Studies in Skyrim: Vampirism Yesterday and Today

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

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

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

Skyrim_20180709170801
The Dawnguard DLC reveals that one can become a “Vampire Lord”, which completely transforms the body into a powerful creature of the night.

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

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

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

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

Well…kinda.

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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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.

What is Old is New Again: Pseudoarchaeology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

#FolkloreThursday: On High Status Animals, or Imagining Scrooge McDuck’s Vault But Filled With Pigs and Horses

When we think of “high status” in the archaeological record, we usually think about intricate metalwork or elaborate jewellery…but what about animals? If that sounds strange, remember this: we still have animals and animal-based foods that are culturally considered “high status” today! Think of things like caviar, lobster, peacocks, etc…cover them all with some gold leaf and you’ve got yourself a millionaire’s prized possessions.

As I’ve talked about before on this blog, one of the greatest strengths of zooarchaeological research is that there are so many elements of the past that can be derived from animal remains. So to demonstrate this point, here’s a quick look at two of the high status animals from Iron Age Britain…

Ignore the fact that this is a more medieval-looking high status feast…no offence to the British Iron Age, but it’s just way easier to find images like this online! (Photo Credit: Costume Company UK Ltd)

The humble pig as a high status animal may not come as a surprise…after all, how many feasting scenes in films have you seen where one of the main courses is a giant roasted pig complete with an apple in the mouth? Raising pigs for consumption in the Iron Age took up a considerable amount of resources and land, so it follows that higher status individuals would be the few to keep and consume pigs (Serjeantson 2007). Many archaeological sites with evidence of feasting have been observed to produce many pig bones as well – it seems like that cliche has a long history! Given how difficult it was to maintain pigs, it could be interpreted that feasts with large amounts of pigs consumed were important, possibly reflecting an important event or ritual that deserves a large portion of one’s wealth being used (Madgwick and Mulville 2015).

Pigs also have a symbolic value as well by having a wild counterpart in the form of boars. Beliefs in Iron Age Britain seem to have placed emphasis on concepts of “liminality” (or the “between” places that are neither here nor there) as well as ideas of the domestic sphere and the wilderness. With that in mind, its possible that this duality of pig/boar, domestic/wild could have made pigs (and boars) high status in symbolic/ritual value as well. Boar were often hunted during this period, and were especially appreciated for its fierceness, leading to many boar motifs found in Iron Age weaponry and armoury (Green 1992, Parker Pearson 1999).

A bronze figure of a boar from a Late Iron Age chieftan’s grave at Lexden, Colchester, Essex (Photo Credit: Miranda Green)

Probably one of the more equally valued animals at the time was the horse. Unlike pigs, however, horses were more useful to humans alive than dead; horses allowed people to move quickly across long stretches of land and transport large numbers of goods – what isn’t there to like about ’em? Horses were also important to both hunting and warfare, especially with the invention and use of chariots (Green 1992, Chadwick 2007).

Although highly valued in life, it is how horses are treated in death that provide evidence to their status in the Iron Age. There are many examples of horse burials that display a sort of reverence that isn’t afforded to other animals: for example, there are instances of horse remains that have been deposited with human remains. Chariot and cart burials – which were common in the Arras Culture of Iron Age Yorkshire – can also be interpreted as emphasising the importance of horses through the activities they were associated with (warfare and transportation), although most of these did not contain horse remains. However, in 2017 a chariot burial with a horse skeleton was recovered in Pocklington, Yorkshire (Keys 2017).

An Iron Age horse and chariot burial from Pockington, Yorkshire (Photo Credit: David Wilson)

So there you have it – a quick look at how zooarchaeologists can interpret aspects about social status and hierarchy in the past from animal bones – obviously, there are other animals that are considered relatively high status, and that all pigs and horses weren’t treated this way everywhere in the Iron Age – there’s lots of nuance that needs to be used in interpretation. But we have lots of evidence to suggest that pigs and horses were indeed considered high status animals – and hey, I have to agree…I mean, have you ever had pork cracklings? Mmm…

References

Chadwick, A. M. (2007) Trackways , hooves, and memory-days – human and animal movements and memories around the Iron Age and Romano-British Rural Landscapes of the English North Midlands. Prehistoric Journeys. Oxbow Books.

Green, M. (1992) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. Routledge.

Keys, D. (2017) Iron Age Chariot and Horse Found Buried Together in Yorkshire. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/iron-age-chariot-horse-yorkshire-archaeology-significant-find-half-a-century-buried-together-a7659091.html

Madgwick, R. and Mulville, J. (2015) Feasting on Fore-Limbs: Conspicuous Consumption and Identity in Later Prehistoric Britain. Antiquity.

Parker Pearson, M. (1999) Food, Sex and Death: Cosmologies in the British Iron Age with Particular Reference to East Yorkshire. Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Serjeantson, D. (2007) Intensification of Animal Husbandry in the Late Iron Age? The Contribution of Sheep and Pigs. The Earlier Iron Age in Britain and the Near Continent. Oxbow Books.

#FolkloreThursday – Magical Flight with Birds

My current PhD research is focused on looking at animals in ritual, so I’ll be making short blog posts examining the different ways animals are seen in cosmological contexts as part of my own contribution to the #FolkloreThursday feed on Twitter. 

Wood Pigeon
A wood pigeon skull with its ulna – note the notches on the ulna, where feathers would attach.

In my recent work with mixed assemblages involved in funerary rites, I’ve come across many bird bones. At this preliminary stage in my research, it appears that butchered birds may have been incorporated into rites performed at this site.

But why birds? What’s so special about them?

Birds, barring a few examples, have the unique ability to fly. To those in the past, this was probably acknowledged as an act emblematic of supernatural power, the ability to move from the heavens to the earth with ease. Birds were considered divine messengers, whose appearance could indicate an omen from the gods and goddesses above (Green 1992).

Shamans in various communities have been noted to adopt aspects of the bird in their work and appearance; this displays their power of “flying” from one world to the next (Eliade 1964).

Throughout later prehistoric Europe, birds continued to have an association with the mystical and the magical. Birds such as ravens and crows have been known to “talk”, which ultimately associated them with divination and prophecy (Serjeantson and Morris 2011). Birds of prey and scavenging birds were most likely incorporated into funerary rites involving excarnation, or the defleshing of a body – this, in turn, led to an association of these birds with death (Harding 2016). Wild birds appear to have been hunted, but not necessarily eaten – perhaps these birds were participants in ritualistic hunting?

Helmut of Ciumesti
This helmet from Ciumesti is an example of co-opting the bird of prey as a means of showcasing an almost otherworldly fierceness

These beliefs have been observed in various artefacts from the later prehistoric – this includes Iron Age art depicting wings, drinking vessels decorated with waterbirds, and even weaponry and armour using bird motifs (Green 1992).

Of course, these aren’t the only instances of the magical properties of birds – we see this in various myths across cultures, from Odin’s ravens to Athena’s owl. Birds continue to be associated with the magical to this day…what would Harry Potter be without Hedwig, after all?

Bird Ulna
A comparison of different birds and their ulna bones – (top to bottom) herring gull, eider duck, and magpie. Again, note the notches for feathers!

References

Eliade, M. (1964) Shamanism: Archaic Technique of Ectasy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Green, M. (1992) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London: Routledge.

Harding, D. W. (2016) Death and Burial in Iron Age Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Serjeantson, D. and Morris, J. (2011) Ravens and Crows in Iron Age and Roman Britain. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 30 (1), 85-107.