“Start at the Beginning, and When You Get to the End, Stop” – The Archaeology of Time

At the time of writing this blog post, we are only three days into 2019. I’ll be honest – I’ve experienced 25 years on this planet and I still make New Year’s resolutions. The usual ones, of course: exercise more, consume less sugar, etc. And, of course, these resolutions usually make it until mid-February before I completely ditch them and continue to eat chocolate bars every day without touching my running shoes. I know New Year’s resolutions are silly gimmicks, marketed by gyms and health apps to make lots of money come January 1st. But I have always liked to utilise the New Year as a time for restarting my daily routines, renewing goals – I mean, I have an entire year ahead of me with so many possibilities, right?

So in honour of the New Year, let’s look at how we measure time in archaeology.

An diagram of “typical” archaeological stratigraphy (Image Credit: Crossrail Ltd.)

There are many ways that archaeologists create chronologies, and we often combine several methods to get a better idea of what a site’s timeline was like. Possibly the easiest way to “see” time across a site’s archaeological record is to look at the cross-section of a trench during excavation. The stratigraphy of an archaeological site can usually be seen as a series of “layers”, almost like a cake…if the cake was made out of various soils, organic material, and artefacts. These layers provide us with a general ideal of the order in which materials were deposited – this includes both natural and anthropogenic materials. It may be easier to think of archaeological stratigraphy as a sort of “visual starting point” for further developing a chronology for the site (Harris 1989). In an ideal world, we could simply look at the layer on the bottom to determine the “beginning” of the site’s history…but of course, things are never that simple.

During post-excavation, there are numerous methods available to an archaeologist for further dating. Having a typology (read more on typologies here) of a certain artefact, such as pottery, can help an archaeologist get a general idea of what time period they are currently dealing with. Within archaeological science, there are a variety of lab-based methods for dating: radiocarbon, potassium-argon, uranium, etc.

Of course, these methodologies aren’t perfect, nor are they definite. In fact, archaeologists differentiate between absolute and relative chronologies. Absolute chronologies provide us with approximate dates, often from lab-based methods such as radiocarbon dating. On the other hand, relative chronologies (for example, using a typology to determine an approximate period of creation and use) can be used to determine general time periods using the relationship between a previously occupied site (and its material remains) and an overall culture (Fagan and Durrani 2016).

Additionally, there are many external factors that can affect the recovered context of a site, thereby complicating the timeline – for example, burrowing creatures may cause some artefacts to fall into the contexts of others. There have also been many cases of re-using older artefacts and spaces, which can complicate the timeline further (you can read more on recycling and re-using the past here).

Overall, however, archaeology has been a useful tool for conceptualising the beginnings of things – while we cannot establish with certainty the absolute start of agriculture or domestication, for example, we have been able to develop an approximation of how early humans were practising such concepts.

And let’s be real – time itself is a fascinating concept. While we have this sort of “standardised” method of calculating and measuring time today, we cannot truly account for past perspectives on time. Of course, we can find material evidence that may illustrate the physical act of “keeping time” in the past, but how did people in the past really experience time? Think about how quickly an hour can go by today, just by watching random videos on YouTube or Facebook on your smartphone. Remember how much longer an hour felt when we didn’t always have access to the Internet at all times, prior to smartphones and other such devices? What about someone in the past who has a completely different mindset to us – how did they experience an hour?

…honestly, I could probably prattle on for hours and hours about this (and how would you experience that??).

Anyway, hope you all had an easy transfer from 2018 to 2019 this past New Year. Here’s to another year of writing incoherent, rambling posts that you hopefully find entertaining at the very least. And thank you all for supporting and reading my work last year, too – hope to see you all back again at the end of 2019!


Fagan, B.M. and Durrani, N. (2016) In the Beginning: an Introduction to Archaeology. Routledge.

Harris, E.C. (1989) Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy. Academic Press.


Troweling Theme Parks: Monoliths Of Memory at Disney’s EPCOT Centre

The “Leave a Legacy” monoliths nicely framing the bottom of the Spaceship Earth attraction and icon of the park (Photo Credit: Werner Weiss 2007)

The dawning of the year 2000 was a big deal for everyone, but perhaps most especially for Walt Disney World. To mark the new millennium, the resort set up a series of new events and attractions as part of their “Millennium Celebration”; this included a new parade called the “Tapestry of Nations”, a new evening fireworks show called “IlluminiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth”, and a new interactive pavilion called “Millennium Village”. The overall theme of this celebration was “celebrating the future hand in hand”, emphasizing and celebrating global cooperation into the future (Soares 1999).

It’s no surprise that EPCOT, otherwise known as the “Experimental Protoype Community of Tomorrow”, was chosen as the home for these festivities. Originally conceived as an actual living community by Walt Disney in the late 1950’s, EPCOT would eventually become a theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida after Disney’s death (Patches 2015). Although not exactly what Disney had originally pitched to investors in the early 1960’s, EPCOT would be a theme park focused on discovery, “edu-tainment”, and eventually, on celebrating international relations and cultures with the addition of a “World Showcase” that highlights 11 different countries. Perhaps it was explained best by  Al Weiss, then president of Walt Disney World, who said: “Walt Disney once referred to EPCOT as a ‘living blueprint of the future’ and it is in that spirit that we welcome to the world to celebrate the millennium at this, our discovery park” (Soares 1999).

A closer look at the individual monoliths, covered in etchings of guests (Photo Credit: Allen Huffman 2006)

Another addition to the theme park for the new millennium was called “Leave a Legacy”. Although at heart a means of generating a profit from the empty space at the front of the “FutureWorld” park entrance, these slabs of granite also allowed diehard theme park fans to leave their mark – or, more specifically, their faces – at EPCOT forever. By paying between $35-38 per space, up to two people could have their faces etched into these monoliths during the “Millennium Celebration”. This installation is guaranteed to be standing for at least twenty years, although there has been no plans to remove the monoliths once this period is up. Fans ultimately appear to be divided about the “Leave a Legacy” installation – although many believe it to be an eyesore and not enough spaces were bought to fill up the entire allotted space in the installation, many still appreciate the ability to have their legacies memorialised, with over 550,000 people etched into the monoliths  (Weiss 2012).

Megaliths located in Laman Megalit, or Megalithic Park, in Putrajaya, Malaysia (Photo Credit: Drew Parsons 2017)

Archaeologically, we can see that these monoliths must draw some inspiration from prehistoric megaliths. Megaliths are defined as usually prehistoric stone monuments, sometimes used as tombs, that range from simplistic to more elaborate set-ups (monoliths, on the other hand, are specifically a singular block of stone or material, but mostly refer to more historic and modern installations due to the use of cement or some other kind of binding ingredient). Megaliths can be found around the world, with some of the more famous ones located in Europe (for example, Stonehenge). Interpretations of megaliths are hot topics of debate among archaeologists, and often have become the breeding grounds for pseudoarchaeological theories (Renfrew 1983).

Some archaeologists have theorised that the key to understanding these megalithic structures is memory (Holtorf 1996, Cummings 2003).  Cummings (2003) in particular has argued that the focus on megaliths should be less on their construction and more of how the experience of running into similar structures across Britain may be tied into an idea of spatial memory and how these megaliths ties these spaces together.

So while the “Leave a Legacy” monoliths may have been, at heart, a money grabbing venture to top off the celebration of a new millennium (this is, after all, the place where you can’t leave an attraction without going through a gift shop!), they also are a testament to this sort of sentiment that is seemingly timeless – of leaving behind something that inspires memories that are tied to a specific place, of having some sort of established legacy to be found by others thousands of years later. Perhaps we can even say these monoliths are proof that, when it comes to monuments, our prehistoric ancestors had the right idea!


Cummings, V. (2003) Building from Memory: Remembering the Past at Neolithic Monuments in Western Britain. Archaeologies of Rememberance: Death and Memory in Past Societies. Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp. 25-29.

Holtorf, C.J. (1996) Towards a Chronology of Megaliths: Understanding Monumental Time and Cultural Memory. Journal of European Archaeology. pp. 119-152.

Patches, M. (2015) Inside Walt Disney’s Ambitious, Failed Plan to Build the City of Tomorrow. Esquire. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/news/a35104/walt-disney-epcot-history-city-of-tomorrow/

Renfrew, C. (1983) The Social Archaeology of Megalithic Monuments. Scientific American. 249 (5). pp. 152-163.

Soares, S. (1999) The 15-Month Walt Disney World Millennium Celebration: A Celebration Just Too Big for One Night. WDW Entertainment. http://wdwent.com/EPCOT.htm

Weiss, W. (2012) Leave a Legacy. Yesterdayland. https://www.yesterland.com/legacy.html

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.


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.

The 2018 Excavation Season Wrap-Up!

I’m baaaaaaaaaaack! Missed me? Probably not, if you were following along with my project’s social media (Facebook, Twitter, and website).  For those of you who missed out, however, here’s a bit of a recap of the past three weeks of excavation at the Covesea Caves in Scotland.

So, the good news about my recent field work trip is that I got to experience some amazing sights and got a lot of data collection done towards my PhD dissertation.

The bad news is that most of those three weeks were spent indoors. Why? Well…

Luckily nothing was broken, just badly bruised. Not pictured is the injuries I then sustained from falling down the stairs two days later.

And that was just Day One!

Climbing down “the lummie”, aka “holding onto a rope and a ladder for dear life”.
These “rock stairs” are deceptively easy looking – getting up them required a lift up for me!

So, here’s the thing about the Covesea Caves (the series of caves in Moray, Scotland that my current PhD research is based on) – they are known for being difficult to access. However, I didn’t realise until I finally went to visit them in person just how difficult they are to access! An average walk to our excavation site included a fair bit of hiking down a steep coastal path (which, as someone who is afraid of heights, was way too close to the cliff’s edge for me!). For some caves, we would have to climb down “the lummie” – a bit of a crevice within the cliff that included a climb down using a ladder and a rope. Other caves had a sort of “natural” staircase made of rocks that were simple enough to climb down – getting up was an entirely different problem, especially if you’re short like me. After that, it’s a long walk across a beach of boulders – which may be dangerously slippery if you’re unlucky like me and manage to go on a rainy morning.  On the first day, it took approximately a dozen falls for me to injure my elbow enough to warrant a visit to A&E (the emergency room). Thankfully, nothing was broken, but I still ended up working from our base camp for the most of the remainder of the excavation period just to be on the safe side.

My makeshift “zooarchaeology lab” in our accommodations – on the left, my supplies are all on top of a washing machine.

Despite how unfortunate this all sounds, it actually ended up working in my favour. As a zooarchaeologist whose PhD work is focused on analysis of the animal bones from the Covesea Caves, it was much more productive for me to be doing a bit of assessment on the bones as they were excavated. Especially when the final count for animal bones just from this season alone was nearly 5,000 bones! And so I ended up taking over our laundry room and converted it into a makeshift zooarchaeology lab – don’t worry, I thoroughly cleaned it up before I left.

A collection of faunal bones from Covesea Cave 2.

Unfortunately I can’t get into too much detail about the recovered bones, but I can say that things are getting pretty interesting with regards to my developing thesis. Let’s just say I’m literally drowning in cats. Well, later prehistoric skeleton cats.

Yep, this is how dark it usually is when you’re excavating caves.


I did make it to site one more time before our excavation season was over. It was one of the smaller, more narrow caves in the Covesea Caves, so it was a bit of a challenge for someone like me who, along with a fear of heights, also has a fear of enclosed spaces! But I actually found it quite nice and cozy to be excavated in the back of a cave that can only be reached by extensive crawling…see if you can spot me enjoying myself in the photo above!

It’s me! Get me outta here!
The entrance to the Sculptor’s Cave.

Accidents aside, it was completely worth the trip up to visit the Covesea Caves. The site has such a distinctive environment that most likely would feed into how past peoples would experience and interact with the caves, it would be impossible to fully understand the archaeology without experiencing it first hand. I’ve visited and worked on a few archaeological sites in my lifetime and to be honest, it is hard to top the sort of emotional impact that standing at the mouth of the Sculptor’s Cave gave me.

Plus, it was a gorgeous place full of amazing sites so…definitely worth a few falls!

The rock arch outside of Laird’s Stables.

American Stonehenge, or the Time that My Friends Took Me on Holiday to Watch My Head Explode

I’ve lived in England for nearly three years now, and yet I have never been to Stonehenge. I feel like that’s a bit embarrassing as an archaeologist, but I just never made the time for it so far!

That said, I have been to American Stonehenge. Yeah, that’s a thing.

Behold…the 8th Wonder of the World, American Stonehenge!

According to the owners of the site, American Stonehenge is exactly like its English counterpart – built thousands of years ago by ancient seafarers who travelled from Europe…or maybe an unknown Native American culture…one of the two. The site is allegedly over 4,000 years old, based on “Phoenician” and “Ogham” writings found carved in stone.

In actuality, American Stonehenge is a site originally known as “Mystery Hill” that has been a roadside attraction for decades. The “mysterious” stone buildings and structures on the site were most likely originally made for farm storage, with additional ones created once it became a tourist site.

You know its a good “archaeological site” when there’s a sacrificial table!

So why would I be at such a pseudoarchaeological site?

Well, blame my friends. Apparently they thought it was funny to see how increasingly annoyed their archaeologist friend would get at a fake site – and they were right (there’s a great video somewhere of my face getting more and more angry-looking as we watched a presentation about the prehistoric Europeans that sailed to America to erect their Stonehenge).

But I have to admit, it was a bit fun to walk around and correct the signs posted around the site, as well as teach my friends a bit more about my own field. Although as archaeologists we should be combatting pseudoarchaeology when we can…I think sometimes we can also take a short trip to one of the biggest hoax sites there is and enjoy ourselves a little (and for a great crash course in pseudoarchaeology, check out my friend Stephanie Halmhofer’s new series at Bones, Stones, and Books!).

As you can see by my face, I really had a good time.