Excavating the Nostalgia of Archaeology in Moon Knight 


University of British Columbia 

Sara Ann Knutson (she/ her) is Assistant Professor of Teaching, chair of Medieval Studies, and a historian and anthropological archaeologist specializing in premodern Afro-Eurasia, including the Islamic World and Scandinavia, and contemporary cultural heritage.

A crunching shovel.

These stories often begin with a shovel crunching into the earth. A foreigner, dressed in colonial beige, gazing into an ancient pharaoh’s tomb. A gift-shop clerk, peering into museum glass that defends indefensibly looted materials. A reader, hunched over the pages of a whitewashed ancient past. In Hollywood, archaeologists seem almost as enduring as the immortal past they chase. They are aggrandized “mummy detectives” à la Agatha Christie, “intellectual grave robbers,” or the treasure-hunting “adventure archaeologist,” who claims objects for museums.  

Few societies receive such intense attention and enduring “cultural fantasies” as the ancient Egyptians. Hollywood especially continues to interweave images of an imagined ancient Egypt and (often foreign) archaeologists into pop culture. In 2004, Mark Hall observed that since the 1920s, not a decade has passed without the release of at least one film that explores the supernatural or horror possibilities of an archaeology of ancient Egypt. With the recent (2022) Disney TV series Moon Knight, this observation perseveres.  

Moon Knight offers more of the same yet also something new to Hollywood’s archaeology and ancient Egypt. Scholars often dismiss such pop cultural representations, but these cultural fantasies shape the public as well as the discipline of Archaeology itself. Most significantly, Moon Knight identifies dreamscapes and nostalgia as possibilities to excavate perhaps Archaeology’s most powerful tool—not the shovel, trowel, or sieve, but the mind.  

Excavating Moon Knight.

Some people claim that we are no longer in the Indiana Jones era of archaeology, so far as looted objects in museums are concerned. But the fetishized archaeology of ancient Egypt continues to feed the popular imagination. In National Geographic’s documentary series (2019-2022) Lost Treasures of Egypt, the title sequence claims Egypt as “the richest source of archaeological treasures on the planet” and that “beneath this desert landscape lie the secrets of this ancient civilization” (emphasis added). Such narratives persist and fetishize archaeology as a vertical activity: above and below ground.  

Below ground, cinematic audiences anticipate the buried “treasures”— valuable, exotic trinkets, relics, or tombs that await “recovery.” The antagonist of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) captured this expectation of recovery with the thought experiment of his watch: “Look at this, It’s worthless—ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless.” This Indiana Jones film presents archaeologists competing to find the long-lost Ark of the Covenant. Moon Knight’s plot similarly hinges on a race: to uncover the tomb of the Egyptian goddess Ammit, a hidden site infused with supernatural forces. The fetishized recovery of “untouched” artefacts and sites, enduring only the sands of time, creates a purity narrative: ancient materials are most valuable when archaeologists are the “first” to uncover them. 

Above ground, archaeologists cannot so easily claim traces of ancient Egypt as “lost treasure” or “untouched.” Structures like the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, the Necropolis of Saqqara, or Luxor Temple are commonly described as ruins. Unlike the “timeless” buried object, the ruin implies ancient, decayed architecture—enduring remains of the no-longer-living, distinct from contemporary living societies. Moon Knight likewise fetishizes the Pyramids, including as night-shrouded ruins in the end-credits, miniature museum models, aquarium decoration, table centerpieces, and the convening site for the ancient Egyptian gods. 

Moon Knight reinforces some colonialist tropes in archaeology, not least the extractive “discovery” of untouched materials and exploration of ancient “ruins.” The plot commences at the British Museum, naturalizing the museum as a locus of ancient Egyptian history, and takes a colonizer perspective as we follow the protagonist’s journey from London to Cairo. However, Moon Knight also destabilizes certain tropes. The series’ heroine, an antiquities dealer, asserts that she does not steal artefacts—”they have already been stolen” (Episode 3). Steven Grant’s dreamscape in Episode 4 introduces a fictional film, Tomb Buster, in which the archaeologist, dressed in colonial attire, navigates the Mesoamerican jungle—a nostalgic spoof of Indiana Jones.  

Moon Knight endorses that excavation involves the mind as well as land. Excavation is a well-worn metaphor for pursuing memory and the psyche, promoted by thinkers like Sigmund Freud and Michel Foucault. Moon Knight unearths this legacy for popular audiences and deliberately folds ancient Egypt into the contemporary psyche and dreamscape. Some characters notably accept the mission-driven adventure of archaeology as “a dream worth dying for” (Episode 4). Through the metaphor of shattered glass, the broken mindscape becomes the most important excavation site, as Moon Knight maneuvers fragments of the hero’s trauma, personalities, and ruptured relationships.  

In these excavations, the superhero resources his nostalgia for archaeology to navigate trauma, invoking an idealized past in response to a deficient present. Audiences are also lured into this nostalgia for an ancient Egypt. But popular films that explore the nostalgic possibilities of ancient Egypt and archaeology leave palpable traces on contemporary Egyptian identity. We must therefore be mindful of what nostalgia can do and whom it serves. Although nostalgia produces useful commentaries on the present, it can also misrepresent memory of a past that never was. Despite its attention to the mindscape, Moon Knight misses the possibilities of multiple “ancient Egypts” and the recognition that our ideas of ancient Egypt are just that—our own ideas. Instead, Moon Knight promotes its ancient Egypt as a single, if supernatural, reality. 

Waking from the Nostalgic Dream.

This article began with the gaze. But the ancient Egyptian past does not begin with European shovels. Nor does it end with Anglophone commentaries on this past. For their part, Hollywood archaeologists—or the Marvel superhero—must look up and around. The most celebratory part of Moon Knight is not the archaeology, but the nod to living Egyptian communities. We witness the representation of Egyptian actors and the self-proclaimed arrival of the Arabic-speaking, Egyptian superhero Layla El-Faouly. We hear the Arabic lyrics of Egyptian pop artist Ahmed Saad in Episode 2. But Moon Knight can do more. The possibility for future seasons offers an opportunity for Moon Knight to envision archaeology without the clinking of excavation tools but rather as a practice rooted in the will of local communities. We cannot hope to properly understand the experience of ancient Egyptians by gazing into a pharaoh’s tomb that they deliberately protected. What the ancient Egyptians did leave visible are in no way separate from the histories of subsequent generations who engaged these sites and left their own legacies of relationships and connections to the past. To see these, we must look up and acknowledge not the “ruins” but the contemporary communities.  

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