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

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

The Standing Stones of Stenness, in Orkney, Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digging While Depressed: Struggling with Fieldwork and Mental Health

This post will be focused on dealing with mental illness, so if issues related to depression and anxiety are triggering to you, please feel free to skip today’s blog. Take care of yourself.

A few weeks ago, I was in Scotland doing fieldwork for the first time in years. Prior to this trip, I was under the impression that it would be a difficult one: I have a fear of both heights and enclosed spaces, so the idea that I would need to traverse steep paths along cliffs and work in narrow caves wasn’t particularly inviting to begin with. But I made the decision to go and excavate. Long story short, after a disastrous first day involving multiple injuries, a trip to the local hospital for x-rays, and an ill-timed panic attack climbing back up the steep side of a cliff, I asked to stay at our base camp to do faunal bone analysis rather than risk my mental and physical health getting to our excavation sites. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this was falling into a depressive episode after a few weeks of being indoors doing work.

Long time readers of my blog will know that I’ve been upfront about my own mental illness in the past. In particular, I’ve talked about the way mental illness affects my work as an academic. However, one thing I’ve never talked about (or really considered, to be honest), was how mental illness can affect one’s fieldwork, as well as how fieldwork can exacerbate the negative effects of mental illness.

Physical health and safety has always been the forefront of conversations regarding fieldwork, no matter what science you practice. However, there has been less attention given to mental illness, at least from what I’ve experienced. I started the #DiggingWhileDepressed hashtag during excavation to get the conversation going and was surprised at how many similar stories I heard on Twitter. It’s understandable, though, given the ubiquitous nature of fieldwork – you’re often isolated from your usual support group, and although you may have good relationships with your academic and research colleagues (as I do! again, my supervisory team is so supportive and generous with their help, I am forever grateful to them), it’s still not necessarily a group of people that you would confide your deepest problems and feelings to. Not to mention the fact that fieldwork (especially archaeological fieldwork) puts a significant amount of physical burden on you, which may make you feel worse, mentally.

With the advent of the #MeToo movement and the pressure being placed on organisations to combat sexual harassment and assault during excavation, I’d argue that we’ve started to see real strides in expanding the idea of a “safe” workspace and fieldwork environment to include not just physical health and safety, but also mental and emotional health as well. According to some via the #DiggingWhileDepressed hashtag, commercial excavation movements have started to take notice of mental health during fieldwork, which is a welcome change. I don’t really have any answers to solving this issue – after all, I’m learning along with everyone else – but hopefully just the fact that we are starting to have this conversation is a sign of real change and movement towards safeguarding all aspects of health while out in the field.

Feel free to add to the #DiggingWhileDepressed hashtag – not just with regards to archaeological excavation, but any type of fieldwork or research work. Let’s keep the conversation going, whether you have a story to tell or advice to give – in solidarity, we can grow and help each other out. And feel free to contact me if you ever need someone to talk or vent to – obviously I’m not a health professional and cannot replace seeking professional help, but I can at least offer my ear and my support.

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.

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…

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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!

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Climbing down “the lummie”, aka “holding onto a rope and a ladder for dear life”.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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!

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It’s me! Get me outta here!
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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!

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The rock arch outside of Laird’s Stables.

On Excavation Season, or How to Battle the Great Outdoors With a Trowel

It’s just about excavation season for most of us in archaeology! I will be excavating for a few weeks so this blog will go on a bit of a hiatus until I return – until then, here’s a few tips for anyone about to set off on their first excavation this summer.

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A busy day excavating the site of Swandro in the Orkney Islands.

The weather is getting warmer, which means for many of us archaeologists, its excavation season! Some of you might be about to set off on your first excavation as well, and I can understand if you’re getting a bit nervous…about a month before I was off to my first excavation (also my first trip abroad!), I nearly got cold feet and cancelled. But thankfully I went ahead and basically changed the direction of my career after that – I don’t know if I’d be a zooarchaeologist in the UK right now otherwise. So for those of you who may be freaking out a bit about your first excavation, here’s a few tips that might make things go a bit more smoothly!

  • Check, Double Check, and then Triple Check Transportation

Some archaeologists have an easy commute to their sites, but most of us have a fair bit of travelling to do to get to where the excavation is happening. So be sure you have your travel plans locked up! Especially if you’ll be doing international travel – it probably sounds dorky, but I literally travel with a folder full of my paperwork (flight tickets, hotel bookings, visa information, etc.) these days. My first excavation included a series of missed flights that ended up costing me an extra $250, so I am also very strict on being at the airport early. But hey, better safe than sorry, right?

Also be sure to figure out how you’ll be getting to your accommodations for the duration of your excavation, or if you’re supposed to be meeting your team somewhere. There’s nothing worse than getting stranded at an airport…

…yes, I do know what that feels like, thanks for forgetting to pick me up, Mom.

  • Pack for the weather…

Depending on where and how long you’re going, you’ll want to be sure to pack for any sort of weather you might run into! Especially if you’re travelling far enough that there is an extreme difference in weather between your places of departure and arrival. In general, though, you’ll probably want some waterproof items of clothing (you can also buy waterproofing spray/liquid as well – in my experience they have been handy in a pinch). Even if it’s a warm summer, you might want to also bring some outerwear just in case – better safe than sorry!

  • …but also pack for the work.

Between your rain coat and parka, however, make sure you pack your work clothes too! Let’s be real: archaeology is dirty work. Even if you have access to the best laundry services on site (I wish!), you probably don’t want to wear your favourite clothes to site. I personally rock some cargo trousers and a tank top when I excavate – oh, and with a jumper too. Layering is your friend, so be sure to bring tops that can easily be layered for any situation. Be sure to check what sort of footwear you’ll need as well – most excavations will require that you have steel toe work boots.

  • Remember to cover up your trowel!

This is a pretty simple tip, but it’s also easy to forget! If your trowel doesn’t have a case or cover, it might be a good idea to wrap it up in a bag. Otherwise you may find your trowel has done some damage to your favourite clothes while in your luggage. Or, if you’re me, find yourself sitting on your trowel and getting stabbed in the butt. Ouch

  • Pack. Unpack. Pack.

This is a basic travel tip that I follow for anytime I need to pack for something. I’m notorious for bringing way too much, so to minimise the extra stuff, I’ve taken to packing up my suitcase, unpacking, and then packing again with some items removed. It may be a lot of work, but you’ll be thankful when you don’t have to lug around a 100 lb suitcase across an island to find your accommodations.

  • Relax and enjoy yourself.

Fieldwork is a lot of strenuous work, but don’t freak out! It’s a learning experience, so don’t feel pressured into being a perfect shovel bum. Ask for help when you need to, take breaks when you can, keep yourself safe and relax! You’re contributing to some great archaeological work, it’ll be an amazing experience.

Oh, and definitely take advantage of days off. Explore the area, do new things, just enjoy while you can!

I’m off for excavation for a few weeks, so see you when I’m back! If you’re interested in my excavation, feel free to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress. We’ll be blogging about our work and posting lots of photos!

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Sorry to everyone whose face I’ve blurred out but let’s just focus on how stylish I am on site.

 

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