Community-Led, Community-Run: The Blathers’ Approach to Museum Curation

In the Animal Crossing video game series, Blathers is the rather stereotypical curator of the local museums; a straight-laced nerd who punctuates his educational rambling with “wot?” and is dutiful in his collecting…even if he has to occasionally handle a bug or two. But what is less stereotypical is his curatorial approach as the head of a museum that is part natural history, part aquarium, part insect sanctuary, and part art galley. You see, it’s the Player Character’s responsibility (as well as other Player Characters who may visit via online play) to actually fill the museum with donated material!

And, honestly? I think we can learn something about museum curation from this nerdy entomophobe.

Blathers: “The cultural development of Wakame (my island in Animal Crossing) is a worthy endeavour indeed.”

In a way, I guess you can consider the museum in Animal Crossing to be a sort of “community-led museum”, in that ultimately it is you, the non-specialist member of the general public, who is providing material for the museum to exhibit. Of course, its not entirely community-led : Blathers ultimately has final say in what gets displayed (no repeats! no fake artwork!) and, given the game mechanics, nearly every player will end up with the same museum as they’re encouraged to collect all of the bugs, sea creatures, fish, and artwork available in the game. But I think we can see the Animal Crossing museum as a sort of example from which we can really discuss and development the idea of a truly community-led museum.

The idea of community-led museums isn’t new, of course – in fact, if we use a broad definition of the museum as any space that has collected and protected specific objects for viewing of the general public, then community-led museum-like spaces have existed for centuries in the form of shrines and communal areas. The more modern concept of the museum (as well as its associated curation policies) are arguably more “Western” in nature, with much of it developed in a colonial framework that unfortunately influences curatorial decisions to this day (Kreps 2006). Thus, many see the resurgence of the community-led museum as a means of shifting towards a more ethical approach to curation and display.

Of course, this also means that we are discussing a very site-specific form of community-led curation – similar to the way in which the Player Character is developing exhibitions of their town/island’s specific biodiversity in Animal Crossing, I would argue that community-led museums work best when dealing with its own community. In other words, it is important to not repeat the power dynamics of the colonial museum, but with a more communal approach! Previous experiments in the community-led approach has shown that it can help develop better relationships with the concept of a local, shared heritage, and lead to a feeling of collective ownership…and responsibility…of the history and artwork on display (Debono 2014, Mutibwa et. al. 2020).

What I find most interesting about the museum in Animal Crossing is the emphasis on natural history, on what a community-led natural history museum would look like. Of course, a real life application of the techniques used in the video game would be an ethical nightmare (not sure how you feel about encouraging the general public to catch and donate live fish and bugs at their leisure?), but I think the general conceit of the approach is something to consider. Citizen science, for example, has become very popular as a means of public engagement by institutions over the past decade, and there has been some examples of natural history museums spearheading projects to engage the community to participate directly in research (Ballard et. al. 2017).

As we find ourselves in a period of revaluation and reflection due to the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is great potential for utilising a framework such as the community-led museum as a means of accountability and justice within historically colonial and racist institutions. As Olivette Otele recently said in a discussion with Fischer and Jansari (2020), community curation can be a means of shifting and taking power from the museum to the communities, where they can curate in ways that suit their means. This could also develop and improve long term sustainable relationships between the community and the institution, especially if the process of curation is also archived as part of the museum as well – forever preserving that collective labour, perhaps to use as a template moving forward to bigger and more radical things.

At some point, though, we should probably talk about Blather’s complicity (as well as the Player Character’s) in the illicit trade of artwork and antiquities…

References

Ballard, H.L. et al. (2017) Contributions to Conservation Outcomes by Natural History Museum-Led Citizen Science: Examining Evidence and Next Steps. Biological Conservation 208. pp. 87-97.

Debono, S. (2014) Muza: Rethinking National Art Museums and the Values of Community Curation. Malta Review of Educational Research 8(2). pp. 312-320.

Fischer, H. and Jansari, S. (2020) International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Podcast. British Museum. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/britishmuseum/august-23-podcast-ep-mixdown

Kreps, C. (2006) Non-Western Models of Museums and Curation in Cross-Cultural Perspective. In A Companion to Museum Studies (eds S. Macdonald). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 457-472.

Mutibwa, D.H., et al. (2020) Strokes of Serendipity: Community Co-Curation and Engagement with Digital Heritage. Convergence 26(1). pp. 157-177.

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

Fire, Earth, and Sky – Oh My! Looking at Burial Traditions in Divinity: Original Sin II

One of the first video games that I got hooked on during the start of the pandemic (that wasn‘t Animal Crossing) was Divinity: Original Sin II. At the time, it had been years since I played a fantasy role-playing game from a series I wasn’t already familiar with, so honestly? I had a great time becoming enraptured by the new lore of Divinity II...which, of course, means I spent my entire first play-through (all 60+ hours of it!) overanalysing everything and looking at every single aspect from the perspective of an archaeologist with anthropological training. Yes, I am an insufferable gamer who cannot play anything normally, it is a true tragedy.

Unsurprisingly, the thing that drew my attention instantly was a cemetery area called “Stonegarden”, which was inclusive of nearly all the races in the world of Divinity II (except for the Undead, for…uh, obvious reasons, I guess?). As such, there was a variety of burial practices in place, which is particularly fascinating to me, as someone whose last four years were devoted to funerary archaeology and differing burial rites. So, let’s examine the different practices on display, and how they may (or may not) connect to real-life funerary rites in the past and present!

By Fire

A funeral pyre that is forever in flames as part of the Lizard burial traditions in Stonegarden Cemetery

In the world of Divinity: Original Sin II, Lizards are customarily cremated in a funeral pyre that is constantly burning. Based on the interactions the Player Character can have with the spirit of a deceased Lizard, it is an utmost shame to not be given these rites after death, thereby emphasising how important this particular act is for the Lizard culture.

Although I have yet to find an example of a never-ending funeral pyre, the basic concept of burning remains can be found in cultures throughout the world, and is still commonly practiced today. Archaeologically speaking, cremated bone is often identified by the presence of burnt bone – but not just burnt bone alone! Without context, burnt bone (human or animal) can be the result of numerous situations: cooking, accidental burning, cremation, etc. As such, it is important to find further context to indicate cremation: urns, grave goods, even the pyre site itself. It should be noted that humans are not the only ones to be cremated – animals have been found as cremated remains in the archaeological record as well! For example, Anglo-Saxon cremations have revealed mixed assemblages of human and animal remains, usually a horse or dog. With this in mind, it is likely that these animals were companions for the deceased – unfortunately, it is also notoriously difficult to differentiate between human/animal cremated bone, so we may not fully understand how prevalent (or not prevalent) this practice is (Whyte 2001, Bond and Worley 2006).

By Earth

A coffin with a Human skeleton that is waiting to be buried in Stonegarden Cemetery

A more ubiquitous and familiar burial tradition is practiced by the Humans of Divinity II (ugh, why are we always so boring!), who tend to practice inhumations, or burying remains underground. Inhumations, alongside cremations, are probably among the most common forms of funerary practice in the world, as well as the one most associated with the idea of funerary traditions. That said, it is interesting to consider how diverse inhumations can be in practice, with varieties in number of bodies, grave goods, social status (or lack thereof), overall treatment of the body, etc. To be honest, this topic is probably worth exploring in another blog post!

An ancestor tree, grown from the corpse of an Elf, located in Stonegarden Cemetery

In contrast, the Elves of Divinity II are not just buried in the ground – they become trees. Given the longer lifespan of Elves, death is rare and thus cause for massive ritual and rites. As cannibalism is already commonly practiced in Elven culture (which is actually a gameplay mechanic, as they are able to gain knowledge through memories of the dead they consume), it is common funerary practice for Elves to consume the heart of the deceased. The rest of the remains are then submerged into a pit filled with blood, eventually replaced in time with an ancestor tree, which has been directly grown from the dead.

Although there is no evidence for human-to-tree transformation beyond myths and folklore, we can see a similar focus on the tree as a symbol in funerary practices of the past. For example, it has been noted that tree-like features have appeared in ritual and funerary contexts during the Early Bronze Age in northern Europe, including the physical use of oak coffins in barrow burials (Fahlander 2018).

Similar traditions have continued into the modern age, particularly with the wave of ecological consciousness that would begin to include cemeteries and burial practices in the 1990’s, with environmentally-friendly inhumations becoming popular in countries such as the United Kingdom and Japan (Boret 2014). More recently, businesses have attempted to legally market more ecological solutions for burial in an even more environmentally-conscious world; one example is the Capsula Mundi, which consists of a biodegradable capsule that holds the deceased and eventually degrades to allow the remains to provide nutrients to a tree sapling planted above (Erizanu 2018).

By Sky

At the top of a tower in Stonegarden Cemetery lies Dwarven corpses, which are consumed by condors

Finally, the Player Character can find a lone tower in Stonegarden. Heading up the stairs, the Player Character will find the skeletal corpses of Dwarves laid below circling condors (a type of vulture) in the sky, with one perched nearby, eating one of the corpses. Most people will instantly connect this with the concept of “Sky Burials”, a practice that is most associated with Tibet, but is also practiced as part of Zoroastrianism in India (Kushwaha 2016). It has been theorised that this practice (or some variation of it) may have also been practiced in parts of Prehistoric Britain, specifically as a mode of excarnation, which broadly describes most practices of defleshing and disarticulation of the body (Carr and Knüsel 1997, Best and Mulville 2017).

I think, among many other misconceptions that folks have about archaeology, that the concept of funerary traditions is quite stifled and otherwise limited to inhumations and cremations. In reality, there is actually a beautifully diverse spectrum of traditions – and its not just limited to the ones discussed here. And I think that is one of the best things about archaeology – it can be such an expansive moment for your mind, seeing the ways in which human engagement with abstract concepts such as death have changed over time.

Also, I don’t know if anyone is actually going to read until the end of this post but I need to confess that I still haven’t finished Divinity II because I think I built my character wrong and the last boss battle is really hard…

References

Best, J. and Mulville, J. (2017) Birds in Death: Avian Archaeology and the Mortuary Record in the Scottish Islands. The Bioarchaeology of Ritual and Religion. pp. 179-192. Oxbow Books.

Bond, J.M. ad Worley, F.L. (2006) Companions in Death: the Roles of Animals in Anglo-Saxon and Viking Cremation Rituals in Britain. Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. pp. 89-98.

Boret, S.P. (2014) Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship, and the Culture of Death. Routledge.

Carr, G. and Knüsel, C. (1997) The Ritual Framework of Excarnation by Exposure as the Mortuary Practice of the Early and Middle Iron Ages of Central Southern Britain. Reconstructing Iron Age Societies: New Approaches to the British Iron Age. pp. 167 – 173. Oxbow Books.

Erizanu, P. (2018) The Biodegradable Burial Pod that Turns Your Body into a Tree. CNN: EcoSolutions. Retrieved from: https://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/03/world/eco-solutions-capsula-mundi/index.html

Fahlander, F. (2018) The Relational Life of Trees: Ontological Aspects of “Tree-Ness” in the Early Bronze Age of Northern Europe. Open Archaeology 4(1). pp. 373 – 385.

Kushwaha, S. (2016) Vultures in the Cultures of the World. Asian Journal of Agricultural and Life Sciences 1(2). pp. 34-40.

Larian Studios (2017). Divinity: Original Sin II. Bandai Namco Entertainment.

Whyte, T.R. (2001) Distinguishing Remains of Human Cremations from Burned Animal Bones. Journal of Field Archaeology 28(3-4). pp. 437 – 448.

Archaeological Accountability

Unsurprisingly, the current pandemic has got many academics, particularly those of us who are very early in our careers, rethinking our future plans. With many job opportunities cancelled or otherwise postponed, the idea of remaining in academia feels rather pointless, or at least a much bigger risk than it used to be.

I came across a Tweet that really hit me hard from Twitter user @cemicool:

“Academics #onhere are literally having realizations EVERY SINGLE DAY about how academia won’t save anyone and how they need to be less self-important. I find it….idk…obnoxious? Like, why? Either study, liberate knowledge, critique institutions, or don’t.”

As someone who has dabbled in theorizing decolonial and anarchist approaches to archaeology, this was certainly a wake-up call. It’s all good to write articles about how bad the discipline is, but what was I actually doing to fix this? And that got me thinking….what would accountability look like for an entire academic discipline? What would holding archaeology, as a discipline born from colonialist enterprises and is still used today as a tool of subjugation and marginalization, look like? And is it even possible?

A sign in front of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular from Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park…it has nothing to do with the blog post, but I couldn’t think of a good photo for this one!

The idea of accountability in archaeology isn’t new, of course, but what accountability in archaeology would look like seems to vary. For some, an accountable archaeology is about challenging perspectives and interrogating the ways in which whiteness and colonialism have written the past (Gorsline 2013, 2015), for others, it is an ethical practice of being transparent to shareholders, both academic and within the community, and funding organisations about the work you’re doing (Smith and Burke 2003, Heyworth 2014), and for many, it’s a combination of both (Ronayne 2008, Shepherd 2019, Cook 2020).

However, I’d like to focus more on the idea of accountability as practiced by activists and organizers across the world, and the ways in which this could be applied to archaeology as a discipline and service. In particular, I want to use the concept of “community accountability”, as used by practitioners of transformative justice. As described by the Audre Lorde Project, accountability here means to “aim at preventing, intervening in, responding to, and healing from violence through strengthening relationships and communities, emphasizing mutual responsibility for addressing the conditions that allow violence to take place, and hold people accountable for violence and harm”.

Accountability grounded in transformative justice acknowledges that it cannot undo the harm that has been caused – archaeologists, for example, will not be able to undo the pain of colonization through repatriation. But it is about, as Shira Hassan has put it, “what we can offer in a community accountability process [is] the beginning of healing and a feeling of the power being back in your hands” (Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha 2020). Archaeological accountability is letting academics redistribute their power to the communities involved, returning agency to the very people we often write about in a very detached, sometimes dehumanizing way.

Moore and Russell (2011) have discussed using “active accountability” as a means of circumventing perceived negativity of the concept, in which an organization or individual develops a series of actions that they want to be accountable for, where trust is built between groups that allows for consistency in their shared goals, as well as to avoid replicating oppressive actions and power dynamics. The example they use in their book comes from Clayton Thomas-Muller from the Indigenous Environmental Network, who outlines accountability as “[being] respectful of our unique needs as Native people. We need to be sure that they are not tokenizing our community leaders in campaigns and initiatives that build the profile and power of that particular NGO instead of helping to build the power and profile of the community. We push them to develop mechanisms to make sure that the free and informed consent of Indigenous communities is respected, and to make sure to involve all community stakeholders…including our traditional people, our hunters, our women, our youth, and not just the council governments”.

And I think it is that quote that really captures what archaeological accountability must be – not researcher led, but community led. And, more specifically, led by the impacted community – this could be the local community surrounding the excavation site, the cultural community associated with the site, or even the familial community and descendants associated with the site. As Kai Cheng Thom (2020) writes on being held accountable for abuse, “it is not up to you to decide how the process of healing or accountability should work. This doesn’t mean that you don’t get to have rights or boundaries, or that you can’t contribute actively to the process. It means that you don’t get to say that the person you have hurt is “crazy” or that what they are expressing doesn’t matter”. I’d argue that this point could similarly be applied to archaeologists in a way – although you as the individual may not have contributed to the oppression and marginalization of these communities, you are acting in the name of a discipline that has. To hold archaeology accountable, we must allow for community-led approaches that inform the archaeologists what we are needed to do – this could be approaching site excavation and interpretation in a specific way, or providing community access to archaeological reports and publications, or repatriation of artifacts and remains. Hell, it might even mean accepting that the community does not want any archaeology to happen whatsoever.

And what about teaching? Can we hold space for accountability in the ways in which we teach archaeology? I think so – for example, in engaging with students (particularly those from marginalized communities) who may disagree with the ways in which archaeology is currently being taught. Rather than clinging to the hierarchy instilled in the institution of academy, these moments of self-reflection and discussion could be incredibly vital for both students and lecturers alike (and be sure to actually credit these students when you, the senior academic with tenure, inevitably attempt to publish this as your own work! You know who you are…).

I think accountability – beyond just transparency and good ethical practices – needs to be much more of a focus in archaeology. Academia clearly does have a problem of performative progress – of discussing ideas of equity and progressiveness, without actually doing anything tangible about it. And, more importantly, I think accountability can help remove the ego that many academics have, especially under the guise of being progressive or radical – by putting the impacted communities first, and your research second (or third, or fourth…as far back as we can put it, probably), perhaps we can actually start doing the things we claim our research does on all of our grant applications.

References

The Audre Lorde Project (2010) National Gathering on Transformative and Community Accountability.

Cheng Thom, K. (2020) What to Do When You’ve Been Abusive. In E Dixon and L Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (eds) Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. AK Press.

Cook, K. (2020) Re-Coding Collaborative Archaeology: Digital Teaching and Learning for a Decolonized Future. Communicating the Past.

Gorsline, M. (2013) White Privilege and the Archaeology of Accountability on Long Island. The Digital Archaeological Record.

Gorsline, M. (2015) An Archaeology of Accountability: Recovering and Interrogating the “Invisible” Race. In CN Matthews and AM McGovern (eds) The Archaeology of Race in the Northeast. University Press of Florida.

Heyworth, M. (2014) The Future of Local Government Archaeology Services. Council for British Archaeology.

Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, L. (2020) Every Mistake I’ve Ever Made: An Interview with Shira Hassan. In E Dixon and L Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (eds) Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. AK Press.

Moore, H. and Russell, J.K. (2011) Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections to Navigate the Climate Crisis. PM Press.

Ronayne, M. (2008) Commitment, Objectivity, and Accountability to Communities: Priorities for 21st Century Archaeology. Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites.

Smith, C. and Burke, H. (2003) In the Spirit of the Code. In LJ Zimmerman, KD Vitelli, and J Hollowell-Zimmer (eds) Ethical Issues in Archaeology. Society for American Archaeology.

Shepherd, N. (2019) Archaeology in the Shadow of Apartheid: Race, Science, and Prehistory. South African Archaeological Society Goodwin Series.

When does “Cultural Preservation” become “Cultural Taxidermy”?

I’ve been thinking a lot about modern engagement with heritage sites lately, specifically beyond the “museum model” that most are presented through. These are the heritage sites that allow for much more engagement, if not actual interaction, between the heritage site and the visitor – most of these are in the form of free-standing spaces, such as the numerous heritage sites that can be found throughout the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

The Standing Stones of Stenness, in Orkney, Scotland

I love these sorts of sites – I love being able to briefly feel how the space may have felt for past peoples, to look up in awe at impossible-looking architecture made of time-defying earth and stone.

But there’s similar sites that are much more restrictive, that keep their heritage treasures under lock and key, sometimes even literally. This restrictiveness can vary in severity – sometimes it’s a simple rope that keeps visitors from wearing down the ancient material, other times entire monuments have been transported (kidnapped, in some cases?) to a new place, to be exhibited in sterile environments that can be controlled and, more importantly, contained.

And I understand the impulse to do so – heritage can be a fragile thing, and many of us who work with the past find ourselves becoming rather protective of it. Who wouldn’t want to spare these sites the cruelty of time and nature, to allow our great great great grandchildren to experience them as we do today?

What do we decide can be exchanged for preservation? Because there must be an exchange, something must be given up for the price of preserving something else – a site, an artefact, a body…these must all be given strict conditions in order to preserve it, which will necessitate restrictions on the ways in which others engage with it. So these pieces of heritage become roped off, or sealed away behind glass, or only recreated through virtual or otherwise augmented realities. And yes, perhaps we still maintain its existence on within the material realm and allow others to experience some aspect of it, but what are we also removing from the experience?

It becomes something that I think of sometimes as “cultural taxidermy” – in which something that once was alive within the cultural of a community is preserved in death, frozen for aesthetics but lacking in anything more tangible, more engaging. And perhaps this is a harsh way to phrase it, but this is something I think about a lot when I wander through the “cultural” parts of museums, where bits and pieces of other peoples’ cultures are kept frozen in time, placed in some sort of tableau that implies a living essence that has long been taken from it.

And this leads to another question that I have: How do we ultimately cut off these spaces from the people who gave it life and meaning? This is obviously a vital question that needs to be considered as museums and other heritage institutions become more scrutinised as spaces of continuous colonialism in an allegedly post-colonialist world. It’s a question that doesn’t get consider when repatriation becomes part of the discussion, that’s for sure – it seems that most folks who are staunchly against repatriation of artefacts and other material culture often see this as an unfair exchange, that they (the institution, the museum, the Western culture) are losing something valuable that will in effect be “squandered” or “wasted” because it is no longer in their hands.

When these items and spaces are removed from their cultural contexts and placed behind glass, how are these lines of living culture interrupted? Why do we think that these things need to be preserved over all other uses? Again, to return to the taxidermy metaphor, it’s hard not to see some aspects of cultural heritage as intriguing and exotic animals to many heritage workers, who decide that to taxidermy it and preserve it forever is the only way for it to continue “living”, rather than allowing it to remain alive and flourishing in its original context and space.

So, what’s the point to all of this rambling? Is there a way to “fix” this, if it even is an issue at all? How do we shift the focus from “preserving history” to “preserving and restoring history”? As always, I have no idea! But I like asking these questions, because asking them means that they’re being scrutinised and considered – and so, if you’re someone who works in heritage (particularly Western institutions), I hope you begin to consider them too.

Guardians, Gods, or Geodudes? Pokemon and Battling Animals in Antiquities

A Pokemon battle in Pokemon Moon (2016)
In the Pokemon franchise, Pokemon (or “pocket monsters”, as it directly translates to English) are catchable creatures that can be trained for battle between Pokemon trainers. Pokemon battles have developed an extensive amount of lore through the video games and associated anime series, particularly through myths and legends that the Player can learn about on their journey. The Veilstone’s Myth from the Sinnoh Region, for example, uses the myth of a human killing a Pokemon with a sword and causing a Pokemon to temporarily disappear to provide one explanation for why Pokemon battles exist.

In the Alolan region, Pokemon battles have been incorporated into rites of passage. One type of battle practiced during this rite, known as the Battle Royale, is fought between four Pokemon trainers and is said to be based off of the war between the Guardian Deities of the region.

A character from Pokemon Moon (2016) saying, “Hoo-ee! Another great battle this year!”
We can draw some parallels between these battles and some actual, similar concepts found within the archaeological record – particularly those that take place in the Alola region, which have an especially significant place within the cultural rites of the region. Generally speaking, we have a plethora of evidence for ritual events that utilise non-human species in one form or another. However, with Pokemon battles in mind, let’s focus on forms of more ritualised, or culturally significant, combat.

Elephants in an Ancient Roman amphitheater
Elephants being fought by humans in a Roman amphitheatre (Image: Stefano Bianchetti)

Animal fighting is more or less frowned upon today, but we can find much archaeological (and textual) evidence of the cultural and ritual importance of animal combat in antiquity. Evidence for dog fighting can be seen amongst Etruscan tomb art and Greek vases (Kalof and Taylor, 2007). Cock-fighting, perhaps the most known form of animal combat, has a long history, with depictions found in Greece on Corinthian and Attic vases and amphorae (Lewis and Llewelynn-Jones, 2018). Although both dog and cock fighting were most likely used as entertainment amongst the ancient Greeks, the latter also had a significant ritual dimension as well; cock-fights were annual affairs in Athens, with cocks being associated with both Ares and Athena for their fighting prowess (Shelton, 2014).

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Terracotta figure of children watching a cockfight, from the Archaeological Museum in Naples (Image: Mary Harrsch)

There are also instances of inter-species fighting, specifically between humans and other animals. The ancient Romans, of course, are commonly associated with the grand spectacle of gladiatorial fights in popular media – and there’s historical evidence to support the existence of these gory shows, too. Animals – particularly exotic animals caught and shipped to Rome – were used in “venationes“, or hunts in which they were pitted against humans for entertainment, and also as a common tool of execution, known as damnatio ad bestias…again, for entertainment (Wazer, 2016). These animals were also pitted against other animals in arenas in a way that could be argued as ritually staged, as it demonstrated and affirmed the Roman domination over nature itself (Gilhus, 2013).

Museum_of_Sousse_-_Mosaics_2_detail
A man executed by leopard, as depicted in Roman mosaics from the Archaeological Museum of Tunesia (Image: Rached Msadek, 2007)

Another particular form of this inter-species fighting that was culturally significant throughout antiquity is that of the mythological. Artwork, such as Greek vase art, often depicted the heroic battles of legends like Heracles against creatures both mythological and non-mythological. In these depictions, the concepts of humanness, beastliness, and perhaps something in-between are on full display (no pun intended)…sometimes even more literally, with hybrid creatures made from both human and animal, like the Minotaur, put in combat with others (Beier 2017).

800px-Calydonian_hunt_Antikensammlung_Berlin_F1707_full
A Tyrrhenian amphora that may depict the mythological Calydonian boar hunt, displayed at the Altes Museum (Image: Bibi Saint-Pol, 2008)

Despite the battle-based gameplay of the Pokemon series, creator Satoshi Tajiri has also said that a core concept of the games was communication and community – players were encouraged to not just compete against friend, but also trade Pokemon with each other as well (Yokada, 1999). And perhaps that’s truly the connecting tissue between Pokemon and the animal battles of ancient times…at the end of the day, it was the community that was the core of these rituals and stories, bringing people together with shared mythologies, cosmologies, and activities.

Although, I don’t know if folks in antiquity were desperately looking for friends to trade Pokemon so you could evolve your Haunter into Gengar…?

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Gigantamax version of Gengar from Pokemon Sword and Shield (2019)…I love you, Gengar! (Image: Prima Games, 2019)

References

Beier, C. (2017) Fighting Animals: An Analysis of the Intersections between Human Self and Animal Otherness on Attic Vases. In Interactions between Animals and Humans in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (eds. T. Fögen and E. Thomas). De Gruyter: Berlin. pp. 275-304.

GameFreak (2007) Pokemon Diamond/Pearl. Nintendo.

GameFreak (2016) Pokemon Sun/Moon. Nintendo.

Gilhous, I.S. (2013) From Sacrifices to Symbols: Animals in Late Antiquity to Early Christianity. In Animals as Religious Subjects: Transdisciplinary Perspectives (eds. C. Deane-Drummond, D.L. Clough, and R.A. Kaiser). Bloomsbury: New York. pp. 149-166.

Kalof, L. and Taylor, C. (2007) The Discourse of Dog Fighting. Humanity and Society 31(4). pp. 319-333.

Lewis, S. and Llewellynn-Jones, L. (2018) The Culture of Animals in Antiquity: A Sourcebook with Commentaries. New York: Routledge.

Shelton, J. (2014) Spectacles of Animal Abuse. In The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life (ed. G.L. Campbell). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 461-477.

Wazer, C. (2016) The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/exotic-animals-ancient-rome/475704/

Yokada, T. (1999) The Ultimate Game Freak. TIME Magazine. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html

Vampires of Skyrim (and in Real Life Archaeology): Yesterday and Today

Skyrim_20180709225100
When your Skyrim character becomes a vampire, their skin becomes deathly pale and their eyes turn an otherworldly orange.

In the Elder Scrolls video game series, there are many fantastical creatures and monsters inhabiting the world, both friendly and hostile to the player character. One of these monsters (or perhaps that’s a bit too judgemental?) is the vampire, whose curse (or blessing?) is passed to others through a disease called “sanguinare vampiris”, also known as “porphyric hemophilia” in earlier games. The player character can become infected with this disease and become a “creature of the night”, obtaining all the advantages and disadvantages of vampirism.

Vampire lore was elaborated on extensively in Skyrim, specifically through the downloadable content Dawnguard, which places the player character in the middle of a conflict between vampires and vampire hunters. In this DLC, it is explained that there are many individual clans of vampires across the world, with the most powerful vampires known as “pure-bloods”. A pure-blooded vampire will have been granted their powers from the Daedric Prince (basically one of the Elder Scrolls deities) Molag Bal directly. The DLC also introduced the “Vampire Lord” form – this is considered the ultimate form of vampirism and is usually a power that only pure-blooded vampires have.

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The Dawnguard DLC reveals that one can become a “Vampire Lord”, which completely transforms the body into a powerful creature of the night.

The idea of the “vampire” is a relatively old one, of course. In Europe, it seems that vampirism became a topic of interest during the 18th century, with the word “vampire” officially entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in 1734. Many early stories of vampires appear to have originated from German and Slavic folklore, although there are many instances of vampire-like creatures in stories around the world (Barber 1988).

Literature and film eventually created what we may consider today to be the “archetypal vampire” – Polidori’s The Vampyre, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula provided the textual background for the modern day vampire, while F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula ultimately solidified the visual characteristics associated with the monster that are still used to this day. However, we still occasionally get new “twists” on the old formula in popular culture – from “sexy, brooding vampires” (see Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles series or Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series) to more hilarious takes on vampire culture (see Jermaine Clement and Taika Watiti’s mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows).

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A digital recreation of how some “vampire burials” would place a stone or brick into the mouth of the dead (Image Credit: Matteo Borrini)

But what about vampires in archaeology? We already looked at lycanthropes in the archaeological record – can we find vampires as well?

Well…kinda.

When it comes to “deviant” burials, or burials that differ from normative burial practices, it’s easy to draw negative assumptions of the deceased, particularly when combined with “flights of fancy” of local folklore. Among these deviant burials, many have been interpreted as possible “anti-vampire burials”; this was a term first used in 1971 off-handedly by Helena Zol-Adamikowa and eventually popularised throughout Slavic archaeological literature to refer to most burials that defied funerary norms (Hodgson 2013).

Some of the various evidence used to support these “anti-vampire burials” include protective burial goods (like sickles), stones left atop of bodies, stakes or knives stabbed through the chest, decapitations, and, perhaps one of the more prolific examples, stones or bricks placed within the mouth of the deceased (Barrowclough 2014).

While there are undoubtedly examples of how pervasive the idea of vampires or, more generally, the undead were throughout folklore in “deviant” burials, there should also be a bit of caution in generalising all non-normative burials in this way, of course! There has been plenty of debate even regarding the evidence mentioned above. But perhaps the most solid thing to come out of all of this archaeological research is how such abstract concepts can ultimately be reflected in the material culture that remains.

Oh, and that apparently if you run into a vampire, you should definitely stuff a brick in their mouth.

References

Barber, P. (1988) Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. Yale University Press.

Barrowclough, D. (2014) Time to Slay Vampire Burials? The Archaeological and Historical Evidence for Vampires

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

Hodgson, J.E. (2013) ‘Deviant’ Burials in Archaeology. Anthropology Publications. 58. pp. 1-24.

“I Love Dying and Being Dead” – Late Capitalism and Modern Perceptions of Death

Lately, archaeologists have been a bit concerned about memes. No, not because they’re trying to perfect their comedic skills – rather, there’s been a relatively recent rash of popular memes that were derived from several big archaeological finds. For example, a nearly complete human skeleton was recovered in Pompeii, originally interpreted to have been crushed to death while fleeing the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. The image used to publicise this excavation – a skeleton whose head has been obfuscated by a stone slab – ended up being used by many as a meme on social media like Twitter and Facebook. This led to a further discussion by archaeologists across the Internet on respecting human remains and whether or not it was ethical to make memes out of recovered bodies, regardless of the age and unknown identity (Finn 2018).

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A Tweet from Patrick Gill (@Pizza_Suplex) commenting on the skeleton recovery that says, “Me to a panicked group of archaeologists moments after I drop a big ass rock on a perfectly preserved Pompeii skeleton: Chill. Let me talk to the press. I’ve got this.”

Although the main concern with this “meme-ification” of the dead is the ethics at play (for more on the ethics of human remains on display, see my blog post on selfies with human remains in the recent Tomb Raider game), I’m more interested in why memes utilising the dead – or associated with death and dying – are so popular these days.

Let’s talk about late capitalism and how it shapes the average young person’s everyday life, shall we?

An image of a tombstone that says “This Space for Rent” – the caption added above it says, “Capitalism even ruins the sweet release of death smh”

Millennials have had the utmost misfortune to reach young adulthood (the “pivotal years”, as many call this time period) during late capitalism. This means that, as a generational group, they are significantly poorer than previous generations (O’Connor 2018), with a growing number unable to even save money (Elkins 2018) from a severe lack of fair wages. This is the generational group that is leaving higher education with high amounts of debt, only to find a feeble job market that demands long hours for little pay. It’s a pretty bleak future that young people seem to have inherited, so it’s honestly hard to blame them for developing such a morbid sense of humour that utilises iconography and imagery associated with death to express such futility in a way that’s become palatable for everyone else.

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A meme from Da Share Zone (@dasharezOne), a popular social media presence that makes images using stock photos of skeletons. This one depicts a (fake) human skeleton wearing a fur coat with a flower crown . The text around it says, “Looking Good, Feeling Bad”. Relatable!

What interests me the most as an archaeologist is how this affects our perception of death and dying in modern times. Morbid memes may be contributing to a sort of desensitisation of dying, to the point where it has become no longer taboo or fearful to speak of the dead – in fact, people actively make fun of the dead and the concept of dying. I would argue that this could be seen as the opposite effect that the Positive Death Movement is having, which strives to cultivate a more positive and respectful attitude towards death. I think, as archaeologists, we definitely need to push back against the meme-ification of the dead as violation of ethics – but I also think we should consider why this has become a trend, how the socio-political characteristics of the world at large can cause these things to become popular, and how we can take this approach and apply it to our interpretations of the past.

References

Elkins, K. (2018) A Growing Percentage of Millennials Have Absolutely Nothing Saved. CBNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/09/a-growing-percentage-of-millennials-have-absolutely-nothing-saved.html

Finn, E. (2018) Pompeii Should Teach Us to Celebrate People’s Lives, Not Mock Their Death. The Conversation. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/pompeii-should-teach-us-to-celebrate-peoples-lives-not-mock-their-death-97632

O’Connor, S. (2018) Millennials Poorer than Previous Generations, Data Show. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/81343d9e-187b-11e8-9e9c-25c814761640

 

OM NOM NOM or Did I Really Use an Old, Bad Joke to Introduce a Post on Gnawing?

Hi, welcome back to the early to mid 2000’s where we still use jokes like “om nom nom” unironically!

Just kidding, I won’t subject you to bad jokes like that for this entire post. Anyway, it’s come to my attention that for a blog called “Animal Archaeology”, I don’t really write that much about the archaeology of animals, huh? Well, today will change that! Here is a brief introduction to how we identify gnaw marks on certain bones – because humans aren’t the only species to eat other animals, don’t ya know?

Rodents

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Rat skull and mandible

Rodent gnawing is probably the easiest one to recognise. Due to those huge incisors of theirs, rodents leave behind a very distinct pattern of close striations on the bone. Be warned, however! It can be easy to mix this up with cut marks, or vice versa.

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Rodent gnaw marks on a Bison bone (Photo Credit: Alton Dooley)

Felines

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Domestic Cat skull and mandible

Cats do indeed gnaw on bones! And they have a pretty peculiar way of doing so – when they hold onto a bone, they’ll use their canine teeth, which will often leave a puncture mark! Given their smaller size, these marks will often be a bit small and usually won’t go entirely through the bone (although if you’re dealing with a bigger feline, like a lion, you may find yourself with bigger and deeper puncture marks!). Cats will also do a bit of a “nibble”, leaving behind a very pitted and rough looking texture.

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Examples of feline gnawing (with tooth punctures) from experiments (Image Credit: Jennifer A. Parkson, Thomas Plummer, and Adam Hartstone-Rose)

Canines

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Wolf skull and mandible

This is possibly something you can check right now if you have dogs as pets – take another look the next time they chew up a bone. Canine species like dogs and wolves will produce gnaw marks similar to felines in that they will often cause a puncture hole in the bone with their teeth. However, canine species will usually produce much larger holes in comparison. Another key characteristic is that canine species will slobber – when they gnaw on bones, they often produce what can only be described as “an upsetting amount of saliva” – however, this is great for zooarchaeologists, as it can leave behind a very polished look to the bone, which is very distinct. So, next time see you a beautifully polished archaeological bone…it was probably covered in ancient dog spit.

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Some examples of canine gnawing on discarded worked bones (Image Credit: Reuven Yeshurun, Daniel Kaufman, and Mina Weinstein-Evron)

Humans

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Replica human skull and mandible (Photo Credit: Bone Clones)

Yes, occasionally we do find human gnaw marks, although now we’re a little bit out of my jurisdiction! So, our teeth look weird – well, at least compared to non-human teeth. So the kind of gnaw marks we leave are a bit…wonkier? Is that the right word? Just bite into an apple and see what you leave behind, it’ll depend on how your incisors look, as we often lead with them to bite down onto something. Personally, I have pretty large buckteeth, so I’d hate to be the zooarchaeologist looking at my left behind teeth marks trying to figure out what the heck happened!

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Human gnaw marks left behind on various sheep bones (Image Credit: Antonio J. Romero)

References

Hays, B. (2016) Volunteers Chew Bones to Help Identify Marks of Earliest Human Chefs. United Press International. Retrieved from https://www.upi.com/Science_News/2016/08/02/Volunteers-chew-bones-to-help-identify-marks-of-earliest-human-chefs/2831470153494/

Parkinson, J.A., Plummer, T., and Hartstone-Rose, A. (2015) Characterizing Felid Tooth Marking and Gross Bone Damage Patterns Using GIS Image Analysis: An Experimental Feeding Study with Large Felids. Journal of Human Evolution. 80. pp. 114-134.

Yeshurun, R., Kaufman, D., and Weinstein-Evron, M. (2016) Contextual Taphonomy of Worked Bones in the Natufian Sequence of the el-Wad Terrace (Israel). Quarternary International. 403. pp. 3-15.

The Perfect Pokemon: A Brief Look at Selective Animal Breeding

Is there a “Perfect Pokemon”? Well, I guess technically there is the genetically engineered Mewtwo…but what about “naturally occurring” Pokemon? Can Trainers “breed” them for battle?

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Pokeballs wait to be healed up.

A form of “Pokemon breeding” has been a vital part of the competitive scene for years. Players took advantage of hidden stats known as “Individual Values”, or “IV’s”, which would influence a Pokemon’s proficiency in battle. These stats could be changed based on training and utilising certain items in-game. In order to have the most control over a Pokemon’s IV’s, it is best if a Player breeds a Pokemon from the start by hatching them from an Egg, allowing for modification of stats  from the very start. This is in contrast to usiong caught Pokemon, which are often above Level 1, so some of their important stats have already been changed “naturally” (Tapsell 2017).

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By looking at the stats of your Pokemon, you can figure out how best to perfect it through training.

But what about real life animal breeding? More specifically, “selective breeding” – this refers to human-influenced or artificial breeding to maximise certain traits, such as better production of certain materials (for example, milk or wool) or better physicality for domestication (stronger builds for beasts of burden, etc.). This is in contrast to natural breeding or selection, in which the best traits towards survival and adaptation are passed through breeding, although these traits may not be best suited for human use of the animal. Selective breeding is most likely as old as domestication itself, but its only been recently (at least, in the past few centuries) that humans have more drastically modified animal genetics (Oldenbroek and van der Waaij 2015).

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Various dog breeds represented by their skulls – an example of how breeding can dramatically modify the anatomy of an animal (Image Credit: A. Drake, Skidmore Department of Biology)

But can we see selective breeding archaeologically? For the most part, this sort of investigation requires a large amount of data – zooarchaeologists can see dramatic modifications to bred animals by examining large assemblages of animal remains over time. Arguably one of the best examples of this can be seen in looking at dog domestication and how breeding techniques have drastically changed aspects of canine anatomy (Morley 1994).

Zooarchaeological data can be supplemental by other sources of evidence, such as text and material remains. Perhaps the most powerful innovation in archaeological science, however, is DNA analysis – using techniques such as ancient DNA (aDNA), we can see specific genetic markers to further investigate exact points of change (MacKinnon 2001, 2010).

The most recent additions to the Pokemon video game franchise, Pokemon: Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee have not only streamlined gameplay, but have also made the previously “invisible stats” more visible and trackable to the chagrin of some seasoned Pokemon players. However, for new players this is undoubtably a welcome change…now if only we could make it just as easy to see in real life zooarchaeology!

References

MacKinnon, M. (2001) High on the Hog: Linking Zooarchaeological, Literary, and Artistic Data for Pig Breeds in Roman Italy. American Journal of Archaeology. 105(4). pp. 649-673.

MacKinnon, M. (2010) Cattle ‘Breed’ Variation and Improvement in Roman Italy: Connecting the Zooarchaeological and Ancient Textual Evidence. World Archaeology. 42(1). pp. 55-73.

Morey, D.F. (1994) The Early Evolution of the Domestic Dog. American Scientist. 82(4). pp. 336-347.

Oldenbroek, K. and van der Waaij, L. (2015) Textbook Animal Breeding and Genetics for BSc Students. Centre for Genetic Resources The Netherlands and Animal Breeding and Genomics Centre. Retrieved from https://wiki.groenkennisnet.nl/display/TAB/Textbook+Animal+Breeding+and+Genetics

Tapsell, C. (2017) Pokemon Sun and Moon Competitive Training Guide. Eurogamer. Retrieved from https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-12-15-pokemon-sun-and-moon-competitive-training-guide-how-to-raise-the-best-strongest-pokemon-for-competitive-play-4925

Big Game Collector: Collecting Animal Remains in Skyrim (and in Real Life!)

With the addition of Hearthfire as downloadable content, Skyrim allowed players to build and live in their own customisable homes. One of the options for buildable rooms included a “trophy room”, where players can erect trophy versions of some of the creatures that can be killed in-game. This ranges from real world game like bears to the more mythical beasts like dragons. Yes, even in  a game where you can kill and mount living tree creatures called “Spriggans”, the very human fascination with animal remains still exists!

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A dragon skull mounted in my character’s trophy room.

Hunting trophies appear to be somewhat culturally ubiquitous, and can be found throughout the archaeological record. Although most discussion on trophies in the Prehistoric tend to focus on headhunting and human remains (see Armit 2012), we do have plausible evidence that some recovered animal remains from sites were most likely kept as hunting trophies.

Of course, animal remains were used quite often in Prehistoric life in ways that went beyond decor and trophies – modified bones reveal that it was common to create tools (needles, pins, combs, etc.) out of hunted animals. Another common interpretation for animal bones and other associated remains found in more “domestic” contexts is that they may have had some sort of ritual use – for example, there are many instances of animal bones deposited in pits and building foundations (Wilson 1999). Arguably some of the most famous examples of ritual use of animal bones are the Star Carr deer frontlets – these cranial fragments with the antlers still attached were possibly worn as headdress or masks during rituals, perhaps as a way of evoking a form of transformation by the wearer (Conneller 2004).

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A deer “frontlet” that may have been used as a mask or headdress from the Mesolithic site of Star Carr (Photo Credit: Neil Gevaux, University of York)

Hunting trophies as we understand them today were popular as far back as the medieval period, where hunting for sport not only resulted in trophies of animal remains – there were also “living trophies”, in which big game and exotic animals were captured and kept in menageries. The popularisation of natural history exhibits and taxidermy in the 19th and 20th centuries also brought with it a new wave of displaying hunted animals, both for education and for the sake of, well, showing off your hunting skills. However, this wasn’t the only way to display one’s hunted game – it was also quite popular to commission paintings of hunting trophies, which would eventually evolve into the popularisation of photographing one’s kills (Kalof 2007).

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After encountering a tough snow bear in the wild, I immediately had to have in displayed in my character’s new home.

Ultimately, if we look at the concept of “trophy animals” as a whole, what can we learn about human-animal interactions throughout history? The concept of a “trophy”, regardless of the method in which it is displayed, is centred around the objectification of the dead animal. It is also often a sign of power and a visual reminder of the sort of hierarchies in place in society – after all, trophy rooms and hunting for sport are often associated with masculinity and elite status. Unsurprisingly, there are also associations with hunting trophies and colonialism, with many photographs showcasing white men in pith helmets next to their “exotic” game in colonised regions of the world (Kalof and Fitzgerald 2003).

But here, in our fantasy video game, our trophies stand – perhaps problematic by nature of their associations in real life – but also as reminders of the system in which Skyrim runs, where I fondly remember how that one snow bear managed to kill me at Level 3 at least a dozen times. And now that snow bear is stuffed in my house. How the tables turn.

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Hunting trophies can be found all over Skyrim!

References

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

Conneller, C. (2004) Becoming Deer: Corporeal Transformations at Star Carr. Archaeological Dialogues 11(1). pp. 37-55.

Kalof, L. and Fitzgerald, A. (2003) Reading the Trophy: Exploring the Display of Dead Animals in Hunting Magazines. Visual Studies 18(2). pp. 112-122.

Kalof, L. (2007) Looking at Animals in Human History. Reaktion Books Ltd.

Wilson, B. (1999) Displayed or Concealed? Cross Cultural Evidence for Symbolic and Ritual Activity Depositing Iron Age Animal Bones. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 18(3). pp. 297-305.