A Lesson in Taphonomy with Red Dead Redemption 2

Note: I struggled about whether or not to write about this game due to the issues surrounding its development and the poor treatment of workers (for more information, please read this article from Jason Schreier). However, I think it marks an interesting development in the ever-growing world of virtual archaeologies, so I proceeded to write about it. That being said, please show support for the unionisation of game workers by visiting Game Workers Unite.

Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Studios 2018) has only been out for a short while, but many players have been praising the level of detail that has gone into the game. One of the most striking features, at least to me as an archaeologist, is the fact that bodies actually decay over time. That’s right, video game archaeologists – we now have some form of taphonomy in our virtual worlds!

But wait, what istaphonomy“? Well, you may actually get a few slightly differing answers from archaeologists – we all mostly agree that taphonomy refers to the various processes that affect the physical properties of organic remains. However, it’s where the process begins and ends that has archaeologists in a bit of a debate. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m gonna to use a definition from Lyman (1994), which defines taphonomy as “the science of the laws of embedding or burial” – or, to put it another way, a series of processes that create the characteristics of  an assemblage as recovered by archaeologists. This will include not only pre-mortem and post-mortem processes, but processes that occur post-excavation, as identified by Clark and Kietzke (1967).

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Promotional Image Credit: Rockstar Games (2018)

Let’s start with the pre-mortem processes, which are often ignored in discussions of overall taphonomy – firstly, we have biotic processes, which sets up the actual conditions of who or what will be deposited in our final resulting assemblage – this can include seasonal characteristics of a particular region, which will draw certain species to inhabit the area (O’Connor 2000), as well as cultural factors, such as exploitation and, unfortunately, colonisation/imperialism (Hesse and Wapnish 1985).

Now, let’s use some poor ol’ cowboys from Red Dead Redemption 2 as examples of post-mortem processes – Content Warning: Images of (digital) human remains in various stages of decay are about to follow, so caution before you read on!

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Image Credit: YouTube user WackyW3irdo (2018)

With our biotic processes providing us with these cowboys who have moved West for a variety of reasons, we now need to determine our cause of death to continue with taphonomy. This falls under thanatic processes, which causes death and primary deposition of the remains (O’Connor 2000). In our example above, we would probably be able to find osteological evidence of trauma due to the cowboy getting shot to death.

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Image Credit: YouTube user WackyW3irdo (2018)

In time, we soon see the work of taphic processes, or the chemical and physical processes that affect the remains – this is also sometimes referred to as “diagenesis” (O’Connor 2000). Much of what we consider to be “decay” when we think of decomposition will fall under this category of processes. Sometimes this will also affect the remaining structure and character of bone that will eventually be recovered.

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Image Credit: YouTube user WackyW3irdo (2018)

Now, imagine we take this body and, as seen in the YouTube video from which these images come from, toss it down a hill. Okay, this is a bit of an over-the-top example, but it showcases another category of processes known as perthotaxic processes. These processes causes movement and physical damage to the remains, either through cultural (butchery, etc.) or natural (weathering, gnawing, trampling, etc.) methods. Similar to these processes are anataxic processes, which cause secondary deposition and further exposure of the remains to other natural factors that will further alter them (Hesse and Wapnish 1985).

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Image Credit: YouTube user WackyW3irdo (2018)

The above image shows the remains of the cowboy finally reaching his secondary place of deposition after being tossed from the top of the hill and now drawing the attention of scavenger birds – this showcases an example of an anataxic process, as the body is being scavenged due to exposure from secondary deposition.

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Image Credit: YouTube user WackyW3irdo (2018)

At this point, we begin to see how all of the aforementioned processes have affected our current archaeological assemblage-in-progress: we clearly have physical and chemical signs of decay, with physical alteration due to post-mortem trauma (tossing off of a hill) and exposure (including gnawing from other animals). This results in some elements going missing, some being modified, and others being made weaker and more likely to be absent by the time the body is recovered archaeologically.

Now, we also have two processes that occur during and after archaeological excavation that, again, often get overlooked: sullegic processes, which refer to the decisions made by archaeologists for selecting samples for further analysis (O’Connor 2000) and trephic processes, which refer to the factors that affect the recovered remains during post-excavation: curation, storage, recording, etc. These are often ignored as they don’t necessarily tell us much about the context surrounding the remains, but they are vital to consider if you are working with samples that you did not recover yourself or have been archived for a long time prior to your work.

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Image Credit: YouTube user CallOfTreyArch (2018)

Environmental differences will also affect the sort of variety within the overall taphonomic process – for example, wet environments (say, like the body of water seen in the image above) will cause the body to become water-logged, which may speed up certain taphic processes and create poorer preservation. More arid environments, like a desert, may lead to slightly more preservation in some cases due to the lack of water that may damage the bones.

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Image Credit: YouTube user CallOfTreyArch (2018)

Although the game certainly speeds up these processes and streamlines them in a way that removes some of the other variables that you would see in real life, I’d argue that Red Dead Redemption 2 might currently be the most accurate depiction of taphonomy that exists within a virtual world and may present new opportunities for developing models that could aid in furthering our understanding of how remains may decay under certain circumstances.

At the very least, it could make it easier and less smellier to do taphonomic experiments!

References

CallOfTreyArch. (2018) Red Dead Redemption 2 – In-Game Corpse Decay Timelapse. YouTube Video. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5izZ2gv17M8

Clark, J. and Kietzke, K.K. (1967) Paleoecology of the Lower Nodule Zone, Brule Formation, in the Big Badlands of South Dakota. Fieldiana: Geology Memoir. pp. 111-129.

Hesse, B. and Wapnish, P. (1985) Animal Bone Archaeology: From Objectives to Analysis. Taracuxum Inc.

Lyman, R.L. (1994) Vertebrate Taphonomy. Cambridge University Press.

O’Connor, T. (2000) The Archaeology of Animal Bones. Sutton Publishing Ltd.

Rockstar Games. (2018) Red Dead Redemption 2.

WackyW3irdo. (2018) Red Dead Redemption 2 – Decaying NPC Body Timelapse. YouTube Video. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2AoQyynYFM

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“Death Positivity” for Pets: Are We Changing Our Attitudes Towards the Death Of Animals?

Content Warning – Today’s blog post will talk at length about animal death and will have some photos of taxidermy animals. Please proceed with caution and feel free to skip the blog post entirely if this is too upsetting.

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Death Salon on Instagram “Our director_s personal haul from #deathsalonboston including moulagedecire[...]
Caitlyn Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death, gives a talk at a Death Salon event in Seattle (Photo Credit: @DeathSalon on Instagram)
The “Death Positivity” movement has truly become part of the mainstream discourse recently, ranging from a general increase in appreciation for all things aesthetically macabre, to more organized events that educate others on death and the culture surrounding it. Arguably at the forefront of this movement in the United States is Caitlyn Doughty, a mortician who started the Order of the Good Death as a means of engaging with death and dying in a more positive manner and combatting the anxieties that surround death in modern society (Troop 2013). Doughty eventually began working with other organizers to create “death salons” – based on 18th century intellectual salons, these events gather academics, professionals, and creatives (such as musicians, artists, performers, and even chefs!) together to discuss aspects of death and the culture around death (Rosenbloom 2013).

But while our attitudes towards human death may be changing, what about our attitudes towards animal death? This may be a more complicated question than I originally thought – after all, given our utilisation of animals as subsistence, product manufacturers, and sometimes companions, humans will find themselves constantly confronting animal death. However, there are two specific examples of recent trends that I’ve noticed as someone who consistently works with animal remains in their everyday life…

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Alex Fitzpatrick ( afitzpatrickarchaeology) • Instagram photos and videos
A typical array of “vulture culture” collections, processed and used in artwork by artist and seller Ossaflores (Photo Credit: @Ossaflores on Instagram)

Perhaps one example of changes towards animal death is the popularisation of “vulture culture” online – this term often refers to enthusiasts for collecting animal remains, either as skeletal elements or as taxidermies. Not everyone in the community processes their own remains, but everyone expresses a passion for collecting specimens via online sellers or by finding naturally defleshed remains in the wild. Some enthusiasts are also artists that incorporate animal remains into their artwork somehow.  It is usually emphasised that “vulture culture” collections are derived from naturally deceased animals as part of their ethics (Miller 2017).

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An example of “pet aftercare” in the form of full taxidermy, done by Precious Creatuer Taxidermy (Photo Credit: @PreciousCreature on Instagram)

Another example of “animal death positivity” could also be seen in the rise of pet mortuary businesses that specialise in “alternative aftercare”. This can either be as a full taxidermy piece, as a partial piece (for example, preserved tails or paws), or in skeletal form. Precious Creature Taxidermy, an alternative aftercare and taxidermy business run by Lauren Lysak in California, offers various aftercare services in lieu of what we may consider “traditional human funerary services” that includes the previously mentioned processes as well as cremation (Lysak 2018). Although it may seem a bit macabre to taxidermy one’s pet, you could also consider this as a deeper acceptance of death and its constant presence around all of us…in taxidermy form.

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Alex Fitzpatrick ( alexleefitz) • Instagram photos and videos

So, are we entering a new phase of “death positivity” with regards to animals? Do we even have a right to feeling “death positive” towards non-human species – after all, of course, many animal deaths are directly caused by human activities. I think that, ultimately, this is a very complicated topic that has many layers to it regarding concepts of posthumanism, of ethics, of agency, and so on – perhaps this requires another, more lengthy blog post! However, at least with regards to how humans experience the death of animals, specifically pets, I think we are making strides to better understanding the processes of death and utilising some aspects of “death positivity” as we apply it to humans in our overall understanding of the concept as a whole.

References

Lysak, L. (2018) About Precious Creature Taxidermy. Precious Creature Taxidermy. Retrieved from http://www.preciouscreaturetaxidermy.com/new-page.

Miller, L. (2017) What is Vulture Culture? Vulture Gear Blog. Retrieved from https://vulturegear.com/blogs/vulture-gear-blog/what-is-vulture-culture

Rosenbloom, M. (2013) Death Salon LA…and Beyond! Death Salon. Retrieved from https://deathsalon.org/2013/11/04/death-salon-la-and-beyond/.

Troop, S. (2013) Death Salon Interviews Caitlyn Doughty. Death Salon. Retrieved from https://deathsalon.org/2013/10/02/death-salon-interviews-caitlin-doughty/.

Terror and Tradition Over Time: A Look at the Material Culture Of Halloween

Some of my current Halloween decorations – surprisingly low-key compared to previous years!

Oddly enough, I didn’t really expect to run into that many significant cultural differences when I first moved from the United States to the United Kingdom. So I was actually a bit surprised when Halloween first came around. I expected there to be streets covered in decorations, but was surprised to see only a few pumpkins and paper bats placed here and there. Turns out that Halloween isn’t necessarily as big of a deal as it is in the US; back where I grew up, I was used to seeing houses on my block completely transform into haunted places complete with loud, scary noises and bloody, horrifying animatronic monsters! I never considered the differences in the material culture and presentation of the holiday across cultures.

With that in mind, I figured a brief look into the history of Halloween material culture  may be an interesting blog post to celebrate the holiday this year! Fair Warning: Some of these decorations may be pretty spooky.

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A traditional turnip jack-o-lantern from the Museum of Country Life in Ireland (Photo Credit: Rannpháirtí Anaithnid)

 

Most academics seem to agree that our modern celebration of Halloween stems from a pagan tradition, although there tends to be some debate over which one. Many point to Samhain, a Celtic festival that celebrated the end of the harvest season, the preparation for the upcoming winter, and the warding off of spirits by using large bonfires. Others, however, point to Pomona, which was allegedly a festival celebrated in the name of the Roman goddess of fruit and seeds, also named Pomona (Rogers 2002). Unfortunately, we have little textual or archaeological evidence to support either of these theories besides the similarities in timing with modern day Halloween – in fact, we have no evidence of the Pomona Festival ever occurring and no evidence to suggest how widespread Samhain may have been (Moss 2013).

Regardless of the actual origin point of the holiday, we can see that the introduction of All Saints Day to the 1st of November (possibly as a means of “Christianizing” Samhain) in the 8th Century eventually led to the standardization of many traditions that are still associated with Halloween. This includes perhaps the earliest form of “trick-or-treating”, where the poor would go from house to house and given soul cakes (pastries or breads made to honour the Dead) in exchange for praying for the dead of the household. Dressing up in costumes, or masquerading, also appears to have become a custom associated with All Saints Day, although it was for honouring the Christian Saints rather than terrifying the local neighbours (Bannatyne 1998). And, of course, there is that terrifying tradition that appears to have been originated in Ireland of “jack-o-lanterns” – these were faces carved into root vegetables like turnips…thankfully, the tradition turned to pumpkins once it was brought over to North America, which is good because have you seen how horrifying those turnip lanterns are?

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A tin Halloween parade stick from the early 1900’s (Image Credit: Mark B. Ledenbach, Halloween Collector)

Halloween and its traditions were introduced to the United States via the influx of immigrants from Ireland and Scotland during the mid 1800’s. However, up until the early 1900’s Halloween was mostly an adult-oriented holiday, celebrated by dinner parties. This led to the popularity of home decorations, which were often promoted by booklets and catalogues such as Dennison’s Bogie Book (Mitchell 2017).

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A Halloween Die-Cut Sign from the 1930’s (Image Credit: Mark B. Ledenbach, Halloween Collector)

By the 1920’s, Halloween was becoming more standardized in practice and in design into the holiday that we recognize today. Most decorations on offer for purchase were in the form of “die-cuts” – basically paper decorations – as these were easily disposable. You probably still see die-cuts used to this day – think of the sort of cute, paper Halloween decorations that were hung up around school. In the 1930’s, trick-or-treating was practised more widely around the United States, prompting the popularity of decorations that were more cute than creepy. From then onward, Halloween was more of a children’s holiday (Eddy 2016).

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A small selection from the 2017 TransWorld Halloween and Attractions Show (Photo Credit: Chelsea T., Haunts.com)

Today, Halloween has become entwined with modern consumerist culture – in fact, Americans spent approximately 9.1 billion dollars on Halloween decorations and costunes (Mitchell 2017). And that’s not surprising given today’s emphasis on consumerism, which has tied itself to concepts of nostalgia and pop culture that now seem to propel many modern day traditions for Halloween – from dressing up as your favourite 90’s television character to hosting a marathon of “classic” horror films. Trends in consumption and aesthetics have also added to the holiday’s general popularity – by 2010, Halloween has become the most popular non-Christian holiday in the United States (Moss 2013).

With these changes in popularity and material trends, there has also been a significant shift in the main demographic for Halloween – although still enjoyed by children and young people, there has been a rise in popularity for adult Halloween costumes and adult-oriented celebrations, like Halloween parties organized at clubs, bars, and pubs (Belk 1990).

This trend can also be seen in the movement towards associating Halloween with the truly terrifying and gory. Due to advances in technology, computer animation, and prosthetics, modern day horror media has never been more elaborate and realistic in their grim and grisly details. This has also been carried over to amateur Halloween decorations, with homemade haunted houses and terrifying attractions taking the place of trick-or-treat spots (for some of the most spectacular looking Halloween decorations and costumes, check out the TransWorld Halloween Showcase).

So, what can we see from this brief history of Halloween trends and patterns in material culture? Well, its hard to say – especially as the origins of the holiday are still widely debated. However, we could argue that Halloween has consistently been a holiday of invoking what is otherwise taboo – whether that’s communicating with spirits and saints, demanding treats and sweets from strangers and neighbours alike, playing pranks, or even just dressing a bit differently than what’s considered “normal”! Like most other popular holidays, Halloween has become entwined with consumerism and rooted to pop culture by a variety of tropes and customs. And yet, we could also say that it remains a holiday truly rooted in tradition – from the carving of Jack-o-Lanterns to trick-or-treating, these traditions have been carried over from one continent to another and have lasted hundreds of years…I think its safe to say that they don’t seem like they’ll be going away any time soon.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, everyone!

References

Bannatyne, L. (1998) Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Pelican Publishing Company.

Belk, R.W. (1990) Halloween: An Evolving American Consumption Ritual. Advances in Consumer Research. pp. 508-517.

Eddy, C. (2016) The History of Modern Halloween, as Seen Through its Decorations. Gizmodo. https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-history-of-modern-halloween-as-seen-through-its-de-1788207372

Ledenbach, M.B. (2018) Halloween Collector. www.halloweencollector.com

Mitchell, N. (2017) Halloween Decorating Hasn’t Been Around as Long as You Think. Apartment Therapy. https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/the-rather-modern-history-of-halloween-decorations-249863

Moss, C. (2013) Halloween: Witches, Old Rites, and Modern Fun. BBC: Religion & Ethics. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/24623370

Rogers, N. (2002) Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press.

Bones that Look like Other Bones: A Mini Post about Foxes and Badgers

It’s been a while since I’ve made a Comparative Anatomy post! But after running into an issue with a possible fox/badger bone fragment, I figured it might be time to make a new one. And if you have any particular comparative anatomy posts that you’d like me to make in the future, please feel free to contact me about it!

Badgers and foxes – two animals that I have literally never seen in the wild until I moved to England. Honestly, I don’t even think I ever really though about either of them until I moved here. And yet, both are relatively common around Britain, which has caused me to become quickly familiar with their bones on the off-chance that they get mixed into an assemblage I’m currently working on (one of the many problems you face as a zooarchaeologist who works in a regional area that is so different from the one you grew up in!). There’s way more detailed comparative guides out there (see “References” below), but here’s a quick little post showing off some of their anatomical similarities and differences:

Skulls

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On the top is the skull of a badger. On the bottom is the skull of a fox.

At first glance, fox and badger skulls may look very much alike! However, there are some significant differences that will make telling the two apart a lot easier than you’d think. Possibly the biggest difference is in the general characteristics of each skull – badger skulls tend to be a bit “chunkier” and more robust, yet also shorter with a less elongated “snout” area, so to speak. Foxes, on the other hand, are more flat, with more elongated, perhaps even graceful arches and curves and are a bit thinner in comparison.

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On the right is the back of a fox skull, and on the left is the back of a badger skull. Note the difference in sagittal crests!

Another key difference can be seen if we look near the back of the skull where theses long ridges (called sagittal crests) can be found. Both foxes and badgers have relatively prominent sagittal crests, but badgers’ crests are a bit bigger for the most part.

Teeth

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The lower right mandible and teeth of a badger.

Badger and fox teeth look relatively similar as well. They have a sort of curvy, “wave”-shape that you can also see in dogs (see my Teeth post for more information). However, there are slight differences. Badger teeth, as you can see above, are arguably flatter, especially in the back molars.

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The lower mandible (and teeth) of a fox.

Fox teeth, on the other hand, are much more sharper and tend to be in greater number than badgers.

Long Bones

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From left to right: badger humerus, badger femur, fox femur, and fox humerus.

There are better and more detailed guides out there that get into all of the long bones of both badgers and foxes (see “References” again), but for the sake of brevity we’ll just be looking at two: the humerus and the femur. Again, you could argue that a general rule of thumb is that fox bones, unlike badger bones, are a bit thinner and longer. Badger bones are more robust, but shorter.

The humerus in a badger is very characteristic of this, as it is very short, yet robust. The hole at the bottom of the humerus is very oval shaped. In foxes, on the other hand, the humerus is much more elongated and thin. They also have a hole at the bottom of the bone, but this one is arguably more circular than ovular.

As for the femur, possibly the best indicator for what species you’re working with can be found at the “neck” at the top that leads to the little round bump known as the “femoral head”. Foxes don’t really have much of a “neck”, so the femoral head basically sits on top after a bit of a dip. As for badgers, their “neck” is much longer and more visible – the top of the bone clearly thins out into this “neck” as it leads to the femoral head.

Phalanges

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On the right are two fox phalanges, and on the left are two badger phalanges.

Honestly, if you’re tasked with differentiating between the phalanges of a fox and badger…yeah, uh…good luck! Again, you could roughly estimate based on general size, as foxes generally tend to be larger – but at the phalanges level? Hmm…

You know what, let’s just put down “small to mid-sized terrestrial mammal” and call it a day, yeah?

References

Johnson, E. (2015) A Skeletal Comparison of Domestic Dog (canis familiaris), Red Fox (vulpes vulpes), Badger (meles meles), and Domestic Cat (felis catus). Retrieved from https://ifeelitinmybones.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/a-skeletal-comparison-of-dog-fox-badger-and-cat.pdf.

McGowen-Lowe, J. (2015) The Difference Betweeen Fox and Badger Skulls. Retrieved from http://www.jakes-bones.com/2015/12/the-difference-between-fox-and-badger.html

Fallout Finds: Deciphering the Past and Present

“Secret codes”, like archaeology, can set off the imagination, prompting images of spies, secret agents, and hidden treasure. It is easy, based on popular culture, to imagine that archaeologists are constantly stumbling upon glyphs that must be translated to find secret rooms or solving puzzles using hidden codes to evade dangerous traps.

But unfortunately, like many depictions of archaeology in pop culture, this isn’t really the case in real life.

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A rail sign in Fallout 4 signifying that the Railroad HQ is nearby.

One example of hidden codes in popular culture can be found in Fallout 4, utilised by the ultra secret organisation called “the Railroad”. Like their real life Civil War-era namesake, the Railroad leads a group of marginalised people (in the case of Fallout 4, these are the “Synths”, or synthetic people who are often met with violence and persecution by humans) to freedom through a series of routes and safe houses to avoid hostile forces hunting them down. In order to maintain secrecy and safety, the Railroad often utilises a series of pictures as codes to other agents – these symbols can alert others to danger, or to notify where safe houses are.

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A rail sign in Fallout 4 signifying that danger is nearby.

These in-game secret codes were most likely inspired by the real life phenomenon of what are generally referred to as “hobo codes”. These symbols were created by “hobos”, or transient, homeless people who travelled the United States after the end of the Civil War, usually by illegally riding freight trains that began to criss-cross the country. These “hobo codes” provided safety for other fellow hobos through warnings of dangerous people or obstacles ahead, as well as pointing out where one could find food, shelter, or work (Innocent 2015).

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A “hobo code” symbol from a scene in the television series Mad Men – this signifies that a “dishonest person lives nearby”

But what about real-life archaeology? Are there no real instances of finding secret messages amongst ancient ruins?

Well…kinda.

In many ways, we can consider the recovery of “lost” languages to be similar to this romanticised idea of unearthing hidden codes during excavation. For example, thanks in part to the recovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, Egyptian hieroglyphs – which had originally confused and mystified academics who would occasionally come across these mysterious symbols on artefacts and ruins – were finally able to be deciphered by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822 (Robinson 2012). Another example can be found in Mesoamerica regarding the Mayan hieroglyphs, which are still being deciphered to this day (Stuart 1992).

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A replica of the Rosetta Stone in Madrid, Spain (Photo Credit: Juan Naharro Gimenez)

However, what most people would imagine to be “secret messages” are more in line with pseudoarchaeological ideas. In fact, many allegedly “secret symbols” that had been “recovered” in the United States are often fake artefacts used to promote the racist, pseudoarchaeological notion that hidden communities of Europeans existed in North America, pre-dating Native Americans. For example, in the Ohio Valley region alone, there are been many cases of so-called “ancient inscriptions” using Welsh and Irish Ogham. But there was little, if any, credible evidence to back any of these claims (Ball 2006).

So what is it about secret messages and symbols that so quickly excites the imagination? Maybe we just want some sort of intentional communication with the past? Maybe knowing that our past ancestors left behind something for their future generations makes us feel better about ourselves?

Or maybe its just cool. Who knows, really?

References

Ball, D.B. (2006) Scribbles, Scratches, and Ancient Writing: Pseudo-Historical Archaeology in the Ohio Valley Region. Ohio Valley Historical Archaeology. 21. pp. 1-29.

Bethesda Softworks. (2015) Fallout 4.

Innocent, T. (2015) The Lost Art of Urban Codemaking. Communication Research and Practice. 1(2). pp. 117-130.

Robinson, A. (2012) A Clash of Symbols. Nature. 483. pp. 27 – 28.

Stuart, D. (1992) Hieroglyphs and Archaeology at Copan. Ancient Mesoamerica. 3. pp. 169-184.

What is Old is New Again: A Primer on “Ritual” in Archaeology

When writing the previous instalment in this series, I realised that I never wrote a proper post on ritual in archaeology! Which is a mistake on my part – its an important discussion that will need to be addressed before we continue talking about neo-pagan material culture. So, without further ado, read on to discover one of the more “hot topics” in archaeology…

Screenshot_2018-10-03 Alex Fitzpatrick ( alexleefitz) • Instagram photos and videos

The term “ritual” has a bit of a reputation among archaeologists. Well, less of a “reputation” and more of a “running joke”, if I’m being honest…one of the first things I learned as an undergraduate taking an “Intro to Archaeology” class was that “ritual” is what archaeologists write when they don’t know what’s happening at a site.

And, to be honest, that makes sense. How do we even define the word “ritual”? Let’s take a look at some examples:

Colin Renfrew (1985) identified the “Four Aspects of Ritual Practice” as:

  1. An attention-focused activity that can be seen in the physical record
  2. A liminal zone that can be correlated with the remaining material
  3. A focus on transcendence and symbol in the material record
  4. Archaeological evidence for participation or offerings

Peter Tompkins (2009), on the other hand, highlights the main elements used for “ritualization” to further define “ritual”:

  1. Temporality – Experiencing time differently
  2. Spatiality – Restricting space
  3. Fragmentation – Relationships between parts and whole
  4. Distance and Scale – Enlargement and minimization for emphasis
  5. Value and Substance – Setting “ritual” importance
  6. Food and Cuisine – Associated with and used to designate “ritual acts”

More recently, Ronald Hutton (2013) adds that ritual, as well as religion, can be differentiated from other acts due to the need for imaginative processes, arguing that finding evidence of early ritual will correlate to the oldest instances of the development of an imagination and symbolic behaviour.

To round these definitions off, Joanna Bruck (1999) provides her perceived definition of “ritual” in her critique of its use in archaeology, arguing that the discipline sees it as something “non-functional” and “impractical”, mutually exclusive from functionality.

In some respects, there are some commonalities in these definitions – for most, ritual is something associated with more abstract, often spiritual concepts that can be differentiated in some sense from what we consider “normative”. Except…that’s a bit problematic as well. After all, what’s “normal” then? This has led to some archaeologists, such as Joanna Bruck (1999) to consider these dualities – “sacred”, “profane”…are these always separated?

This has been discussed specifically with regards to prehistoric rituals in Europe, where “ritual” and “domestic” contexts have been found intermingled at sites. Tompkins (2009) theorises that by drawing from the domestic sphere, rituals allowed prehistoric people to gain new insights and new experiences from their everyday life. Bruck (1999) further argues that perhaps the need to differentiate between “ritual” and “non-ritual” is simply born from the bias of Post-Enlightenment rationalism, and that we should accept that they can co-exist simultaneously in prehistoric life.

Unfortunately, we may never truly agree on what “ritual” is. Based on textual and ethnographic evidence, rituals in the past would most likely utilise tools and offerings that wouldn’t leave behind much of a trace within the archaeological record (Wait 1985), rendering the act as “archaeologically invisible” (Bruck 1999). Ultimately, we will never really have material evidence to base a definitive definition of ritual on – of course, it would be impossible to have one anyway, as ritual will be variable by culture!

So, as we return to modern day paganism, we find that many practitioners of alternative spiritualities will often say that “everything is ritual” (Sylvan 2016). Its a common phrase, promoting a popular concept among modern spiritual communities that one should infuse reverence for the divine into all aspects of everyday life. So perhaps future archaeologists will actually be able to call most things “ritual” and not be joking? Who knows. That’s the beauty of abstract concepts like “ritual” – they’re always changing with the times. And so will our interpretations of them.

References

Bruck, J. (1999) Ritual and Rationality: Some Problems of Interpretation in European Archaeology. European Journal of Archaeology. 2(3). pp. 313-344.

Hutton, R. (2013) Pagan Britain. Yale University Press.

Renfrew, C. (1985) The Archaeology of Cult: The Sanctuary at Phylakopi. British School of Archaeology at Athens.

Sylvan, D. (2016) The Circle Within: Creating a Wiccan Spiritual Tradition. Llewllyn Publications.

Tompkins, P. (2009) Domesticity by Default: Ritual, Ritualization, and Cave Use in the Neolithic Aegean. Oxford Journal of Archaeology. 28(2). pp. 125-153.

Wait, G.A. (1985) Ritual and Religion in Iron Age Britain. BAR British Series 149.

Selfies with the Dead: ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ and the Dehumanisation of Human Remains

Content Warning: Discussion of human remains in this blog post. No actual images of human remains are used, however there are images of digital human remains from the Shadow of the Tomb Raider video game, so please be advised.

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(Image Credit: Dia Lacina via Waypoint)

Recently, the third instalment of the rebooted Tomb Raider video game franchise was released. This game, titled Shadow of the Tomb Raider, places playable heroine Lara Croft in Meso-America and South America attempting to stop a Mayan apocalypse that she had unknowingly set into motion after stealing an artefact.

The game has received a fair bit of criticism not only for its gameplay, but for the content of the story itself. Despite being a property who has been in the public eye for over two decades, Tomb Raider has never been able to truly shake off its title – Lara Croft has always been a looter of tombs and ruins, despite any good intentions. Although this recent instalment has arguably made the most effort in confronting the inherent colonialism of being a “tomb raider”, the game still reproduces much of it itself (see Lacina 2018). Dia Lacina’s article on Tomb Raider and colonialism is a thorough breakdown of the game’s attempt to critique its own problematic setting, but only briefly mentions the problems caused by the game’s photo mode. What I would like to add, as an archaeologist, is how the photo mode plays into a well-known trope of colonisation: the dehumanisation of specific people, particularly their remains.

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(Image Credit: Resetera Community Member Sabrina)

Let me preface all of this by saying that I do not necessarily think the developers of the game intended for the photo mode to be used to take “silly” selfies with human remains! Photo modes in video games has been a relatively recent trend, with big name games like God of War and Spider-Man having their own versions of a photo mode as part of their gameplay. However, due to the context of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the addition of a photo mode touches upon an issue regarding human remains that I slightly touched upon in last week’s blog post: what are the ethics of displaying and photographing remains?

This question is a relatively recent one, coming as part of a renewed interest in the ethics of remains amongst archaeological bloggers, writers, and curators. Harries et al. (2018) write that although there are plenty of ethical guidelines for the handling and display of  human remains, less work has been done on creating uniform guidelines for displaying photographs of human remains. This is mainly due to a key debate that is still underway: are photographs and other depictions of remains equal to the actual remains? Or are they just a likeness, and therefore a separate thing? Is the very act of making the dead the subject of your photo (without their consent) an act of objectifying and dehumanising them?

To further tie these questions in with the themes of Tomb Raider, let’s consider dehumanisation. Dehumanisation of human remains, as well as living humans, was and still is a key component to colonisation efforts. The remains of Indigenous people across North America were often displayed as “educational tools” in museums or as “oddities and curiosities” in roadside exhibits. Regardless of the setting or the perceived intention, these places had commodified these human remains, removing any agency and “othering” them as objects on display, rather than people (Rewolinski 2014).

So, is the photographing human remains ethical? I do not claim to have any concrete answers, of course, but I think in the case of Tomb Raider, what changes the answer is the fact that the player, as Lara Croft, can take selfies with human remains. In this context, it could be argued that the human remains are used as props – the same way one would pose with a statue, a landmark, or any other object. Not to mention that many players use the dead in-game for the purposes of hilarity, juxtaposing a corpse with Lara Croft’s awkward smile (McGladdery 2018). I’d argue that the use of a dead body for one’s punchline would consist of dehumanisation, to be honest.

So perhaps the next time you, or Lara Croft, come across human remains…maybe put the camera away. And reflect on why you instantly “other” the remains before you, instead of treating them as what they represent: a person who once lived.

Screenshot_2018-10-01 Andy Kelly on Twitter
(Image Credit: Andy Kelly via Twitter)

References

Harries, J. et al. (2018) Exposure: the Ethics of Making, Sharing, and Displaying Photographs of Human Remains. Human Remains and Violence. 4(1). pp. 3-24.

Lacina, D. (2018). ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ Tries, but Fails, to Tackle its Own Colonialism. Waypoint. https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/d3jgeq/shadow-of-the-tomb-raider-review-tries-but-fails-to-tackle-its-own-colonialismhttps://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/d3jgeq/shadow-of-the-tomb-raider-review-tries-but-fails-to-tackle-its-own-colonialism

McGladdery, M. (2018) Grin in the Face of Danger: Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s Hilarious Photo Mode. LAD Bible. http://www.ladbible.com/technology/gaming-shadow-of-the-tomb-raiders-hilarious-photo-mode-20180913

Rewolinski, D. (2014) Remains to be Seen: the Disparate Disposition of Culturally Unidentified Human Remains under NAGPRA’s Final Rule. Unpublished Thesis. New York University.

Square Enix. (2018). Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

The Sadness Of Skin: Emotional Reactions to Remains

Content Warning: This post will be talking a lot about death and the emotional resonance of dead bodies, both human and non-human. No images of human remains will be shown, but there will be images of non-skeletal (mummified) dead animals, so if this may be upsetting, please skip this post.

I was on Twitter the other day when I came across a Tweet about the recent archaeological discovery of the well-preserved body of a dog that had recently been recovered from permafrost in Siberia (Siberian Times Reporter 2018). Looking at photos of the dog’s paws, which still have some fur, I thought, “Oh, how sad.” And yet, I work with animal remains all the time! So what is so different about these remains?

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One of the preserved paws of the Siberian dog (Photo Credit: Sergey Fyodorov, NEFU)

This dog is one of a couple of recent, well-preserved finds in Siberia – in August, a preserved body of a foal (young horse) was recovered (Associated Press 2018), and just weeks after the dog recovery, the well-preserved remains of a 50,000 year old lion cub was also found (Gertcyk 2018). Note the language and imagery used in these articles – Gertcyk refers to the lion cub as “cute” with significant emphasis of how young the lion was at death, the Siberian Times article on the dog makes certain to stress how some of the fur is still present, and an additional article on the foal by Michelle Starr (2018) utilises up-close photos of the hooves, face, and nose of the foal which were especially well-preserved.

Focusing on the young age of the animals – and how this increases the “cuteness” factor, so to speak – is arguably a tactic to incite sympathy and emotion, as well as relatability. This is also seen in human advertisements, especially regarding charity and other social activism for the sake of the living – this phenomenon has been widely studied, with many philosophical and psychological explanations given for why this is both so widespread and effective (Seu 2015). With regards to the dead, emphasis of youth also invokes an emotional reaction akin to something like grief – a life not fully lived, innocence struck down too early.

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The head and front limbs of the preserved foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

What is more interesting, and perhaps more effective in evoking an emotional reaction is the constant emphasis of preservation. The ability for viewers to see the recognisable, the things we associate with the living, is what helps in empathising with the body.  A very evocative example is the bog body (which you can read more about here, CW: for a photo of actual human remains). The high level of preservation caused by bogs results in such a recognisable appearance that it creates a sensation that Wright (2017) refers to as the “sublime” – an interplay between empathy for the recognised humanity and also a sort of horror at the personification of death. It can be argued that it is this unique ability of bog bodies to invoke such an emotional reactional that led to the numerous art and prose inspired by  them – take, for instance, Seamus Heaney’s work.

The power of such reactions may also be evident from the response to a lack of recognisable features. Mummies, for instance, are technically well-preserved bodies. Yet the concealed nature of most mummies creates a need for additional elements to invoke more empathy and relatability; this is further explored by Day (2013), who questions the necessity of facial reconstructions of Egyptian mummified bodies in order for Western audiences to “relate” better to them.

Of course, this is not to say that just “fleshy bits” – skin, hair, fur, etc. – necessarily equate to instant empathy. There is an element of “intactness” that also must be present. The preserved animals that have been previously discussed in this blog post have all been more or less completely intact, again a testament to their preservation. Separating an element, like a limb, from the body would most likely invoke a reaction closer to horror, as we often associate such separation with mutilation and other acts of violence, even if the separation is caused naturally by more taphonomic means.

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Close-up photo of the preserved hooves of the foal (Photo Credit: Michil Yakoklev, NEFU)

So, if we accept the argument that having these “preserved” elements causes empathy and emotional reactions, then perhaps we must also accept that there may be some truth to the reverse of this – that skeletal remains, both animal and human, are more difficult to empathise with. To an extent, this is certainly true for animal remains – skeletal animals are often see without issue at museums, in decoration and jewellery, and in the past sometimes utilised for tools and materials. The caveat to this, of course, is the last few decades during which animal rights activism has become more prevalent and acceptable in the public eye.

As for human remains, there is a long and lengthy history regarding the ethicality of display that is also intertwined with colonialist and racist scientific practices. It has only been recently that the repatriation of human remains – specifically those of Indigenous peoples – have become generally accepted as the “right thing to do” by the general public, although of course there remains some within anthropology, archaeology, and museums who fight against the act of repatriation in the name of “scientific process”, despite the horrific racial and colonial implications of said process. Even more recently, this debate has turned towards exhibitions that utilise real human remains to educate others about the body – touring exhibitions such as BodyWorlds have been as extremely controversial as they have also been extremely popular (Redman 2016).

Perhaps another blog post is necessary to further explore the ethicality regarding human remains, both in display and in analytical practice.As technology and preservation practices continue to advance, what new obstacles will we face with regards to our ability to preserve and display the dead? Redman (2016) perhaps offers the best glimpse at what troubles might be ahead, mentioning that BodyWorlds often runs into the issue of displaying the human body like an art piece, rather than an actual person. May there be a time when our conception of the body becomes so far removed that we no longer empathise with the dead, even as well preserved as they are? What does this mean for the future of ethics?

References

Associated Press. (2018) Ancient Horse Found Perfectly Preserved in Siberian Permafrost. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/foal-permafrost-1.4797543?cmp=rss

Day, J. (2013) Facing the Mummy: Physiognomy, Facial Reconstruction, and the ‘Delirious Biographies’ of Egyptian Mummies. 8th International Congress on Mummy Studies.

Gertcyk, O. (2018) Cute First Pictures of 50,000 Year Old Cave Lion Cub Found Perfectly Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/cute-first-pictures-of-new-50000-year-old-cave-lion-cub-found-perfectly-preserved-in-permafrost-of-yakutia/

Redman, S. (2016) Reconsidering BodyWorlds: Why Do We Still Flock to Exhibits of Dead Human Beings? The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/reconsidering-body-worlds-why-do-we-still-flock-to-exhibits-of-dead-human-beings-57024

Seu, I.B. (2015) Appealing Children: UK Audiences’ Responses to the Use of Children in Humanitarian Communications. The International Communication Gazette. 77(7). pp. 654-667.

Siberian Times Reporter. (2018) ‘Sibling’ of Oldest Mummified Puppy in the World Found Preserved in Permafrost. The Siberian Times. http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/n0386-sibling-of-oldest-mummified-puppy-in-the-world-found-preserved-in-permafrost/

Starr, M. (2018) Incredibly Preserved 40,000 Year Old Extinct Baby Horse Has Been Unearthed in Siberia. Science Alert. https://www.sciencealert.com/extinct-equus-lenensis-lena-horse-pleistocene-foal-found-preserved-near-perfect-permafrost

Wright, P. (2017) Empathising with Bog Bodies: Seamus Heaney and the Feminine Sublime. Brief Encounters. 1(1).

An Exercise in Archaeological Analysis: Fandom, Fealty, and Funko Pops

The Funko Pop. Anyone who has had even a passing interest in pop culture will have come across these figures. Although they have a basic template (large, squared head with tiny bodies and beady eyes), these figures cover a huge range of franchises, from the most mainstream, popular series to niche, cult classics. Funko Pop collecting has become a huge hobby of its own, with the #funkopop hashtag on Instagram showcasing the huge collections of (often unboxed) figures that many fans have amassed over the years.

Given their enormous popularity, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to suggest that, centuries from now, future archaeologists will be finding giant hoards of Funko Pop figures. But what will they think of them? Let’s use these popular collectables to flex our archaeological interpretation skills!

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Funko Pop figures at WonderCon 2016 (Photo Credit: Frazer Harrison)

The Funko Pop: The Fandom Collectable

Let’s first look at Funko Pop figures as they exist right now: as a popular pop culture collectable. The first “Pop” figure was introduced in 2010 in the form of various Batman characters. Originally starting with only three major licenses (Marvel, DC, and Star Wars), the Funko Pop brand has now extended to covering 454 licenses (Cheng 2018).

Although each figure is representative of different pop culture characters, there is a sort of “basic template” that gives each Funko Pop figure a specific “Funko flair” – each figure has a large, square head, with beady eyes, and small, little bodies. Although Funko Pop figures are sold everywhere, they are most often associated with fandom conventions, with certain figures being sold exclusively at certain events, such as Comic-Con. The popularity of Funko Pop figures has led to the creation of other Funko Pop items, including clothing and homeware.

The Funko Pop: The Votive Offering

So now, let’s change the perspective. What will archaeologists in 1000 years think as they recover huge collections of Funko Pop figures from the ruins of our generation?

Humanoid figurines recovered from the archaeological record are often correlated with religion, specifically during prehistory where we lack written sources to tell us otherwise. By ascribing certain characteristics to the figurine – such as anthropomorphic traits, ritual significance, or some other supernatural aspect – the figurine is set apart from other material goods, allowing it to be used for dedication and offering to an otherworldly being, such as a deity or spirit (Osborne 2004). This idea, as applied to Funko Pop figures, is probably best described by Pulliam-Moore (2018), who has pointed out that the general uniformity of the figures heightens the fact that they are ultimately physical symbols “meant to represent the emotional relationships we have to characters and stories that they love”.

Additionally, we may also see the Funko Pop as a sort of offering – literally representing the exchange of money for these figures, which in turn can be seen as an offering to what the figures represent. As Funko CEO Brian Mariotti has said, “The idea of chasing things you love based on fandom is really, really important”. And this is true with Funko Pops – fans will spend hundreds of dollars collecting exclusive figures that are only sold at certain events (Cheng 2018). Although many Funko Pop fans are interested in collecting all things Funko Pop, there are many other fans who are only interested in certain fandoms and franchises. By buying and collecting only one particular franchise’s Funko Pop figures, a fan is expressing their fealty and dedication to that franchise – both as a performance and financially.

The Funko Pop: The Sign of Status

So, as future archaeologists, we have now established the significance of the Funko Pop figure. But how do we explain the huge quantities of figures that individuals may “hoard”, for lack of a better word? Just as we now find hoards of Viking Age treasures, will future archaeologists find hidden stashes of Star Wars Funko Pops?

Perhaps this can be explained by looking at the Funko Pop as a sign of status. By having the most Funko Pops, a person is showcasing not just their fervent fanaticism, but also displaying a sort of “wealth” that places them in a specific role in the overall hierarchy of both monetary class as well as “fandom class”, or how much of a “true” fan a person is.

In historical archaeology, it is often useful to examine material goods through a more “consumerist” perspective, especially when dealing with larger “collection”-type assemblages. Consumerism studies allow archaeologists to analyse material goods not just for their functional value, but also for their cultural value as well, as consumerism often results in utilising quantification of certain material goods as a means of marking or expressing one’s hierarchical status (Martin 1993, Van Wormer 1996). Collecting Funko Pops is also not just a display of monetary wealth (each figure is roughly $10), but also a display of cultural wealth – arbitrary ideas of “fandom credit” means one must have a certain about of “cultural capital”, which can refer to simply having the “right” knowledge about a certain franchise to, in our case, having a certain amount of material goods (Fiske 1992).

The very act of collecting itself has its own hierarchies as well. For example, a person who is able to obtain certain figures, such as the exclusive “chase” Funko Pop figures, is in itself an achievement that creates more cultural capital for the collector. This is especially heightened with the recent popularisation of documenting collections via social media – the Funko Pop fandom is able to see, in real time, who are the “top collectors”, which adds a new dimension to accumulation as achievement (Heljakka 2017).

All hail the Tom Servo Funko Pop figure!

Of course, this all sounds silly to us in the modern day – as fanatic as Funko Pop collectors are, I don’t we would consider their collections as “altars” or “offerings”! But this exercise provides us with an idea of how the intentions and use behind material goods can change over time. It reminds us, as archaeologists, that ultimately we are “interpreting” what we find – there are so many nuances that we will miss along the way, some which could totally change our current interpretation!

I’d also like to think that this exercise can also provide us with different perspectives of the things we consider “normal” right now, like how we express our “fandom allegiances” and how consumerism is entwined to create an economy of “cultural capital”. That’s one of the best things about archaeology – by thinking about the past, we can further explore our present and future!

Also, I would love a Funko Pop figure of Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, thanks.

References

Cheetham, F. (2012) An Actor-Network Perspective on Collecting and Collectables. Narrating Objects, Collecting Stories: Essays in Honour of Professor Susan M. Pearce. Routledge.

Cheng, R. (2018) At Comic-Con 2018, Funko Reigns as Unofficial King of Pop. Cnet. https://www.cnet.com/news/at-comic-con-2018-why-funko-is-the-unofficial-king-of-pop-culture-fundays/

Fiske, J. (1992) The Cultural Economy of Fandom. The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. Psychology Press. pp. 30 – 49.

Heljakka, K. (2017) Toy Fandom, Adulthood, and the Ludic Age: Creative Material Culture as Play. Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. New York University Press. pp. 91-108.

Martin, A.S. (1993) Makers, Buyers, and Users: Consumerism as a Material Culture Framework. Winterthur Portfolio. 28 (2/3). pp. 141 – 157.

Osborne, R. (2004) Hoards, Votives, Offerings: the Archaeology of the Dedicated Object. World Archaeology. 36 (1) pp. 1-10.

Pulliam-Moore, C. (2018) My Love for Funko Pops is What Made Me Stop Buying Them. Gizmodo. https://io9.gizmodo.com/my-love-for-funko-pops-is-what-made-me-stop-buying-them-1823725462

Van Wormer, S.R. (1996) Revealing Cultural Status and Ethnic Differences through Historic Artifact Analysis. Proceedings of the Society for California Archaeology. pp. 310 – 323.

Fallout Finds: An Archaeology of Sudden Death

Content Warning: This post will discuss human remains and death from disasters and acts of mass violence. Although I will not be posting any actual images of real human remains, I will be using images of human remains from the video game Fallout 4. There may also be discussion of disasters and violence that may upset others, so please do not read if you may find this triggering.

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The Player Character and their neighbours watch as a nuclear bomb hits Boston, Massachusetts in Fallout 4.

When archaeologists recover human remains, its often from burials – whether these are elaborate affairs, simple depositions, or whatever could be considered the most loosely defined “intentional” placement of remains. Of course, there are exceptions – sudden deaths, from accidents to murders, will often result in bodies found in “unusual” ways, or at the very least, in a context different from a more intentional burial. Sometimes, the spatial context of the body may provide clues to how the person may have died.

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An unfortunate victim of the Great War in Fallout 4 – it is likely that they died after being crushed by furniture when their house was blown apart in the nuclear blast.

In the world of Fallout 4 (Bethesda Softworks 2015), the “Great War” occurred in October 2077 when the United States, the Soviet Union, and China exchanged multiple nuclear bombs, causing death and destruction at a massive scale. The actual gameplay is set in a post-apocalyptic world, hundreds of years after the Great War. Here, the United States has been completely changed into a new world, with people attempting to make new lives on the wasteland surface, often by using the remnants of the past – recycling old materials, living in the ruins of Pre-War buildings, and attempting to recreate Pre-War factions (see previous posts on Fallout‘s Legion and Kings factions). As the Player explores many of these ruins, they may come across the remains of those who most likely died in the original nuclear fire of 2077.

Of course, there is a bit of scientific liberty being taken here – most of the remains that the Player Character can find are ridiculously well-preserved (all skeletal elements are intact and articulated?! that’s a bioarchaeologist’s dream!) despite being hundreds of years old and subjected to the open environment.

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More victims from the Great War of Fallout 4 – possibly killed immediately in the blast while in bed.

That said, this phenomenon of human remains found in contexts relating to a sudden and unexpected death (and, sometimes, with significant preservation) has many real world parallels. Many instances are found in more natural settings, where sudden deaths are caused by accident or forced upon the victim unexpectedly –  for example, bogs are, as Karin Sanders (2009) writes, “natural darkrooms” that preserve those who die within them almost perfectly (for more on bog bodies, see the Theorising Thedas blog post on them).

Arguably a more famous example of a natural force aiding in the preservation of victims of an unexpected death is Pompeii – in 79 CE, nearby volcano Mt. Vesuvius erupted, covering the land with ash and debris (Deem 2005). Those who died during the eruption and covered in ash deposits were ultimately “preserved” through the impressions of their bodies, which were able to be  examined through casts (Luongo et al. 2003).

Natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions are often studied by archaeologists using the creation of various models – this allows for examination of the impact of the disaster on the surrounding people and environment, like how it may have affected population numbers (Torrence and Grattan 2002). Not only does focusing on natural disasters let archaeologists further interpret how past people may have reacted to and managed emergencies and their aftermaths, but it may also help us deal with natural disasters in the present and future – this point is especially critical today with the effects of climate change causing destruction and displacement around the world.

Disasters, both natural and human-caused, are not always so kind to the remains of its victims. Impact, force, and other acts of violence may cause bodies to be less preserved. Stretches of ground may become unintentional mass graves, with bodies strewn everywhere. In these cases, we turn to methods developed within “forensic archaeology” – this refers to a sub-field in which the focus is mainly on applying archaeological frameworks to contexts referring to crime, as well as search and recovery scenarios (Hunter and Cox 2005). This means that many forensic archaeological methods are based on recovering and identifying individual human bodies, which is vital to dealing with disaster archaeologies. For example, as I previously mentioned, the bodies of victims will be found “commingled”, or entwined with multiple individuals found in one context – there has been many developments within forensic archaeology for separating and identifying individual bodies (human and non-human), ranging from manual observation to the use of data and spatial analysis (Adams and Byrd 2008). These methods have been used in recent recovery missions following massive tragedies, such as the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks in New York City (Mundorff, 2009).

It should be noted that, in contrast, there are often times resistance to the idea of “excavating” sites of disaster – for example, Gabriel Moshenska (2009) writes about bombsite archaeology and how it is rarely performed for the intention of examining a bombsite as a bombsite. There is an implication that archaeological acts are similar to “opening up old wounds”, contrasting with the idea of archaeology as recovery in the previous section. Archaeology of disaster sites are fraught with emotion – filled with painful memories, particularly with more historical sites.

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One of the more “humorous” tableaux in Fallout 4 – the remains of a soldier neatly tucked in bed with plush animals and a book. Is this actually how they died, or perhaps a post-mortem staging?

Many instances of human remains in Fallout 4 are meant to invoke “morbid humour” – occasionally, one might find a skeleton posed in a compromising manner, like on the toilet. This is most likely one of the reasons why the human remains in Fallout 4 are often articulated and intact – for quick and immediate identification by players, and for the ability to create comical situations by posing the dead. And yet, there are also “death tableaux” meant to establish the realities of war onto the player – bodies found in beds, cowered in hastily made shelters, skeletal hands found clasped together even hundreds of years after the Great War. These unintentional portrayals of a sudden death, forever immortalising the true nature of war: senseless, uncaring, and ultimately…fatal.

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Two bodies from Fallout 4 – one in a wheelchair, and one sat next to them. They are surrounded by flowers, candles, and other “offerings” – did they die here, and then become a memorial? Or were they purposely placed here after death?

References

Adams, B.J. and Byrd, J.E. (2008) Recovery, Analysis, and Identification of Commingled Human Remains. Humana Press.

Bethesda Softworks. (2015) Fallout 4.

Deem, J.M. (2005) Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Hunter, J. and Cox, M. (2005) Forensic Archaeology: Advances in Theory and Practice. Routledge.

Luongo, G. et al. (2003) Impact of the AD 79 Explosive Eruption on Pompeii, II. Causes of Death of the Inhabitants Inferred by Stratigraphic Analysis and Areal Distribution of the Human Casualties. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. pp. 169-200.

Moshenska, G. (2009) Resonant Materiality and Violent Remembering: Archaeology, Memory, and Bombing. International Journal of Heritage Studies. 15 (1). pp. 44-56.

Mundorff, A. (2009) Human Identification Following the World Trade Center Disaster: Assessing Management Practices for Highly Fragmented and Commingled Human Remains. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Simon Fraser University.

Sanders, K. (2009) Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination. University of Chicago Press.

Torrence, R. and Grattan, J. (2002) The Archaeology of Disasters: Past and Future Trends. Natural Disasters and Cultural Change. Routledge.