Okay, I mean…technically the Witcher is more of a zoologist with a bit of forensics training, but let me shoe-horn in my expertise please!
After years of being yelled at to play the Witcher 3: the Wild Hunt (2015), I am finally playing the Witcher 3: the Wild Hunt (round of applause please). And I’m enjoying it a lot, as it fills the fantasy void within my heart that the Dragon Age series has left. But the gameplay mechanic that interests me the most is, unsurprising, the investigation sequences during the Witcher contracts.
Geralt, the main character, is a Witcher (have I written that word enough yet?). This means he’s been trained and physically & genetically enhanced in order to combat monsters and other deadly creatures.
So, what do I mean that Geralt is basically a trained bioarchaeologist? Well, one of the many types of quests you can get during the game are called “contracts”, which are basically paid jobs, usually involving the defeat of some creature that’s terrifying the local populace. But it’s not just about riding off and fighting a griffin or an ogre…there’s a bit of investigation involved as well.
During these quests, Geralt is usually directed to a site where some horrible thing has happened – a peasant has been horribly murdered, or a person has gone missing and only left behind a blood trail, or maybe it’s just the whispers of local folklore that’s brought him there. Whatever it is, Geralt will begin to investigate and look for clues; these will come in the form of animal tracks, bloodstains, or even the deceased themselves.
Again, most of these interactions are probably more forensic in nature, but there’s still lots of similarities with bioarchaeology. For example, Geralt has an incredible amount of knowledge of common taphonomic processes (which I’ve actually written about here, except in a different video game). Taphonomy refers to the processes through which a living being undertaken as they move from living to being part of the archaeological record as a post-mortem deposit (Lyman 1994).
When Geralt looks at remains, he can deduce the actions that occurred to cause that particular deposit – did they die here, or were they placed here after death? Has any animals moved or otherwise affected the body in any way? What about the environment – has weather affected these remains in any way? Is there something significant about the way this body was or was not buried?
And these are important questions to ask about archaeological deposits as well! It isn’t assumed that we are looking at an intentional grave, as many factors could have led to this particular deposition – were they buried here intentionally, as a “final resting place? Were they first placed somewhere else and then moved here? Was the body modified in anyway prior to this eventual deposition? This can include not just other humans, but other animals and environments factors.
But more specifically, Geralt is a walking bestiary – he knows not only how to recognise and identify faunal remains, but also understands their living behaviours as well. When Geralt comes across the remains of a slain griffin, he immediately makes the connection that the one he has been hired to kill was the deceased’s partner – but how? Well, he understands the mating behaviours of griffins!
And, as a zooarchaeologist myself, I really enjoy seeing how extensive Geralt’s zoological knowledge is and how he incorporates it in his interpretations alongside his observations and evaluations of the surrounding environment. Why? Well, to quote Diane Gifford-Gonzalez (1991), “bones are not enough”!
Being able to identify animal bones is a vital skill, but it’s not just the end of zooarchaeology. Knowledge of behavioural studies, of regional geology, climate and environmental studies…these can all be utilised and factored into an interpretation, allowing for an interdisciplinary and more dimensional narrative for the assemblage at hand.
Now, if only I can hire a Witcher to take a look at my current faunal assemblage…
CD Projekt (2015) The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.
Gifford-Gonzalez, D. (1991) Bones are Not Enough: Analogues, Knowledge, and Interpretive Strategies in Zooarchaeology. Anthropological Archaeology 10. pp. 215-254.
Lyman, R.L. (1994) Vertebrate Taphonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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…?
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.
Note:This blog post will have slight spoilers for the recent video game Hypnospace Outlaw, which I highly suggest you play if you haven’t already done so!
Last month, I played through Hypnospace Outlaw, a new video game in which the Player is basically the new moderator (called an “Enforcer”) of an early form of the Internet during the late 1990’s, known as “Hypnospace”. This was a community of early Internet users who utilised a technology known as the “Hypnoband” to traverse various pages and “hubs” on the Internet during their sleep. As an Enforcer, the Player scrolls through listed and unlisted (or hidden!) community pages, learning via contextual clues more about the individual members of the communities and their relations as played on via the Internet.
In the last third of the game, the story jumps to the current year and the Player finds themselves part of a group of ex-users of the now-defunct Hypnospace who are attempting to archive it for posterity. And of course, this immediately sparks my interest as an archaeologist!
The concept of an “Internet archaeology” isn’t necessarily new, of course – one of the earliest considerations of such a framework was as early as 1997, when Quentin Jones wrote about the idea of “cyber-archaeology“. This theoretical framework viewed Internet communities as “virtual settlements”, where virtual interactions and activities are analysed as a sort of material record from which behaviours and relations can be interpreted from. With the rise in Internet archival systems, we’ve seen iterations of cyber-archaeology in practice – for example, there’s the Deleted City project which archives the now-defunct online community GeoCities after its closure in 2009 (Vijgen 2012). Today, a lot of what we would consider “Internet Archaeology” is part of the much wider field of “digital archaeology”; for an example related to GeoCities, Matt Law and Colleen Morgan (2014) have written about the sustainability of digital sites and how utilising previous archaeological websites that have since been long abandoned, we may be able to learn more about methods of archaeological outreach, ultimately applying the sorts of skills we learn and use in “traditional” archaeology towards the digital sphere. Similarly, Lorna Richardson has done much in digital/public archaeologies, particularly in studying the ways in which archaeology is both communicated and experienced in the Digital Age (Richardson 2013).
What I really like about Hypnospace Outlaw is how, whether or not it was intended, it really is a great example of an archaeology game. The mechanics of the game are basically those found in any detective game, but I’d argue that the method has much more in common with Jones’ concept of cyber-archaeology, particularly with the idea of an “Internet archaeological record” including textual interactions and conversations between users within the community.
I’d also argue the game creates tools that would actually be useful for an Internet-based excavation. The main tool used during the archival section of the game (see image below) is not unlike a Harris Matrix, which is used by archaeologists to show the sequencing of archaeological contexts from a single site. In fact, the tool allows for the Player to change between specific periods of time, allowing webpages to be seen not just as static objects but as constantly changing ones that are updating and changed by their users over time.
Although the HAP (Hypnospace Archival Project) tool is clearly created to allow for Players to see where they are missing content and allows them to 100% complete the game, I am really fascinated about this – and similar tools – as a means of actually participating in an “Internet excavation“, so to speak. The game also requires the Player to download certain programs to allow them access to hidden and secret pages, which again leads me to think – what kind of advances in coding and programming would be required for Internet archaeology? As we lose access to HTMLs and other sources of media and content, how do we attempt to navigate around that? When giant networks like Facebook and Twitter finally end, will we be able to archive all of that material? How will we maintain access to these digital/archaeological sites over time?
But, alas…I don’t know anything about coding or computers so don’t look at me!!
Jones, Q. (1997) Virtual-Communities, Virtual Settlements, & Cyber-Archaeology: A Theoretical Outline. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 3(1).
Law, M. and Morgan, C. (2014) The Archaeology of Digital Abandonment: Online Sustainability and Archaeological Sites. Present Pasts 6(1). pp. 1-9.
Richardson, L. (2013) A Digital Public Archaeology? Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 23(1). pp. 1-12.
Tholen, J. (2019) Hypnospace Outlaw. Manchester: No More Robots.
Vijgen, R. (2012) The Deleted City: A Digital Archaeology. Parsons Journal for Information Mapping.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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).
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).
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!
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.
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!
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).
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).
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.
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.
Note: I struggled about whether or not to write about this game due to the issues surrounding its development and the poor treatment of workers (for more information, please read this article from Jason Schreier). However, I think it marks an interesting development in the ever-growing world of virtual archaeologies, so I proceeded to write about it. That being said, please show support for the unionisation of game workers by visiting Game Workers Unite.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Studios 2018) has only been out for a short while, but many players have been praising the level of detail that has gone into the game. One of the most striking features, at least to me as an archaeologist, is the fact that bodies actually decay over time. That’s right, video game archaeologists – we now have some form of taphonomy in our virtual worlds!
But wait, what is “taphonomy“? Well, you may actually get a few slightly differing answers from archaeologists – we all mostly agree that taphonomy refers to the various processes that affect the physical properties of organic remains. However, it’s where the process begins and ends that has archaeologists in a bit of a debate. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m gonna to use a definition from Lyman (1994), which defines taphonomy as “the science of the laws of embedding or burial” – or, to put it another way, a series of processes that create the characteristics of an assemblage as recovered by archaeologists. This will include not only pre-mortem and post-mortem processes, but processes that occur post-excavation, as identified by Clark and Kietzke (1967).
Let’s start with the pre-mortem processes, which are often ignored in discussions of overall taphonomy – firstly, we have biotic processes, which sets up the actual conditions of who or what will be deposited in our final resulting assemblage – this can include seasonal characteristics of a particular region, which will draw certain species to inhabit the area (O’Connor 2000), as well as cultural factors, such as exploitation and, unfortunately, colonisation/imperialism (Hesse and Wapnish 1985).
Now, let’s use some poor ol’ cowboys from Red Dead Redemption 2 as examples of post-mortem processes – Content Warning: Images of (digital) human remains in various stages of decay are about to follow, so caution before you read on!
With our biotic processes providing us with these cowboys who have moved West for a variety of reasons, we now need to determine our cause of death to continue with taphonomy. This falls under thanatic processes, which causes death and primary deposition of the remains (O’Connor 2000). In our example above, we would probably be able to find osteological evidence of trauma due to the cowboy getting shot to death.
In time, we soon see the work of taphic processes, or the chemical and physical processes that affect the remains – this is also sometimes referred to as “diagenesis” (O’Connor 2000). Much of what we consider to be “decay” when we think of decomposition will fall under this category of processes. Sometimes this will also affect the remaining structure and character of bone that will eventually be recovered.
Now, imagine we take this body and, as seen in the YouTube video from which these images come from, toss it down a hill. Okay, this is a bit of an over-the-top example, but it showcases another category of processes known as perthotaxic processes. These processes causes movement and physical damage to the remains, either through cultural (butchery, etc.) or natural (weathering, gnawing, trampling, etc.) methods. Similar to these processes are anataxic processes, which cause secondary deposition and further exposure of the remains to other natural factors that will further alter them (Hesse and Wapnish 1985).
The above image shows the remains of the cowboy finally reaching his secondary place of deposition after being tossed from the top of the hill and now drawing the attention of scavenger birds – this showcases an example of an anataxic process, as the body is being scavenged due to exposure from secondary deposition.
At this point, we begin to see how all of the aforementioned processes have affected our current archaeological assemblage-in-progress: we clearly have physical and chemical signs of decay, with physical alteration due to post-mortem trauma (tossing off of a hill) and exposure (including gnawing from other animals). This results in some elements going missing, some being modified, and others being made weaker and more likely to be absent by the time the body is recovered archaeologically.
Now, we also have two processes that occur during and after archaeological excavation that, again, often get overlooked: sullegic processes, which refer to the decisions made by archaeologists for selecting samples for further analysis (O’Connor 2000) and trephic processes, which refer to the factors that affect the recovered remains during post-excavation: curation, storage, recording, etc. These are often ignored as they don’t necessarily tell us much about the context surrounding the remains, but they are vital to consider if you are working with samples that you did not recover yourself or have been archived for a long time prior to your work.
Environmental differences will also affect the sort of variety within the overall taphonomic process – for example, wet environments (say, like the body of water seen in the image above) will cause the body to become water-logged, which may speed up certain taphic processes and create poorer preservation. More arid environments, like a desert, may lead to slightly more preservation in some cases due to the lack of water that may damage the bones.
Although the game certainly speeds up these processes and streamlines them in a way that removes some of the other variables that you would see in real life, I’d argue that Red Dead Redemption 2 might currently be the most accurate depiction of taphonomy that exists within a virtual world and may present new opportunities for developing models that could aid in furthering our understanding of how remains may decay under certain circumstances.
At the very least, it could make it easier and less smellier to do taphonomic experiments!
“Secret codes”, like archaeology, can set off the imagination, prompting images of spies, secret agents, and hidden treasure. It is easy, based on popular culture, to imagine that archaeologists are constantly stumbling upon glyphs that must be translated to find secret rooms or solving puzzles using hidden codes to evade dangerous traps.
But unfortunately, like many depictions of archaeology in pop culture, this isn’t really the case in real life.
One example of hidden codes in popular culture can be found in Fallout 4, utilised by the ultra secret organisation called “the Railroad”. Like their real life Civil War-era namesake, the Railroad leads a group of marginalised people (in the case of Fallout 4, these are the “Synths”, or synthetic people who are often met with violence and persecution by humans) to freedom through a series of routes and safe houses to avoid hostile forces hunting them down. In order to maintain secrecy and safety, the Railroad often utilises a series of pictures as codes to other agents – these symbols can alert others to danger, or to notify where safe houses are.
These in-game secret codes were most likely inspired by the real life phenomenon of what are generally referred to as “hobo codes”. These symbols were created by “hobos”, or transient, homeless people who travelled the United States after the end of the Civil War, usually by illegally riding freight trains that began to criss-cross the country. These “hobo codes” provided safety for other fellow hobos through warnings of dangerous people or obstacles ahead, as well as pointing out where one could find food, shelter, or work (Innocent 2015).
But what about real-life archaeology? Are there no real instances of finding secret messages amongst ancient ruins?
In many ways, we can consider the recovery of “lost” languages to be similar to this romanticised idea of unearthing hidden codes during excavation. For example, thanks in part to the recovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, Egyptian hieroglyphs – which had originally confused and mystified academics who would occasionally come across these mysterious symbols on artefacts and ruins – were finally able to be deciphered by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822 (Robinson 2012). Another example can be found in Mesoamerica regarding the Mayan hieroglyphs, which are still being deciphered to this day (Stuart 1992).
However, what most people would imagine to be “secret messages” are more in line with pseudoarchaeological ideas. In fact, many allegedly “secret symbols” that had been “recovered” in the United States are often fake artefacts used to promote the racist, pseudoarchaeological notion that hidden communities of Europeans existed in North America, pre-dating Native Americans. For example, in the Ohio Valley region alone, there are been many cases of so-called “ancient inscriptions” using Welsh and Irish Ogham. But there was little, if any, credible evidence to back any of these claims (Ball 2006).
So what is it about secret messages and symbols that so quickly excites the imagination? Maybe we just want some sort of intentional communication with the past? Maybe knowing that our past ancestors left behind something for their future generations makes us feel better about ourselves?
Or maybe its just cool. Who knows, really?
Ball, D.B. (2006) Scribbles, Scratches, and Ancient Writing: Pseudo-Historical Archaeology in the Ohio Valley Region. Ohio Valley Historical Archaeology. 21. pp. 1-29.
Bethesda Softworks. (2015) Fallout 4.
Innocent, T. (2015) The Lost Art of Urban Codemaking. Communication Research and Practice. 1(2). pp. 117-130.
Robinson, A. (2012) A Clash of Symbols. Nature. 483. pp. 27 – 28.
Stuart, D. (1992) Hieroglyphs and Archaeology at Copan. Ancient Mesoamerica. 3. pp. 169-184.
Content Warning: This post will discuss human remains and death from disasters and acts of mass violence. Although I will not be posting any actual images of real human remains, I will be using images of human remains from the video game Fallout 4. There may also be discussion of disasters and violence that may upset others, so please do not read if you may find this triggering.
When archaeologists recover human remains, its often from burials – whether these are elaborate affairs, simple depositions, or whatever could be considered the most loosely defined “intentional” placement of remains. Of course, there are exceptions – sudden deaths, from accidents to murders, will often result in bodies found in “unusual” ways, or at the very least, in a context different from a more intentional burial. Sometimes, the spatial context of the body may provide clues to how the person may have died.
In the world of Fallout 4 (Bethesda Softworks 2015), the “Great War” occurred in October 2077 when the United States, the Soviet Union, and China exchanged multiple nuclear bombs, causing death and destruction at a massive scale. The actual gameplay is set in a post-apocalyptic world, hundreds of years after the Great War. Here, the United States has been completely changed into a new world, with people attempting to make new lives on the wasteland surface, often by using the remnants of the past – recycling old materials, living in the ruins of Pre-War buildings, and attempting to recreate Pre-War factions (see previous posts on Fallout‘s Legion and Kings factions). As the Player explores many of these ruins, they may come across the remains of those who most likely died in the original nuclear fire of 2077.
Of course, there is a bit of scientific liberty being taken here – most of the remains that the Player Character can find are ridiculously well-preserved (all skeletal elements are intact and articulated?! that’s a bioarchaeologist’s dream!) despite being hundreds of years old and subjected to the open environment.
That said, this phenomenon of human remains found in contexts relating to a sudden and unexpected death (and, sometimes, with significant preservation) has many real world parallels. Many instances are found in more natural settings, where sudden deaths are caused by accident or forced upon the victim unexpectedly – for example, bogs are, as Karin Sanders (2009) writes, “natural darkrooms” that preserve those who die within them almost perfectly (for more on bog bodies, see this blog post).
Arguably a more famous example of a natural force aiding in the preservation of victims of an unexpected death is Pompeii – in 79 CE, nearby volcano Mt. Vesuvius erupted, covering the land with ash and debris (Deem 2005). Those who died during the eruption and covered in ash deposits were ultimately “preserved” through the impressions of their bodies, which were able to be examined through casts (Luongo et al. 2003).
Natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions are often studied by archaeologists using the creation of various models – this allows for examination of the impact of the disaster on the surrounding people and environment, like how it may have affected population numbers (Torrence and Grattan 2002). Not only does focusing on natural disasters let archaeologists further interpret how past people may have reacted to and managed emergencies and their aftermaths, but it may also help us deal with natural disasters in the present and future – this point is especially critical today with the effects of climate change causing destruction and displacement around the world.
Disasters, both natural and human-caused, are not always so kind to the remains of its victims. Impact, force, and other acts of violence may cause bodies to be less preserved. Stretches of ground may become unintentional mass graves, with bodies strewn everywhere. In these cases, we turn to methods developed within “forensic archaeology” – this refers to a sub-field in which the focus is mainly on applying archaeological frameworks to contexts referring to crime, as well as search and recovery scenarios (Hunter and Cox 2005). This means that many forensic archaeological methods are based on recovering and identifying individual human bodies, which is vital to dealing with disaster archaeologies. For example, as I previously mentioned, the bodies of victims will be found “commingled”, or entwined with multiple individuals found in one context – there has been many developments within forensic archaeology for separating and identifying individual bodies (human and non-human), ranging from manual observation to the use of data and spatial analysis (Adams and Byrd 2008). These methods have been used in recent recovery missions following massive tragedies, such as the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks in New York City (Mundorff, 2009).
It should be noted that, in contrast, there are often times resistance to the idea of “excavating” sites of disaster – for example, Gabriel Moshenska (2009) writes about bombsite archaeology and how it is rarely performed for the intention of examining a bombsite as a bombsite. There is an implication that archaeological acts are similar to “opening up old wounds”, contrasting with the idea of archaeology as recovery in the previous section. Archaeology of disaster sites are fraught with emotion – filled with painful memories, particularly with more historical sites.
Many instances of human remains in Fallout 4 are meant to invoke “morbid humour” – occasionally, one might find a skeleton posed in a compromising manner, like on the toilet. This is most likely one of the reasons why the human remains in Fallout 4 are often articulated and intact – for quick and immediate identification by players, and for the ability to create comical situations by posing the dead. And yet, there are also “death tableaux” meant to establish the realities of war onto the player – bodies found in beds, cowered in hastily made shelters, skeletal hands found clasped together even hundreds of years after the Great War. These unintentional portrayals of a sudden death, forever immortalising the true nature of war: senseless, uncaring, and ultimately…fatal.
Adams, B.J. and Byrd, J.E. (2008) Recovery, Analysis, and Identification of Commingled Human Remains. Humana Press.
Bethesda Softworks. (2015) Fallout 4.
Deem, J.M. (2005) Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Hunter, J. and Cox, M. (2005) Forensic Archaeology: Advances in Theory and Practice. Routledge.
Luongo, G. et al. (2003) Impact of the AD 79 Explosive Eruption on Pompeii, II. Causes of Death of the Inhabitants Inferred by Stratigraphic Analysis and Areal Distribution of the Human Casualties. Journal of Volcanology and GeothermalResearch. pp. 169-200.
Moshenska, G. (2009) Resonant Materiality and Violent Remembering: Archaeology, Memory, and Bombing. International Journal of Heritage Studies. 15 (1). pp. 44-56.
Mundorff, A. (2009) Human Identification Following the World Trade Center Disaster: Assessing Management Practices for Highly Fragmented and Commingled Human Remains. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Simon Fraser University.
Sanders, K. (2009) Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination. University of Chicago Press.
Torrence, R. and Grattan, J. (2002) The Archaeology of Disasters: Past and Future Trends. Natural Disasters and Cultural Change. Routledge.
Inaccurate portrayals of archaeology in other media has been discussed before – whether it’s fact checking the Indiana Jones franchise, reiterating that Lara Croft is indeed a Tomb Raider, or correcting someone for the 100th time that no, sorry, we don’t dig up dinosaurs…it can be exhausting! But unfortunately, it will always be necessary so long as archaeology remains a part of pop culture – in films, novels, television shows, and more recently, in video games.
Archaeology in video games can often be divided into two categories: archaeology as the main narrative (for example, Indiana Jones video games, the Uncharted franchise) and archaeology as an in-game mechanic. Meyers Emery and Reinhard (2015), in their examination of video game archaeology from which these categories originate from, explain that archaeology is a perfect fit for the modern day video game – after all, archaeology reflects the sort of puzzle-solving and narrative of exploration that many video games attempt to replicate in their own gameplay.
This blog post will be looking at archaeology as an additional in-game mechanic, often used in the form of “side quests” and “collectables”. How does this portray archaeology and why is archaeology so well-suited for side quests? As part of this discussion, we’ll be focusing on two video games that utilise a sort of “archaeology” as a side quest mechanic: Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing: New Leaf.
Stardew Valley (Chucklefish Limited 2016) is a farming simulator video game that has the Player Character leave their miserable city life for the countryside, where they have just inherited their grandfather’s farm. During the course of the game, the Player Character can develop their skills in different ways and receive achievements for the things they can collect along the way.
Artifacts make up one of these achievable “Collections”. Through various methods (either digging in the right spot, breaking open a geode, or catching a treasure chest while fishing), the Player Character can collect artefacts of varying types – from priceless material objects to skeletal remains. Once found, the Player Character can either sell the artefact, or donate them to the town museum, run by curator Gunther. Occasionally, the Player will receive rewards based on what they have donated – this is the only form of payment that they will receive for their archaeological work during the game.
Although Stardew Valley falls into the common pitfall of conflating archaeology and palaeontology, it does a good job with placing some emphasis on post-excavation developments – for example, once an artefact is collected, the Player is able to read the interpretations of each item in their “Collections” menu. You’re also able to manually display the artefacts, allowing the Player to act as curator as well as excavator.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf
Animal Crossing: New Leaf (Nintendo Co. Ltd. 2012) is a life simulator video game, and the fourth game in the Animal Crossing franchise. The Player Character takes on the role of Mayor in their own created town, which is populated by anthropomorphic animals, and tries to improve citizen satisfaction by building and updating public amenities. including the town’s museum.
Every day, the Player Character may recover several fossils, digging them up with their shovel. At this point, they are only shown as mysterious, unidentified spheres labelled as “Fossil”. If the Player heads to the museum, they can ask Blathers, the curator, to assess any of their recovered fossils – if these fossils are not currently on display, Blathers will ask the Player if they will donate the fossil to the museum. The game places a fair bit of weight to Blathers’ identifications – the Player Character can sell fossils for a bit of money, but will receive much more if they get them assessed first.
Fossils will range from dinosaur remains (ahem, not archaeology) to other fossilized organic material – droppings, eggs, plant life, and even a hominid! The museum also accepts donations of bugs, marine life, and artwork, but will not accept forgeries or fakes. Yes, this game actually has a forgery mechanic – it takes a good eye to notice which artwork (which can be bought by a travelling trader) is the real deal!
So, why is archaeology such a popular “side quest” mechanic in games like these two?
The easy answer is that archaeology is, in a sense, the act of “collecting” artefacts, which creates a set of collectable items for video game players. “Collectables” are a wildly popular component of many video games – these are items that may be hidden within the levels of the game, and can sometimes trigger an achievement or trophy of some kind. There has been some research that has linked collectables to the “addictiveness” of video games (Goggin 2008), explaining the popularity of the feature.
By using archaeology as a means of collecting these “collectables”, video games are able to transform the discpline into a form of treasure hunting that is easy for the general audience (mostly children!) to understand. In both Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, “X marks the spot”, and I mean that literally – in Stardew, its in the form of wiggling worms, and in Animal Crossing, in the form of stars found on the ground.
Of course, this is problematic – it propagates the idea that archaeology and treasure hunting are the same, that archaeology is simply digging up things and displaying them in a museum. This simplified version of archaeology is what leads to the continuation of harmful archaeological practices entrenched in white supremacy, imperialism, and colonialism – looting, the theft and destruction of Indigenous and colonized lands, and the delay of further repatriation of artefacts and remains, among other things.
I’d argue, though, that Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing are at the very least a step in the right direction for archaeology in popular culture – although problematic and also just flat out wrong in some respects, both video games provide a glimpse into a (rather simplified) version of post-excavation work. Players are able to see specialists identify and further interpret artefacts, as well as take part in the further curation and display of the recovered items. Although Stardew Valley constantly refers to archaeological excavation as “treasure hunting”, Animal Crossing at least makes an attempt at framing archaeology in a more educational way by referring to the donation of fossils and artwork as adding to the town’s “cultural education”.
Holtorf (2004) has previously written that in popular culture, the action of “doing archaeology” is often the focus, as it is believed to be more interesting and exciting than the actual interpretation and analysis of the finds. And yet, these two video games show that pop culture archaeology can be much more than just the act of digging for priceless artefacts – perhaps what we need next is a Excavation Supervisor Simulator, with downloadable extra content in the form of Curation Quests?
Goggin, J. (2008) Gaming/Gambling: Addiction and the Video Game Experience. The Pleasures of Computer Gaming: Essays on Cultural History, Theory, and Aesthetics. McFarland and Company, Inc. Publishers. pp. 33-51.
Holtorf, C. (2004) Doing Archaeology in Popular Culture. The Interplay of Past and Present. pp. 42-49.
Meyers Emery, K. and Reinhard, A. (2015) Trading Shovels for Controllers: A Brief Exploration of the Portrayal of Archaeology in Video Games. Public Archaeology. 14(2). pp. 137-149.
Nintendo Co. Ltd.. (2012) Animal Crossing: New Leaf.