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.

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Fallout Finds: Reinventing the “King” in New Vegas

Recreating the past is a common thread in Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment 2008) – previously in Fallout Finds we took a look at how the Legion, the main antagonistic force of the game, based their entire structure and aesthetics on the Roman Empire. This is the case of many of the Factions (or “tribes”, as they are referred to in-game) in the Mojave Desert; it makes sense, after all, that survivors emerging from the rubble of a nuclear war would identify closely with what little they could scavenge from the Pre-War world.

The outside of the King’s School of Impersonation.

Just outside of the New Vegas Strip, in the community known as “Freeside”, is a Faction that the player character may align themselves with: the Kings. Located in the remains of a building called ”the King’s School of Impersonation”, this group dresses themselves in black leather jackets, their hair perfectly styled into a pompadour, and they speak in an very specific Southern drawl…

Sound familiar?

Yes, in the canonical lore of Fallout: New Vegas, there is literally an entire Faction of Elvis Presley impersonators. The leader of the Kings, known simply as “the King”, stumbled upon the remains of an Elvis Presley impersonation school as a young, lone scavenger. Inside, he appears to have found a plethora of paraphernalia dedicated to the singer, including posters, videos, and records. Inspired by Elvis’ music and all-around attitude of rebelliousness and freedom, the King styles himself in Elvis’ image – this also includes his manner of speaking and, although this isn’t conveyed through the animation in-game, his particular manner of movement and dance.

The King, leader of the Kings, wearing his best Elvis look, complete with Elvis smirk.

But why Elvis Presley? Surely information could be found on other Pre-War figures and groups to emulate? Well, given the icon status of Elvis, even after death, it makes sense that he would have much more paraphernalia left for scavengers to uncover (especially in Las Vegas!). Elvis was also, like many celebrities, a sort of figure that was relatable to the average person – in the lore of New Vegas, the King self-identifies with the sort of carefree and rebelliousness attitude that Elvis exudes in the videos that were left behind. This relatability is also attached to a bit of self-projection and desire, as well – Elvis represented high charisma, fame, and sexuality that created an immortal icon that has clearly bested even death. There’s a reason that Elvis Presley impersonators still exist in large numbers to this day! You could even argue that elements of the Elvis aesthetic and persona have leaked into other avenues as well – what we, the general populace, tend to think of when we think “the 50’s”, or “rock ‘n’ roll”, or the ever-popular subculture of “rockabilly”, regardless of how correct it is, has been forever influenced and overwritten by the Cult of Elvis (Fraser and Brown 2002).

The King auditions a new member of the Kings as he does his own Elvis routine.

So what can we extrapolate from this archaeologically? There’s certainly something to be said about iconography and interpretation – whereas Caesar of the Legion was able to find history books on Imperial Rome, the King had to interpret who Elvis Presley was and what he stood for, based solely on the little information he could gather. Which is why we end up with almost a religious cult surrounding Elvis within the Kings Faction – the King believed Elvis to be, if not a deity, than at least someone who was profoundly worshipped and imitated through the Pre-War world. And although we, in real life, could consider that interpretation a stretch…is he really that wrong? From clothing to statuary to tattoos to museums to yes, impersonators, Elvis is, for lack of a better word, worshipped to this day by others. Perhaps what we should take from this, as archaeologists, is that iconography can have a sort of nuance behind it. Is there really a difference between religious worship and more of an idealised, celebrity worship? How can we differentiate between the two in the future archaeological record? And, better yet, will future archaeologists be able to?

Or maybe future archaeologists will just assume we all worshipped Mickey Mouse. I mean…it could be worse, I guess.

References

Anonymous. (2011) Kings. Nukapedia: Fallout Wikia http://fallout.wikia.com/wiki/Kings

Fraser, B.P. and Brown, W.J. (2002) Media, Celebrities, and Social Influence: Identification with Elvis Presley. Mass Communication and Society. (p. 183 – 206)

Obsidian Entertainment. (2010) Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout Finds: Recreating Romans in New Vegas

In Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment 2010), the post-apocalyptic world of Nevada has split up into various factions (sometimes referred to as “tribes” in-game) that are in a constant struggle to regain control of the land, specifically the New Vegas Strip.

Arguably the major antagonistic faction (although your player character can choose to join forces with them near the end of the game) is Caesar’s Legion. Within the game’s lore, Edward Sallow, originally part of a faction called the Followers of the Apocalypse, came across a cache of books during his travels and became obsessed with those detailing the Roman Empire. Soon after, Sallow began to conquer and absorb local tribes into his ever-growing army through enslavement. By the start of the video game, Sallow has now taken the mantle of “Caesar” and rules over a sizeable army of soldiers, spies, and slaves and represents a significant threat to the New Vegas area.

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Vulpes Inculta, part of the Legion’s Frumentarii, in his military uniform.

So how does these post-apocalyptic Romans compare to their real life, historical counterparts? Aesthetically, the New Vegas legionnaires have done their best to recreate Roman Imperial armour, but while historical armour had the luxury of gilding and other fancy embellishments depending on the status (MacMullen 1960), armour in New Vegas was restrained to whatever material that could be scavenged. This touches upon one of the major recurring themes of the Fallout series, which is the reuse of the debris of the nuclear war to create new weapons, tools, and armour. All legionnaires in New Vegas are outfitted in what appears to be repurposed American football gear and jerseys. Higher status officials, such as Centurions, will have have certain ornamentation to differentiation themselves from the average foot soldier – this may include metal spikes and paint on shoulder pads, animal furs, or helmet decoration, such as feathers. The Legate, as the leader of the army, wears specifically created metal armour, displaying his commanding status over all soldiers .

As a means of staying true to the historical Romans, Caesar’s Legion is mostly outfitted with melee weapons such as machetes and spears. However, advanced technology has also made its way into the ranks – guns are usually scavenged by soldiers and used when found, and higher officials will often have weapons based on the (futuristic to us) technology of New Vegas, such as thermic lances and pneumatic power fists. Like the Romans, the Legion also made use of crucifying as a method of punishment.

The organisation of the New Vegas Legion is a fairly accurate recreation of the historical Roman military, albeit rather simplified and re-appropriate several titles in roles that are only somewhat equivalent to their real-life counterparts (Sumner 1970, MacMullen 1984, Roth 1994). In New Vegas, the Legion has a hierarchical structure made entirely of men, with Caesar atop as dictator. Below him is the Legate, who leads the army, and the Centurions, who were commanders underneath the Legate. A Praetorian guard personally guarded Caesar himself, while the Frumentarri, based on the name given to food supply officers turned spies in the Roman Legion, were Caesar’s spy network. Those captured from conquered tribes and towns were promptly enslaved and fitted with bomb collars to prevent escapes; most slaves were put to work doing menial tasks, with those deemed too weak to be useful crucified or otherwise killed.

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Edward Sallow in command of the Legion as Caesar.

From an archaeological perspective, the Legion is a interesting example of selectively recreating and repurposing the past for the sake of organisation and domination. Prior to his reign as Caesar, Sallow was known to look down on other tribes as “lesser” and “inferior” creatures. To Sallow, Ancient Rome spoke to these imperialistic and fascist tendencies, and so he created a totalitarian dictatorship in its image to dominate the land with his ideology.

Like many leaders in Ancient Rome, Sallow also claimed divine right as leader – as Caesar, he claimed that he was the Son of Mars, who had brought nuclear war upon the United States to cleanse it for Caesar’s eventual rule. This divine right to lead created the propaganda needed to not only present the Legion as a powerful force to enemies, but it also kept Sallow in power as the sole dictator.

This propaganda, like in real life, also takes form in the shape of art, specifically coinage. Currency in Caesar’s Legion are decorated with depictions of Caesar  and inscribed with Latin propagandistic phrases, such as “Pax Per Bellum” (Peace through War). The importance and value of the New Vegas denarius (silver coins) and aureus (gold coins) can be seen in their creation, as these were difficult-to-find materials and most likely also difficult to create in the current post-apocalyptic landscape.

The tag line of the Fallout video games is “war never changes”, a sentiment that could also be expressed as “history repeats itself”. The Legion of New Vegas is a prime example of how the ugly head of imperialistic forces will rear its head time and time again, sometimes in the same form it once held many, many years ago.

The Fort, the headquarters and main camp of Caesar’s Legion in Nevada

References

Anonymous. (2011) Caesar’s Legion. Nukapedia: Fallout Wikia

MacMullen, R. (1960) Inscriptions on Armor and the Supply of Arms in the Roman Empire. American Journal of Archaeology. (p. 23-40)

MacMullen, R. (1984) The Legion as a Society. Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte. (p. 440- 456)

Obsidian Entertainment. (2010) Fallout: New Vegas

Roth, J. (1994) The Size and Organization of the Roman Imperial Legion. Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte. (p. 346-362)

Sumner, G.V. (1970) The Legion and the Centuriate Organization. The Journal of Roman Studies. (p. 67-78)

Fallout Finds: A New Series

While I was explaining the idea of the Studies in Skyrim series to my partner, he suddenly cut in – “Why aren’t you doing a series on archaeology in Fallout 4? Isn’t that the most archaeological video game out there?”

And he was right – the Fallout series, which takes place after a nuclear war that devastates most of the United States in a post-apocalyptic landscape that is slowly repopulated by “Vault Dwellers” who escaped the destruction, is a great look at how future civilizations repurpose the past. A lot of the video games’ humour comes from hilariously misunderstood interpretations of “Pre-War” artefacts (for example, the belief that baseball bats were weapons used in the bloodthirsty fighting game of baseball).

So, starting in 2018 I’ll be writing a new series called “Fallout Finds” examining not only the archaeology of some of the Fallout games, but also what it may say about how future archaeologists will look at our material culture, and how future peoples may repurpose it for their own use. Stay tuned!

This Fallout 4 character is obviously the spitting image of me.