A Handy Guide to the Archaeology of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

almostarchaeology:

image

By Adrián
Maldonado

Take a drink if you’ve heard
this one before
, but for me, one of the things which set Rogue One apart from the previous Star Wars films was its archaeological
sensibility.

While The Force
Awakens
had plenty
of ruins
, and featured one
iconic artefact
from the original trilogy, there was no real sense that
history extended beyond the events of Episodes IV-VI. Yet with Rogue One, turn any stone and you’ll see
the remnants of a past so deep that even its creators have only glimpsed it.
The film also draws from the prehistory of George Lucas’ own writing, going
back to his early journals from 1973. As if you needed another excuse to
re-watch Rogue One, here is a handy
guide to the archaeological items and motifs you may have missed. And do I
really need to warn about spoilers? I’m surprised I haven’t spoiled anything
already. Valar morghulis.

Jyn Erso’s kyber
crystal pendant

image

It’s no lightsaber, but it’ll have to do (source)

The first proper artefact we see in the film is a kyber crystal pendant
given to the young Jyn Erso by her mother Lyra. There is no indication of how
Lyra came into possession of one, or how long it has been a family heirloom; adding
to its mystery, it is apparently inscribed in Aurabesh.

To get answers, I had to turn to the awkwardly titled Star Wars: Rogue One: The Ultimate Visual
Guide
(UVG) by Pablo Hidalgo, Lucasfilm’s story czar. Published for
kids and incurable nerds, this volume provides canonical explanations for the
tiniest details of costume, prop and set design for the film. Here we are given
Lyra’s fascinating backstory, revealing she met her future husband Galen Erso
while surveying cave systems on distant planets researching kyber crystals. She
is also a keen student of Jedi theology, and the red sash she wears is
apparently a token of her devotion to the Force. In fact, in an early version
of the script, she
was a Jedi
herself. The crystal she wore around her neck came from Galen’s
research collection. It is not clear whether it was at this point already
inscribed.

Beats a rabbit’s foot, thought young Jyn (source)

Nerds are already well aware that kyber crystals are the
mysterious semi-divine materials which power Jedi lightsabers, and as the film
makes clear, also power the Death Star’s superlaser. They are very much the Star Wars saga’s Rings of Power, in that
they are also animate objects, receptive to the will of the Force and exerting
effects on the Force-sensitive. Partially organic, they vibrate and emit harmonics,
allowing someone like Chirrut Îmwe with super-hearing to use them to his
advantage. This is how he is able to perceive Jyn’s kyber pendant in the busy
marketplace on Jedha, and it turns out Chirrut also has a sliver
of kyber
of his own in the metal end of this staff.

Kyber crystals thus form a clever material metaphor for the
Jedi; worn or carried by two of the main characters, they are present
throughout the film but only rarely glimpsed, like medieval saint’s relics. Rogue One is famously the first Star
Wars film to not revolve around Jedi or Sith characters, but the Force is
strong in this episode. The Jedi are not physically present, but from Lyra Erso
to Chirrut, the film is full of people who are in awe of the Force, or bent on
using its secrets to control the galaxy. The saga is quickly becoming less a hero’s
journey
and more a hagiography of canonised Jedi saints.

Yavin 4’s Great Temple

image

The not-quite-Mayan pyramids of Rogue One (source)

The appearance of the Rebel Alliance headquarters on Yavin 4 is pure nerd catnip,
taking us into the pyramids glimpsed so briefly from a distance in A New Hope. It’s not just the Empire ransacking
ancient monuments during this Galactic Civil War: the Rebel Alliance ensconced
themselves in abandoned pyramids on a distant forest planet. They appear to
have gutted out the ground levels of these monuments for use as hangars for
their space fleet. Further research reveals these are the 5000 year-old temples of the
Massassi
, an extinct people with a tragic history. We don’t know much more
about them, not that it matters much in the long term as they were evacuated
immediately after the Battle
of Yavin
which follows soon after the events of Rogue One. Interestingly, Yavin 4 was not completely abandoned, as a small colony was set
up there after the Battle
of Endor
, and this happens to be where our new favourite flyboy Poe Dameron was born. Given
the impact of the events and historical figures that passed through here, I
hope the Galactic equivalent of UNESCO doesn’t try to undo the modifications on
these temples wrought by the Rebels, as it is a crucial part of the long-term
importance of this site.

image

The actual Mayan pyramids of A New Hope (source)

Oh, and these pyramids are of course inspired by the
real-world Mayan pyramids of
Tikal
in modern-day Guatemala, where George Lucas sent
a crew
to film for a few landscape views back in 1977. Interior shots were
all studio
creations
, and Rogue One’s
temples show some artistic license taken by the designers this time around to
make them a bit Star Warsier more than Mayan, but in wide shots they are
unmistakeable Earthling archaeology.

Jedha and the Whills

image

We’re gonna need a longer extension cord (source)

The centrality of the Force to this film is shown in the
centrality of Jedha. Jedha is
one of the galaxy’s main sources of naturally-occurring kyber crystals. It is
also the main pilgrimage destination of worshippers of the Force, as it claims
to be the site of the first Jedi temple. According to the UVG, the deserts are
also dotted with ancient ruins and remnants of some of the oldest civilisations
in the galaxy. The parallels with modern-day Mecca and Jerusalem are
intentional, according to another nerdy companion volume, The Art of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story:
“To better imbue the setting with a sense of scale and significance, artists
found inspiration in human history”. As designer Doug Chiang puts it, “[we]
don’t treat these movies like science fiction, but more like historical films.”

We see Jedha as a city under occupation, an Imperial Star
Destroyer parked menacingly above, Imperial tanks patrolling the streets, and
the attendant violence from rebel insurgents. The sacred places, including the
central Temple of the Whills, have been looted for their precious kyber, which
is now destined to fuel the Galaxy’s deadliest weapon. This would be like stealing
the Black Stone of
Mecca to power a nuclear warhead.

The involvement of Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus is a direct
result of the Empire’s meddling in Jedha. They were both formerly Guardians of the
Whills
, an order of warrior monks tasked with protecting the Temple, but
now find themselves out of a job as the temple was decommissioned. These events
may also have galvanized the defection of Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, a native of
Jedha. It seems in hindsight that the desecration of this holy place was a
fatal overreach for the Empire.

image

Sometimes there is such a thing as too much statue (source)

Another way of looking at it is that the near-extermination of the Jedi
19 years previously had already resulted in a demotion of the Jedi from a core
pillar of the Galactic Republic to an underground cult. Pillaging the Temple of
the Whills would not have been seen as a desecration but a consolidation of
Imperial rule. This turning away from cultural heritage is embodied
by the fallen Jedi statue
seen being slowly engulfed by the sands of Jedha.
What other galactic heritage had been lost in the rise of the Empire? Along
with the first Jedi Temple
(or oldest surviving after Jedha?) glimpsed at the end of The Force Awakens, the addition of Jedha to the Star Wars universe shows that our
generation’s post-Lucas saga is more interested in exploring the roots of the
religion of the Jedi than their heroic exploits.

So what on earth is a Whill? If the ancient Temple and
fallen statue are links to deep
prehistory
within the Star Wars
universe, the Whills are Rogue One’s
way of reaching into the prehistory of Star
Wars
itself. George Lucas’ first draft of what would eventually become Star Wars was a couple of pages of notes
scribbled down in 1973 under the heading ‘Journal
of the Whills
’. It seems the
original idea
was for the stories of the Jedi to have reached us through a
sort of intergalactic Red Book of
Westmarch
, but this was eventually abandoned. Lucas intended for the Whills
to remain in the universe as a secretive cult of the Force, but the word has
never been spoken on screen until now. It cements Rogue One not as an outlier to the original trilogy, but a sort of
exegetical commentary on a text that has since become sacred.

Saw Gerrera’s Hideout

image

Sometimes there is such a thing as too much bass (source)

Just down the road from the Holy City of Jedha is a natural
steeple of rock rising up from the desert which houses the secret headquarters
of the extremist rebel Saw Gerrera. We only get a few glimpses of the structure
but it appears to be a pretty ostentatious hiding place, in a towering
Petra-like rock-cut temple approached by an avenue of space-trilithons. The UVG
reveals that this is an ancient tomb called the Catacombs of Cadera, which was
formerly used as an ossuary for a convenient ‘people whose name and history
have been long forgotten.’ It seems it is not only the Empire who are busy
pillaging Jedha’s heritage resource in times of war.

Further research reveals there are yet more artefacts hidden
in the Catacombs, although I’m not sure how visible these are in the final cut
of the film. The hideout apparently includes cave
paintings
, perhaps inspired by the petroglyphs found in Wadi Rum, Jordan where the
Jedha landscapes were filmed. However, these are not the art of some lost
people, but creatures from Rogue One
director Gareth Edwards’ previous films, including the 2014 Godzilla.

Darth Vader’s castle
on Mustafar

image

The realtor did tell me this area was so hot right now (source)

You may have noticed the way that, unlike previous Star Wars films, Rogue One uses title cards to name the various planets as we go
along. One location that is not named is the lava planet with a massive castle
straddling a river of magma, which turns out to be Darth Vader’s residence on Mustafar. This is (pushes
glasses up bridge of nose), of course, the planet where Obi-Wan Kenobi nearly
killed his former padawan Anakin Skywalker (now renamed Darth Vader) leaving
him for dead after a vicious duel as depicted in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. After Vader was stitched up and
made into the sci-fi Nazi samurai we all for some reason love, he apparently couldn’t
get enough of the place and set up shop there in a big obsidian tower straight
outta Mordor.

So it’s a clear link to the much maligned prequel trilogy,
but wait, there’s archaeology here too! According to the Art of Rogue One, ‘The stark, modern structure is built over an
ancient castle full of dark secrets’, or as explained by production
designer Doug Chiang
, ‘we don’t see it all right now, but the idea was that
Vader’s castle was built over a natural cave — a Sith cave deep down below, in
the lava world.’

What is it about bad guys occupying archaeological monuments
as their lairs? There’s more than just a passing resemblance to Sauron’s
preferred mode of pointy black architecture. You may remember my excavation of The Hobbit films on this blog, where I
discussed the foundation of the Necromancer’s
Dol Guldur
on the ruins of an ancient Elven hall deep in Mirkwood. The
explanation of the shape of the castle according to the designers is also
distinctly Tolkienesque, or specifically Two Towers-esque. Its ‘tuning
fork’ shape
helps harness the Dark Side of the Force, and echoes the design
of the Temple of the Whills on Jedha which apparently uses the same principle
to channel the Force. Vader, like
Saruman
, is nothing if not a scholar of ancient myth and theology.

Red and Gold Leader

image

…and then she said, Yavin? I barely even know him! (source)

Rogue One will
also be remembered as the first big production to digitally dig
up the dead
and make them do our bidding on the big screen. While Grand
Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia are digitally reconstructed to horrific effect,
two other characters were welcomed back to the big screen in an altogether more
fitting fashion. These are the Rebel pilots who go by the callsigns Red and
Gold Leader, played respectively by Drewe Henley (who, like Carrie Fisher, died
in 2016
) and Angus Macinnes. They were spliced into their cockpits from forgotten
unused footage from 1977’s A New Hope
‘excavated’ by director Gareth Edwards from the Lucasfilm archive on Skywalker
Ranch. These clips are therefore the only physical artefacts from the original trilogy that appear in Rogue One. It is a reminder of how a movie, or any piece of intangible culture, is
just the public-facing side of a much larger material assemblage including,
props, sets, and yes, the physical media itself. Which leads us to my favourite
bit of media archaeology in Rogue One:

The Death Star data
tapes

image

I promise I’ll remember to rewind next time! (source)

Described in A New
Hope
as ‘data tapes’,
the Death Star plans which are the MacGuffin of our film confusingly appeared
in 1977 only as a flat datacard.
Rogue One (finally!) shows us how the
data was transferred to this datacard from the original tapes, which sounds
like a joke but forms the basis for the film’s climactic battle sequence. The
tape is stored in a ludicrous Imperial cassette tower
on Scarif. It needs to be physically removed from the tower and manually
inserted into a tape reader set precipitously at the top of the spire, to be
broadcast from an antenna and dish array. This is thrilling action only for
aging computer geeks, who are, of course, the target audience here.

There is a surprising amount of online literature breaking
down the various media formats used in the Star
Wars
films, including this scathing
report
on the flaws in the Empire’s digital preservation policies as
revealed in Rogue One. But this long-read
from Jalopnik
has got to be the best: “Are there any words that get people
more excited than large-scale, long-term data storage? I fucking doubt it.”
They explain why the Empire holds on to seemingly antiquated analog media like
magnetic tape,  which essentially comes
down to rigorously maintaining galaxy-wide data compatibility standards. It is
not necessarily science-fiction, either, as the US Army still runs its nuclear
arsenal on cyberattack-proof floppy
disk-based software
, and for long-term storage of data, it is still hard
to beat tape
.

image

Rogue One: Search for the Missing Adapter (source)

Believe it or not, there are lessons for archaeologists
here, in that it forces us to re-examine our oddly unquestioned attachment to planned
obsolescence, and the archiving
issues
that it is already causing us. In a time when magnetic media
are slowly being killed off, tapes and physical media like vinyl continue to
come back in fashion. The satisfying clunk of loading a heavy cartridge like
the Death Star plans into a tape deck and the whirr of the reels as the data
comes to life are small pleasures lost to us today which can only be
experienced vicariously in sci-fi fantasy such as this. Recreating 1970s artefacts such as these are a way of exploring past futures and
questioning the present, the mission not just of media and contemporary
archaeology, but arguably archaeology as a whole.

Conclusion

This deep dive into the archaeological record of the Star Wars universe as depicted in Rogue One reveals that the Galactic
Civil War had one pernicious side effect: fighters on both sides neglected
their cultural heritage in the name of military expediency. Of all the dark
goings-on under the Empire, this is one of the most upsetting in the long term.
In just a single generation, the shining temples and cities of the prequel
trilogy have given way to the ruinscapes of Rogue One, a situation that has not
much improved by the time of Force
Awakens
. And as that film shows, the old Imperial ideology survives like a
weed, sprouting back up in the fertile soil of a pastless society.

It also shows that we can assess pop culture as archaeology,
through the way in which the material culture of previous films is reused, reconstructed,
cited and remixed by later generations. The fastidious attention to continuity taken
by the designers as revealed by the Ultimate
Visual Guide
and Art of Rogue One
companion volumes shows that authenticity is expressed through fidelity to
tangible objects, sets and settings. There are plenty of lessons in here for
archaeologists trying to understand the public appetite for heritage and a
sense of connection to a deeper past.

And this may well be why Rogue
One
is so much more archaeological than the previous Star Wars films. Like The
Hobbit trilogy
before it, it is simultaneously
trying to construct an ancient fictional past, call up memories of films which take
place in its future, and provide exegetical commentary on the now-sacred
original text in our timeline. Grafting entirely new characters and landscapes and onto a literally canonised set of scriptures can be perilous. In order to justify
these inauthentic appendages, it grounds the story in the perceived authenticity of
material culture. These new artefacts are retconned into the original narrative in order to
create a more ‘realistic’ universe, similar to what Tom Shippey
famously called the ‘asterisk
history
’ of Tolkien’s legendarium. It shows our generation’s need to plug the gaps and make legit mythology out of what others see as fairy-stories. It is nothing
less than the archaeology in, of and
through popular culture
, and I am quite clearly obsessed.

Follow us on @AlmostArch

To get exclusive information and become a Star Wars Actors Guild 77 (SWAG 77) Patreon!