The Archaeology of Memories and Mementos: An Archaeologist’s Review of “I Am Dead”

Please note that this blog post contains spoilers for the game “I Am Dead”.

One of the opening images for the game, and arguably one of my favourite death-adjacent topics to explore via fiction – what will your legacy be after you die?

So, one of the things I was most excited to get to post-PhD was my ever-increasing backlog of video games (damn you, Nintendo Switch sales!), and I was particularly excited about tackling the long list of indie games. One of these was, of course, the subject of this blog post: I Am Dead, a game made by Hollow Grounds and originally released in 2020. I had known that it was, by all accounts, one of those cute little indie games with a fun “hidden item”-type of puzzle mechanic.

You can imagine how surprised I was to find out that it was secretly one of the best archaeology games I’ve ever played!

Not to get too sentimental but this game really touched a lot of my perhaps more overly-optimistic viewpoints regarding archaeology – the tangibility of history and past experience!

The game is centered on Morris Lupton, a recently deceased inhabitant of the fictional island town of Shelmerston and previously the curator of the local museum. He is tasked with finding a new guardian for the town in order to stop its imminent destruction by a long-dormant volcano. To do this, Morris must travel around the town and invoke its local spirits by finding items hidden away connected to various memories of the deceased held by their still-living friends and family.  

It’s a very sweet and short game that really touches upon the idea of legacy – both in what we leave behind in our work and passions, as well as within our interpersonal relationships. This is further emphasised in where the game takes place – we do not join Morris right after death, but some time later. He is quite content with his afterlife, and much more concerned with the fate of the living who still remain in Shelmerston. But Morris also gets the unique opportunity to see how much of a difference he has made as the island’s lone curator, particularly in the way in which his work has helped shaped the memory of the island itself.

One of my favourite moments of connection within the game – revisiting the memory of a prehistoric person’s birth, and also finding the very artefact used during this. Would we have known how it was truly used?

So, yes, there is an obvious archaeology component here with the museum, particularly with the final level which is split between the exhibitions of the local museum and Prehistoric Shelmerston. But what I find more interesting, perhaps, is the idea of memory here, particularly the way in which memory interacts with material culture.

The archaeology of memory isn’t a new concept, with a variety of sub-types that have been thoroughly discussed in previous literature; this includes collective memory, public memory, and social memory (Van Dyke 2019, p. 208-209). But what is perhaps closer to what is being illustrated in this gameplay is the idea of “problematic stuff” (Buster 2021a and 2021b), which describes the sort of everyday “mundane” object that is ultimately the focus of much emotion and sentimentality. Buster originally explored this idea through discussions with healthcare professionals and end-of-life caregivers as part of the Continuing Bonds Project, as it became apparent that many people placed particular emphasis on the material objects that were left behind by the deceased. When viewed from a more archaeological perspective, this concept sheds a different light on some of the artefacts that are often found in what may seem to be “random” places, particularly within the Iron Age of Britain. Funerary traditions during this period of time continue to be difficult to determine due to the “invisibility” of the dead within the archaeological record (Harding 2016). And yet many Iron Age sites exhibit deposits of rather mundane items. Perhaps we have been missing part of the puzzle by overlooking these objects, which may be representative of personal objects that, unbeknownst to modern day archaeologists, embody many memories and emotions.

I Am Dead can be seen as a demonstration of the power of memory, as well as the ways in which memory become embodied into these “problematic stuff” – we see first-hand how these random objects become important through association of past events and interactions by the living. What to us is just a lost glove, or a buried box of beer, or a badge, are to others memories of finding a beloved treasure, or teenage antics, or the start of a beautiful friendship. It asks us, as archaeologists, to consider the things – that perhaps seem so small at first glance – that are inaccessible to us in the present day, but may transform rubbish into something much more meaningful and important.

You can buy I Am Dead now for the Nintendo Switch or for PC via Steam.

References

Buster, L. (2021a) ‘Problematic Stuff’: Death, Memory, and the Interpretation of Cached Objects. Antiquity 95(382), pp. 973-985.

Buster, L. (2021b) Why Couldn’t Iron Age People Throw Some Stuff Away? Sapiens. Retrieved from https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/iron-age-britain-houses/

Harding, D.W. (2016) Death and Burial in Iron Age Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hollow Grounds (2020) I Am Dead, video game, Nintendo Switch. West Hollywood, CA: Annapurna Interactive.

Van Dyke, R.M. (2019) Archaeology and Social Memory. Annual Review of Anthropology 48, pp. 207-225.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Standing on the Shoulders of Animals: Applying Zooarchaeological Approaches to Data in Digital Archaeology

Note: This blog post is adapted from an orphaned journal paper I started writing back in 2017 – as such, some of it may be out of date, but I think the point still stands regarding the potential of adapting zooarchaeological approaches and attitudes to datasets within digital archaeologies.

The Dynamic Imagine Engine user interface from the Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project (VZAP) (Photo Credit: Betts et al. 2011)

Zooarchaeology as a discipline has always held a longstanding association with the generation of large amounts of data. In its earliest iteration,  zooarchaeological data sets were often relegated to the appendices of archaeological reports, sometimes referred to as “laundry lists” (Lyman 2015). Over the past few decades, zooarchaeology has developed into a proper discipline with its own individual methodological approaches to understanding the archaeological record and particular frameworks that sufficiently utilise animal remains to interpret our collective past. Throughout this process of expansion and development, the cultivation and management of data remained a key aspect of zooarchaeological methodology.

As digital archaeology and heritage developed into its own formidable area of study, zooarchaeology found success in applying these new digital pedagogies to zooarchaeological data. Projects with this focus include digitising references and measurements, to developing new methods of creating and archiving meta-data for future use. Although zooarchaeologists have largely adapted digital approaches to data, there has been comparatively little engagement of zooarchaeological methodology by digital archaeologists. This is unfortunate, but understandable – digital archaeologists may not initially see the potential in zooarchaeological pedagogies due to the narrow focus on faunal remains in our discipline; however, I would argue that there is much within zooarchaeology that can be extrapolated and applied as methods for cultivating, managing, reusing, and repurposing data. Perhaps by examining zooarchaeology not just as the study of archaeofaunal remains, but also the study and management of data, the practicality of zooarchaeological methods for digital application will become more apparent.

Zooarchaeology has arguably always been a data-focused discipline at heart. Prior to becoming a full-fledged discipline, early zooarchaeological “analysis” consisted of quantifying faunal remains found during excavation into pages and pages of datasets found in the appendices of site reports. Eventually, conversations about zooarchaeological data changed from “why should we quantify these remains” to “how should we quantify these remains”; this ultimately led to the creation of unique quantitative approaches such as NISP (number of identified specimens), MNI (minimum number of individuals), and MNE (minimum number of elements), although there is still some debate over which method is best for quantification (O’Connor 2000: 55-57; Steele 2015).

Probably one of the most important developments in zooarchaeological methodology has been biometry, or analysis focused on the bone measurements of fauna (Albarella 2002). Biometrics became part of the structural frameworks of many species identification methods (von den Driesch 1976; Hillson 1992) and would also become a huge influence on how zooarchaeologists would further cultivate data based on available material, regardless of the level of preservation and wholeness.

As zooarchaeology continued to transform and progress, attention moved from the generation and collection of data to finding new ways to utilise this data. Much of this work has only been possible due to the ability to share these datasets both within the discipline and outside of it – collaborative research across zooarchaeology, biology, and zoology has often led to the development of many valuable theories and frameworks for analysing archaeofauna.

There are numerous resources for bone identification as the result of various collaborative efforts between zooarchaeologists, biologists, and osteologists in an attempt to further digitise zooarchaeological data (including biometric measurements and reference images) in both meta-data and 2D/3D modelled forms (Fitzpatrick 2018). One of the largest and most ambitious projects in digital zooarchaeology at the moment is the National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource (NZRR). This collaborative project between Historic England and the University of York sets out to create a database of zooarchaeological reference collections and associated metadata, including contact information, access policies, and range of species available – this allows zooarchaeologists to quickly locate collections suited to their needs and learn exactly how best to gain access from the curators (Fairnell and Orton 2016; Fairnell and Orton 2017).

Given the high level of engagement that zooarchaeology has with data and data management just by the nature of its discipline, it is surprising to see that there has been little cross-pollination of ideas between digital archaeologists and zooarchaeologists. There is an arguable wealth of information that can be derived from zooarchaeological approaches to the cultivation, management, and curation of data that may be applicable to digital scholarship in archaeology, particularly with regards to standardisation and the creation of reference resources.

If we examine zooarchaeology as a discipline of collaboration through data, feasible applications in digital archaeologies may become more apparent. Many zooarchaeological projects, like the NZRR, place emphasis on accessibility – that reference data must be open access for all and that through collaborative work, the access to various reference data can be extended greatly. This concept has already evolved into a larger movement within archaeology as a whole, with many Open Access platforms now available for archiving various categories of archaeological data (Steele 2015). In addition, previous zooarchaeological work, specifically those that utilised archival data in collaborative projects, have also highlighted a crucial part of accessibility that must be considered: the need for standardisation. In the case of zooarchaeology, this refers to having a shared set of terminology and recording techniques so that data integration and data sharing can be accurate and precise (Atici et al. 2012). By allowing zooarchaeological data to be open access and standardised in a way that is understandable to others, the discipline has been able to further develop methods to extrapolate more use from obtained data – for example, by utilising datasets to develop broader interpretations and patterns across specific environments and regions.

By looking at the discipline and work of zooarchaeology not just as a study of archaeofauna, but also of cultivating and managing large amounts of data, we can see that there is a wealth of possibilities for application of certain methodologies to digital archaeology. There is also clearly a case for more emphasis on improving archival processes and accessibility to primary data based on the zooarchaeological tendency for data reuse.

Of course, this is all mostly theoretical at this point – what are the actual practicalities of applying zooarchaeological approaches to digital archaeologies? Digital archaeologists will almost certainly run into similar issues that zooarchaeologists face when dealing with archival data: mistakes that may need correction, certain terminologies that may be ultimately untranslatable, etc. (Jones and Gabe 2015). Some fine-tuning of the methodology will always be necessary – for example, following meta-analysis of archival collections from New Mexico, Jones and Gabe (2015) found that biases in the recording and curating processes resulted in errors once they were incorporated into the larger datasets. Similar to Lau and Whitcher Kansa (2018), they suggest that transparency in future work – i.e. acknowledging possible biases in site reports, fully detailing methodologies and processes – would be helpful; otherwise reconciliation of certain collections may become impossible.

There is also the fact that applying zooarchaeological methods to digital archaeologies will not always be a one-to-one trade-off; not all data generated from digital scholarship will be able to be recorded and/or quantified using the same methods that work best for archaeofauna. Again, this will have to be a case-by-case situation in which digital archaeologists determine what works best for their data – this paper is merely using zooarchaeological methodology as an example of how interdisciplinary processes can be used in conjunction with digital datasets, after all.

The increasing interest in digital zooarchaeology could imply that more collaboration between disciplines is on the horizon, particularly in the ways in which we can access and utilise reference material not just in our physical reality, but also in virtual reality (Means 2014; Eve 2017; Maschner et al. 2017). By expanding our view of methodological processes into considering other disciplines within archaeology, it is almost guaranteed that the future will constantly bring us new and even more innovative approaches to archaeological data.

References

Albarella, U. (2002) ‘Size Matters’: How and Why Biometry is Still Important in Zooarchaeology. In Dobney, K. and O’connor, T. (editors) Bones and the Man: Studies in Honour of Don Brothwell.   Oxford: Oxbow Books. 51-62.

Atici, L., Whitcher Kansa, S., Lev-Tov, J. and Kansa, E. C. (2012) Other People’s Data: A Demonstration of the Imperative of Publishing Primary Data. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 20, 663-681.

Betts, M.W. et al. (2011) Virtual zooarchaeology: building a web-based reference collection of northern vertebrates for archaeofaunal research and education. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(4), p. 755e1-755e9.

Eve, S. (2017) The ARtefactKit – Heritage Jam 2017 Winner. Dead Men’s Eyes. http://www.dead-mens-eyes.org/the-artefactkit-heritage-jam-2017-winner/

Fairnell, E. and Orton, D. C. (2016) Building a National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource. https://historicengland.org.uk/research/current/heritage-science/Building-a-National-Zooarchaeological-Reference-Resource/

Fairnell, E. and Orton, D. C. (2017) National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource (NZRR). http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/nzrr_he_2017/

Fitzpatrick, A. (2018) The World Wide Reference Collection: Zooarchaeological Twitter and the Case for an International Zooarchaeological Database. In Computer Applications in Archaeology Twitter Conference. 

Hillson, S. (1992) Mammal Bones and Teeth: An Introductory Guide to Methods of Identification. London: Institute of Archaeology.

Jones, E. L. and Gabe, C. (2015) The Promise and Peril of Older Collections: Meta-Analyses and the Zooarchaeology of Late Prehistoric/Early Historic New Mexico. Open Quarternary 1 (6), 1-13.

Lyman, R. L. (2015) The History of “Laundry Lists” in North American Zooarchaeology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 39, 42-50.

Maschner, H., Betts, M. and Schou, C. (2017) Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project.

Means, B. K. (2014) Virtual Curation and Virtual Collaboration. In Rocks-Macqueen, D. and Webster, C. (editors) Blogging Archaeology.    Landward Research Ltd. 121-144.

O’Connor, T. (2000) The Archaeology of Animal Bones. United Kingdom: Sutton Publishing Limited.

Steele, T. E. (2015) The Contributions of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites: the Past and Future of Zooarchaeology. Journal of Archaeological Science 56, 168-176.

von den Driesch, A. (1976) A Guide to the Measurement of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites. Harvard: Peabody Museum Press.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating and Do My PhD Corrections

For the record, I didn’t actually submit my corrected thesis with that title but I might has well have!

A little over nine months ago, I successfully defended my PhD thesis with major corrections. And then, just a month ago today, I submitted my corrections.

A total of 15,414 additional words and 70 pages over what I’d love to say was a six month period…but due to procrastination? More like a two month period. Oops.

I will say that the support I received during my corrections period was great – my supervisors were always there to discuss changes, and to provide support if I felt as though a suggestion did not entirely fit with my vision for the thesis (and to tell me when I was getting a bit too carried away as well!). And, similar to my actual viva, my external examiners were extremely gracious with their time and advice – they allowed me to ask for clarification, they heard my justifications for modifying different aspects of the thesis, and they would also give general support for my well-being, suggesting approaches to handling the corrections in a way that wouldn’t stress me out too much.

So then…why did it take me so damn long to do the corrections?

Well…a couple of things: Stress. Fear. The real world (remember the pandemic that’s still kinda happening? stuff like that).

When I first got the official papers with all of the comments from my external examiners (mind you, I also knew the general gist of these comments already as we obviously discussed them at the end of my viva), it felt like someone hit me with a brick. Maybe this is more to do with my general lack of self-confidence, but anytime I get comments on something I’ve made, it’s hard not to take them personally! So seeing the comments written out, single-spaced and taking up about three pages? I felt sick. And so I avoided them, using a form of stress-fuelled procrastination to do literally anything else besides my corrections. Finally, I got a reality check in the form of an email from my supervisors, and soon enough, I was working on my corrections in a guilt-fuelled rush. By that point, I was able to actually reread the comments and fully digest them, and you know what? They weren’t mean, or aggressive, or overtly critical like I somehow managed to believe. In fact, they were written in a kind and supportive tone, emphasising that these comments were meant to add to my already good work, to fully flesh out my ideas in a way that actually showcases my abilities. Realising this helped me maintain a somewhat healthy work ethic, knowing that this was less about some weird form of “repentance” for my academic sin of misspelling the word “cave” on page 230 – this was about that finally push, supported by a team of more senior academics, from “student” to “expert”. Sure, it wasn’t the prettiest of labours, but I’m proud of the result. Not only did I (most likely?) fix my weird misspellings, but I also ended up having several new realisations about my work, further developing my conclusions in a way that I think has elevated my original findings into something better than before. But also, I had a lot of misspellings…what a betrayal from Spellcheck, am I right?

To end this blog post, I want to provide some completely unasked for advice for those of you in the corrections process right now:

  1. You’re Not Alone. I had this ridiculous notion that the corrections period was supposed to be this intense, solidarity process in which I reflected on my faults and tried to fix them for weeks on end. Yeah, that’s not actually how this is supposed to work, surprisingly enough! You’re still “allowed” to discuss with your supervisors as well as, depending on your particular university’s policies, your external examiners as well. In some cases this can even include sending drafted parts to your examiners for feedback (although again, check with both your examiners as well as your university’s policies). Even if your corrections aren’t necessary too extensive, it is probably worth maintaining some form of communication with everyone, especially as you will probably jump into working on publications after the corrections are finished, and often times the corrections themselves can provide better insight into what you might decide to develop further.
  2. This Should Be Collaborative. This is something I said regarding the viva as well, but despite having a reputation for being a particularly combative or frustrating part of the PhD process…it actually shouldn’t be! Obviously this is unfortunately not the case for everyone, but PhDs should be a period of collaboration – not only are you adding to your particular field, but you’re also gaining experience and improving your own skills. No one should be setting you up to fail! With that in mind, the corrections should be similar – it is about improvement. The goal should not be “how do I perfect this thesis” but instead, “how can I improve this in a way that shows off everything I have learned and worked for?” And, following the first point, your supervisors (and potentially examiners as well) should also be working with you under that same mindset.
  3. But Don’t Be Afraid to Disagree! That said, collaboration isn’t just about saying “yes” all the time! One of the most important things I learned was that at this point in my career, I can actually disagree with the comments. Unlike high school (where most disagreements with a grade resulted in being ignored or, at worst, further deductions…yikes), you are now at the point of expertise where your input matters – so use it! Obviously this is not to say that you can ignore all of your corrections and say you know better (I wish!), but you ultimately know your work best at this point. For me, a lot of my disagreements had to do with focus and flow, so I ended up placing new additions in a different section than the one that was suggested. So long as you can justify it, you should be good – but again, talk to your supervisors/examiners as well. You may know your work best, but they may have additional advice to help you truly demonstrate that.
  4. Record. EVERYTHING. No, not in The Room way. But another great piece of advice I got early was to keep track of the actual changes I made by annotating a copy of the comments form. Not only does this showcase how much progress you’ve made (a huge thing for someone like me who needs to have that bit of encouragement!), but it also lets you pinpoint to the examiners where you’ve made changes, and provide justification or clarification if you decide to modify one of their suggestions or ignore it outright.
  5. This Is Not a Punishment. I already touched upon this, but it bears repeating: this is not a punishment! Technically speaking, you’ve passed and – unless you manage to do something drastic to your thesis – you’re likely to end up with a degree after your corrections are done, regardless of whether they’re “minor” or “major”. But academia, being the way it is, loves to foster a toxic atmosphere of competitiveness and aggression (which frankly isn’t helped by the fact there are loads of academics and Reviewer #2’s that perpetuate that sort of toxicity), so it’s understandable why you may feel like you’re being punished or unduly criticised. Ultimately, this is about making you the best you can be – preparing you for not only publication but also for post-postgraduate life. Regardless of the stress, doing the corrections helped me recognise the actual merits of my work – something I had yet to really realise. For me, corrections weren’t about taking an eraser to my mistakes, but providing further supports and structures to the foundation which was my work, and preparing myself to build upwards from there.

Corrections can be scary, but they’re there to help you. You just gotta…you know…actually do them. At some point. Eventually.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

On Liminality: Space, Time, and Identities

The following is the text from a talk I gave during the ‘Spring into Science: Queer Representation in Researchseminar series at the University of Oxford. I haven’t really talked much about being a queer archaeologist and as someone who often uses self-reflection to spur on discussion, I feel like I need to rectify this. Thanks again to the Department of Biology’s LGBTQ+ Group at the University of Oxford for inviting me to start off their seminar series! You can watch the recording of the talk here.

Imagine that you’re entering a cave on a sunny, warm summer day. There is a swift, and distinct, change in the temperature as you walk into the darkness – a cold, dampness that cuts through to the bone. The lack of internal light immediately plunges you into darkness as you journey further into the cave, and the inherent stillness and silence means any noise you make is amplified twofold. If the Underworld exists, this is likely where it would be situated. And yet, if you simply turn around to face the entrance of the cave, you are greeted by a completely different setting; you can see the bright sun, the clear blue skies. By walking back to the start, you can already feel the warm air, hear the natural noises that one associates with the outdoors. But stop right in the middle, between the entrance of the cave and its deeper chambers – here, you’re in between what can only be described as two completely different worlds.

This is a liminal space – and its where I exist, as a researcher and as a queer, mixed woman.

I think I knew that I was queer quite early in my life – one of my first crushes on a girl was probably at some point in primary school, and my upbringing in theatre and dance circles introduced me to gay culture very early in my life. But despite this, I really struggled in a comfortable identifier for the way I felt; by the end of high school, I think I may have told one or two people that I was probably bisexual, but otherwise I kept to myself. It has only been recently that I felt confident enough to claim “queer” as an identity, but I also never really “came out of the closet”; it was more like a quiet shuffle into the world. The people who knew me knew, and that was always enough.

To be fair, personal identity has always been difficult for me to parse – although I’m mixed race, growing up in a predominately white town on Long Island, New York meant that I was always read as completely Asian, or at the very least, non-white. Most of my childhood and teenage years were spent trying to assimilate into the whiteness that surrounded me, and thus I forgo much of my cultural upbringing in exchange for acceptance. And yet, there was never true acceptance among my white peers – I continued to bear the brunt of racist jokes and harassment from others, regardless of how much white eyeliner I used to make my eyes appear “less Asian”. So perhaps it is ultimately unsurprising that this disconnect would become further entrenched into my psyche and disrupt my understanding of other aspects of my identity.

It wasn’t until I began my PhD research (Fitzpatrick 2020) that I began to understand and confront my multiple identity crises. My project was centred around the Covesea Caves situated on the coast of the Moray Firth in north-east Scotland. Archaeological excavations within these caves have revealed what has been interpreted as a later prehistoric mortuary complex, where intricate funerary rites were likely performed among and with the dead. This was further complicated by the presence of both human and animal remains, suggesting that ritual activity was also occurring, perhaps connected to the funerary practices of these later prehistoric peoples. As a trained zooarchaeologist, my role in this research was to examine the faunal remains from the Covesea Caves and decipher their relevance to human activities within the caves; this would be determined through a combined approach of focused taphonomic investigation as well as comparative analysis with the human remains from the same sites. The resulting interpretation revealed a complex narrative, in which the Covesea Caves were an importance space for ritual and funerary activities from as early as the Neolithic to as late as the Post-Medieval Period.

The Covesea Caves were considered to be liminal spaces, potentially as an area in between the living world and the world of the dead (Brück 1995, Brück 2006, p. 302). This was established using the definition by van Gennep (1960, p. 21), in which he describes liminality as a transitional state between separation from one world, and incorporation into a new one. This definition was particularly useful with regards to the funerary character of the Covesea Caves, as rites for the dead were often used as a means of transforming the body from something “unclean” into something “purified” for transport into the underworld (Parker Pearson 1993, p. 204).

What made the Covesea Caves so unique, even among other liminal spaces, was how its liminality was not defined to just spatiality; they were also spaces of temporal liminality, in that the archaeological record revealed significant, intentional intermixing of material from different periods by human visitors (including modern day visitors, who often left behind items upon a makeshift “altar” in the Sculptor’s Cave). Even the overall characteristic of the caves can be considered liminal, in that it was somewhere between a place of ritual activity and the more mundane, domestic behaviours of later prehistoric life; this is something that has been noted by other archaeologists, particularly Richard Bradley (2005), as something which cannot be so neatly described as one or the other. Ritual practices were part of the domestic sphere during this time, and as such we find these liminal spaces in which both characteristics are present.

The intersections of liminal identities within the Covesea Caves resonated with me, as a person of similarly intersecting identities. As I continued my researched and developed my interpretation, I was able to see how difficult it was to place the sites into any particular classification – were they simply funerary sites? Or ritual sites? Further analysis of faunal bone from the Covesea Caves further complicated my initial assumptions – if use extended to the Post-Medieval Period, was this still a “later prehistoric” site? Given the evidence of bone modification and potential feasting activity, are the caves actually more domestic in character than originally assumed? What appeared to be contradictions were actually part of a complicated identity, one that reflects the realities and messiness inherent in life. And thus, I saw myself in these caves, and realised that I was also complicated and messy – and I embraced this. For me, this was embracing queerness as a form of liminality.

I should note that I’m not the first (nor will I be the last) to use liminality as a framework for identity, particularly in queer theory. In fact, liminality is arguably a vital component of queer theory; as March (2021, p. 455) describes it, liminality “brings together queer ways of thinking through unboundedness, spillage, fluidity, multiplicity, and processes of contingent, non-linear becoming, as well as the relations of power and regulation that seek their stability or closure”. Liminality has been used to situate discussions of sexualities (e.g., Whitney 2001), queer identities (e.g. Walsbergerová 2017), intercommunal marginalisation (e.g. Gorman-Murray 2013), and the intersections of queerness with other modalities (e.g. Punt 2008, Sinopoulos-Lloyd 2017). But above all, liminality is a form of resistance “to assimilation, essentialism, privacy, and heteronormativity” (LeMaster 2011).

Embracing the liminality of myself as allowed me to embrace queerness as my main identifier – sure, if you asked me to give it a proper name, I’d say that I’m most aligned with pansexuality. But being able to identify as queer, in all that the word entails, has been much more freeing. In living through queerness and the liminal spaces that encompass the rest of my life (and, in this case, research), I see boundless potential for further reconciliation with the past and growth for the future.

References

Bradley, R. (2005) Ritual and Domestic Life in Prehistoric Europe.  Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge.

Brück, J. (1995) ‘A Place for the Dead: the Role of Human Remains in Late Bronze Age Britain’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 61, pp. 245–277.

Brück, J. (2006) ‘Fragmentation, Personhood, and the Social Construction of Technology in Middle and Late Bronze Age Britain’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 16(3), pp. 297–315.

Fitzpatrick, A. (2020) ‘Ritual and Funerary Rites in Later Prehistoric Scotland: An Analysis of Faunal Assemblages from the Covesea Caves’. PhD thesis, University of Bradford, Bradford.

van Gennep, A. (1960) The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Gorman-Murray, A. (2013) Liminal Subjects, Marginal Spaces and Material Legacies: Older Gay Men, Home and Belonging. In Y Taylor and M Addison (eds) Queer Presences and Absences: Genders and Sexualities in the Social Sciences. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

LeMaster, B. (2011) Queering Imag(in)ing: Liminality as Resistance in Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 8(2), p. 103-123.

March, L. (2021) Queer and Trans* Geographies of Liminality: A Literature Review. Progress in Human Geography 45(3), p. 455-471.

Parker Pearson, M. (1993) ‘The Powerful Dead: Archaeological Relationships between the Living and the Dead’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 3(2), pp. 203–229.

Punt, J. (2008) Intersections in Queer Theory and Postcolonial Theory, and Hermeneutical Spin-Offs. The Bible and Critical Theory 4(2), p. 24.1 – 24.16.

Sinopoulos-Lloyd, P.A. (2017) Queer Futurism: Denizens of Liminality. Queer Nature. https://www.queernature.org/queer-futurism-denizens-of-liminality

Walsbergerová, T. (2017) Labels and Beyond: On Queer Liminality and Fuzzy Edges of Identification. Re: Views. http://reviewsmagazine.net/labels-and-beyond-on-queer-liminality-and-fuzzy-edges-of-identification/

Whitney, E. (2001) Cyborgs Among Us: Performing Liminal States of Sexuality. Journal of Bisexuality 2(2-3), p. 109-128.


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My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

“He Tampered in God’s Domain” – Looking at the Mix-and-Match Fossil Trope

What is it with fossilised remains and the desire to defy the laws of nature? No, I’m not talking about reviving extinct species (well, not exactly), but of the Mix-and-Match trope that sometimes gets applied to fossils…and then often gets revived into some sort of strange creature. For example, let’s take a look at perhaps the biggest palaeontological film franchise right now: although it was in the first Jurassic Park (1993) where Dr. Ian Malcom gave us an always relevant line on science and ethics (“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”), it wasn’t until Jurassic World that those scientists finally decided to start mix-and-matching their own competition for the Tyrannosaurus Rex with the gene-spliced Indominus Rex.

If its a trope, it must also be a meme, right?

But where else do we see this trope? Oddly enough, we can also see examples in two of the biggest games to come out of the last few years from two of the biggest video game franchises: Animal Crossing and Pokémon. In Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020), the Player can find fossils randomly buried around their island each day. These can either be sold, donated to the local museum, or kept by the Player as part of their own island décor. It should be noted that most fossils only represent part of a larger skeleton – so you may find the torso of an Ankylosaurus one day and the tail of a Spinosaurus the next. Unsurprisingly, this has led many players to showcase their own mix-and-match creations using their segments, creating new prehistoric megafauna with some very interesting proportions (see the image above).

In Pokémon Sword and Shield (2019), you can find four different types of fossils: a bird, a fish, a drake, and a dinosaur. Unlike previous games, where you could revive a fossil into a specific Pokémon, you could literally mix and match fossils to create four different Pokémon: Dracozolt (Bird/Drake), Dracovish (Fish/Drake), Artozolt (Dino/Bird), and Arctovish (Dino/Fish). Each one is as bizarre-looking as the next, clearly depicting four different Pokémon spliced together in ill-fitting ways. To be honest, we could also apply this trope to the rest of the fossil Pokémon – although not to the same extent as in Sword and Shield, many of the prehistoric creatures are actually mash-ups of real-life extinct animals. For example, Tyrunt may be mostly based on the Tyrannosaurus, but the crests above their eyes are also similar to the Gorgosaurus.

A chart from Bulbapedia explaining the various Sword and Shield fossil combinations

And while this is a trope that appears in fiction, there is also some instances of it occurring in real life. One example is actually what inspired the appearance of the trope in Pokémon Sword and Shield; archaeologist Charles Dawson created his own “Missing Link” in 1912 by putting together a body with a variety of human and non-human remains (Hernandez 2019). The resulting body was named the “Piltdown Man”, and was only determined to be a hoax in 1953 (Webb 2016). Palaeontologists have also run into their very own “Frankenstein” dinosaur – the Chilesaurus was originally considered one based on the difficulties in placing it into the overall family tree of dinosaurs. It apparently had “the legs of an animal like a Brontosaurus, the hips of a Stegosaurus, and the arms and body of an animal like Tyrannosaurus Rex” (Ghosh 2017).

With this in mind, maybe we can see this trope as a commentary on both the extraordinary diversity of lifeforms in our world, as well as the ethics by which we look back at them?

or maybe we just all collectively like the unusual. Probably the latter.

References

Game Freak (2019) Pokémon Sword and Shield, video game, Nintendo Switch. Tokyo: The Pokémon Company.

Ghosh, P. (2017) ‘Frankenstein dinosaur’ mystery solved. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-40890714

Hernandez, P. (2019) The Pokédex is Bullshit and I have the Dead Pokémon to Prove it. Polygon. Retrieved from https://www.polygon.com/2019/11/22/20977707/pokemon-sword-shield-fossil-dracozolt-arctozolt-dracovish-arctovish-pokedex-england-fake

Nintendo (2020) Animal Horizon: New Horizons, video game, Nintendo Switch. Kyoto: Nintendo.

Spielberg, S. (1993) Jurassic Park, film, Universal Pictures.

Trevorrow, C. (2015) Jurassic World, film, Universal Pictures.

Webb, J. (2016) Piltdown Review Points Decisive Finger at Forger Dawson. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-37021144


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

A Sort of Urban Warfare: The Future Archaeology of Hostile Architecture

One of the reasons why I like speculative archaeology, or hypothetical archaeologies created in the future of our present, is that is allows us to look at current issues from a different perspective. In particular, I enjoy speculating on how specific iconography and design choices might be interpreted – for many of us, one of the first archaeological exercises you do in college is to speculate how a coin would be seen by future archaeologists, and I guess I never outgrew that. Let’s move beyond the fanciful interpretation of how George Washington’s face on the quarter could be seen as worship and idolatry (actually, there’s something there…), and move towards something perhaps more urgent: hostile architecture and design.

Recently, the MTA in New York City was justifiably put on the spot for its blunt stance against unhoused people, which was exacerbated by the unveiling of more benches designed to deter people from hanging around too long – again, something which will disproportionately affect unhoused people.  This got me thinking about the hostile architecture and what it encapsulates about our current world. “Hostile architecture” refers to specific design features made to deter people from staying too long in public spaces. This includes incorporating spikes on flat surfaces, placing seats at uncomfortable angles, and including dividers to prevent people from laying down. Hostile architecture and design removes comfort and rest from public spaces, and often funnels those needs into commodities (Kim 2019) – if hostile architecture makes sitting for free in a courtyard an impossibility, would you then turn to being a customer of a nearby café just to sit down and relax?  And again, these design choices disproportionately affect certain groups of people: disabled people, unhoused people, and poor people. 

It is easy to imagine the sort of interpretations that future archaeologists will make of the more overtly hostile architecture – both designed to repel people, one can see how spikes on a windowsill in New York City can evoke the imagery of defensive systems used in the historic and prehistoric past, from sticks and stones which were used as Iron Age chevaux-de-frise  (Murphy 2018) to the stockades often used by colonial forces during military expeditions (Jayasena 2006). Hostile architecture also inspires its own adjacent archaeologies as well, with people creating their own spaces in response to this antagonism. Here, we can actually turn to work being done alongside communities of unhoused peoples, as archaeologists such as Rachael Kiddey and John Schofield in the United Kingdom, and Larry J. Zimmerman and Jessica Welch in the United States have demonstrated with their research (e.g. Kiddey and Schofield 2011, Zimmerman and Welch 2011).

Of course, it should be said that hostile architecture shouldn’t need this sort of roundabout form of reflection to be seen as “bad”, and that choosing to divest from these antagonistic designs should be based on empathy and respect for people regardless of their circumstance, rather than the imagined judgements of a far future archaeologist. Fortunately, there are many who continue to speak out against hostile architecture and protest there use – this includes people who have also taken things into their own hands and have removed these features themselves (Suliman 2018).  And maybe this is where archaeology can step in…after all, I’m pretty sure many of us have a mattock or two to spare.

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Hostile Architecture found on a Manhattan windowsill (Photo Credit: JL Jahn/Alamy)

To end this post, I’d like to promote some groups and organisations who are doing good work at providing mutual aid for unhoused people in the UK and the US. Please consider donating, and remember that unhoused people are also part of your communities, and deserve the same respect, dignity, and care that everyone else receives. 

Remora House DCWashington DC, United States

From the Heart PNW – Seattle, WA, United States

Feed the People Dallas Mutual Aid – Dallas, TX, United States

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless – Chicago, IL, United States

Coalition on Homelessness – San Francisco, CA, United States

National Coalition for the Homeless – United States

Museum of Homelessness – United Kingdom

NRPF Network – United Kingdom

Homeless Network Scotland – Scotland

References

Jayasena, R.J. (2006) The Historical Archaeology of Katuwana, a Dutch East India Company Fort in Sri Lanka. Post-Medieval Archaeology 40(1). pp. 111-128.

Kiddey, R., and Schofield, J. (2011) Embrace the Margins: Adventures in Archaeology and Homelessness. Public Archaeology 10(1). pp. 4-22.

Kim, E. (2019) A Field Guide to the ‘Weapons’ of Hostile Architecture in NYC. The Gothamist. Retrieved from https://gothamist.com/news/a-field-guide-to-the-weapons-of-hostile-architecture-in-nyc

Murphy, K. (2018) The Atlantic Coast. Internet Archaeology  48.

Suliman, A. (2018) Public Hits Back at ‘Hostile Architecture’ in European Cities. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-cities-homelessness-idUSKCN1M419S

Zimmerman, L.J., and Welch, J. (2011) Displaced and Barely Visible: Archaeology and the Material Culture of Homelessness. Historical Archaeology 45(1), pp. 67-85.

 


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Hey, is That a Great Auk in My Assassin’s Creed Game?! Reviving an Extinct Species in the Digital World

Okay, so a disclaimer: despite me being a so-called “video game enthusiast”, I have actually only played one out of the 12 games that make up the bulk of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Yeah, I know, feel free to boo me. That said, I was surprised to find out that I actually have more of a connection with the Assassin’s Creed franchise than previously thought. As Shay Cormac in Assassin’s Creed Rogue, you spend a fair bit of time travelling around the North Atlantic, visiting the many islands within that area…and along the way, you run into my favourite extinct species of all time – the Great Auk!

Assassin’s Creed Rogue protagonist Shay Cormac encounters an entire…flock? Herd? of Great Auk

So, who is the Great Auk and why should we care? First of all…how dare you even ask? But seriously, I am extremely biased at this point as I have spent a lot of time with the poor extinct bird during my PhD. The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) was a flightless bird that was, to be frank, an easy target for predators – especially humans, who hunted them for their meat and fat (Svanberg 2014, p. 311). The Great Auk appear to have been an important part of many local meals from as early as the prehistoric period (Best and Mulville 2013, p. 424), lasting until its extinction in 1844 (Serjeantson 2001, p. 43). Sadly, humans have a lot to answer for with regards to the extinction of the Great Auk, as overexploitation truly decimated its populations…however, it was natural history collectors who may have helped to deliver the final blow, as the demand for Great Auk remains for collections increased as populations decreased (Minteer et al., 2014).

One of my favourite finds from our excavations at the Covesea Caves – its an articulated (still held together by soft tissue) leg from a Great Auk!

Allegedly the last reported Great Auk was killed by sailors off of St. Kilda, who had feared that the poor bird was actually a witch (Galasso 2014). And while that may sound a bit strange, it seems to fit into a much older concept of the Great Auk that is still being explored through interpretations of ritual archaeology – for example,  at the site of Broxmouth Hillfort in East Lothian, Scotland, skull fragments of a Great Auk were found alongside a nearly completed horse skull as part of a structured deposit near one of the entrances (Salvagno 2013, p. 473). As part of my PhD research in the Covesea Caves of Scotland, I have also found several instances of Great Auk remains (of really fantastic preservation as well, given the amount of surviving soft tissue observed on some bones!). As these caves have already been identified as potential sites of funerary and ritual activity from the Later Prehistoric Period and possibly as late as the Medieval Period, it is possible that these Great Auk remains were also significant for certain rites. However, there’s other possibilities (they may have been eaten, or they may just represent natural deposits) and not enough concrete evidence to give a confident interpretation right now (Fitzpatrick et al. 2020).

So, why does it matter that this extinct bird showed up in a video game? Besides just being a cool little detail, it is interesting to see the ways in which extinct species are revived digitally. Of course much has already been discussed by archaeologists who specialise in archaeogaming on the ways in which video games can be a form of digital reconstruction of the past (Reinhard 2018, p. 188 – 193), but I feel as though less attention has been placed on digital zooarchaeologies in this context, and I feel that Assassin’s Creed in general has been an interesting case study of digital reconstructions of the zooarchaeological record and how it allows players to engage with extinct or otherwise drastically changed animals from the past.

Anyway, #BringBacktheGreatAuk, am I right?!

References

Best, J. and Mulville, J. (2013) ‘Between the Sea and Sky: The Archaeology of Avian Resource Exploitation in Scottish Island Environments’, in Daire, M., Dupont, C., Baudry, A., Billard, C., Large, J., Lespez, L., Normand, E. and Scarre, C. (eds.) Ancient Maritime Communities and the Relationship between People and Environment along the European Atlantic Coasts. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 417-426.

Fitzpatrick, A., Bond, J., Büster, L., & Armit, I. (2020) A Brief Consideration of the Later Prehistoric
Appearance and Possible Significance of the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) in the Covesea Caves of
North-East Scotland. The Glasgow Naturalist 27(2)

Galasso, S. (2014) When the Last of the Great Auks Died, It Was by the Crush of a Fisherman’s Boot. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/with-crush-fisherman-boot-the-last-great-auks-died-180951982/

Minteer, B. A., Collins, J. O., Love, K. E. and Puschendorf, R. (2014) ‘Avoiding (Re)extinction’, Science, 344, 260-261.

Reinhard, A. (2018) Archaeogaming: an Introduction to Archaeology In and Out of Video Games. Berghahn Books.

Salvagno, L. (2013) ‘Bird Bone’, in Armit, I. and McKenzie, J. (eds.) An Inherited Place: Broxmouth Hillfort and the South-East Scottish Iron Age. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, pp. 471-473.

Serjeantson, D. (2001) ‘The Great Auk and the Gannet: a Prehistoric Perspective on the Extinction of the Great Auk’, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 11, 43-55.

Svanberg, I. (2014) ‘Great Auk’, in Hund, A.J. (ed.) Antarctica and the Arctic Circle: A Geographic Encyclopedia of the Earth’s Polar Regions. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, pp. 311.

Ubisoft Sofia (2014) Assassin’s Creed Rogue. Ubisoft.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Building Barricades and Breaking Sh*t: The Archaeology of Protest and Dissent

After a year of many protests, it will be interesting to examine what the archaeological record says about 2020. Protests have always interested me as a form of archaeology given how varied the characteristics of a protest can be – is it an impromptu, one-off event? A pre-planned occupation that lasted several days? Did it fizzle out, leaving behind barely a trace in the archaeological record? Or did it grow into something much bigger, resulting in further dissent that can be seen through its remains? There’s also a really interesting interplay between creation and destruction that is inherent in prolonged protests – although protests are often associated with breaking windows and destroying property, there is also an urgent creation of space. This includes the occupation of buildings, the construction of barricades, and even the development of autonomous zones. Unsurprisingly, it is these longer lasting protests that will be reflected more prominently in the archaeological record.

Protestors holding a “REVOLT” sign during the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 in New York City.

Take, for example, the archaeology of the Lees Cross and Endcliffe Protest Camp in Derbyshire, England (Badcock and Johnston 2009). This camp was occupied by protestors fighting against the re-opening of sandstone quarries at Lees Cross and Endcliffe, with inhabitants living there for about a decade (1999 – 2009). Archaeological survey of the camp started in 2008 as it was still occupied, with further work occurring once the camp was dismantled. Arguably the main focus of the archaeological work was the architecture of domestic space, which consisted of both ground dwellings and tree houses, as well as communal spaces. It is interesting to note how, archaeologically, we can see where dwellings became more permanent due to the addition of supported infrastructure and weather-proof materials, and how other additions were made to serve the purposes of maintaining the protest camp against possible eviction.

Another example of protest archaeology is seen at the Nevada Peace Camp in the United States (Beck et al. 2007), located near the Nevada Test Site that has been used to test nuclear weapons between 1951-1992. The Peace Camp was a meeting place for over 200 groups of people, including activists of various causes as well as the Western Shoshone tribe. Similar to the Lees Cross and Endcliffe Protest Camp, the archaeology of the Peace Camp is focused on the architectural features. However, it is interesting to see how these humanmade features are ultimately a reflection of the surrounding environment, with most made from local rocks and little representation of wood artefacts given the lack of trees (although it should be noted that there were wood artefacts – these were made with imported wood, however). The creation of features such as cairns, hearths and memorial art also reflect a spiritual aspect to the Peace Camp and speaks to the communal values that were shared by the various groups of people who inhabited this space.

So, what can we learn from archaeological study of protest sites? Well, as the old saying goes, “winners write the history books” – protest sites can often inform us of other sides to the story, providing an additional dimension to dissenting voices. In these impromptu camps, we see the ingenuity of humankind, how quickly we adapt to pressing issues and take care of one another. And as archaeologists, it helps to remember that we can use our expertise to push for change and protest in our own way (although obviously the ideal would be for us to put down our trowels and get on the streets, of course). Alongside the growing “punk archaeology” and “anarchist archaeology” movements (Black Trowel Collective 2016, Richardson 2017), archaeologists can provide vital context against the alleged “historical significance” of racist statues and monuments (Colomer 2020) as well as provide support and solidarity for the Indigenous communities that many work with during protests against further violence from settler governments (Beisaw and Olin 2020).

If anything, archaeology can at least show us how to properly tear down racist memorials and statues.

References

Badcock, A. and Johnston, R. (2009) Placemaking through Protest: an Archaeology of the Lees Cross and Endcliffe Protest Camp, Derbyshire, England. Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress. pp. 306-322.

Beck, C.M., Drollinger, H., and Schofield, J. (2007) Archaeology of Dissent: Landscape and Symbolism at the Nevada Peace Camp. In J. Schofield and W. Cocroft (eds) A Fearsome Heritage: Diverse Legacies of the Cold War. Taylor & Francis Group. pp. 297-320.

Beisaw, A.M. and Olin, G.E. (2020) From Alcatraz to Standing Rock: Archaeology and Contemporary Native American Protests (1969–Today). Historical Archaeology 54. pp. 537-555.

Black Trowel Collective (2016) Foundations of an Anarchist Archaeology: A Community Manifesto. Savage Minds. Retrieved from https://savageminds.org/2016/10/31/foundations-of-an-anarchist-archaeology-a-community-manifesto/

Colomer, L. (2020) Black Lives Matter and the Archaeology of Heritage Commemorating Bigoted White Men. Science Norway. Retrieved from https://sciencenorway.no/archaeology-opinion-racism/black-lives-matter-and-the-archaeology-of-heritage-commemorating-bigoted-white-men/1709994

Richardson, L. (2017) I’ll Give You ‘Punk Archaeology’, Sunshine. World Archaeology 49(3). pp. 306-317.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

The Benevolence of the Billionaires, or Why are So Many Mansions Museums?

My first real job in the heritage sector was in high school, when I was a volunteer (and then paid) docent at the Vanderbilt Museum on Long Island, NY. As you may be able to gather from the name of the museum, this was originally owned by the Vanderbilt family – descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built a railroad empire in the United States in the 1800’s (Robehmed 2014). The property now known as the Vanderbilt Museum, originally called the Eagle’s Nest, was built by Cornelius’ great grandson, William K. Vanderbilt II. The Eagle’s Nest was the Vanderbilt summer home, and would eventually serve as storage for much of Willie K. Vanderbilt’s collections from his excursions around the world. Vanderbilt eventually decided to open up a museum in order to display his various specimens and artefacts, starting with the Hall of the Fishes in 1922. During the late 1930’s, Vanderbilt also opened a lower museum of natural history called The Habitat, with the central piece involving a taxidermy whale shark. The entire property eventually became a public museum in 1950, eventually adding artefacts from Charles H. Stoll’s Arctic expeditions (in the aptly named Stoll Wing) and a planetarium. Today, it serves its original purpose with an additional focus on the life of the Vanderbilts, with guided tours and events centred around the private lives of Willie K. Vanderbilt and his family.

The main building of the Vanderbilt Museum, circa 2011 – 2012ish.

The conversion of mansions, or other property from the rich and famous, into museums and other cultural centres is much more of a common occurrence than you’d think. Technically, it falls under the definition of “historic houses” – places of living that are ultimately transformed into heritage centres, and a practice that has its roots in Victorian era philanthropy (Young 2007). Although not all historic houses are spacious mansions as seen at the Vanderbilt Museum, many are – which makes sense. After all, who will have the resources available to transform (to various extremes or not) a living space into a heritage space? The rich and the famous, of course.

And there’s specific baggage that also comes with that – a feeling of being beholden to the people who once owned these properties, who are responsible for the creation of these museums and heritage spaces. Looking back, I think about the ways in which I was trained to talk about Willie K. Vanderbilt as though I knew the guy, like he was a good friend. And how, in retrospect, his entire museum collection reflects a coloniser sensibility – for example, much of the Memorial Wing (dedicated to his only son who died in a car accident) consists of trophies from Vanderbilt’s time in Africa, including both artefacts and hunting trophies. His “ethnographic” collections are mostly from Indigenous peoples, and include the display of human remains. And yet, we were encouraged to emphasise the “coolness” of being a wealthy white settler who owned shrunken heads to our visitors. We openly flaunted his wealth through our guided tours, without critically engaging with how the wealth was made. But its this one form of benevolence, in donating his properties and collections to create a public museum, that overshadows all of this.

This benevolence of the wealthy in the form of heritage cultivation and preservation expands beyond providing the funds and the property for use, of course. How many museums have various wings and exhibitions named after donors? The Sackler Family alone has multiple wings across various institutions: the Met Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern, and many more – although not for long, hopefully, now that they are facing criminal charges for their role in the opioid crisis, which you can learn more about via P.A.I.N. (Cascone 2020).

Ultimately, these historic houses and donor wings illustrate the ways in which capitalism entrenches itself into the collection, preservation, and display of cultural heritage. By yielding power via financial contributions and other resources, wealthy donors can influence the ways in which not only these institutions are developed, but also how their own legacies are remembered. Critical engagement of these “gifts” is vital if we want to make these heritage spaces more progressive – especially if we eventually want to get rid of capitalism along the way as well.

References

Cascone, S. (2020) After Purdue Pharma Reached a $225 Million Settlement With US Authorities, the Met Says the Name of Its Sackler Wing Is ‘Under Review’. Artnet News. Retrieved from https://news.artnet.com/art-world/sacklers-name-museum-met-1917814

Gress, S. (2015) Eagle’s Nest: The William K. Vanderbilt II Estate. Arcadia Publishing.

Robehmed, N. (2014) The Vanderbilts: How American Royalty Lost Their Crown Jewels. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/natalierobehmed/2014/07/14/the-vanderbilts-how-american-royalty-lost-their-crown-jewels

Young, L. (2007) Is There a Museum in the House? Historic Houses as a Species of Museum. Museum Management and Curatorship 22(1). pp. 59-77.

“Take Two Amethysts and Call Me in the Morning”: Crystal Healing and Pseudoarchaeology

“Wearing crystals, or simply having one in close proximity, can boost your energy (Orange Carnelian), clean your space (Amber), and attract wealth (Citrine)…You can choose stones to enhance your intuition (Apophyllite), increase mental abilities (Green Tourmaline), and boost confidence (Hematite). You can select abundance (Tiger’s Eye) and healing (Smithsonite) or attract love (Rhodonite).”

Judy Hall, The Crystal Bible Volume 1: The Definitive Guide to Over 200 Crystals
A couple of the most popular crystals: amethyst, rose quartz, citrine, and selenite.

Although crystals have been part of New Age culture and alternative spiritualities since at least the 1970’s, it’s only been since around the 2010’s that they’ve become mainstream (Thomas 2017), with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow extolling their benefits. In fact, demand for crystals and gemstones doubled in the US alone since 2014 (McClure 2019), and is now a billion-dollar industry (Raphael 2017) that has barely been affected by the current coronavirus pandemic (Elliott 2020).

Most scientists and academics agree that any supposed benefits of modern day crystal healing are simply pseudoscience, there is actually a lack of academic literature and scientific studies on the topic (Palermo 2017). Arguably the most cited investigation into crystal healing is an unpublished study that was presented in 2001 at the European Congress of Psychology. Led by psychologist Christopher French, the study concluded that any perceived outcomes from the use of crystals was due to the placebo effect (Heid 2017).

So, crystal healing is pseudoscience…but what about pseudoarchaeology? Clearly there is archaeological evidence for the use of stones and crystals in some cultures, right? The fascination of stones and the assignment of worldly (and otherworldly) powers to them has been noted in ancient Greece and the medieval period (Galvez 2014). Ethnographic and archaeological research have also produced evidence for the ritual use of certain stones among many Indigenous communities in Central and South America (Dickau, Redwood, and Cooke 2013). And, generally speaking, the use of talismans and amulets are widespread across many periods and cultures. So where is the “pseudo” part of all this?

The issue lies in the ways in which modern crystal healing often attempts to tie itself to a much longer, continuous lineage; this is something it shares with the more general neo-pagan movement and its own bouts of pseudoarchaeology. In looking over websites of crystal sellers for this blog post, I’ve seen more than a few claim that healing crystals originated in the lost city of Atlantis, which is perhaps on of the most popular and longstanding pseudoarchaeological beliefs in history (Halmhofer 2018). Folklore around modern day crystal healing, similar to many neo-paganism groups, also relies heavily on cultural appropriation in order to sustain this alleged lineage of practice. For example, the main concepts behind modern day crystal healing seem to be mostly appropriated from Asian culture, specifically the concept of qi (life energy) from traditional Chinese philosophy and the concept of chakras from Hindu and Buddhist beliefs (Palermo 2017).

But what’s the harm in collecting crystals, even if it slightly dips into pseudoarchaeological concepts? Well, there’s nothing wrong with a good luck charm, but the truth is that most crystals have been extracted in a manner that is extremely exploitative for workers, often severely underpaid people in poorer countries such as Madagascar (McClure 2019). Even if your crystals were extracted ethically, I would continue to advise caution – with conspiracy theories such as QAnon making its way through holistic health and wellness circles online (Chang 2021), it would be best to remain vigilant, and to push back against all forms of pseudoarchaeological and pseudoscientific beliefs, regardless of how harmless they may seem. As we saw at the recent reactionary insurrection at the US Capitol, pseudoarchaeological beliefs can ultimately work hand-in-hand with fascist, white supremacist beliefs (Halmhofer 2021).

Ultimately, I do not want to reduce this issue to “people who like crystals are bad”, of course! Frankly, I own a few myself that I’ve picked up from many New Age shops, which I often enjoy pursuing. But what I do want to press is the need for educating against even the most benign pseudoarchaeological things. Like it or not, archaeologists are quickly finding ourselves part of the fight against the rise of fascism and emboldened white supremacy…so if we can help push back against even the earliest entry points to those beliefs, we can be doing some good.

References

Chang, C. (2021) The Unlikely Connection Between Wellness Influencers and the Pro-Trump Rioters. Cosmopolitan. Retrieved from https://www.cosmopolitan.com/health-fitness/a35056548/wellness-fitness-influencers-qanon-conspiracy-theories/

Dickau, R. et al. (2013) ‘A 4,000-Year-Old Shaman’s Stone Cache at Casita de Piedra, Western Panama’. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 5 (4): 331–49. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-012-0112-5.

Elliott, H. (2020) ‘The Market for Crystals Is Outshining Diamonds in the Covid Era’. Bloomberg, 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-28/no-longer-kooky-crystals-are-outshining-diamonds-in-the-covid-era.

Galvez, M. (2014) ‘Dark Transparencies: Crystal Poetics in Medieval Texts and Beyond’. Philological Quarterly 93 (1): 15.

Hall, J. (2012) The Crystal Bible Volume 1: The Definitive Guide to Over 200 Crystals. London: Hachette UK.

Halmhofer, S. (2018) The AGEAC Talk Part One: A Brief History of Atlantis. Bones, Stones, and Books. Retrieved from https://bonesstonesandbooks.com/2018/06/02/the-ageac-talk-part-one-a-brief-history-of-atlantis/

Halmhofer, S. (2021) Pseudoarchaeology at the Capitol. Bones, Stones, and Books. Retrieved from https://bonesstonesandbooks.com/2021/01/13/pseudoarchaeology-at-the-capitol/

Halmhofer, S. (2018) Knowledge Feature: Pseudoarchaeology. Bones, Stones, and Books. Retrieved from https://bonesstonesandbooks.com/2018/01/08/knowledge-feature-pseudoarchaeology/

Heid, M. (2017) ‘You Asked: Do Healing Crystals Actually Work?’ Time. 2017. https://time.com/4969680/do-crystals-work/.

McClure, T. (2019) ‘Dark Crystals: The Brutal Reality behind a Booming Wellness Craze’. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/sep/17/healing-crystals-wellness-mining-madagascar

Palermo, E. (2017) ‘Crystal Healing: Stone-Cold Facts About Gemstone Treatments’. LiveScience, 2017. https://www.livescience.com/40347-crystal-healing.html.

Raphael, R. (2017) ‘Is There A Crystal Bubble? Inside The Billion-Dollar “Healing” Gemstone Industry’. Fast Company, 2017. https://www.fastcompany.com/40410406/is-there-a-crystal-bubble-inside-the-billion-dollar-healing-gemstone-industry

Thomas, M. (2017) Why Are Young People So Into Healing Crystals? Pacific Standard. Retrieved from https://psmag.com/news/why-are-young-people-so-into-healing-crystals