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.
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.
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.
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 this blog post).
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.
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.
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.