“Secret codes”, like archaeology, can set off the imagination, prompting images of spies, secret agents, and hidden treasure. It is easy, based on popular culture, to imagine that archaeologists are constantly stumbling upon glyphs that must be translated to find secret rooms or solving puzzles using hidden codes to evade dangerous traps.
But unfortunately, like many depictions of archaeology in pop culture, this isn’t really the case in real life.
One example of hidden codes in popular culture can be found in Fallout 4, utilised by the ultra secret organisation called “the Railroad”. Like their real life Civil War-era namesake, the Railroad leads a group of marginalised people (in the case of Fallout 4, these are the “Synths”, or synthetic people who are often met with violence and persecution by humans) to freedom through a series of routes and safe houses to avoid hostile forces hunting them down. In order to maintain secrecy and safety, the Railroad often utilises a series of pictures as codes to other agents – these symbols can alert others to danger, or to notify where safe houses are.
These in-game secret codes were most likely inspired by the real life phenomenon of what are generally referred to as “hobo codes”. These symbols were created by “hobos”, or transient, homeless people who travelled the United States after the end of the Civil War, usually by illegally riding freight trains that began to criss-cross the country. These “hobo codes” provided safety for other fellow hobos through warnings of dangerous people or obstacles ahead, as well as pointing out where one could find food, shelter, or work (Innocent 2015).
But what about real-life archaeology? Are there no real instances of finding secret messages amongst ancient ruins?
In many ways, we can consider the recovery of “lost” languages to be similar to this romanticised idea of unearthing hidden codes during excavation. For example, thanks in part to the recovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, Egyptian hieroglyphs – which had originally confused and mystified academics who would occasionally come across these mysterious symbols on artefacts and ruins – were finally able to be deciphered by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822 (Robinson 2012). Another example can be found in Mesoamerica regarding the Mayan hieroglyphs, which are still being deciphered to this day (Stuart 1992).
However, what most people would imagine to be “secret messages” are more in line with pseudoarchaeological ideas. In fact, many allegedly “secret symbols” that had been “recovered” in the United States are often fake artefacts used to promote the racist, pseudoarchaeological notion that hidden communities of Europeans existed in North America, pre-dating Native Americans. For example, in the Ohio Valley region alone, there are been many cases of so-called “ancient inscriptions” using Welsh and Irish Ogham. But there was little, if any, credible evidence to back any of these claims (Ball 2006).
So what is it about secret messages and symbols that so quickly excites the imagination? Maybe we just want some sort of intentional communication with the past? Maybe knowing that our past ancestors left behind something for their future generations makes us feel better about ourselves?
Or maybe its just cool. Who knows, really?
Ball, D.B. (2006) Scribbles, Scratches, and Ancient Writing: Pseudo-Historical Archaeology in the Ohio Valley Region. Ohio Valley Historical Archaeology. 21. pp. 1-29.
Bethesda Softworks. (2015) Fallout 4.
Innocent, T. (2015) The Lost Art of Urban Codemaking. Communication Research and Practice. 1(2). pp. 117-130.
Robinson, A. (2012) A Clash of Symbols. Nature. 483. pp. 27 – 28.
Stuart, D. (1992) Hieroglyphs and Archaeology at Copan. Ancient Mesoamerica. 3. pp. 169-184.
Content Warning: This post will discuss human remains and death from disasters and acts of mass violence. Although I will not be posting any actual images of real human remains, I will be using images of human remains from the video game Fallout 4. There may also be discussion of disasters and violence that may upset others, so please do not read if you may find this triggering.
When archaeologists recover human remains, its often from burials – whether these are elaborate affairs, simple depositions, or whatever could be considered the most loosely defined “intentional” placement of remains. Of course, there are exceptions – sudden deaths, from accidents to murders, will often result in bodies found in “unusual” ways, or at the very least, in a context different from a more intentional burial. Sometimes, the spatial context of the body may provide clues to how the person may have died.
In the world of Fallout 4 (Bethesda Softworks 2015), the “Great War” occurred in October 2077 when the United States, the Soviet Union, and China exchanged multiple nuclear bombs, causing death and destruction at a massive scale. The actual gameplay is set in a post-apocalyptic world, hundreds of years after the Great War. Here, the United States has been completely changed into a new world, with people attempting to make new lives on the wasteland surface, often by using the remnants of the past – recycling old materials, living in the ruins of Pre-War buildings, and attempting to recreate Pre-War factions (see previous posts on Fallout‘s Legion and Kings factions). As the Player explores many of these ruins, they may come across the remains of those who most likely died in the original nuclear fire of 2077.
Of course, there is a bit of scientific liberty being taken here – most of the remains that the Player Character can find are ridiculously well-preserved (all skeletal elements are intact and articulated?! that’s a bioarchaeologist’s dream!) despite being hundreds of years old and subjected to the open environment.
That said, this phenomenon of human remains found in contexts relating to a sudden and unexpected death (and, sometimes, with significant preservation) has many real world parallels. Many instances are found in more natural settings, where sudden deaths are caused by accident or forced upon the victim unexpectedly – for example, bogs are, as Karin Sanders (2009) writes, “natural darkrooms” that preserve those who die within them almost perfectly (for more on bog bodies, see 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.
Many instances of human remains in Fallout 4 are meant to invoke “morbid humour” – occasionally, one might find a skeleton posed in a compromising manner, like on the toilet. This is most likely one of the reasons why the human remains in Fallout 4 are often articulated and intact – for quick and immediate identification by players, and for the ability to create comical situations by posing the dead. And yet, there are also “death tableaux” meant to establish the realities of war onto the player – bodies found in beds, cowered in hastily made shelters, skeletal hands found clasped together even hundreds of years after the Great War. These unintentional portrayals of a sudden death, forever immortalising the true nature of war: senseless, uncaring, and ultimately…fatal.
Adams, B.J. and Byrd, J.E. (2008) Recovery, Analysis, and Identification of Commingled Human Remains. Humana Press.
Bethesda Softworks. (2015) Fallout 4.
Deem, J.M. (2005) Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Hunter, J. and Cox, M. (2005) Forensic Archaeology: Advances in Theory and Practice. Routledge.
Luongo, G. et al. (2003) Impact of the AD 79 Explosive Eruption on Pompeii, II. Causes of Death of the Inhabitants Inferred by Stratigraphic Analysis and Areal Distribution of the Human Casualties. Journal of Volcanology and GeothermalResearch. 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.
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.
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…
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 PerBellum” (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.
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!