“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.

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Side Quest: Archaeology!

Inaccurate portrayals of archaeology in other media has been discussed before – whether it’s fact checking the Indiana Jones franchise, reiterating that Lara Croft is indeed a Tomb  Raider, or correcting someone for the 100th time that no, sorry, we don’t dig up dinosaurs…it can be exhausting! But unfortunately, it will always be necessary so long as archaeology remains a part of pop culture – in films, novels, television shows, and more recently, in video games.

Archaeology in video games can often be divided into two categories: archaeology as the main narrative (for example, Indiana Jones video games, the Uncharted franchise) and archaeology as an in-game mechanic. Meyers Emery and Reinhard (2015), in their examination of video game archaeology from which these categories originate from, explain that archaeology is a perfect fit for the modern day video game – after all, archaeology reflects the sort of puzzle-solving and narrative of exploration that many video games attempt to replicate in their own gameplay.

This blog post will be looking at archaeology as an additional in-game mechanic, often used in the form of “side quests” and “collectables”. How does this portray archaeology and why is archaeology so well-suited for side quests? As part of this discussion, we’ll be focusing on two video games that utilise a sort of “archaeology” as a side quest mechanic: Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

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Gunther, the curator of the museum in Stardew Valley, says, “It doesn’t seem like you have anything to donate to the museum. Better get out there and do some treasure hunting, huh?”

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley (Chucklefish Limited 2016) is a farming simulator video game that has the Player Character leave their miserable city life for the countryside, where they have just inherited their grandfather’s farm. During the course of the game, the Player Character can develop their skills in different ways and receive achievements for the things they can collect along the way.

Artifacts make up one of these achievable “Collections”. Through various methods (either digging in the right spot, breaking open a geode, or catching a treasure chest while fishing), the Player Character can collect artefacts of varying types – from priceless material objects to skeletal remains. Once found, the Player Character can either sell the artefact, or donate them to the town museum, run by curator Gunther. Occasionally, the Player will receive rewards based on what they have donated – this is the only form of payment that they will receive for their archaeological work during the game.

Although Stardew Valley falls into the common pitfall of conflating archaeology and palaeontology, it does a good job with placing some emphasis on post-excavation developments – for example, once an artefact is collected, the Player is able to read the interpretations of each item in their “Collections” menu. You’re also able to manually display the artefacts, allowing the Player to act as curator as well as excavator.

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A snapshot of the incomplete Artifacts Collection in Stardew Valley – the note for the Ornamental Fan collectable says, “This exquisite fan most likely belonged to a noblewoman. Historians believe that the valley was a popular sixth-era vacation spot for the wealthy.”

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The Player Character has dug up an unidentified fossil and exclaims, “I wonder what kind of fossil it is. I’ll have to take it to the museum and get it examined right away!”

Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Animal Crossing: New Leaf (Nintendo Co. Ltd. 2012) is a life simulator video game, and the fourth game in the Animal Crossing franchise. The Player Character takes on the role of Mayor in their own created town, which is populated by anthropomorphic animals, and tries to improve citizen satisfaction by building and updating public amenities. including the town’s museum.

Every day, the Player Character may recover several fossils, digging them up with their shovel. At this point, they are only shown as mysterious, unidentified spheres labelled as “Fossil”. If the Player heads to the museum, they can ask Blathers, the curator, to assess any of their recovered fossils – if these fossils are not currently on display, Blathers will ask the Player if they will donate the fossil to the museum. The game places a fair bit of weight to Blathers’ identifications – the Player Character can sell fossils for a bit of money, but will receive much more if they get them assessed first.

Fossils will range from dinosaur remains (ahem, not archaeology) to other fossilized organic material – droppings, eggs, plant life, and even a hominid! The museum also accepts donations of bugs, marine life, and artwork, but will not accept forgeries or fakes. Yes, this game actually has a forgery mechanic – it takes a good eye to notice which artwork (which can be bought by a travelling trader) is the real deal!

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The Player Character has just asked Blathers the Curator to examine a fossil. Blathers, when realizing it is a fossil that is not in the museum’s collection, says, “I’m rather jealous…I hope I can perhaps convince you to assist with Harvest’s [the name of the town] cultural education.”
So, why is archaeology  such a popular “side quest” mechanic in games like these two?

The easy answer is that archaeology is, in a sense, the act of “collecting” artefacts, which creates a set of collectable items for video game players. “Collectables” are a wildly popular component of many video games  – these are items that may be hidden within the levels of the game, and can sometimes trigger an achievement or trophy of some kind. There has been some research that has linked collectables to the “addictiveness” of video games (Goggin 2008), explaining the popularity of the feature.

By using archaeology as a means of collecting these “collectables”, video games are able to transform the discpline into a form of treasure hunting that is easy for the general audience (mostly children!) to understand. In both Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, “X marks the spot”, and I mean that literally – in Stardew, its in the form of wiggling worms, and in Animal Crossing, in the form of stars found on the ground.

Of course, this is problematic – it propagates the idea that archaeology and treasure hunting are the same, that archaeology is simply digging up things and displaying them in a museum. This simplified version of archaeology is what leads to the continuation of harmful archaeological practices entrenched in white supremacy, imperialism, and colonialism – looting, the theft and destruction of Indigenous and colonized lands, and the delay of further repatriation of artefacts and remains, among other things.

I’d argue, though, that Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing are at the very least a step in the right direction for archaeology in popular culture – although problematic and also just flat out wrong in some respects, both video games provide a glimpse into a (rather simplified) version of post-excavation work. Players are able to see specialists identify and further interpret artefacts, as well as take part in the further curation and display of the recovered items. Although Stardew Valley constantly refers to archaeological excavation as “treasure hunting”, Animal Crossing at least makes an attempt at framing archaeology in a more educational way by referring to the donation of fossils and artwork as adding to the town’s “cultural education”.

Holtorf (2004) has previously written that in popular culture, the action of “doing archaeology” is often the focus, as it is believed to be more interesting and exciting than the actual interpretation and analysis of the finds. And yet, these two video games show that pop culture archaeology can be much more than just the act of digging for priceless artefacts – perhaps what we need next is a Excavation Supervisor Simulator, with downloadable extra content in the form of Curation Quests?

References

Anonymous. (2009) Museum. Animal Crossing Wiki. http://animalcrossing.wikia.com/wiki/Museum

Anonymous. (2016) Artifacts. Stardew Valley Wiki. https://stardewvalleywiki.com/Artifacts

Chucklefish. (2016) Stardew Valley.

Goggin, J. (2008) Gaming/Gambling: Addiction and the Video Game Experience. The Pleasures of Computer Gaming: Essays on Cultural History, Theory, and Aesthetics. McFarland and Company, Inc. Publishers. pp. 33-51.

Holtorf, C. (2004) Doing Archaeology in Popular Culture. The Interplay of Past and Present. pp. 42-49.

Meyers Emery, K. and Reinhard, A. (2015) Trading Shovels for Controllers: A Brief Exploration of the Portrayal of Archaeology in Video Games. Public Archaeology. 14(2). pp. 137-149.

Nintendo Co. Ltd.. (2012) Animal Crossing: New Leaf.


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.