Lately, archaeologists have been a bit concerned about memes. No, not because they’re trying to perfect their comedic skills – rather, there’s been a relatively recent rash of popular memes that were derived from several big archaeological finds. For example, a nearly complete human skeleton was recovered in Pompeii, originally interpreted to have been crushed to death while fleeing the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. The image used to publicise this excavation – a skeleton whose head has been obfuscated by a stone slab – ended up being used by many as a meme on social media like Twitter and Facebook. This led to a further discussion by archaeologists across the Internet on respecting human remains and whether or not it was ethical to make memes out of recovered bodies, regardless of the age and unknown identity (Finn 2018).
Let’s talk about late capitalism and how it shapes the average young person’s everyday life, shall we?
Millennials have had the utmost misfortune to reach young adulthood (the “pivotal years”, as many call this time period) during late capitalism. This means that, as a generational group, they are significantly poorer than previous generations (O’Connor 2018), with a growing number unable to even save money (Elkins 2018) from a severe lack of fair wages. This is the generational group that is leaving higher education with high amounts of debt, only to find a feeble job market that demands long hours for little pay. It’s a pretty bleak future that young people seem to have inherited, so it’s honestly hard to blame them for developing such a morbid sense of humour that utilises iconography and imagery associated with death to express such futility in a way that’s become palatable for everyone else.
What interests me the most as an archaeologist is how this affects our perception of death and dying in modern times. Morbid memes may be contributing to a sort of desensitisation of dying, to the point where it has become no longer taboo or fearful to speak of the dead – in fact, people actively make fun of the dead and the concept of dying. I would argue that this could be seen as the opposite effect that the Positive Death Movement is having, which strives to cultivate a more positive and respectful attitude towards death. I think, as archaeologists, we definitely need to push back against the meme-ification of the dead as violation of ethics – but I also think we should consider why this has become a trend, how the socio-political characteristics of the world at large can cause these things to become popular, and how we can take this approach and apply it to our interpretations of the past.
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!
Content Warning: Discussion of human remains in this blog post. No actual images of human remains are used, however there are images of digital human remains from the Shadow of the Tomb Raider video game, so please be advised.
Recently, the third instalment of the rebooted Tomb Raider video game franchise was released. This game, titled Shadow of the Tomb Raider, places playable heroine Lara Croft in Meso-America and South America attempting to stop a Mayan apocalypse that she had unknowingly set into motion after stealing an artefact.
The game has received a fair bit of criticism not only for its gameplay, but for the content of the story itself. Despite being a property who has been in the public eye for over two decades, Tomb Raider has never been able to truly shake off its title – Lara Croft has always been a looter of tombs and ruins, despite any good intentions. Although this recent instalment has arguably made the most effort in confronting the inherent colonialism of being a “tomb raider”, the game still reproduces much of it itself (see Lacina 2018). Dia Lacina’s article on Tomb Raider and colonialism is a thorough breakdown of the game’s attempt to critique its own problematic setting, but only briefly mentions the problems caused by the game’s photo mode. What I would like to add, as an archaeologist, is how the photo mode plays into a well-known trope of colonisation: the dehumanisation of specific people, particularly their remains.
Let me preface all of this by saying that I do not necessarily think the developers of the game intended for the photo mode to be used to take “silly” selfies with human remains! Photo modes in video games has been a relatively recent trend, with big name games like God of War and Spider-Man having their own versions of a photo mode as part of their gameplay. However, due to the context of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the addition of a photo mode touches upon an issue regarding human remains that I slightly touched upon in last week’s blog post: what are the ethics of displaying and photographing remains?
This question is a relatively recent one, coming as part of a renewed interest in the ethics of remains amongst archaeological bloggers, writers, and curators. Harries et al. (2018) write that although there are plenty of ethical guidelines for the handling and display of human remains, less work has been done on creating uniform guidelines for displaying photographs of human remains. This is mainly due to a key debate that is still underway: are photographs and other depictions of remains equal to the actual remains? Or are they just a likeness, and therefore a separate thing? Is the very act of making the dead the subject of your photo (without their consent) an act of objectifying and dehumanising them?
To further tie these questions in with the themes of Tomb Raider, let’s consider dehumanisation. Dehumanisation of human remains, as well as living humans, was and still is a key component to colonisation efforts. The remains of Indigenous people across North America were often displayed as “educational tools” in museums or as “oddities and curiosities” in roadside exhibits. Regardless of the setting or the perceived intention, these places had commodified these human remains, removing any agency and “othering” them as objects on display, rather than people (Rewolinski 2014).
So, is the photographing human remains ethical? I do not claim to have any concrete answers, of course, but I think in the case of Tomb Raider, what changes the answer is the fact that the player, as Lara Croft, can take selfies with human remains. In this context, it could be argued that the human remains are used as props – the same way one would pose with a statue, a landmark, or any other object. Not to mention that many players use the dead in-game for the purposes of hilarity, juxtaposing a corpse with Lara Croft’s awkward smile (McGladdery 2018). I’d argue that the use of a dead body for one’s punchline would consist of dehumanisation, to be honest.
So perhaps the next time you, or Lara Croft, come across human remains…maybe put the camera away. And reflect on why you instantly “other” the remains before you, instead of treating them as what they represent: a person who once lived.
Harries, J. et al. (2018) Exposure: the Ethics of Making, Sharing, and Displaying Photographs of Human Remains. Human Remains and Violence. 4(1). pp. 3-24.
Content Warning: This post will be talking a lot about death and the emotional resonance of dead bodies, both human and non-human. No images of human remains will be shown, but there will be images of non-skeletal (mummified) dead animals, so if this may be upsetting, please skip this post.
I was on Twitter the other day when I came across a Tweet about the recent archaeological discovery of the well-preserved body of a dog that had recently been recovered from permafrost in Siberia (Siberian Times Reporter 2018). Looking at photos of the dog’s paws, which still have some fur, I thought, “Oh, how sad.” And yet, I work with animal remains all the time! So what is so different about these remains?
This dog is one of a couple of recent, well-preserved finds in Siberia – in August, a preserved body of a foal (young horse) was recovered (Associated Press 2018), and just weeks after the dog recovery, the well-preserved remains of a 50,000 year old lion cub was also found (Gertcyk 2018). Note the language and imagery used in these articles – Gertcyk refers to the lion cub as “cute” with significant emphasis of how young the lion was at death, the Siberian Times article on the dog makes certain to stress how some of the fur is still present, and an additional article on the foal by Michelle Starr (2018) utilises up-close photos of the hooves, face, and nose of the foal which were especially well-preserved.
Focusing on the young age of the animals – and how this increases the “cuteness” factor, so to speak – is arguably a tactic to incite sympathy and emotion, as well as relatability. This is also seen in human advertisements, especially regarding charity and other social activism for the sake of the living – this phenomenon has been widely studied, with many philosophical and psychological explanations given for why this is both so widespread and effective (Seu 2015). With regards to the dead, emphasis of youth also invokes an emotional reaction akin to something like grief – a life not fully lived, innocence struck down too early.
What is more interesting, and perhaps more effective in evoking an emotional reaction is the constant emphasis of preservation. The ability for viewers to see the recognisable, the things we associate with the living, is what helps in empathising with the body. A very evocative example is the bog body (which you can read more about here, CW: for a photo of actual human remains). The high level of preservation caused by bogs results in such a recognisable appearance that it creates a sensation that Wright (2017) refers to as the “sublime” – an interplay between empathy for the recognised humanity and also a sort of horror at the personification of death. It can be argued that it is this unique ability of bog bodies to invoke such an emotional reactional that led to the numerous art and prose inspired by them – take, for instance, Seamus Heaney’s work.
The power of such reactions may also be evident from the response to a lack of recognisable features. Mummies, for instance, are technically well-preserved bodies. Yet the concealed nature of most mummies creates a need for additional elements to invoke more empathy and relatability; this is further explored by Day (2013), who questions the necessity of facial reconstructions of Egyptian mummified bodies in order for Western audiences to “relate” better to them.
Of course, this is not to say that just “fleshy bits” – skin, hair, fur, etc. – necessarily equate to instant empathy. There is an element of “intactness” that also must be present. The preserved animals that have been previously discussed in this blog post have all been more or less completely intact, again a testament to their preservation. Separating an element, like a limb, from the body would most likely invoke a reaction closer to horror, as we often associate such separation with mutilation and other acts of violence, even if the separation is caused naturally by more taphonomic means.
So, if we accept the argument that having these “preserved” elements causes empathy and emotional reactions, then perhaps we must also accept that there may be some truth to the reverse of this – that skeletal remains, both animal and human, are more difficult to empathise with. To an extent, this is certainly true for animal remains – skeletal animals are often see without issue at museums, in decoration and jewellery, and in the past sometimes utilised for tools and materials. The caveat to this, of course, is the last few decades during which animal rights activism has become more prevalent and acceptable in the public eye.
As for human remains, there is a long and lengthy history regarding the ethicality of display that is also intertwined with colonialist and racist scientific practices. It has only been recently that the repatriation of human remains – specifically those of Indigenous peoples – have become generally accepted as the “right thing to do” by the general public, although of course there remains some within anthropology, archaeology, and museums who fight against the act of repatriation in the name of “scientific process”, despite the horrific racial and colonial implications of said process. Even more recently, this debate has turned towards exhibitions that utilise real human remains to educate others about the body – touring exhibitions such as BodyWorlds have been as extremely controversial as they have also been extremely popular (Redman 2016).
Perhaps another blog post is necessary to further explore the ethicality regarding human remains, both in display and in analytical practice.As technology and preservation practices continue to advance, what new obstacles will we face with regards to our ability to preserve and display the dead? Redman (2016) perhaps offers the best glimpse at what troubles might be ahead, mentioning that BodyWorlds often runs into the issue of displaying the human body like an art piece, rather than an actual person. May there be a time when our conception of the body becomes so far removed that we no longer empathise with the dead, even as well preserved as they are? What does this mean for the future of ethics?