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.

Studies in Skyrim: Standing Stones

 

The first three Standing Stones in Skyrim: The Mage Stone, the Warrior Stone, and the Thief Stone

In Skyrim, one of the first game mechanics you’re introduced to after the initial tutorial quest is the Standing Stone. By using a Standing Stone, the player character gains bonuses to certain traits and/or extra abilities. However, a player character can only receive one “blessing” at a time – if another Standing Stone is chosen, the first bonus will be replaced by the new one (although there is an object. the Aetherial Crown, introduced later in the Dawnguard DLC that allows for two “blessings” at once).

Similar to Skyrim’s Standing Stones are Oblivion’s Doomstones, shown here (Image Credit: The Gamers’ Temple)

In the lore of Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios 2011), these Standing Stones are magical features in the landscape that have the ability to “rewrite the Fate” of heroes if used. There are thirteen in total, each correlating with one of the Tamrielic constellations: the Warrior, the Mage, the Thief, the Serpent, the Apprentice, the Lord, the Lady, the Atronach, the Lover, the Ritual, the Shadow, the Tower, and the Steed. These constellations are also known as the “Birth Signs”, similar to real life astrological signs. In the previous game, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Bethesda Game Studios 2006), there are similar archaeological features dotting the landscape of Cyrodil with similar powers, but are called “Doomstones” instead.

The Standing Stones of Stenness is a Neolithic stone circle found on mainland Orkney, Scotland.

It’s likely that the in-game Standing Stones are based off of the real world archaeological features that can be found at many sites around the world. Some of the best known ones can be found in the Orkney Islands, Scotland: the Standing Stones of Stenness (see above photo), the Ring of Brodgar, and the Odin Stone (unfortunately no longer standing).

Although the exact reasons for the construction of these Standing Stone monuments are unclear, they are usually associated with concepts of ritual, ceremony, and cosmology. Orkney’s Standing Stones, for example, have been observed to be relatively close to one another and also in close proximity to another Neolithic site, the Maeshowe tomb. This has been used as evidence that this area that encompasses all three archaeological sites was most likely important to the Neolithic inhabitants of Orkney. Some archaeologists have suggested that the Standing Stones are all that remains of a more intricate ritual area – Colin Richards (1996) has posited that these sites could have also had trenches of water to serve as places of liminality or transitioning, as well as connecting the cosmological beliefs of the Neolithic inhabitants with their own island environment.

Even after the Neolithic, later Scottish folklore and tradition still focused on these archaeological monuments. For example, the Odin Stone was used in ceremonies of marriage prior to its destruction. Other folklore suggests that Standing Stones were meeting places for supernatural creatures, such as fairies – this led to a tradition of leaving milk and other treats at these sites to appease these creatures (Gazin-Scwartz 2001). And even today, the Standing Stones are still seen as points of magic and wonder, especially within neo-pagan covens – perhaps these stones simply reflect a deep, human reaction of awe and mystery that still survives to this very day. So much so that they’ve ultimately inspired the magic and fantasy of Skyrim

References

Anonymous. (2016) Standing Stones. Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Standing_Stones?useskin=oasis

Bethesda Game Studios. (2006) The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

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

Gazin-Schwartz, A. (2001) Archaeology and Folklore in Material Culture, Ritual, and Everyday Life. International Journal of Historical Archaeology (Vol. 5, No. 4).

Richards, C. (1996) Monuments as Landscape: Creating the Centre of the World in Late Neolithic. World Archaeology (Vol. 28, No. 2).

From the Question Bag: Fish Remains in Scotland

James Green asked: I know in the US South amia calva is one of the most common fish remains found in sites. What is the most common there?

Well, as someone who seems to have been knee-deep in fish bones since 2014, I’m glad you’ve asked! Let me preface this by saying my area of expertise is North and North-east Scotland – so the Orkney Islands and the Covesea Caves. And this is based on my experience as well! So I might miss out on some more common fish finds. But here are the common fish remains that I seem to run into time and time again.

Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus)

Atlantic herring

The bane of my zooarchaeologist life…the reason why I strained my eyes during my masters dissertation…the fish that made me hold my breath while I worked because a sigh could easily send the vertebrae flying…let me present to you: the Atlantic herring.

Not necessarily something I find in abundance at my sites, but I’ve found a couple (read: about one hundred bones) here and there. It’s also found on the other side of the Pond!

Pollack (Pollachius pollachius)

Pollack bones

Not necessarily the bulk of many of my fish bone assemblages, but I find that the pollack shows up time and time again – especially pollack vertebrae! Of course, the vertebrae of  a fish are some of the most durable parts of a fish’s skeleton – that’s why you will see them more commonly than other, more fragile bones.

Whiting (Merlangius merlangus)

Whiting bones

Similar to the Atlantic herring, the whiting has also caused me much distress due to the tiny size of its bones. Very common in some Iron Age contexts that I’ve worked in, the bones of a whiting are so small that I’ve had to use a scanning electron microscope to analyse them for butchery marks and signs of erosion! Not to mention the many hours I’ve had to move their bones around with tweezers…fish bones are surprisingly hard work.

Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua)

Atlantic cod bones

Last, but not least – especially not least – is my good friend, the Atlantic cod. Surprisingly one of the most common fish bones I find at sites! So common, in fact, that it’s the easiest fish for me to identify by eye. But maybe that’s not so surprising – after all, cod is still one of the most popular fish for food! And I don’t blame people, I do really enjoy fish and chips.

Remember to send me any questions or topics you’d like to see me cover about zooarchaeology or archaeology by contacting me!