Not For You: Cultural Appropriation in Neo-Paganism and How Archaeology Plays a Role

Issues of cultural appropriation in “New Age” and holistic circles isn’t breaking news – over the past decade, there has been much in the media and news discussing appropriation of ritual garb, sacred herbs, and practices, often by white spiritual leaders who make financial gain through their appropriative acts without providing anything in return to those whose culture has been stolen. Although the material side of cultural appropriation is easy to spot (for example, the many, many examples of white people wearing indigenous war bonnets during festivals), it has also become far more engrained in some Neo-Pagan and modern witchcraft circles. Cultural appropriation doesn’t seem related to archaeology at first glance, but because appropriation is mostly performed through the creation and utilisation of material culture, it arguably is an archaeological issue.

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Just a small example of clashing cultures – a Norse rune alongside an oracle card depicting Egyptian deity Bast.

Arguably much cultural appropriation could be traced to comparative studies of religions – for example, comparative Indo-European mythology, which has resulted in the use of aspects of Hinduism in Celtic reconstructivism (Michale 2008). In some ways, this could be seen as coming from a good natured place – by utilising a form of soft polytheism, or the belief that all deities across religions are all aspects of the same god, it places all religions on a similar level of “respect” and does not place one particular religion over another.

However, this masks the negative effects of cultural appropriation. In Peter Grey’s book Apocalyptic Witchcraft (2013), he writes that “the New Age is one such form of cultural imperialism”, referring to the violence that cultural appropriation does towards the very rituals and rites that are being appropriated, torn from the cultural context that they originated from. An “outsider” from the culture will gain from their use (or, in many cases, misuse) of their practices – in a sense, they are stealing what is not rightfully theirs, which in some ways can recreate imperialistic power structures, especially if the culture in question has a history of being persecuted for practising the very beliefs that have now been appropriated.

The more malicious form of cultural appropriation is seen in the commodification of spiritual elements from other cultures by outsiders. The term “plastic shaman” is often used to refer to someone (often a white, non-native) who peddles “Native American spirituality” in the form of manufactured totems, jewelry, or oracle cards. This commodification often results in the homogenising of all Native American practices as one singular tradition, rather than the complex and diverse cultures that differ based on tribe and region (Lelandra 2008). The commodification of appropriation further “others” a culture, often advertising it as something “new” and “exotic” to Western consumers.

Ultimately, it seems that most instances of cultural appropriation can be traced to a similar cause that also creates pseudo-archaeological histories (which you can read more about here) in Neo-Paganism: a need for authenticity. Filan’s paper in Talking about the Elephant (2008) makes a great point about the word “authentic”, noting that “it is an outsider’s word”. Those outside of a culture want something “authentic”, something that is proven to be real and true, as they will not have the background knowledge to truly connect with the practice. Authenticity also implies a sense of insecurity as well – someone who has grown up in a particular culture knows that it is real, while an outsider will need reassurance.

This insecurity is similarly reflected in the pseudo-archaeological histories that have come out of many Neo-Pagan practices. In order to combat naysayers and disbelievers, many feel that they need to prove that their path is authentic and valid. So, in many ways, these drive for authenticity in both history and practice feeds into pseudoarchaeology and cultural appropriation – for example, Gardnerian Wicca extrapolates from different cultures (Celtic, Egyptian, etc.) to formulate its rituals as well as provide the aura of an ancient, authentic religion that harkens back to prehistory. This is also seen in “eclectic” paths, or spiritual practices that tend not to follow one particular pathway – by utilising “authentic” cultural practices and their histories as “proof”, their path is more “valid”.

The discussion surrounding cultural appropriation in Neo-Pagan and other New Age communities is still very tense, as practitioners try to balance between cultural diffusion and appropriation – on one hand, those who find themselves “called” to their current practice may feel as though they are not appropriating said culture at all, but rather can be seen as part of the culture due to their spiritual connection. Others argue that so long as the practitioner follows the laid out traditions of the culture and is knowledgable of their history (more specifically, by an elder of said culture), it should not been seen as appropriation (Barrette 2008). But there is a growing number of people within these communities who are becoming more informed about cultural appropriation and engaging with it, both on a spiritual level as well as a more aware, political and social level.

References

Barrette, E. (2008) Braiding Pagans: Cultural Etiquette in a Multicultural World. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Filan, K. (2008) Ain’t Nothing like the Real Thing, Baby…Cultural Appropriation and the Myth of Authenticity. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Grey, P. (2013) Apocalyptic Witchcraft. Scarlet Imprint.

Lelandra (2008) Devouring Kitsch: Image Collecting and Cultural Appropriation. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Michale, J. (2008) Druids and Brahmins: of Cultural Appropriation and the Vedas. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

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

Today’s blog post is the second part of our discussion of archaeological typologies as seen in Skyrim. Last week we started off the conversation with an example of using typology to differentiate between ancient Nord and Dwemer ruins in Blackreach (you can read Part One here!). For today, we’ll be continuing this conversation by looking at functionality and typology, as well as the way Skyrim takes typologies to the extreme through the design of certain items and how this simplified version of typology may reflect criticisms of the practice by archaeologists.

We can see the item design in Skyrim as a way of talking about typology (or the method by which archaeologists categorise stylistic elements of material remains in order to associate them to a certain time period and/or culture) in relatively simplistic terms – after all, if we look at the physical characteristics of different pieces of weaponry and armour from different cultures, we can see how they completely different they are and how easy it is to identify where an item originated.

In the overall Elder Scrolls lore, ideas of culture are more or less simplified into being race-specific, with additional cultures based on in-game factions. There are 10 playable races that make up the majority of the material culture in the video game: the Altmer, (High Elves), Argonians, Khajiit, Nords, Imperials, Bosmer (Wood Elves), Redguards, Dunmer (Dark Elves), and Orsimer (Orcs). In addition, there are several non-playable races with their own specific material culture (the Falmer, the Dwemer, the Daedra), as well as faction-specific cultures as well (the various Guilds, the Blades, the Stormcloaks, etc.). Overall, Skyrim’s archaeological record is filled with a diverse selection of different cultures intermingling, with very obvious physical markers on their material goods that allow the player to differentiate between them when obtaining equipment throughout the course of the game. It should also be stressed that the in-game concept of race and culture as more or less interchangeable is incredibly simplified and not at all a reflection of real life, which is far more complex than that.

For example, let’s look at the four weapons in the above image, each of which originates from a different culture. On the top left is an Orc sword, on the top right is a Dwarven axe. On the bottom left is a Redguard sword (more specifically, a scimitar), and on the bottom right is an ancient Nordic axe. The stylistic differences are very obvious and would be easy to see that there is a certain typology involved in the creation of each weapon within each culture. But let’s take it further and discuss why these stylistic differences are necessary – after all, this is another aspect of typology which makes the process valuable to the interpretation.

To start, let’s look at the Orc sword. Based on the Orsimer culture from which it originates, its possible that the strange shape associated with Orc weaponry may simply be a reflection of their culture’s strong emphasis on warrior culture and blacksmith skills; in fact, the Orsimer culture is, within the lore of Skyrim, known for the high quality smithing that is taught from a young age and results in some of the best weaponry in the realm.

The Dwemer, or Dwarves, were known for their mechanical prowess and utilisation of metalwork in their complex and intricate machinery that can still be found in working condition centuries after their disappearance; their proficiency in metalwork can also be seen in their weaponry, which are often more decorated with small details than that from other cultures.

The stylistic traits associated with the material culture of the Redguards and the Nords, on the other hand, can be best explained from the perspective of the creation of the game’s lore. As players may notice, many of the in-game races are clearly based on real life cultures – this is clearly seen with the Nords, who are not only based on Norse material culture, but also named after it. In the case of the Redguards, the game designers were inspired by African and Middle Eastern cultures, explaining the substitution of the usual longsword found in the other Elder Scrolls cultures with a scimitar, which has its real life roots in the Middle East.

As another example in cultural typologies, let’s look at the above image comparing three pieces of armour. From left to right, we have an Imperial cuirass, a Blade cuirass, and an Elven helmet. Again, all of these pieces of armour have distinct stylistic characteristics – but let’s take a closer look at the Imperial and Blade armoury. Again, from an out-of-game perspective, we can clearly see where the real life inspirations lie – the Imperials are, as one can tell by the name, based off of Roman legionnaires, while the Blades take their inspiration from Japanese Samurai warriors. And yet, it can be argued that the two pieces of armour have similar characteristics in design as well. It could be that this reflects the entwined histories of the two cultures – according to the Elder Scrolls lore, the Blades were a group of Akaviri warriors (another extinct race that are represented in other games in the Elder Scrolls series using East Asian-inspired architecture and artefacts) that eventually became part of the Imperial life as bodyguards.

The Elven helmet (which is more often worn in-game by the Altmer or High Elves) doesn’t necessarily reflect a similarly elaborate history, but it is another example of functionality reflected in cultural style – the shape of the helmet appears to specifically suit the shape of an Altmer, who often have higher foreheads and elongated faces. It could also be argued that the ornate and feathery style of the helmet is an attempt to emulate the alleged ancestors of the Altmer – this refers to the Aedra, a race of god-like immortals that have disappeared from the realm prior to the story of Skyrim.

Although the extreme stylistic differences between Skyrim’s cultures make the process of typological analysis appear to be very simple and easy, it’s a bit more complicated in real life. There has been a lot of debate on the usefulness of typologies in general, and how they may ultimately just be a reflection of bias on the part of the archaeologist. Typologies could be argued to have been more modern inventions, based on the outside perspective of an archaeologist that does not reflect the realities of the past culture from which it originated. These invented types may eventually become “canonised” within archaeological literature and considered the “truth” – ultimately obstructing alternative interpretations (Boozer 2015). Additionally, it can be argued that typology presents the idea of culture as relatively static and unchanging, which may not be accurate (Hill and Evans 1972). In some ways, this is shown within Skyrim’s material culture – Nordic styles (as discussed in Part One of this post) change over time, the Blades maintain their Akaviri roots in their ornamentation while being subsumed into Imperial culture, etc.

Regardless, typology has certainly been an important analytical method in archaeology, albeit a controversial one in some cases. And while it may not be as useful as it was once thought, we can use the theoretical concepts utilised in typology to further our interpretations, but still be open minded and conscious of the hidden biases that may be disrupting our research.

References

Anonymous. (2011). Altmer. The Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Altmer

Anonymous. (2011). Blades. The Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Blades

Anonymous. (2011). Dwemer. The Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Dwemer

Anonymous. (2011). Orsimer. The Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Orsimer

Anonymous. (2011). Races (Skyrim). The Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Races_(Skyrim)

Anonymous. (2011). Redguard. The Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Redguard

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

Boozer, A.L. (2015) The Tyranny of Typologies: Evidential Reasoning in Romano-Egyptian Domestic Archaeology. Material Evidence: Learning from Archaeological Practice. Routledge. p. 92-110.

Hill, J. and Evans, R. (1972) A Model for Classification and Typology”. Models in Archaeology. Methuen. p. 231-273.

Werewolf? Therewolf! Lycanthropy in Skyrim (and Real Life!)

Content Warning: Photo of human remains included in this post.

“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 (Bethesda Game Studios 2011), 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 (Beresford 2013).

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 (Garcia 2017). 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 (Hill 2013)?

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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 (Green 1998).

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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 (Cunliffe 1992, Hill 1995).

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.

 

No One Knows Who They Were or What They Were Doing: The Many Stonehenges of the United States

In ancient times,
Hundreds of years before the dawn of history
Lived a strange race of people, the Druids
No one knows who they were or what they were doing
But their legacy remains
Hewn into the living rock, of Stonehenge
Stonehenge, This is Spinal Tap
“Are you telling me that this is it? This is scenery? Have you ever been to Stonehenge?”
Stonehenge is arguably one of the most iconic archaeological sites in the world. It stands as a testament to the ancient past, as well as the enduring mystery that shrouds the site which still captivates the general public today. As with all iconic imagery, of course, Stonehenge has been emulated, reformatted, and straight up copied in places around the world.
In the United States alone there are over two dozen Stonehenge-related roadside attractions. Some are faithful reproductions…others have taken, let’s say interesting liberties in their reinterpretations…and well, there’s a few places that just found a bunch of rocks and named it a Stonehenge. Here’s a couple of my favourite examples…anyone up for an American Stonehenge road trip?
American Stonehenge – Apparently anything made of stones is ancient Druid stuff – who knew?
American Stonehenge
I’ve written a more comprehensive post about this allegedly “ancient” Stonehenge previously on the blog. The owners of the site claim that, similar to the Stonehenge in England, ancient European seafarers made the journey to North America and built a twin in Salem, New Hampshire of all places. Evidence for this theory exists in “Ogham” and “Phoenician” carvings found in the stone. In actuality, American Stonehenge (aka Mystery Hill) is most likely the remains of stone farm storage that has been transformed into a roadside attraction. But hey! There’s an alpaca farm too, so that’s fun.
boathenge
Boat Henge – I’d wager you could have probably guessed that even without that giant text. (Photo Credit: Boathenge.net)
Boat Henge
Over in Missouri, we have our first (of many) transportation-based Stonehenges. Boat Henge is, as you may guessed by the name, is made entirely out of fiberglass boats. According to the official website, similar attention was paid to the mathematical and spatial correlation between the engineered arc of the boats and how it is orientated with the sun – in fact, the boats themselves are measured to about the same size as the stones of the original Stonehenge.
Car Henge – slightly more accurate than its boat-based sibling. (Photo Credit: Aaron Belford)
Car Henge
In Alliance, Nebraska is another transportation-based henge…also arguably one of the more accurate reproductions. Car Henge was created by artist Jim Reinders as a tribute to his father and completed construction on the Summer Solstice of 1987. Reinders spent much of his time living in England studying the construction of Stonehenge, which led to this relatively faithful creation in Nebraska. Following the same proportions of Stonehenge, Car Henge is created with 39 different automobiles, with the heel stone represented by a 1962 Cadillac.
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Foamhenge – One of the most faithful reproductions that can literally be built in a day! (Photo Credit: LargeGuy1 on Flickr)
Foam Henge
Foam Henge is an art installation constructed in Natural Bridge, Virginia in 2004 and eventually relocated to Centreville, Virginia in 2017. Created by fiberglass sculptor Mark Cline, it is a reproduction of the original Stonehenge made entirely out of…wait for it…foam. Cline work with a former tour guide from England to make sure that the stones were replicated perfectly in foam. Given how light and easy the material is, it only took two days to create and erect Foamhenge.
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Truck Henge
In Topeka, Kansas, artist Ron Lessman has added his personal reinterpretation of Stonehenge in the form of six trucks. Truck Henge is the centrepiece of a larger collection of Lessman’s other recycled artworks. And you thought massive stones being erected was impressive…what about giant antique trucks?
A452,_Carhenge,_Alliance,_Nebraska,_USA,_central_cars,_2016
As silly as it may be…how cool are these Stonehenges? (Photo Credit: Brian W. Schaller)
I have always been fascinated by what archaeological excavations of roadside attractions and tourist traps in the future would be interpreted as, especially when they are reproductions of other iconic things (especially when they are reproducing short-term nostalgia, i.e. classic cars, etc.). Will nostalgia and kitsch require a different framework by archaeologists? Stay tuned for more discussion at a later date…
References
Anonymous (2018) History. Boathengehttp://www.boathenge.net/history.html
Anonymous (2017) History. Carhenge of Alliance, Nebraska. http://carhenge.com/history/
Kaushik (2013) Foamhenge – Stonehenge Replica in Virginia Built of Styroform. Amusing Planethttp://www.amusingplanet.com/2013/02/foamhenge-stonehenge-replica-in.html
Kirby, D., Smith K., and Wilkins, M. (2018) America Unhenged. Roadside America. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/29025
Reiner, R. (1984) This is Spinal Tap. Embassy Pictures.
Stokes, K. (2006) Ron Lessman’s Truckhenge. Kansas Travel. http://www.kansastravel.org/truckhenge.html

Pseudoarchaeology and Neo-Paganism: A Tricky Situation

In his book Green Man: the Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth (1990), William Anderson makes a point to say that neo-pagans want “every tradition to be as ancient as possible”. Contrary to what some may believe, however, we do not see a lineage of witch religion historically or archaeologically that can be traced to the modern practices. Note that this post is specifically discussing Western traditions that are practised commonly in the United States and Europe.

Many modern covens attempt to connect their practice of witchcraft or neopaganism to an ancient and forgotten cult surrounding a particular deity – examples of this include the goddesses Aradia, popularised by Charles Godfrey Leland, and Diana, popularised by Margaret Alice Murray and continued through feminist-driven “Dianic” covens and cults (Hutton 1995).

Another point of origin that many British and European covens claim is during the “Great Witch Hunt” that took place in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, which is believed to be a period of mass executions (Silvia Federici places the number of women killed in the hundreds of thousands) of so-called “witches”. Among historians, this is a topic of great debate. For starters, it is not known exactly how many executions of witches there were in Europe at this time, nor if the 300 years of executions was the result of organised, focused campaigning, periodic executions in various places over time, or a combination of the two. The actual reasons behind the executions are also not fully understood: some suggested catalysts include the increasing power of organised religion, social hierarchies that left women, the elderly, and the poor in danger of being accused of witchcraft, and similarly, the rise of rural capitalist systems that would ultimately cause those of low status to be punished through accusations of witchcraft. Many feminist historians have pointed out that other historians may downplay the role of gender in the witch hunts, as well – although men were occasionally accused of witchcraft, it appears that the majority of victims were women. Unfortunately, a lack of written evidence – especially from the viewpoint of the accused – makes discerning the reasons and politics behind these “witch hunts”, as well as the actual statistics, very difficult and perhaps even impossible to fully comprehend (Federici 2004, Hutton 2017).

Whether or not there was indeed a continent-wide campaign against witches that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, it should also be noted that there is no textual evidence to support the claim of organised covens that have survived to this day and age. Most records of modern covens appear to go as far back as the 1940’s, but any history prior to that is based only on unsubstantiated claims (Rella 2018).

So why turn to pseudoarchaeology? Within neo-paganism and witchcraft, there is an emphasis on lineage – that having a coven that can trace its roots back to ancient times adds to one’s prestige and legitimacy. Gerald Gardner, arguably the forefather of modern Wiccan tradition, claimed to have been part of a secret coven that had existed since the historical pagan times in Britain (Valiente 1989).

There is also a political angle to many claims of lineage by various traditions and covens. Many Dianic covens that grew out of feminist theory from the 60’s and 70’s have adapted modern radical feminism that specifically excludes transwomen. Groups that practice Heathenry or other Norse-based traditions that have also become part of alt-right and white supremacist movements will often exclude people of colour or those without Scandinavian heritage from their groups.

Although many neo-pagans and witches still maintain their ancient lineages, despite evidence to the contrary, there is a growing number of modern day practitioners who instead embrace the fact that while their beliefs and practices are certainly inspired by elements from the past, they do not have to have an ancient lineage to be “legitimate”. On a personal note, I agree with this sentiment – I think modern day practitioners seek legitimacy, even through pseudo archaeological research, as their beliefs and practises are often derided by others, and I certainly can sympathise with the feeling. However, pseudoarchaeology is a harmful practise that most often affects the histories of marginalised folx for the gain of the privileged and I think there is a duty for archaeologists to investigate instances of “fake news” so to speak, not just for the reputation of the field, but also as a means of removing white supremacist and colonial ideologies from the discipline as well.

For those looking for more information on pseudoarchaeology, there is a great primer written by Stephanie Halmhofer at her blog.

References

Anderson, W. (1990) Green Man: the Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth. Harper San Francisco.

Federici, S. (2004) Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia.

Hutton, R. (1995) The Roots of Modern Paganism. Paganism Today. Thorsons. (p. 3-15)

Hutton, R. (2017) The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present. Yale University Press.

Rella, A. (2018) Circling the Star. Gods & Radicals Press.

Valiente, D. (1989) The Rebirth of Witchcraft. The Crowood Press.

Written in Stone: Standing Stones in Skyrim (and in Real Life!)

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 (Bethesda Game Studios 2011), 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 (Bethesda Game Studios 2006), 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 (1996) 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 (Gazin-Scwartz 2001). 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).

Reinventing the “King” in Fallout: New Vegas

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

The outside of the King’s School of Impersonation.

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Obsidian Entertainment. (2010) Fallout: New Vegas

The Archaeology of Narrative in the World of Pandora

Remains of the original expedition to Pandora from the first Avatar film. (Photo Credit: Ricky Brigante, Inside The Magic)

In the spring of 2017, Walt Disney World officially opened up the newest addition to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, FL. It was called “Pandora: the World of Avatar” and was based on the James Cameron film of the same name from 2009.

The conceit of this additional “land” is that it takes place a generation after the conflict between the exploitative human Resources Development Administration (RDA) and the native Na’vi of Pandora. With peace between humans and Na’vi, a company called Alpha Centauri Expeditions now leads research and ecotourism trips throughout Pandora, leading to the creation of the outpost that guests can now visit at Animal Kingdom (Martens 2017, Taylor 2017).

This backstory is not explicitly stated, however – instead, environmental clues are designed into the decoration of Pandora to suggest the revitalisation of the area after the invasive mining excavations. In some respects, this is a sort of archaeology to this narrative, allowing for guests to peel back the layers of time to interpret for themselves why they may stumble upon old, rusted signs that say “RDA Scientists Only”, or why the rusting husks of military equipment, overgrown with plants, can be found among the lush, alien landscape.

Na’vi rock art from the Flight of Passage queue. (Photo Credit: WDWMagic.com)

Probably the best example of this can be found in the queue for the land’s most popular (and innovative) attraction, Flight of Passage. This simulation attraction has guests using the Avatar technology used in the film in order to ride a species of flying alien known as “Banshees” to tour Pandora. Further backstory, however, is explained through the queue for the attraction – guests first enter through a series of winding caves that showcase traditional rock painting and other artwork from the Na’vi (perhaps from their prehistoric ancestors?). The queue then transitions into the rusty metal corridors of a now-abandoned base, where the destructive RDA group from the film first occupied Pandora. These corridors are separated by the lush, bioluminescent greenery, which has slowly overtaken the human-made base over time. As the queue gets closer to the newly repurposed part of the RDA base that hosts the Avatar technology, murals of Banshees and their Na’vi riders have been painted over the originally bare walls, perhaps reflecting a more respectful perspective of the Na’vi and their cultural from their human colleagues at Alpha Centauri.

The rusty old RDA base transitioning into the overgrowth of bioluminescent flora. (Photo Credit: WDWMagic.com)

This immersive type of storytelling isn’t new to theme park development. Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers arguably first pioneered the idea of “environmental narrative” with the original opening of Disneyland in 1955, where the story is told through environmental clues that are purposely designed into the setting of the theme park (Mitrasinovic 2016). It has since spread to other big-name theme parks – for example, see Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a land based on J.K. Rowling’s wizard franchise.

Murals painted over the original RDA buildings, placing the present emphasis more on the Na’vi and the native species of Pandora, rather than exploitation of Pandora’s resources. (Photo Credit: WDWMagic.com)

This sort of “archaeology” in narrative storytelling, through environmental clues that allow for guests to further interpret the story on their own, is not only a subtle way to further expand on the sort of messages that are encouraged in both the original film and the overall theme park – the importance of conservation, the evil of exploitation of nature, etc. – but also reflects the sort of cultural conflict that can only be illustrated through material remains. The traditional art of the Na’vi, permanently showcased on the natural formations of cave walls, which in turn gives way to the invasive RDA expedition that replaces the natural with the artificial, to the “present-day” repatriation of the RDA’s land and equipment to not only the Na’vi and their human allies, but also to the natural environment of Pandora itself.

Of course, there is something to say about the anthropological discourse surrounding ecotourism in the real world and problematic aspects of the practice, especially with regards to Indigenous communities…but perhaps that’s a blog post for another day.

References

Anonymous. (2017) Pandora – the World of Avatar. Walt Disney World Resort. https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/en_GB/destinations/animal-kingdom/pandora-world-of-avatar/

Martens, T. (2017) A Visit to Disney’s Pandora – What We Learned. Los Angeles Times. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/herocomplex/la-et-hc-disney-pandora-avatar-20170502-htmlstory.html

Mitrasinovic, M. (2016) Total Landscape, Theme Parks, Public Space. Routledge.

Taylor, D. (2017) The Inside Story of Why Disney Spent Half a Billion Dollars on an Avatar Theme Park. Vulture. http://www.vulture.com/2017/07/disney-world-pandora-avatar-theme-park.html

Returning to the Classics: A Brief Look at My Non-Career as a Classical Archaeologist as a Trip around the Met Museum

Returning to the Classics: A Brief Look at My Non-Career as a Classical Archaeologist as a Trip around the Met Museum

For Heritage UX’s blogging carnival on exhibit interactivity and archaeology, I thought it might been fun to highlight artefacts on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

Why?

Well, even though I no longer study as a classical archaeologist, there are a few pieces that I spent a lot of my undergrad year studying, both academically and just for fun, as I found them to be incredibly inspiring.

Even now as a zooarchaeologist, I still think of these pieces as inspirations – without them, I’m not even sure if I would have found as much interest in archaeology.

Here’s a selection of my favourites:

Statue of Kaipunesut – this wood statue from Egypt (ca. 2528 BCE) was the subject of my first ever archaeology paper and so the statue’s had a place in my heart ever since. Looking back, I think those cracks in the wood that I obsessed over in my paper led to my eventual obsession with bone fragmentation.

Marble relief with a dancing Maenad – Attributed to ca. 27 BCE, this piece has always been an absolute favourite of mine and set off a complete obsession with drapery in portraiture. That these ancient artists could so perfectly convey the softness and the flow of draped clothing has always blown my mind and nearly became my thesis paper!

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer – Halfway through my BA, I took a course in Hellenistic archaeology and not only got to flex my cultural studies skills, but I also found more drapery-based artefacts to obsess over! There’s something about these dynamic, 3D pieces from the past that really makes me realise how amazing it is that I can experience something from so long ago…a silly statement I know from someone who looks at old animal bones all day, but still! Every so often, you kinda sit back and go, “Wow”.

Temple of Dendur – Probably one of the most famous exhibits at the Met, the Temple of Dendur has been installed in its own room meant to provide a more immersive experience, with a human-made waterway surrounding the temple like the Nile. As I mentioned in the previous section, there’s something about these truly 3D pieces that make you come face to face with not only the past, but of the absolute privilege we, as archaeologists, have to interact with the past in the hands-on way that we do.

And on a more personal note, the Temple of Dendur was always a really peaceful place for me. As someone who lived 8 blocks away from the Met and was just coming to grips with worsening mental illness, this exhibit was often a refuge for me, to study or just chill out, away from the hectic city outside.

I hope you enjoyed this quick foray through some of my favourite classical archaeological pieces from the Metropolitan Museum – be sure to check out other blog posts written for this month’s blogging carnival hosted by Heritage UX!