2018). It therefore seemed only logical that the next step in rebellion would become a grilled cheese. In a strange twist of fate the coming months saw the announcements of the discovery of butter and ancient bread, spurring enthusiasm for the perilous delicacy. Later contributors found articles heralding archaeological discoveries of tomatoes and the world's oldest frying pans, continuing the joke long past when the media furor died down about any of these discoveries. This example doesn't feature correction of misinformation or the education of the masses, but serves as an example of the way the Tumblr community responds to memes and outlandish claims. Media coverage for discoveries is often short, a flashpoint for important information before fading back into obscurity.

In contrast, Tumblr's unique reblog features and tagging systems allows jokes and memes to become annual events or frequently referenced jokes to signify that the user has 'been here a while'. This reblog and comment scheme sinks the ideas and references in the collective memory of the community, standing as reference to the popularity of simple ingredients. The final reblog on this post thread comes over two years after the previous reblog. The world's oldest beer was announced in the summer of 2021, and was quickly added to the iconic post (Gershon 2021).[8] Since the collective memory of Tumblr is maintained by individuals and groups, the meme became a 'zombie' of sorts. While long past its original humor cycle it was revived and started again when more information became available about the subject to continue the joke. Currently, that post has almost half a million interactions, representing half a million chances for a user to learn something about the past that doesn't deal with aliens. Enthusiasm about the mundane parts of history at this scale are rare, and while the content of the post is a joke, it still conveys and links facts, ideas, and unique archaeological finds. This deep collective memory of the Tumblr site allows professionals a unique opportunity to educate the users of a site. Since its typical to leave posts in circulation and revive old jokes on the site, finding older posts that offer interesting possibilities for engagement won't seem weird on this site, while reposting something from 2018 on other social media sites is often considered ancient history.

The next meme is a great example of 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em- but educate while you do that. "Bog mummy take the wheel" was a popular text post thread that was reposted across multiple platforms and gained over one hundred thousand notes in its first week of existence. Playing into the ancient magic tropes and the unique brand of internet nihilism and hopelessness that is employed by younger generations on the internet, the meme took off like wildfire. Below are two examples of responses to the original four post thread.

You all, fools: *getting tattoos based on the ancient tattoos they find on bog mummies and the other ancient dead that for all you know will bind you to a forgotten god that now by all rights has a claim on your life for better or for worse*
Me, and intellectual: *doesnt fucking do that*
A forgotten god cannot run my life any worse than I am currently running it myself.
Bog mummy take the wheel
I'll get the bog mummy tattoo and drink the casket juice while I'm at it.

You all, fools: *getting tattoos based on the ancient tattoos they find on bog mummies and the other ancient dead that for all you know will bind you to a forgotten god that now by all rights has a claim on your life for better or for worse*
Me, and intellectual: *doesnt fucking do that*
A forgotten god cannot run my life any worse than I am currently running it myself.
Bog mummy take the wheel
me, a killjoy: most of ötzi the iceman's tattoos were meant to be medicinal and treat arthritis and joint pain so hes a safe one[9]

The first example references previously discussed memes since the Tumblr community favors joke continuation and references to past famous text posts- a form of meme-ception[10] if you will. Meanwhile, the second example manages to deftly weave just a little bit of education into an otherwise humorous response. Here, the OP implies two things in their post about the tattoos: first, that ancient magic and mysticism a la Ghostbuster style posession is extremely feasible and second, that the OP believes in this possibility. This perpetuates some of the more harmful myths and tropes of ancient mysticism. The statement 'me, a killjoy' manages to continue the trope while also highlighting the work of archaeologists and scientists to gain insight into the lives of famous individuals such as Otzi, a 5,300 year old mummy discovered in the Alps in 1991 ("Otzi, Discovery & Facts" 2020). This allows for a sort of 'disguised education' where the meme and trope is not outright refuted, but instead new information that educates others using self-deprication and memes is communicated to readers and enters into reblog chains (Woods 2023, Brett and Maslen 2021).

The most entertaining part of the curated niche related to history and archaeology on Tumblr is when it manages to make jokes better. By approaching sometimes utterly ridiculous posts with the seriousness typically seen in academic writing, the community effectively connects and joins in on humorous text posts in a way that communicates the true joy of engagement with the larger community of Tumblr if academics and experts are willing to take themselves a little less seriously. It is possible to look at the first two posts and deride them as disrespectful to the field of archaeology and the sacred burials that archaeologists work with. But the fourth person to post chose to join in on the fun and be more humorous than the OP. Describing how fun it would be to work on this 'excavation' the poster works to build a humorous look at 'analysis' regarding the burial and context- going so far as to memorialize the professor that died from fright in the third comment due to a particularly volatile casket.

When I die I want to be buried with grave goods that make future archaeologists think I was of much higher status than I actually was so that my grave will be referred to as a princely burial and I'll be remembered by some cool name like "The Colchester Barrow Princess" (I've decided that I will be buried in a highly visible barrow, possibly with a ship) and the National Trust will erect a small museum about me filled with entirely incorrect but cool sounding archaeological assumptions
Be buried literally holding a sword and axe and then sit back and watch the endless 'powerful warrior queen v. just usual valuable grave goods indicating a high status individual' debate from the afterlife.
I want a spring-loaded casket and non-degrading glitter. I will be remembered as "that *£^$% thing that killed Professor Hannover"
As an archaeologist I completely support this.
"Characteristic of 21st century society is the sharp delineation between the funerary practices of more conservative, traditionalist groups and the generally younger and more creative subcultures. While those who identified as more conservative nevertheless frequently included personal items in their grave goods, the individuality of their burials pales in comparison with the eccentricity and extravagance of the neoteric groups. Funerary archaeologists have been hard pressed to find commonalities between these individualistic burials. It is likely that members of these subgroups competed to include the most unique ritual items amongst the grave goods of the deceased.
One example from Colchester could be read as a highly detailed homage to the seventh-century Taplow boat burial. Dendrochronology of the vessel dates the burial to the mid- to late-21st century. The opulence of the burial is at odds with what we know of contemporary social structure. As such, it is likely that the deceased or their family wished to indicate a strong connection to the area by aligning their identity with the Anglo-Saxon royal history of the region.
Another example, this one from Milton Keynes, included a bewildering array of items. Archaeologists uncovered a Tudor coin, a Whitney Houston CD, and a mobile phone inscribed "Bite me, historians". Taken together, these grave goods indicate a disdain for archaeological research and the reconstruction of identity using material culture. It is possible that members of this subgroup sought to use creative anachronism to conceal the date of their death. Some researchers have argued that individuals buried under similar circumstances believed that this knowledge could be used for identity fraud or necromancy.
There has been some research done into the psychological trauma associated with excavating human remains. Most of this research has focused on the emotional challenges of excavating mass graves resulting from genocide or plague, with the occasional footnote regarding individual burials (such as the excavation of a lead coffin in Whitechapel which produced a fountain of liquefied Roman remains when the air seal was pierced). It is my view, however, that further research in this field is urgently needed following the sad and horrifying events of the recent excavations on Orkney. I am sure I do not need to go into further detail about the dig that shook our discipline to the core, and will refrain from doing so. For those of a gruesome persuasion, the full excavation report has been lodged with the ADS. Field archaeologists are advised to wear protective clothing including goggles and, where possible, shields when excavating graves of this period.
Professor Hannover is sincerely missed and a monograph of papers in her honour is scheduled for publication next year." [11]

The tone and style of this final entry firmly places the academic source material it mocks on its ear. The descriptions of the three burials discussed in the proceeding reblogs by glitterarygetsit embody the dry and factual approach that many archaeological monographs use. Not once in the post do they "break character", providing a perfect deadpan delivery with nary a laughing emoji in sight. The joke entered Tumblr circulation because of the pitch perfect recitation of the final poster was so obviously designed to mock the profession that non-professionals appreciated the joke and wished to show others. I have the uptmost faith in my fellow archaeologists' ablity to continue to provide such witty sarcasm, should others choose to take up this mantle.

Occasionally, the Tumblr community can find out weird details about any profession and immediately create memes to reference the new-found knowledge. Luckily for Tumblr, but unfortunately for archaeologists, archaeology has multiple strange details. The most notable of these details to the Tumblr community is that archaeologists occasionally lick artifacts to determine their substance. In the example below, archaeologists are first disparaged for sticking things in their mouths needlessly- at which point an archaeologist steps and tries to explain with mixed results. The attempt to explain was memorialized by another user in what is known as a 'bredlik', a specific meme type that parodies an English poem about cows that first showed up on Reddit in 2016, and quickly caught onto to Tumblr (Adam 2017). In order to properly execute the meme, the style demands that posters follow a rigorous syntax and phonetical spelling scheme. Bredlik memes have largely fallen out of favor, due partially to the intensity of effort required to properly produce an original 'bredlik'.

honey is the only food product that never spoils. there are pots of honey that are over five thousand years old and still completely edible
i also want to point out we know it tastes the same even after thousands of years b/c archaeologists who discovered two thousand year old honey tasted it. presumably right after they looked at each other and went "what the hell here goes nothing"
I think about this everyday
I'm pretty sure they also identify human remains by taste. Archaeologists are straight up freaks.
No, no no… you identify bone from rock or other substances by touching it to your tongue. If it sticks, it's bone. The taste itself has nothing to do with it. And most archaeologists won't lick human bones if they know they're human.
…and I realize that doesn't actually do much to prove archaeologists aren't freaks.
mai nam is jane
and wen i dig
i fynde some roks
both smol and big
i put my tung
upon the stone
for science yes
i lik the bone [12]

It is reported in the comments of the post that multiple archaeologists have gotten shirts with the bredlik poem printed on them to wear to fieldwork. In this instance, a simple joke made out of a random fact yielded education through a complex meme structure, which ingrained the concept of 'licking the bone' into more user's collective memory. This is an example of utilizing a type of "shitposting", or purposely posting provocative comments on social media designed to inflame the reader (Woods 2023). The user midnightmindcave purposely chose to put great effort into writing a poem that was purposely designed to mock and disparage the previous poster's attempt at educate or refutation. However, this had mixed results because it does mock braezenkitty, but it also made such a memorable meme that archaeologists have embraced it with witty apparel and Tumblr users have engrained the fact in the lore of the site, while a reblog chain that ends with braezenkitty's post probably would not have been as memorable.

Sometimes, the jokes produced by these details spill over to other posts, another example of meme-ception. Once Tumblr caught onto the bone licking idea, you'll see it referenced frequently across archaeology and history communities to politely rib other archaeologists or indicate a certain degree of knowledge about the profession. Regardless of a user's knowledge with practicing archaeologists, the presence of Indiana Jones in the popular culture lexicon has at least ensured a passing familiarity with the lone-adventurer archetype. Archaeologists will be quick to tell you that Indiana Jones is a horrible representation of archaeology and completely goes against modern archaeological standards at every turn. However, it is pretty well acknowledged that the field has a certain condescending affection for the adventuring hero born out of nostalgia and a deep affection for the theme song. It seems only logical that one of the most recent examples of an archaeology text post that educates with witty additions about terminology and forms of measurement builds on the Indiana Jones mythos while pushing back on the style of archaeology favored in such depictions. It also references old jokes about licking strange items while creating a new type of cinema adventurer.

Concept: rival adventurer-archaeologists having an epic battle for the fate of the whatever, but constantly making last-minute saves to prevent each other from stepping on or crashing into stuff because neither of them wants to disturb the undocumented portions of the site.
I can say this would absolutely be the case and I really want to see this movie.
#what would they be battling about tho?
One of them uses metric units and the other one wants to lay out the units in Imperial measurements.
One wants to lick the rat midden. The other is trying to stop them."[13]

This post directly references standard archaeological practice in several ways. Likely none of this post was designed to educate readers or share information like previous examples. Instead, the OP is making a joke with an admittedly niche range of users who would get the humor. However, many archaeologists and historians follow other on the website and like to engage in the jokes that are specifically aimed at them. The following three posters after OP are all professionally trained archaeologists of some flavor, and they obliquely reference older memes and jokes that circulate on Tumblr to both signal to each other that they understand the humor and bloster their own social standing by adding their own funny one-liners to the post (Brett and Maslen 2021).

Coping with the Unimaginable

Tumblr is vulnerable to pseudoarchaeology because many of the users are desperate to a find a reflection of themselves in a history that largely centers on a cis-het white European male (Hardt 2001). Responding to these colonial or pseudoarchaeology based posts on Tumblr isn't always fun and games. Recent events and news stories have left users grasping at any sort of explanation for society's modern horrors or for hope for the future.

In 2018 the Western world faced many man-made challenges. The United States contended with a government shutdown and brutal midterm elections. Humanitarian crises across the world fell into sharp relief as society contended with increasingly dire predictions about climate change. A large portion of Tumblr users self-identify as female, queer, or marginalized identities that make them hyper-aware of such global issues (McCracken et al 2021, Tiidenberg et al 2020, Grant 2015). That means that sometimes, gallows humor and internet nihilism is the order of the day. In one post, a user prepares for the 'inevitable collapse' of society. The OP creates an elaborate plan for recycling famous media into mythology and folklore in a post-apocalyptic landscape where band-level societies have taken center again. The response on the post is from an anthropologist who quite succinctly sums up the range of reactions about this by stating "I can't tell if we are handling the collapse of society well or not anymore."[14]

Posts on Tumblr frequently reference ancient curses or mythological explanations for the horrors of today. Using sarcasm, wit, and negativism is a common coping mechanism for the existential dread that pervades younger generations today (Tiidenberg et al 2020). The recent COVID-19 crisis has only enhanced this response (Petersen 2020). Another that post that circulated in early 2020 shows an outreach image asking followers to 'stay home' with a photoshopped image of the Sphinx wearing a now-ubiquitous blue surgical mask. By tapping into the mystique and legend that surrounds the Sphinx, the original poster weaponizes pseudoarchaeology's exoticization of the past in order to drive home the point that even a 'mystical' monument understands the urgency of this modern and man-made menace.[15]

In contrast, while correlation doesn't equal causation, some users on Tumblr attempt to use the mystery and air of magic around archaeological discoveries. They do this in order to create a scapegoat for some of the terrible things happening in the world. In mid-2020 a poster muses on the iconic black sarcophagus and theorizes that modern issues may stem from its unsealing.[16] Objectively, the poster probably knows that there is no way that opening an ancient coffin caused the pandemic or countless other terrors noted in the tags. However, it is much easier to place the blame of these events onto things that pop culture would assign the tag of 'cursed' to. By doing this the posters are creating a humorous joke and an alternate response to the issues plaguing our society that do not require deep reflection upon oneself. Ultimately, admitting that society's problems are man-made is a distressing reality that leaves no quarter for those who ignore self-reflection. Instead, pseudoarchaeology in popular culture provides a convenient fall back for attempting to find what vulnerable and desperate users are searching for.

Screaming into the Void, and the Void Answers Back

Whenever a new historical drama comes onto HBO or STARZ historians and archaeologists can both be found bemoaning the lack of accuracy. Popular targets for these shows are the British monarchy, Irish highlanders, Italian merchants, and Vikings. What is often twisted and changed for the sake of screen writing and effect has its own kind of magic, in the sense that the truth of history is so jarringly different from what is frequently portrayed by the media a true and accurate presentation of the past in TV or video games might become popular on shock factor alone. The post below describes a farming-style game similar to the indie computer game Stardew Valley, but with the twist of historically accurate Vikings. Producers and game developers take note: this outlines an engaging and historically accurate game that currently has thousands of interactions that show real and genuine interest for a game with hair beads and strong female representation.

Anonymous asked:
I wish there was less pop culture about Vikings as a 'warrior culture'. I'd love to play like...Stardew Valley but with Vikings...
systlin answered:
Raise goats and plant oats and have complicated legal arguments at the Althing. Show off your impressive new beard ribbons.
and everyone dresses like real vikings instead of leather vests rolled in mud
Show off your new brilliantly dyed red and blue clothes to your neighbors. Flaunt your shiny new glass and amber beads at them. Watch them turn green with envy that they are not nearly as colorful and blinged out as you!
Show off your wife who is So F****** Good At Math Magic that your holdings have TRIPLED and you could afford a sweet new axe and/or sword
I mean, I'm still gonna see about setting half of England on fire. And stealing the other half. But I'm going to look stylish as fuck while I'm doing it. Make all the pretty Anglo-Saxon ladies go "Mrrroooooowwwwwwww" and all their men folk go "How dare that northern bastard look so handsome and fashionable!" [17]

While a video game or TV series about this type of historical Viking may not have much 'glam factor' for trailers and previews, it shows a more nuanced version of the past than is typically seen in popular culture. The post above indicates there is an interest for this type of media, and until it is filled Tumblr users will be forced to write jaunty fiction snippets about a series that could have been, if only media stopped focusing on the swords.
Tumblr can also serve as a stark reminder that archaeologists aren't all knowing. That diverse voices in the field and even talking to people in other professions can sometimes shed the most light on things that past generations of a more insular archaeology discipline might label 'ritual' or simply a weird quirk that no one can explain. The next post is long, but it highlights various ways that interaction with a range of people can change an archaeologist's outlook about an artifact or tradition. It is, after all, not just the non-archaeologists who receive an education on Tumblr.

Something I find incredibly cool is that they've found neandertal bone tools made from polished rib bones, and they couldn't figure out what they were for for the life of them.
Until, of course, they showed it to a traditional leatherworker and she took one look at it and said "Oh yeah sure that's a leather burnisher, you use it to close the pores of leather and work oil into the hide to make it waterproof. Mine looks just the same."
"Wait you're still using the exact same fucking thing 50,000 years later???"
"Well, yeah. We've tried other things. Metal scratches up and damages the hide. Wood splinters and wears out. Bone lasts forever and gives the best polish. There are new, cheaper plastic ones, but they crack and break after a couple years. A bone polisher is nearly indestructible, and only gets better with age. The more you use a bone polisher the better it works."
It's just.
50,000 years. 50,000. And over that huge arc of time, we've been quietly using the exact same thing, unchanged, because we simply haven't found anything better to do the job.
I read something a while back about how pre-columbian Americans had obsidian blades they stored in the rafters of their houses. The archaeologists who discovered them came to the conclusion that the primitive civilizations believed keeping them closer to the sun would keep the blades sharper.
Then a mother looked at their findings and said "yeah, they stored their knives in the rafters to keep them out of reach of the children."
Omg the ancient child proofing add on tho lol
Oh lordy it got better.
Men: It has ~mYStiCal~ significance!
A woman: The "mystical significance" is kids not cutting their fingers off, Harold." [18]

The narrative here is presented with casual language, and an intent to discuss something interesting with the poster's followers. The explicit intent of the post wasn't to educate, it was just to bring up something they thought was cool. Ask any archaeologist, and they can tell you something that is weird and obscure that makes them love archaeology that they wish the world knew. Tumblr, and other forms of social media engagement offer that opportunity. The previous post also shows why it is so vitally important to talk to people outside the discipline, because their ideas and insights are often unique and come from unique perspectives that no one on the project might previously have had. By interacting with non-professionals, the Tumblr community helps highlight not only the ways archaeology provides context to the world, but also the ways non-archaeologists can add to our understandings of historical and ancient lifeways with new perspectives.


Tumblr and the interactions shown here prove that people listen to pseudoarchaeology because that is what's available, accessible, and engaging. There is a vacuum of information and knowledge that people are genuinely interested in learning, but the people who are interested in teaching the general public often have a double agenda. Niche cases of individual archaeologists fighting against persuasive ideas of ancient aliens and mythological curses will continue to persist. Until the field of archaeology begins to value publications in popular science and books that are widely accessible and preferably have a social media presence, rather than focusing on the narrow academic book market, cases of individual archaeologists fighting against persuasive ideas of ancient aliens and mythological curses will continue to persist. The so-called experts who peddle the ideas of aliens building pyramids and monuments are the first to pipe in on pictures and unexplained phenomena. They are the first to claim that anyone contradicting them is part of a conspiracy to cover up the truth- an idea that is easy to swallow for a public desperate to see a different reflection than the white heteronormative one so often presented in contemporary media and information sources. Regardless of what is claimed about archaeologists by naysayers, the post below sums up the truth of the profession.

Archaeology conspiracies make me laugh so fucking much because like…none of us can agree on ANYTHING have you ever been in a room with more than 2 of us do you REALLY think anyone could get us to cover something up en masse like are you aware of the amount of coordination that would take that we as a field 100% do no possess.[19]

Just as this post suggests, the field of archaeology is just as likely to disagree among itself about interpertations of artifacts as common as sherds of ironstone ceramics, much less about artifacts with the potential significance of alien encounters or mystical powers. But the poster does not go on to highlight why the general public is willing to believe these ideas about our discipline. We do not effectively leverage our interest and popularity to engage with the public in a meaningful fashion, they are left to imagine whatever the latest Netflex special tells them is true. Instead of allowing jokes about aliens to run rampant, archaeology has the high ground in that because the discipline and its findings are so weird that they could easily compete with any pseudoarchaeological-extraterrestrial-cursed nonsense that could be concocted and claimed as fact. The only barrier to this is working to increase public outreach and talking to the public. The professional and avocational archaeologists highlighted in this article have focused their efforts on the Tumblr community to create a platform for talking to the public. These archaeologists have shown that presenting archaeology as an engaged science and a discipline with levity and memes yields positive results. So it's time to normalize posting pictures of artifacts with their uses and contextual information and consent of descendent populations while talking about who might have handled these artifacts in the past. It's time to normalize writing for the general public being just as important as writing an article in the next Oxford Handbook. Simply put, normalize talking to people because they want to learn and are interested, regardless of their education or professional status. That is how the discipline of archaeology can thrive in a modern era saturated by social media and breakneck information speeds in the face of misinformation and outright fabrication.

In the years since this original draft was produced the world (and the United States especially) has undergone some major events and profound changes. Things such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the overtturning of Roe v. Wade, and the introduction of large language models such as ChatGPT have changed how we work and exist as a society. Similar overhauls have happened in online spaces, ince Twitter's rebranding from X and the large exodus from Reddit in the Fall 2023, Tumblr has seen a surge of new users that have begun to profoundly transform the social system of the site in ways it has not seen since before the adult content purge of 2018 (McCracken et al 2020). The current social order of the website is influx as the website begins to permit AI scraping and these new users find their sea legs. The site and its userbase is well primed to adapt to new norms and it will be interesting to see what becomes of the role of professional researchers such as myself in the coming new world order.


The author would like to thank all the archaeologists and grad students who have worked to keep Tumblr as weird and dynamic as possible. The Reddit Knitting Slack helped to curate the best memes from my extensive folder of screenshots. Additionally, thanks to Dr. Katie Lee and Dr. Allie Zachwieja for their comments during the drafting process.


"About | Tumblr." 2021. Accessed November 1.

Adam. 2021. "I Lik the Bred." Know Your Meme. Accessed November 1.

BBC News. 2018. "Ancient Egypt: Cheese Discovered in 3,200-Year-Old Tomb," August 18, sec. Africa.

Blell, Mwenza. 2018. "Grandmother Hypothesis, Grandmother Effect, and Residence Patterns." In The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by Hilary Callan, 1st ed. Wiley. doi:10.1002/9781118924396.

Bourlai, Elli E. "'Comments in Tags, Please!': Tagging Practices in Tumblr". Discourse, Context & Media. No 22 (2018): 46-56.

Brett, Ingrid, and Sarah Maslen. 2021. "Stage Whispering: Tumblr Hashtags Beyond Categorization."" Social Media + Society 7 (3): 20563051211032138.

Card, Jeb J. 2018. Spooky Archaeology: Myth and the Science of the Past. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Colavito, Jason. 2020. The Mound Builder Myth: Fake History and the Hunt for a "Lost White Race." Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Daley, Jason. 2021. "Scientists Begin Unveiling the Secrets of the Mummies in the Alexandria 'Dark Sarcophagus.'" Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed November 1.

Fagan, Garrett G., ed. 2006. Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public. London; New York: Routledge.

Gershon, Livia. 2021. "Remains of 9,000-Year-Old Beer Found in China." Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed November 2.

Grant, Harley. 2015. "Tumblinguistics: Innovation and Variation in New Forms of Written CMC."

Greenhill, Anna, and Gordon Fletcher. 2004. "The Social Construction of Electronic Space."" Spaceless. Accessed December 6, 2023.

Halmhofer, Stephanie. 2019. "The Harmful Pseudoarchaeology of Mythological Atlantis." Women Write About Comics.

Hardt, Michael. 2001. "The Eurocentrism of History." Postcolonial Studies 4 (2): 243–249. doi:10.1080/13688790120077533.

McCracken, Allison, Alexander Cho, Louisa Stein, and Indira Hoch. 2020. A Tumblr Book: Platform and Cultures. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

McCulloch, Gretchen. 2020. Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. Penguin.

"Otzi | Discovery & Facts." 2021. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed November 1.

Petersen, Andrea. 2020. "Coronavirus Turmoil Raises Depression Risks in Young Adults." Wall Street Journal, August 10, sec. Life.

Sapra, Bani. 2018. "Mysterious Sarcophagus Opened in Alexandria." CNN.

Tiidenberg, Katrin, Natalie Ann Hendry, and Crystal Abidin. 2021. Tumblr. 1st edition. Cambridge, UK; Medford, MA: Polity.

Woods, Peter J. 2023. “Shitposting as Public Pedagogy.” Curriculum Inquiry, November, 1–22.


Cover Image Screenshot by Emma Verstraete of meme posted to Tumblr

Mathead Image Screenshot by Emma Verstraete of meme posted to Tumblr

  1. Author’s Note: This article contains quotes from a variety of sources, often presented in a relaxed and conversational style. As such, it might contain adult themes or profanity. Where applicable, the author has shortened screen names or redacted portions of text where it does not significantly change the voice and intent of the original posters being quoted. All citations of Tumblr posts are hosted through the author’s own Tumblr blog to ensure stable access to the posts, as reflected in the URL and author attribution. The screen names of the original sources in their unedited formats can be viewed at the URL listed in the endnote. Many of the observations about preferences, themes, and ideas in the Tumblr community are based on author’s presence within the archaeology community on Tumblr. As part of those observations I have intentionally chosen to use more direct quotations of Tumblr posts than is typical to see in an academic article. This is because the Tumblr community as a whole prefers to engage with exact quotations in the reblogging feature to reduce the possibilities of misrepresentation by someone adding commentary as I myself am doing within this article. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  2. Reblogs are similar to retweets or 'shares' on Facebook. By reblogging, a user is placing someone else's post on their timeline for their own followers to see. ↩︎

  3. Adding commentary about a post or 'hot take' opinions in the tags is an interesting phenomenon that is heavily favored in some fandoms or blog types. For more information about this practice please read: Bourlai, Elli E. "'Comments in Tags, Please!': Tagging Practices in Tumblr". Discourse, Context & Media. No 22 (2018): 46-56. & Brett, Ingrid, and Sarah Maslen. 2021. "Stage Whispering: Tumblr Hashtags Beyond Categorization." Social Media + Society 7 (3): 20563051211032138. ↩︎

  4. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  5. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  6. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  7. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  8. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of my Desk, 2021, ↩︎

  9. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  10. Meme-ception here is used to create a play on the term 'inception' popularized from the Christopher Nolan movie of the same name. In 'inception' dreams are layered within dreams, just like how memes can be layered into each other on social media sites. ↩︎

  11. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  12. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  13. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  14. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  15. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  16. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  17. 'Asks' are a type of Tumblr post that allow users to interact with bloggers they follow either anonymously or with their name. Bloggers can respond to these questions, or often times statements, in posts that are available for all blog followers to see. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  18. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎

  19. Verstraete, Emma, An Archaeology of My Desk, 2020, ↩︎