Studies in Skyrim: Lessons in Typologies, from Dwarven Fortresses to Nord Ruins (Part I)

Today’s blog post is actually the first of a two-parter – there’s just too much to talk about in one post! The second part of this post will be published sometime next week…until then, enjoy reading about how (thanks again to YouTuber Camelworks for inspiring this post with his own Skyrim-based series, Curating Curious Curiosities).

At some point during the main quest of Skyrim, the player must enter the depths of Blackreach, a cavern located deep underneath a Dwemer (the Dwemer, also referred to as Dwarves, are an ancient and extinct race within the Elder Scrolls universe) ruin called the Tower of Mzark. Blackreach contains the remains of a massive mining project headed by four Dwemer cities: Arkngzthamz, Mzulft, Raldbthar, and Bthar-zel. After miners in Blackreach discovered a new, precious mineral known as “Aetherium”, the Dwemer immediately got to work building new buildings and machinery to help with the extraction and preparation of the ore. Although the exact use for each of the buildings are never further elaborated on within the game’s lore, it can be assumed that these were built to house miners and researchers working in Blackreach.

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Some of the Dwemer ruins found in Blackreach.

Yet something stands out among the Dwemer buildings and machines…tucked away behind the remains of a tower, the player can find a ruined pillar of sorts. But upon further inspection, you may notice something different about this pillar – it has noticeably different patterning etched into the stone. These patterns actually reveal that these are ancient Nordic ruins!

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Are these ancient Nordic ruins among the Dwemer remains?

But how can we tell these aren’t Dwemer ruins? After all, what’s the difference between one pile of rubble and another? Well, let’s look at the style of each of these ruins…

The Dwemer style tends to be rather geometric with straighter lines and shapes – the few curved motifs are usually found in the form of thick spirals as evident in the image below.

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Meanwhile, ancient Nordic designs are more circular – we see more concentric circles and ovals, following the general shape of the burial tombs that these designs are most often associated with.

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But while the Dwemer have long disappeared, the Nordic culture still exists within the world of Skyrim – so, how can we tell that the pillar found in Blackreach is of ancient origin, rather than a more recent development created by travelling Nords? Let’s compare the styles of the two time periods, then! As seen in the image above, the ancient Nords were fond of circular patterns that followed the general shape of their burial tombs. But look at the image below of a “modern day” (at least, within the world of Skyrim) Nordic building – again, they still favour circular patterns, but now they are more interwoven into chain-like patterns that interconnect each individual circle into a large piece.

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In real life archaeology, this process of classifying stylistic traits is often used in creating typologies – by using particular aspects of an artefact or building, archaeologists can create a typology which can assist in creating a general chronology, or to differentiate between different cultures (as you can see in the above examples of the Dwemer, the ancient Nords, and the present Nords!). This is quite popular within the study of ancient ceramics – for example, look at the image below for a sampling of typologies created to describe Greek pottery.

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Examples of Greek pottery typologies (Image Credit: Ioanna Paterna)

Next week, Part II of this post will be published – it will get more in-depth with how Skyrim takes typology to the extreme in order to differentiate between cultures within the (relatively small) space that the video game takes place. Stay tuned!

References

Anonymous. (2016) Blackreach. Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Blackreach

Anonymous. (2016) Dwemer. Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Dwemer

Bethesda Game Studios. (2011) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Camelworks. (2018) Blackreach – Skyrim – Curating Curious Curiosities. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rpo96hu7NVQ

Paterna, I. (2012) Names, shapes, and functions of ancient Greek objects: a changing relationship. CHS Research Bulletin. http://www.chs-fellows.org/2012/11/27/names-shapes-and-functions-of-ancient-greek-objects-a-changing-relationship/

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Studies in Skyrim: Werewolf? Therewolf! Can We Find Lycanthropy in Archaeology?

“Legends can take a life of their own, particularly when there are grains of truth, as here we have the very real threat of werewolves”

Lycanthropic Legends of Skyrim, Lentulus Invenitus

Werewolves

In the world of Skyrim, werewolves (and other lyncanthropes – for example, were-bears!) exist. Within the lore of the game, lycanthropy was created by the Daedric Prince (in the Elder Scrolls universe, the Daedric Princes are basically deities) of the Hunt, Hircine. The power to transform into a werewolf is seen as both a blessing and a curse to some characters – while the player can meet unfortunate souls who are tormented by their beastly curse, there are others, such as the Companions, who use and spread their power as a gift to members of their group. Regardless, nearly all non-playable characters within the game will be fearful and hostile of werewolves, illustrating a deep fear of such beasts embedded into Skyrim‘s culture.

In the real world, werewolves can’t be found in person as easily as they can be in Skyrim, but they are still prevalent in both myth and media. From the 1941 film The Wolf Man to the 2011 television hit series Teen Wolf, the werewolf has a long history of terrorising people, from our imaginations to the big screen. Werewolves can be found in the folklore of many cultures across the world, with a rich history that stretches as far as ancient Greece. In general, a werewolf is defined as a person who has transformed into a wolf – however, effects of the moon (i.e; full moon transformations) and particular powers vary across myths.

Most of this information has been derived from studying written texts and oral histories. But can we see this in the material culture of the past? Not necessarily in the guise of the “werewolf” that modern audiences are familiar with…but perhaps we can explore the individual elements that, together, create the werewolf of popular fiction.

The Ardross Wolf, a Pictish stone carved with the image of a wolf. (Photo Credit: The Highland Council, Museum and Art Gallery)

Wolves are not uncommon as artefactual iconography – across many cultures, one can find wolf motifs decorated various objects and ornamentation. For example, there are many instances of wolves depicted on artefacts of warfare in Iron Age Europe – from the rare carnyx (Celtic trumpet used in war) created to look like the head of a wolf, to armour decorated with ferocious animals of the wild, including wolves. There are also examples of wolf iconography on other artefacts, usually depicting the wolf in a natural scene, such as in the pursuit of prey, or as the victim of hunting by humans. Whether in war and peace, it can be argued that depictions of the wolf are centred on similar traits: wild and dangerous.

A burial from the Aztec’s Great Temple that included the remains of a wolf alongside gold artefacts (Photo Credit: Mirsa Islas, Templo Mayor Project)

Actual skeletal remains of wolves are, of course, found as part of the overall environmental narrative found within certain archaeological contexts. In many places, such as Great Britain, wolves are extinct, which makes the recovery of their remains an interesting development for interpretation. More interesting, perhaps, are examples in which there is evidence of the utilisation of wolf remains. During the Iron Age in Europe, there is some evidence that suggests that wolves were hunted and then eventually used as ornamentation, such as the perforated wolf teeth found at the site of Choisy-au-Bac in France. Recently, excavations at an Aztec temple in Mexico City has recovered the remains of a wolf surrounded by a large collection of golden artefacts – the current interpretation is that the wolf was part of an offering, and was adorned in gold prior to burial. Additionally, excavations in parts of Siberia have found wolves that had been buried in a manner similar to what would have been afforded to humans, suggesting that wolves and humans were considered similar in some aspect – perhaps similar to the kinship felt between dogs and humans?

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A panel from the Gundestrup Cauldron showing a Wheel God surrounded by various hybrid animals (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

If we consider the “werewolf” as a sort of hybrid creature, more archaeological material becomes available for consideration. Instances of hybrid creatures iconography are often associated with folklore and mythology – take, for instance, Medieval bestiaries or Egyptian statuary depicting sphinxes. The Gundestrup cauldron, a “cult cauldron” from Iron Age Denmark, is covered with an entire zoo of faunal iconography, both real and fantastical. These animals are portrayed with figures that have been interpreted as gods, thereby suggesting the religious significance of the artefact. Some of the more fantastical creatures are hybrids, including winged horse-like beasts and serpents with ram horns.

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The remains of an adult female buried with horse and cow remains from “Duropolis” in Dorset, England (Photo Credit: Bournemouth University)

As for skeletal remains, one can argue that we do see “hybrids” in the form of mixed assemblages of human and faunal bones – but it must be stressed that it does not mean that all instances of mixed burials represent ideas of hybrid creatures (although there are examples of what may be intentional hybridisation!). Instead, it may be more beneficial to examine these burials as possibly representative of ancient cosmological ideas regarding animals, or alternatively, how humans at the time related to the animals deposited alongside human remains. There are many examples of these mixed burials in archaeology, sometimes referred to as “special deposits” or “associated bone groups” and often considered part of ritual. The Iron Age site of Danebury is especially noteworthy for mixed burials of human and faunal remains recovered from pits, possibly used for rituals of fertility and renewal.

So, okay…maybe we can’t find werewolves in archaeology (although please let me know if there are actual instances of lycanthropic iconography that I’ve missed!). But it did provide an excellent exercise in thoroughly investigating a concept by isolated certain elements of it, which is often an important aspect of developing archaeological interpretations. Luckily (or maybe unluckily) for future archaeologists, modern day pop culture will certainly leave behind many instances of werewolf memorabilia to uncover.

References

Anonymous. (2016) Werewolf (Skyrim). Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Werewolf_(Skyrim)

Beresford, M. (2013) The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture. Reaktion Books.

Bethesda Game Studios. (2011) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Cunliffe, B. (1992) Pits, Preconceptions, and Propitiation in  the British Iron Age. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 11 (1). pp. 69-83.

Garcia, D.A. (2017) Aztec Golden Wolf Sacrifice Yields Rich Trove in Mexico City. Reuters.

Green, M. (1998) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. Routledge.

Hill, E. (2013) Archaeology and Animal Persons: Towards a Prehistory of Human-Animal Relations. Environment and Society: Advances in Research 4. pp. 117-136.

Hill, J.D. (1995) Ritual and Rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex: a Study of the Formation of a Specific Archaeological Record. Archaeopress.

 

Studies in Skyrim: Standing Stones

 

The first three Standing Stones in Skyrim: The Mage Stone, the Warrior Stone, and the Thief Stone

In Skyrim, one of the first game mechanics you’re introduced to after the initial tutorial quest is the Standing Stone. By using a Standing Stone, the player character gains bonuses to certain traits and/or extra abilities. However, a player character can only receive one “blessing” at a time – if another Standing Stone is chosen, the first bonus will be replaced by the new one (although there is an object. the Aetherial Crown, introduced later in the Dawnguard DLC that allows for two “blessings” at once).

Similar to Skyrim’s Standing Stones are Oblivion’s Doomstones, shown here (Image Credit: The Gamers’ Temple)

In the lore of Skyrim, these Standing Stones are magical features in the landscape that have the ability to “rewrite the Fate” of heroes if used. There are thirteen in total, each correlating with one of the Tamrielic constellations: the Warrior, the Mage, the Thief, the Serpent, the Apprentice, the Lord, the Lady, the Atronach, the Lover, the Ritual, the Shadow, the Tower, and the Steed. These constellations are also known as the “Birth Signs”, similar to real life astrological signs. In the previous game, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, there are similar archaeological features dotting the landscape of Cyrodil with similar powers, but are called “Doomstones” instead.

The Standing Stones of Stenness is a Neolithic stone circle found on mainland Orkney, Scotland.

It’s likely that the in-game Standing Stones are based off of the real world archaeological features that can be found at many sites around the world. Some of the best known ones can be found in the Orkney Islands, Scotland: the Standing Stones of Stenness (see above photo), the Ring of Brodgar, and the Odin Stone (unfortunately no longer standing).

Although the exact reasons for the construction of these Standing Stone monuments are unclear, they are usually associated with concepts of ritual, ceremony, and cosmology. Orkney’s Standing Stones, for example, have been observed to be relatively close to one another and also in close proximity to another Neolithic site, the Maeshowe tomb. This has been used as evidence that this area that encompasses all three archaeological sites was most likely important to the Neolithic inhabitants of Orkney. Some archaeologists have suggested that the Standing Stones are all that remains of a more intricate ritual area – Colin Richards has posited that these sites could have also had trenches of water to serve as places of liminality or transitioning, as well as connecting the cosmological beliefs of the Neolithic inhabitants with their own island environment.

Even after the Neolithic, later Scottish folklore and tradition still focused on these archaeological monuments. For example, the Odin Stone was used in ceremonies of marriage prior to its destruction. Other folklore suggests that Standing Stones were meeting places for supernatural creatures, such as fairies – this led to a tradition of leaving milk and other treats at these sites to appease these creatures. And even today, the Standing Stones are still seen as points of magic and wonder, especially within neo-pagan covens – perhaps these stones simply reflect a deep, human reaction of awe and mystery that still survives to this very day. So much so that they’ve ultimately inspired the magic and fantasy of Skyrim

References

Anonymous. (2016) Standing Stones. Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Standing_Stones?useskin=oasis

Bethesda Game Studios. (2006) The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Bethesda Game Studios. (2011) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Gazin-Schwartz, A. (2001) Archaeology and Folklore in Material Culture, Ritual, and Everyday Life. International Journal of Historical Archaeology (Vol. 5, No. 4).

Richards, C. (1996) Monuments as Landscape: Creating the Centre of the World in Late Neolithic. World Archaeology (Vol. 28, No. 2).

Studies in Skyrim: On the Chopping Block

To start off our Studies in Skyrim series, I figured it would be best to begin with the beginning of the game itself! After all, what’s more fun than learning a bit about decapitations?

In Skyrim, capital punishment usually consists of a swift beheading – this is seen in the game’s opening, where you watch as a Stormcloak, deemed to be traitorous to the Empire, is beheaded by the Imperial army’s executioner. You luckily manage to escape the blade thanks to a dragon, but a similar execution is stumbled upon again in the town of Solitude.

In real life, decapitation has been a form of capital punishment for ages, with archaeological evidence of intentional beheading dating back to the later prehistoric (although it can be argued that some instances could have been part of ritual sacrifice as well). Decapitations in antiquity (read: ancient Greece and the Roman Empire) were often used for citizens, especially of higher status, as it was seen as a more humane and less dishonourable punishment. This would possibly be accurate if the executioner was skilled and could deliver a quick and clean decapitation in a single blow of the sword or axe. This would change, of course, with the popularisation of the guillotine for beheading.

The British history of decapitation as capital punishment goes back centuries and is too long to properly discuss in a blog post. Anglo-Saxons originally used decapitation to punish more serious offences of theft, but eventually this practice was reserved for those of noble and high status who have committed acts of treason. Arguably the most famous cases of beheading in Britain belongs to Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn, two of King Henry VIII’s many wives. These executions were part of the seven that were done privately in the Tower of London.

Decapitation is still used as capital punishment in some places to this day, but has mostly been abandoned as a practice in most parts of the world, although only relatively recently (for example, it was still used for capital punishment up until 1938 in Germany).

Medieval Illumination depicting the execution of the leaders of the Jacquerie by the King of Navarre (Image Credit: the British Library)

So, how do we discover decapitations archaeologically? Isn’t it common to find skeletons disarticulated (or not together) once excavated? How do you differentiate between skulls from the beheaded and skulls from the dead?

Evidence of decapitation can sometimes be seen spatially, through the methods and locations of burial. In some places, such as Roman burial sites, there were no observed difference between decapitation burials and more normative burials. In the later Anglo-Saxon period, however, decapitation burials were moved to “execution cemeteries” to reflect a cultural understanding of decapitation as a “deviant burial” that should be kept separate from other burials.

The best place to look for evidence for decapitation is on the vertebrae – a beheading that has been done correctly will usually leave cut marks on the cervical vertebrae, which make up the neck. More unfortunate decapitations that required several more blows for a successful separation will also show related cut marks on facial features, such as on the mandible.

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Evidence of decapitation on vertebrae (Photo Credit: Museum of London Archaeology)

 

References

Armit, I. (2012) Headhunting and the Body in Iron Age Europe. Cambridge University Press.

Carty, N. (2012) ‘The Halved Heads’: Osteological Evidence for Decapitation in Medieval Ireland. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology.

Clark, R. (1995) The History of Beheading and Decapitation. Capital Punishment UK.

Dyson, G. (2014) Kings, Peasants, and the Restless Dead: Decapitation in Anglo-Saxon Saints’ Lives. Retrospectives. University of Warwick. (p. 32-43)

Studies in Skyrim: A New Series

Skyrim? The video game Skyrim? Who do you think you are, Alex, some sort of “archaeogamer”?

Well, not really…I’ll leave that to the professionals over at archaeogaming.com. But, as someone who has spent at least 400 hours on Skyrim across three different gaming platforms, I’ve come to realise that Skyrim, which boasts probably one of the most extensive material records I’ve ever seen in a video game, is a great jumping off point to talk about various examples of archaeological finds we have in the real world!

So, if you think tombs filled with the walking dead, rituals that utilise cannibalism, or even some of the magical alchemy ingredients are just inventions of a fantasy video game world, I’ll be delving into their actual, real world counterparts in this new series.

Plus, this gives me an excuse to play more Skyrim.

A Skyrim player character gets ready to be put through hell for the sake of screenshots.