Community-Led, Community-Run: The Blathers’ Approach to Museum Curation

In the Animal Crossing video game series, Blathers is the rather stereotypical curator of the local museums; a straight-laced nerd who punctuates his educational rambling with “wot?” and is dutiful in his collecting…even if he has to occasionally handle a bug or two. But what is less stereotypical is his curatorial approach as the head of a museum that is part natural history, part aquarium, part insect sanctuary, and part art galley. You see, it’s the Player Character’s responsibility (as well as other Player Characters who may visit via online play) to actually fill the museum with donated material!

And, honestly? I think we can learn something about museum curation from this nerdy entomophobe.

Blathers: “The cultural development of Wakame (my island in Animal Crossing) is a worthy endeavour indeed.”

In a way, I guess you can consider the museum in Animal Crossing to be a sort of “community-led museum”, in that ultimately it is you, the non-specialist member of the general public, who is providing material for the museum to exhibit. Of course, its not entirely community-led : Blathers ultimately has final say in what gets displayed (no repeats! no fake artwork!) and, given the game mechanics, nearly every player will end up with the same museum as they’re encouraged to collect all of the bugs, sea creatures, fish, and artwork available in the game. But I think we can see the Animal Crossing museum as a sort of example from which we can really discuss and development the idea of a truly community-led museum.

The idea of community-led museums isn’t new, of course – in fact, if we use a broad definition of the museum as any space that has collected and protected specific objects for viewing of the general public, then community-led museum-like spaces have existed for centuries in the form of shrines and communal areas. The more modern concept of the museum (as well as its associated curation policies) are arguably more “Western” in nature, with much of it developed in a colonial framework that unfortunately influences curatorial decisions to this day (Kreps 2006). Thus, many see the resurgence of the community-led museum as a means of shifting towards a more ethical approach to curation and display.

Of course, this also means that we are discussing a very site-specific form of community-led curation – similar to the way in which the Player Character is developing exhibitions of their town/island’s specific biodiversity in Animal Crossing, I would argue that community-led museums work best when dealing with its own community. In other words, it is important to not repeat the power dynamics of the colonial museum, but with a more communal approach! Previous experiments in the community-led approach has shown that it can help develop better relationships with the concept of a local, shared heritage, and lead to a feeling of collective ownership…and responsibility…of the history and artwork on display (Debono 2014, Mutibwa et. al. 2020).

What I find most interesting about the museum in Animal Crossing is the emphasis on natural history, on what a community-led natural history museum would look like. Of course, a real life application of the techniques used in the video game would be an ethical nightmare (not sure how you feel about encouraging the general public to catch and donate live fish and bugs at their leisure?), but I think the general conceit of the approach is something to consider. Citizen science, for example, has become very popular as a means of public engagement by institutions over the past decade, and there has been some examples of natural history museums spearheading projects to engage the community to participate directly in research (Ballard et. al. 2017).

As we find ourselves in a period of revaluation and reflection due to the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is great potential for utilising a framework such as the community-led museum as a means of accountability and justice within historically colonial and racist institutions. As Olivette Otele recently said in a discussion with Fischer and Jansari (2020), community curation can be a means of shifting and taking power from the museum to the communities, where they can curate in ways that suit their means. This could also develop and improve long term sustainable relationships between the community and the institution, especially if the process of curation is also archived as part of the museum as well – forever preserving that collective labour, perhaps to use as a template moving forward to bigger and more radical things.

At some point, though, we should probably talk about Blather’s complicity (as well as the Player Character’s) in the illicit trade of artwork and antiquities…

References

Ballard, H.L. et al. (2017) Contributions to Conservation Outcomes by Natural History Museum-Led Citizen Science: Examining Evidence and Next Steps. Biological Conservation 208. pp. 87-97.

Debono, S. (2014) Muza: Rethinking National Art Museums and the Values of Community Curation. Malta Review of Educational Research 8(2). pp. 312-320.

Fischer, H. and Jansari, S. (2020) International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Podcast. British Museum. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/britishmuseum/august-23-podcast-ep-mixdown

Kreps, C. (2006) Non-Western Models of Museums and Curation in Cross-Cultural Perspective. In A Companion to Museum Studies (eds S. Macdonald). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 457-472.

Mutibwa, D.H., et al. (2020) Strokes of Serendipity: Community Co-Curation and Engagement with Digital Heritage. Convergence 26(1). pp. 157-177.

Nintendo (2020) Animal Horizon: New Horizons, video game, Nintendo Switch. Kyoto: Nintendo.

Fire, Earth, and Sky – Oh My! Looking at Burial Traditions in Divinity: Original Sin II

One of the first video games that I got hooked on during the start of the pandemic (that wasn‘t Animal Crossing) was Divinity: Original Sin II. At the time, it had been years since I played a fantasy role-playing game from a series I wasn’t already familiar with, so honestly? I had a great time becoming enraptured by the new lore of Divinity II...which, of course, means I spent my entire first play-through (all 60+ hours of it!) overanalysing everything and looking at every single aspect from the perspective of an archaeologist with anthropological training. Yes, I am an insufferable gamer who cannot play anything normally, it is a true tragedy.

Unsurprisingly, the thing that drew my attention instantly was a cemetery area called “Stonegarden”, which was inclusive of nearly all the races in the world of Divinity II (except for the Undead, for…uh, obvious reasons, I guess?). As such, there was a variety of burial practices in place, which is particularly fascinating to me, as someone whose last four years were devoted to funerary archaeology and differing burial rites. So, let’s examine the different practices on display, and how they may (or may not) connect to real-life funerary rites in the past and present!

By Fire

A funeral pyre that is forever in flames as part of the Lizard burial traditions in Stonegarden Cemetery

In the world of Divinity: Original Sin II, Lizards are customarily cremated in a funeral pyre that is constantly burning. Based on the interactions the Player Character can have with the spirit of a deceased Lizard, it is an utmost shame to not be given these rites after death, thereby emphasising how important this particular act is for the Lizard culture.

Although I have yet to find an example of a never-ending funeral pyre, the basic concept of burning remains can be found in cultures throughout the world, and is still commonly practiced today. Archaeologically speaking, cremated bone is often identified by the presence of burnt bone – but not just burnt bone alone! Without context, burnt bone (human or animal) can be the result of numerous situations: cooking, accidental burning, cremation, etc. As such, it is important to find further context to indicate cremation: urns, grave goods, even the pyre site itself. It should be noted that humans are not the only ones to be cremated – animals have been found as cremated remains in the archaeological record as well! For example, Anglo-Saxon cremations have revealed mixed assemblages of human and animal remains, usually a horse or dog. With this in mind, it is likely that these animals were companions for the deceased – unfortunately, it is also notoriously difficult to differentiate between human/animal cremated bone, so we may not fully understand how prevalent (or not prevalent) this practice is (Whyte 2001, Bond and Worley 2006).

By Earth

A coffin with a Human skeleton that is waiting to be buried in Stonegarden Cemetery

A more ubiquitous and familiar burial tradition is practiced by the Humans of Divinity II (ugh, why are we always so boring!), who tend to practice inhumations, or burying remains underground. Inhumations, alongside cremations, are probably among the most common forms of funerary practice in the world, as well as the one most associated with the idea of funerary traditions. That said, it is interesting to consider how diverse inhumations can be in practice, with varieties in number of bodies, grave goods, social status (or lack thereof), overall treatment of the body, etc. To be honest, this topic is probably worth exploring in another blog post!

An ancestor tree, grown from the corpse of an Elf, located in Stonegarden Cemetery

In contrast, the Elves of Divinity II are not just buried in the ground – they become trees. Given the longer lifespan of Elves, death is rare and thus cause for massive ritual and rites. As cannibalism is already commonly practiced in Elven culture (which is actually a gameplay mechanic, as they are able to gain knowledge through memories of the dead they consume), it is common funerary practice for Elves to consume the heart of the deceased. The rest of the remains are then submerged into a pit filled with blood, eventually replaced in time with an ancestor tree, which has been directly grown from the dead.

Although there is no evidence for human-to-tree transformation beyond myths and folklore, we can see a similar focus on the tree as a symbol in funerary practices of the past. For example, it has been noted that tree-like features have appeared in ritual and funerary contexts during the Early Bronze Age in northern Europe, including the physical use of oak coffins in barrow burials (Fahlander 2018).

Similar traditions have continued into the modern age, particularly with the wave of ecological consciousness that would begin to include cemeteries and burial practices in the 1990’s, with environmentally-friendly inhumations becoming popular in countries such as the United Kingdom and Japan (Boret 2014). More recently, businesses have attempted to legally market more ecological solutions for burial in an even more environmentally-conscious world; one example is the Capsula Mundi, which consists of a biodegradable capsule that holds the deceased and eventually degrades to allow the remains to provide nutrients to a tree sapling planted above (Erizanu 2018).

By Sky

At the top of a tower in Stonegarden Cemetery lies Dwarven corpses, which are consumed by condors

Finally, the Player Character can find a lone tower in Stonegarden. Heading up the stairs, the Player Character will find the skeletal corpses of Dwarves laid below circling condors (a type of vulture) in the sky, with one perched nearby, eating one of the corpses. Most people will instantly connect this with the concept of “Sky Burials”, a practice that is most associated with Tibet, but is also practiced as part of Zoroastrianism in India (Kushwaha 2016). It has been theorised that this practice (or some variation of it) may have also been practiced in parts of Prehistoric Britain, specifically as a mode of excarnation, which broadly describes most practices of defleshing and disarticulation of the body (Carr and Knüsel 1997, Best and Mulville 2017).

I think, among many other misconceptions that folks have about archaeology, that the concept of funerary traditions is quite stifled and otherwise limited to inhumations and cremations. In reality, there is actually a beautifully diverse spectrum of traditions – and its not just limited to the ones discussed here. And I think that is one of the best things about archaeology – it can be such an expansive moment for your mind, seeing the ways in which human engagement with abstract concepts such as death have changed over time.

Also, I don’t know if anyone is actually going to read until the end of this post but I need to confess that I still haven’t finished Divinity II because I think I built my character wrong and the last boss battle is really hard…

References

Best, J. and Mulville, J. (2017) Birds in Death: Avian Archaeology and the Mortuary Record in the Scottish Islands. The Bioarchaeology of Ritual and Religion. pp. 179-192. Oxbow Books.

Bond, J.M. ad Worley, F.L. (2006) Companions in Death: the Roles of Animals in Anglo-Saxon and Viking Cremation Rituals in Britain. Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. pp. 89-98.

Boret, S.P. (2014) Japanese Tree Burial: Ecology, Kinship, and the Culture of Death. Routledge.

Carr, G. and Knüsel, C. (1997) The Ritual Framework of Excarnation by Exposure as the Mortuary Practice of the Early and Middle Iron Ages of Central Southern Britain. Reconstructing Iron Age Societies: New Approaches to the British Iron Age. pp. 167 – 173. Oxbow Books.

Erizanu, P. (2018) The Biodegradable Burial Pod that Turns Your Body into a Tree. CNN: EcoSolutions. Retrieved from: https://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/03/world/eco-solutions-capsula-mundi/index.html

Fahlander, F. (2018) The Relational Life of Trees: Ontological Aspects of “Tree-Ness” in the Early Bronze Age of Northern Europe. Open Archaeology 4(1). pp. 373 – 385.

Kushwaha, S. (2016) Vultures in the Cultures of the World. Asian Journal of Agricultural and Life Sciences 1(2). pp. 34-40.

Larian Studios (2017). Divinity: Original Sin II. Bandai Namco Entertainment.

Whyte, T.R. (2001) Distinguishing Remains of Human Cremations from Burned Animal Bones. Journal of Field Archaeology 28(3-4). pp. 437 – 448.

The Witcher is a Bioarchaeologist – Okay, Let Me Explain…

Okay, I mean…technically the Witcher is more of a zoologist with a bit of forensics training, but let me shoe-horn in my expertise please!

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Geralt, the Witcher, examining a griffin corpse in the Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (2015).

After years of being yelled at to play the Witcher 3: the Wild Hunt (2015), I am finally playing the Witcher 3: the Wild Hunt (round of applause please). And I’m enjoying it a lot, as it fills the fantasy void within my heart that the Dragon Age series has left. But the gameplay mechanic that interests me the most is, unsurprising, the investigation sequences during the Witcher contracts.

Geralt, the main character, is a Witcher (have I written that word enough yet?). This means he’s been trained and physically & genetically enhanced in order to combat monsters and other deadly creatures.

So, what do I mean that Geralt is basically a trained bioarchaeologist? Well, one of the many types of quests you can get during the game are called “contracts”, which are basically paid jobs, usually involving the defeat of some creature that’s terrifying the local populace. But it’s not just about riding off and fighting a griffin or an ogre…there’s a bit of investigation involved as well.

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Geralt investigates the corpses of a human and a cow during a quest in the Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (2015).

During these quests, Geralt is usually directed to a site where some horrible thing has happened – a peasant has been horribly murdered, or a person has gone missing and only left behind a blood trail, or maybe it’s just the whispers of local folklore that’s brought him there. Whatever it is, Geralt will begin to investigate and look for clues; these will come in the form of animal tracks, bloodstains, or even the deceased themselves.

Again, most of these interactions are probably more forensic in nature, but there’s still lots of similarities with bioarchaeology. For example, Geralt has an incredible amount of knowledge of common taphonomic processes (which I’ve actually written about here, except in a different video game). Taphonomy refers to the processes through which a living being undertaken as they move from living to being part of the archaeological record as a post-mortem deposit (Lyman 1994).

When Geralt looks at remains, he can deduce the actions that occurred to cause that particular deposit – did they die here, or were they placed here after death? Has any animals moved or otherwise affected the body in any way? What about the environment – has weather affected these remains in any way? Is there something significant about the way this body was or was not buried?

And these are important questions to ask about archaeological deposits as well! It isn’t assumed that we are looking at an intentional grave, as many factors could have led to this particular deposition – were they buried here intentionally, as a “final resting place? Were they first placed somewhere else and then moved here? Was the body modified in anyway prior to this eventual deposition? This can include not just other humans, but other animals and environments factors.

But more specifically, Geralt is a walking bestiary – he knows not only how to recognise and identify faunal remains, but also understands their living behaviours as well. When Geralt comes across the remains of a slain griffin, he immediately makes the connection that the one he has been hired to kill was the deceased’s partner – but how? Well, he understands the mating behaviours of griffins!

And, as a zooarchaeologist myself, I really enjoy seeing how extensive Geralt’s zoological knowledge is and how he incorporates it in his interpretations alongside his observations and evaluations of the surrounding environment. Why? Well, to quote Diane Gifford-Gonzalez (1991), “bones are not enough”!

Being able to identify animal bones is a vital skill, but it’s not just the end of zooarchaeology. Knowledge of behavioural studies, of regional geology, climate and environmental studies…these can all be utilised and factored into an interpretation, allowing for an interdisciplinary and more dimensional narrative for the assemblage at hand.

Now, if only I can hire a Witcher to take a look at my current faunal assemblage…

References

CD Projekt (2015) The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.

Gifford-Gonzalez, D. (1991) Bones are Not Enough: Analogues, Knowledge, and Interpretive Strategies in Zooarchaeology. Anthropological Archaeology 10. pp. 215-254.

Lyman, R.L. (1994) Vertebrate Taphonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Guardians, Gods, or Geodudes? Pokemon and Battling Animals in Antiquities

A Pokemon battle in Pokemon Moon (2016)
In the Pokemon franchise, Pokemon (or “pocket monsters”, as it directly translates to English) are catchable creatures that can be trained for battle between Pokemon trainers. Pokemon battles have developed an extensive amount of lore through the video games and associated anime series, particularly through myths and legends that the Player can learn about on their journey. The Veilstone’s Myth from the Sinnoh Region, for example, uses the myth of a human killing a Pokemon with a sword and causing a Pokemon to temporarily disappear to provide one explanation for why Pokemon battles exist.

In the Alolan region, Pokemon battles have been incorporated into rites of passage. One type of battle practiced during this rite, known as the Battle Royale, is fought between four Pokemon trainers and is said to be based off of the war between the Guardian Deities of the region.

A character from Pokemon Moon (2016) saying, “Hoo-ee! Another great battle this year!”
We can draw some parallels between these battles and some actual, similar concepts found within the archaeological record – particularly those that take place in the Alola region, which have an especially significant place within the cultural rites of the region. Generally speaking, we have a plethora of evidence for ritual events that utilise non-human species in one form or another. However, with Pokemon battles in mind, let’s focus on forms of more ritualised, or culturally significant, combat.

Elephants in an Ancient Roman amphitheater
Elephants being fought by humans in a Roman amphitheatre (Image: Stefano Bianchetti)

Animal fighting is more or less frowned upon today, but we can find much archaeological (and textual) evidence of the cultural and ritual importance of animal combat in antiquity. Evidence for dog fighting can be seen amongst Etruscan tomb art and Greek vases (Kalof and Taylor, 2007). Cock-fighting, perhaps the most known form of animal combat, has a long history, with depictions found in Greece on Corinthian and Attic vases and amphorae (Lewis and Llewelynn-Jones, 2018). Although both dog and cock fighting were most likely used as entertainment amongst the ancient Greeks, the latter also had a significant ritual dimension as well; cock-fights were annual affairs in Athens, with cocks being associated with both Ares and Athena for their fighting prowess (Shelton, 2014).

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Terracotta figure of children watching a cockfight, from the Archaeological Museum in Naples (Image: Mary Harrsch)

There are also instances of inter-species fighting, specifically between humans and other animals. The ancient Romans, of course, are commonly associated with the grand spectacle of gladiatorial fights in popular media – and there’s historical evidence to support the existence of these gory shows, too. Animals – particularly exotic animals caught and shipped to Rome – were used in “venationes“, or hunts in which they were pitted against humans for entertainment, and also as a common tool of execution, known as damnatio ad bestias…again, for entertainment (Wazer, 2016). These animals were also pitted against other animals in arenas in a way that could be argued as ritually staged, as it demonstrated and affirmed the Roman domination over nature itself (Gilhus, 2013).

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A man executed by leopard, as depicted in Roman mosaics from the Archaeological Museum of Tunesia (Image: Rached Msadek, 2007)

Another particular form of this inter-species fighting that was culturally significant throughout antiquity is that of the mythological. Artwork, such as Greek vase art, often depicted the heroic battles of legends like Heracles against creatures both mythological and non-mythological. In these depictions, the concepts of humanness, beastliness, and perhaps something in-between are on full display (no pun intended)…sometimes even more literally, with hybrid creatures made from both human and animal, like the Minotaur, put in combat with others (Beier 2017).

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A Tyrrhenian amphora that may depict the mythological Calydonian boar hunt, displayed at the Altes Museum (Image: Bibi Saint-Pol, 2008)

Despite the battle-based gameplay of the Pokemon series, creator Satoshi Tajiri has also said that a core concept of the games was communication and community – players were encouraged to not just compete against friend, but also trade Pokemon with each other as well (Yokada, 1999). And perhaps that’s truly the connecting tissue between Pokemon and the animal battles of ancient times…at the end of the day, it was the community that was the core of these rituals and stories, bringing people together with shared mythologies, cosmologies, and activities.

Although, I don’t know if folks in antiquity were desperately looking for friends to trade Pokemon so you could evolve your Haunter into Gengar…?

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Gigantamax version of Gengar from Pokemon Sword and Shield (2019)…I love you, Gengar! (Image: Prima Games, 2019)

References

Beier, C. (2017) Fighting Animals: An Analysis of the Intersections between Human Self and Animal Otherness on Attic Vases. In Interactions between Animals and Humans in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (eds. T. Fögen and E. Thomas). De Gruyter: Berlin. pp. 275-304.

GameFreak (2007) Pokemon Diamond/Pearl. Nintendo.

GameFreak (2016) Pokemon Sun/Moon. Nintendo.

Gilhous, I.S. (2013) From Sacrifices to Symbols: Animals in Late Antiquity to Early Christianity. In Animals as Religious Subjects: Transdisciplinary Perspectives (eds. C. Deane-Drummond, D.L. Clough, and R.A. Kaiser). Bloomsbury: New York. pp. 149-166.

Kalof, L. and Taylor, C. (2007) The Discourse of Dog Fighting. Humanity and Society 31(4). pp. 319-333.

Lewis, S. and Llewellynn-Jones, L. (2018) The Culture of Animals in Antiquity: A Sourcebook with Commentaries. New York: Routledge.

Shelton, J. (2014) Spectacles of Animal Abuse. In The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life (ed. G.L. Campbell). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 461-477.

Wazer, C. (2016) The Exotic Animal Traffickers of Ancient Rome. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/exotic-animals-ancient-rome/475704/

Yokada, T. (1999) The Ultimate Game Freak. TIME Magazine. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html

“I Love Dying and Being Dead” – Late Capitalism and Modern Perceptions of Death

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).

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A Tweet from Patrick Gill (@Pizza_Suplex) commenting on the skeleton recovery that says, “Me to a panicked group of archaeologists moments after I drop a big ass rock on a perfectly preserved Pompeii skeleton: Chill. Let me talk to the press. I’ve got this.”

Although the main concern with this “meme-ification” of the dead is the ethics at play (for more on the ethics of human remains on display, see my blog post on selfies with human remains in the recent Tomb Raider game), I’m more interested in why memes utilising the dead – or associated with death and dying – are so popular these days.

Let’s talk about late capitalism and how it shapes the average young person’s everyday life, shall we?

An image of a tombstone that says “This Space for Rent” – the caption added above it says, “Capitalism even ruins the sweet release of death smh”

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.

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A meme from Da Share Zone (@dasharezOne), a popular social media presence that makes images using stock photos of skeletons. This one depicts a (fake) human skeleton wearing a fur coat with a flower crown . The text around it says, “Looking Good, Feeling Bad”. Relatable!

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.

References

Elkins, K. (2018) A Growing Percentage of Millennials Have Absolutely Nothing Saved. CBNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/09/a-growing-percentage-of-millennials-have-absolutely-nothing-saved.html

Finn, E. (2018) Pompeii Should Teach Us to Celebrate People’s Lives, Not Mock Their Death. The Conversation. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/pompeii-should-teach-us-to-celebrate-peoples-lives-not-mock-their-death-97632

O’Connor, S. (2018) Millennials Poorer than Previous Generations, Data Show. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/81343d9e-187b-11e8-9e9c-25c814761640

 

“Death Positivity” for Pets: Are We Changing Our Attitudes Towards the Death Of Animals?

Content Warning – Today’s blog post will talk at length about animal death and will have some photos of taxidermy animals. Please proceed with caution and feel free to skip the blog post entirely if this is too upsetting.

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Death Salon on Instagram “Our director_s personal haul from #deathsalonboston including moulagedecire[...]
Caitlyn Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death, gives a talk at a Death Salon event in Seattle (Photo Credit: @DeathSalon on Instagram)
The “Death Positivity” movement has truly become part of the mainstream discourse recently, ranging from a general increase in appreciation for all things aesthetically macabre, to more organized events that educate others on death and the culture surrounding it. Arguably at the forefront of this movement in the United States is Caitlyn Doughty, a mortician who started the Order of the Good Death as a means of engaging with death and dying in a more positive manner and combatting the anxieties that surround death in modern society (Troop 2013). Doughty eventually began working with other organizers to create “death salons” – based on 18th century intellectual salons, these events gather academics, professionals, and creatives (such as musicians, artists, performers, and even chefs!) together to discuss aspects of death and the culture around death (Rosenbloom 2013).

But while our attitudes towards human death may be changing, what about our attitudes towards animal death? This may be a more complicated question than I originally thought – after all, given our utilisation of animals as subsistence, product manufacturers, and sometimes companions, humans will find themselves constantly confronting animal death. However, there are two specific examples of recent trends that I’ve noticed as someone who consistently works with animal remains in their everyday life…

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Alex Fitzpatrick ( afitzpatrickarchaeology) • Instagram photos and videos
A typical array of “vulture culture” collections, processed and used in artwork by artist and seller Ossaflores (Photo Credit: @Ossaflores on Instagram)

Perhaps one example of changes towards animal death is the popularisation of “vulture culture” online – this term often refers to enthusiasts for collecting animal remains, either as skeletal elements or as taxidermies. Not everyone in the community processes their own remains, but everyone expresses a passion for collecting specimens via online sellers or by finding naturally defleshed remains in the wild. Some enthusiasts are also artists that incorporate animal remains into their artwork somehow.  It is usually emphasised that “vulture culture” collections are derived from naturally deceased animals as part of their ethics (Miller 2017).

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An example of “pet aftercare” in the form of full taxidermy, done by Precious Creatuer Taxidermy (Photo Credit: @PreciousCreature on Instagram)

Another example of “animal death positivity” could also be seen in the rise of pet mortuary businesses that specialise in “alternative aftercare”. This can either be as a full taxidermy piece, as a partial piece (for example, preserved tails or paws), or in skeletal form. Precious Creature Taxidermy, an alternative aftercare and taxidermy business run by Lauren Lysak in California, offers various aftercare services in lieu of what we may consider “traditional human funerary services” that includes the previously mentioned processes as well as cremation (Lysak 2018). Although it may seem a bit macabre to taxidermy one’s pet, you could also consider this as a deeper acceptance of death and its constant presence around all of us…in taxidermy form.

Screenshot_2018-10-30 Alex Fitzpatrick ( alexleefitz) • Instagram photos and videos

So, are we entering a new phase of “death positivity” with regards to animals? Do we even have a right to feeling “death positive” towards non-human species – after all, of course, many animal deaths are directly caused by human activities. I think that, ultimately, this is a very complicated topic that has many layers to it regarding concepts of posthumanism, of ethics, of agency, and so on – perhaps this requires another, more lengthy blog post! However, at least with regards to how humans experience the death of animals, specifically pets, I think we are making strides to better understanding the processes of death and utilising some aspects of “death positivity” as we apply it to humans in our overall understanding of the concept as a whole.

References

Lysak, L. (2018) About Precious Creature Taxidermy. Precious Creature Taxidermy. Retrieved from http://www.preciouscreaturetaxidermy.com/new-page.

Miller, L. (2017) What is Vulture Culture? Vulture Gear Blog. Retrieved from https://vulturegear.com/blogs/vulture-gear-blog/what-is-vulture-culture

Rosenbloom, M. (2013) Death Salon LA…and Beyond! Death Salon. Retrieved from https://deathsalon.org/2013/11/04/death-salon-la-and-beyond/.

Troop, S. (2013) Death Salon Interviews Caitlyn Doughty. Death Salon. Retrieved from https://deathsalon.org/2013/10/02/death-salon-interviews-caitlin-doughty/.

Terror and Tradition Over Time: A Look at the Material Culture Of Halloween

Some of my current Halloween decorations – surprisingly low-key compared to previous years!

Oddly enough, I didn’t really expect to run into that many significant cultural differences when I first moved from the United States to the United Kingdom. So I was actually a bit surprised when Halloween first came around. I expected there to be streets covered in decorations, but was surprised to see only a few pumpkins and paper bats placed here and there. Turns out that Halloween isn’t necessarily as big of a deal as it is in the US; back where I grew up, I was used to seeing houses on my block completely transform into haunted places complete with loud, scary noises and bloody, horrifying animatronic monsters! I never considered the differences in the material culture and presentation of the holiday across cultures.

With that in mind, I figured a brief look into the history of Halloween material culture  may be an interesting blog post to celebrate the holiday this year! Fair Warning: Some of these decorations may be pretty spooky.

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A traditional turnip jack-o-lantern from the Museum of Country Life in Ireland (Photo Credit: Rannpháirtí Anaithnid)

 

Most academics seem to agree that our modern celebration of Halloween stems from a pagan tradition, although there tends to be some debate over which one. Many point to Samhain, a Celtic festival that celebrated the end of the harvest season, the preparation for the upcoming winter, and the warding off of spirits by using large bonfires. Others, however, point to Pomona, which was allegedly a festival celebrated in the name of the Roman goddess of fruit and seeds, also named Pomona (Rogers 2002). Unfortunately, we have little textual or archaeological evidence to support either of these theories besides the similarities in timing with modern day Halloween – in fact, we have no evidence of the Pomona Festival ever occurring and no evidence to suggest how widespread Samhain may have been (Moss 2013).

Regardless of the actual origin point of the holiday, we can see that the introduction of All Saints Day to the 1st of November (possibly as a means of “Christianizing” Samhain) in the 8th Century eventually led to the standardization of many traditions that are still associated with Halloween. This includes perhaps the earliest form of “trick-or-treating”, where the poor would go from house to house and given soul cakes (pastries or breads made to honour the Dead) in exchange for praying for the dead of the household. Dressing up in costumes, or masquerading, also appears to have become a custom associated with All Saints Day, although it was for honouring the Christian Saints rather than terrifying the local neighbours (Bannatyne 1998). And, of course, there is that terrifying tradition that appears to have been originated in Ireland of “jack-o-lanterns” – these were faces carved into root vegetables like turnips…thankfully, the tradition turned to pumpkins once it was brought over to North America, which is good because have you seen how horrifying those turnip lanterns are?

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A tin Halloween parade stick from the early 1900’s (Image Credit: Mark B. Ledenbach, Halloween Collector)

Halloween and its traditions were introduced to the United States via the influx of immigrants from Ireland and Scotland during the mid 1800’s. However, up until the early 1900’s Halloween was mostly an adult-oriented holiday, celebrated by dinner parties. This led to the popularity of home decorations, which were often promoted by booklets and catalogues such as Dennison’s Bogie Book (Mitchell 2017).

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A Halloween Die-Cut Sign from the 1930’s (Image Credit: Mark B. Ledenbach, Halloween Collector)

By the 1920’s, Halloween was becoming more standardized in practice and in design into the holiday that we recognize today. Most decorations on offer for purchase were in the form of “die-cuts” – basically paper decorations – as these were easily disposable. You probably still see die-cuts used to this day – think of the sort of cute, paper Halloween decorations that were hung up around school. In the 1930’s, trick-or-treating was practised more widely around the United States, prompting the popularity of decorations that were more cute than creepy. From then onward, Halloween was more of a children’s holiday (Eddy 2016).

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A small selection from the 2017 TransWorld Halloween and Attractions Show (Photo Credit: Chelsea T., Haunts.com)

Today, Halloween has become entwined with modern consumerist culture – in fact, Americans spent approximately 9.1 billion dollars on Halloween decorations and costunes (Mitchell 2017). And that’s not surprising given today’s emphasis on consumerism, which has tied itself to concepts of nostalgia and pop culture that now seem to propel many modern day traditions for Halloween – from dressing up as your favourite 90’s television character to hosting a marathon of “classic” horror films. Trends in consumption and aesthetics have also added to the holiday’s general popularity – by 2010, Halloween has become the most popular non-Christian holiday in the United States (Moss 2013).

With these changes in popularity and material trends, there has also been a significant shift in the main demographic for Halloween – although still enjoyed by children and young people, there has been a rise in popularity for adult Halloween costumes and adult-oriented celebrations, like Halloween parties organized at clubs, bars, and pubs (Belk 1990).

This trend can also be seen in the movement towards associating Halloween with the truly terrifying and gory. Due to advances in technology, computer animation, and prosthetics, modern day horror media has never been more elaborate and realistic in their grim and grisly details. This has also been carried over to amateur Halloween decorations, with homemade haunted houses and terrifying attractions taking the place of trick-or-treat spots (for some of the most spectacular looking Halloween decorations and costumes, check out the TransWorld Halloween Showcase).

So, what can we see from this brief history of Halloween trends and patterns in material culture? Well, its hard to say – especially as the origins of the holiday are still widely debated. However, we could argue that Halloween has consistently been a holiday of invoking what is otherwise taboo – whether that’s communicating with spirits and saints, demanding treats and sweets from strangers and neighbours alike, playing pranks, or even just dressing a bit differently than what’s considered “normal”! Like most other popular holidays, Halloween has become entwined with consumerism and rooted to pop culture by a variety of tropes and customs. And yet, we could also say that it remains a holiday truly rooted in tradition – from the carving of Jack-o-Lanterns to trick-or-treating, these traditions have been carried over from one continent to another and have lasted hundreds of years…I think its safe to say that they don’t seem like they’ll be going away any time soon.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, everyone!

References

Bannatyne, L. (1998) Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Pelican Publishing Company.

Belk, R.W. (1990) Halloween: An Evolving American Consumption Ritual. Advances in Consumer Research. pp. 508-517.

Eddy, C. (2016) The History of Modern Halloween, as Seen Through its Decorations. Gizmodo. https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-history-of-modern-halloween-as-seen-through-its-de-1788207372

Ledenbach, M.B. (2018) Halloween Collector. www.halloweencollector.com

Mitchell, N. (2017) Halloween Decorating Hasn’t Been Around as Long as You Think. Apartment Therapy. https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/the-rather-modern-history-of-halloween-decorations-249863

Moss, C. (2013) Halloween: Witches, Old Rites, and Modern Fun. BBC: Religion & Ethics. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/24623370

Rogers, N. (2002) Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press.

An Exercise in Archaeological Analysis: Fandom, Fealty, and Funko Pops

The Funko Pop. Anyone who has had even a passing interest in pop culture will have come across these figures. Although they have a basic template (large, squared head with tiny bodies and beady eyes), these figures cover a huge range of franchises, from the most mainstream, popular series to niche, cult classics. Funko Pop collecting has become a huge hobby of its own, with the #funkopop hashtag on Instagram showcasing the huge collections of (often unboxed) figures that many fans have amassed over the years.

Given their enormous popularity, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to suggest that, centuries from now, future archaeologists will be finding giant hoards of Funko Pop figures. But what will they think of them? Let’s use these popular collectables to flex our archaeological interpretation skills!

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Funko Pop figures at WonderCon 2016 (Photo Credit: Frazer Harrison)

The Funko Pop: The Fandom Collectable

Let’s first look at Funko Pop figures as they exist right now: as a popular pop culture collectable. The first “Pop” figure was introduced in 2010 in the form of various Batman characters. Originally starting with only three major licenses (Marvel, DC, and Star Wars), the Funko Pop brand has now extended to covering 454 licenses (Cheng 2018).

Although each figure is representative of different pop culture characters, there is a sort of “basic template” that gives each Funko Pop figure a specific “Funko flair” – each figure has a large, square head, with beady eyes, and small, little bodies. Although Funko Pop figures are sold everywhere, they are most often associated with fandom conventions, with certain figures being sold exclusively at certain events, such as Comic-Con. The popularity of Funko Pop figures has led to the creation of other Funko Pop items, including clothing and homeware.

The Funko Pop: The Votive Offering

So now, let’s change the perspective. What will archaeologists in 1000 years think as they recover huge collections of Funko Pop figures from the ruins of our generation?

Humanoid figurines recovered from the archaeological record are often correlated with religion, specifically during prehistory where we lack written sources to tell us otherwise. By ascribing certain characteristics to the figurine – such as anthropomorphic traits, ritual significance, or some other supernatural aspect – the figurine is set apart from other material goods, allowing it to be used for dedication and offering to an otherworldly being, such as a deity or spirit (Osborne 2004). This idea, as applied to Funko Pop figures, is probably best described by Pulliam-Moore (2018), who has pointed out that the general uniformity of the figures heightens the fact that they are ultimately physical symbols “meant to represent the emotional relationships we have to characters and stories that they love”.

Additionally, we may also see the Funko Pop as a sort of offering – literally representing the exchange of money for these figures, which in turn can be seen as an offering to what the figures represent. As Funko CEO Brian Mariotti has said, “The idea of chasing things you love based on fandom is really, really important”. And this is true with Funko Pops – fans will spend hundreds of dollars collecting exclusive figures that are only sold at certain events (Cheng 2018). Although many Funko Pop fans are interested in collecting all things Funko Pop, there are many other fans who are only interested in certain fandoms and franchises. By buying and collecting only one particular franchise’s Funko Pop figures, a fan is expressing their fealty and dedication to that franchise – both as a performance and financially.

The Funko Pop: The Sign of Status

So, as future archaeologists, we have now established the significance of the Funko Pop figure. But how do we explain the huge quantities of figures that individuals may “hoard”, for lack of a better word? Just as we now find hoards of Viking Age treasures, will future archaeologists find hidden stashes of Star Wars Funko Pops?

Perhaps this can be explained by looking at the Funko Pop as a sign of status. By having the most Funko Pops, a person is showcasing not just their fervent fanaticism, but also displaying a sort of “wealth” that places them in a specific role in the overall hierarchy of both monetary class as well as “fandom class”, or how much of a “true” fan a person is.

In historical archaeology, it is often useful to examine material goods through a more “consumerist” perspective, especially when dealing with larger “collection”-type assemblages. Consumerism studies allow archaeologists to analyse material goods not just for their functional value, but also for their cultural value as well, as consumerism often results in utilising quantification of certain material goods as a means of marking or expressing one’s hierarchical status (Martin 1993, Van Wormer 1996). Collecting Funko Pops is also not just a display of monetary wealth (each figure is roughly $10), but also a display of cultural wealth – arbitrary ideas of “fandom credit” means one must have a certain about of “cultural capital”, which can refer to simply having the “right” knowledge about a certain franchise to, in our case, having a certain amount of material goods (Fiske 1992).

The very act of collecting itself has its own hierarchies as well. For example, a person who is able to obtain certain figures, such as the exclusive “chase” Funko Pop figures, is in itself an achievement that creates more cultural capital for the collector. This is especially heightened with the recent popularisation of documenting collections via social media – the Funko Pop fandom is able to see, in real time, who are the “top collectors”, which adds a new dimension to accumulation as achievement (Heljakka 2017).

All hail the Tom Servo Funko Pop figure!

Of course, this all sounds silly to us in the modern day – as fanatic as Funko Pop collectors are, I don’t we would consider their collections as “altars” or “offerings”! But this exercise provides us with an idea of how the intentions and use behind material goods can change over time. It reminds us, as archaeologists, that ultimately we are “interpreting” what we find – there are so many nuances that we will miss along the way, some which could totally change our current interpretation!

I’d also like to think that this exercise can also provide us with different perspectives of the things we consider “normal” right now, like how we express our “fandom allegiances” and how consumerism is entwined to create an economy of “cultural capital”. That’s one of the best things about archaeology – by thinking about the past, we can further explore our present and future!

Also, I would love a Funko Pop figure of Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, thanks.

References

Cheetham, F. (2012) An Actor-Network Perspective on Collecting and Collectables. Narrating Objects, Collecting Stories: Essays in Honour of Professor Susan M. Pearce. Routledge.

Cheng, R. (2018) At Comic-Con 2018, Funko Reigns as Unofficial King of Pop. Cnet. https://www.cnet.com/news/at-comic-con-2018-why-funko-is-the-unofficial-king-of-pop-culture-fundays/

Fiske, J. (1992) The Cultural Economy of Fandom. The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. Psychology Press. pp. 30 – 49.

Heljakka, K. (2017) Toy Fandom, Adulthood, and the Ludic Age: Creative Material Culture as Play. Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. New York University Press. pp. 91-108.

Martin, A.S. (1993) Makers, Buyers, and Users: Consumerism as a Material Culture Framework. Winterthur Portfolio. 28 (2/3). pp. 141 – 157.

Osborne, R. (2004) Hoards, Votives, Offerings: the Archaeology of the Dedicated Object. World Archaeology. 36 (1) pp. 1-10.

Pulliam-Moore, C. (2018) My Love for Funko Pops is What Made Me Stop Buying Them. Gizmodo. https://io9.gizmodo.com/my-love-for-funko-pops-is-what-made-me-stop-buying-them-1823725462

Van Wormer, S.R. (1996) Revealing Cultural Status and Ethnic Differences through Historic Artifact Analysis. Proceedings of the Society for California Archaeology. pp. 310 – 323.

Side Quest: Archaeology!

Inaccurate portrayals of archaeology in other media has been discussed before – whether it’s fact checking the Indiana Jones franchise, reiterating that Lara Croft is indeed a Tomb  Raider, or correcting someone for the 100th time that no, sorry, we don’t dig up dinosaurs…it can be exhausting! But unfortunately, it will always be necessary so long as archaeology remains a part of pop culture – in films, novels, television shows, and more recently, in video games.

Archaeology in video games can often be divided into two categories: archaeology as the main narrative (for example, Indiana Jones video games, the Uncharted franchise) and archaeology as an in-game mechanic. Meyers Emery and Reinhard (2015), in their examination of video game archaeology from which these categories originate from, explain that archaeology is a perfect fit for the modern day video game – after all, archaeology reflects the sort of puzzle-solving and narrative of exploration that many video games attempt to replicate in their own gameplay.

This blog post will be looking at archaeology as an additional in-game mechanic, often used in the form of “side quests” and “collectables”. How does this portray archaeology and why is archaeology so well-suited for side quests? As part of this discussion, we’ll be focusing on two video games that utilise a sort of “archaeology” as a side quest mechanic: Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

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Gunther, the curator of the museum in Stardew Valley, says, “It doesn’t seem like you have anything to donate to the museum. Better get out there and do some treasure hunting, huh?”

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley (Chucklefish Limited 2016) is a farming simulator video game that has the Player Character leave their miserable city life for the countryside, where they have just inherited their grandfather’s farm. During the course of the game, the Player Character can develop their skills in different ways and receive achievements for the things they can collect along the way.

Artifacts make up one of these achievable “Collections”. Through various methods (either digging in the right spot, breaking open a geode, or catching a treasure chest while fishing), the Player Character can collect artefacts of varying types – from priceless material objects to skeletal remains. Once found, the Player Character can either sell the artefact, or donate them to the town museum, run by curator Gunther. Occasionally, the Player will receive rewards based on what they have donated – this is the only form of payment that they will receive for their archaeological work during the game.

Although Stardew Valley falls into the common pitfall of conflating archaeology and palaeontology, it does a good job with placing some emphasis on post-excavation developments – for example, once an artefact is collected, the Player is able to read the interpretations of each item in their “Collections” menu. You’re also able to manually display the artefacts, allowing the Player to act as curator as well as excavator.

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A snapshot of the incomplete Artifacts Collection in Stardew Valley – the note for the Ornamental Fan collectable says, “This exquisite fan most likely belonged to a noblewoman. Historians believe that the valley was a popular sixth-era vacation spot for the wealthy.”

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The Player Character has dug up an unidentified fossil and exclaims, “I wonder what kind of fossil it is. I’ll have to take it to the museum and get it examined right away!”

Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Animal Crossing: New Leaf (Nintendo Co. Ltd. 2012) is a life simulator video game, and the fourth game in the Animal Crossing franchise. The Player Character takes on the role of Mayor in their own created town, which is populated by anthropomorphic animals, and tries to improve citizen satisfaction by building and updating public amenities. including the town’s museum.

Every day, the Player Character may recover several fossils, digging them up with their shovel. At this point, they are only shown as mysterious, unidentified spheres labelled as “Fossil”. If the Player heads to the museum, they can ask Blathers, the curator, to assess any of their recovered fossils – if these fossils are not currently on display, Blathers will ask the Player if they will donate the fossil to the museum. The game places a fair bit of weight to Blathers’ identifications – the Player Character can sell fossils for a bit of money, but will receive much more if they get them assessed first.

Fossils will range from dinosaur remains (ahem, not archaeology) to other fossilized organic material – droppings, eggs, plant life, and even a hominid! The museum also accepts donations of bugs, marine life, and artwork, but will not accept forgeries or fakes. Yes, this game actually has a forgery mechanic – it takes a good eye to notice which artwork (which can be bought by a travelling trader) is the real deal!

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The Player Character has just asked Blathers the Curator to examine a fossil. Blathers, when realizing it is a fossil that is not in the museum’s collection, says, “I’m rather jealous…I hope I can perhaps convince you to assist with Harvest’s [the name of the town] cultural education.”
So, why is archaeology  such a popular “side quest” mechanic in games like these two?

The easy answer is that archaeology is, in a sense, the act of “collecting” artefacts, which creates a set of collectable items for video game players. “Collectables” are a wildly popular component of many video games  – these are items that may be hidden within the levels of the game, and can sometimes trigger an achievement or trophy of some kind. There has been some research that has linked collectables to the “addictiveness” of video games (Goggin 2008), explaining the popularity of the feature.

By using archaeology as a means of collecting these “collectables”, video games are able to transform the discpline into a form of treasure hunting that is easy for the general audience (mostly children!) to understand. In both Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, “X marks the spot”, and I mean that literally – in Stardew, its in the form of wiggling worms, and in Animal Crossing, in the form of stars found on the ground.

Of course, this is problematic – it propagates the idea that archaeology and treasure hunting are the same, that archaeology is simply digging up things and displaying them in a museum. This simplified version of archaeology is what leads to the continuation of harmful archaeological practices entrenched in white supremacy, imperialism, and colonialism – looting, the theft and destruction of Indigenous and colonized lands, and the delay of further repatriation of artefacts and remains, among other things.

I’d argue, though, that Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing are at the very least a step in the right direction for archaeology in popular culture – although problematic and also just flat out wrong in some respects, both video games provide a glimpse into a (rather simplified) version of post-excavation work. Players are able to see specialists identify and further interpret artefacts, as well as take part in the further curation and display of the recovered items. Although Stardew Valley constantly refers to archaeological excavation as “treasure hunting”, Animal Crossing at least makes an attempt at framing archaeology in a more educational way by referring to the donation of fossils and artwork as adding to the town’s “cultural education”.

Holtorf (2004) has previously written that in popular culture, the action of “doing archaeology” is often the focus, as it is believed to be more interesting and exciting than the actual interpretation and analysis of the finds. And yet, these two video games show that pop culture archaeology can be much more than just the act of digging for priceless artefacts – perhaps what we need next is a Excavation Supervisor Simulator, with downloadable extra content in the form of Curation Quests?

References

Anonymous. (2009) Museum. Animal Crossing Wiki. http://animalcrossing.wikia.com/wiki/Museum

Anonymous. (2016) Artifacts. Stardew Valley Wiki. https://stardewvalleywiki.com/Artifacts

Chucklefish. (2016) Stardew Valley.

Goggin, J. (2008) Gaming/Gambling: Addiction and the Video Game Experience. The Pleasures of Computer Gaming: Essays on Cultural History, Theory, and Aesthetics. McFarland and Company, Inc. Publishers. pp. 33-51.

Holtorf, C. (2004) Doing Archaeology in Popular Culture. The Interplay of Past and Present. pp. 42-49.

Meyers Emery, K. and Reinhard, A. (2015) Trading Shovels for Controllers: A Brief Exploration of the Portrayal of Archaeology in Video Games. Public Archaeology. 14(2). pp. 137-149.

Nintendo Co. Ltd.. (2012) Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

 

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

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