Studies in Skyrim: On the Chopping Block

Content Warning: Photo of human remains included in this post.

To start off our Studies in Skyrim series, I figured it would be best to begin with the beginning of the game itself! After all, what’s more fun than learning a bit about decapitations?

In Skyrim (Bioware 2011), capital punishment usually consists of a swift beheading – this is seen in the game’s opening, where you watch as a Stormcloak, deemed to be traitorous to the Empire, is beheaded by the Imperial army’s executioner. You luckily manage to escape the blade thanks to a dragon, but a similar execution is stumbled upon again in the town of Solitude.

In real life, decapitation has been a form of capital punishment for ages, with archaeological evidence of intentional beheading dating back to the later prehistoric – although it can be argued that some instances could have been part of ritual sacrifice as well (Armit 2012). Decapitations in antiquity (read: ancient Greece and the Roman Empire) were often used for citizens, especially of higher status, as it was seen as a more humane and less dishonourable punishment. This would possibly be accurate if the executioner was skilled and could deliver a quick and clean decapitation in a single blow of the sword or axe. This would change, of course, with the popularisation of the guillotine for beheading (Clark 1995).

The British history of decapitation as capital punishment goes back centuries and is too long to properly discuss in a blog post. Anglo-Saxons originally used decapitation to punish more serious offences of theft, but eventually this practice was reserved for those of noble and high status who have committed acts of treason (Dyson 2014). Arguably the most famous cases of beheading in Britain belongs to Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn, two of King Henry VIII’s many wives. These executions were part of the seven that were done privately in the Tower of London (Clark 1995).

Decapitation is still used as capital punishment in some places to this day, but has mostly been abandoned as a practice in most parts of the world, although only relatively recently – for example, it was still used for capital punishment up until 1938 in Germany (Clark 1995).

Medieval Illumination depicting the execution of the leaders of the Jacquerie by the King of Navarre (Image Credit: the British Library)

So, how do we discover decapitations archaeologically? Isn’t it common to find skeletons disarticulated (or not together) once excavated? How do you differentiate between skulls from the beheaded and skulls from the dead?

Evidence of decapitation can sometimes be seen spatially, through the methods and locations of burial. In some places, such as Roman burial sites, there were no observed difference between decapitation burials and more normative burials. In the later Anglo-Saxon period, however, decapitation burials were moved to “execution cemeteries” to reflect a cultural understanding of decapitation as a “deviant burial” that should be kept separate from other burials (Dyson 2014).

The best place to look for evidence for decapitation is on the vertebrae – a beheading that has been done correctly will usually leave cut marks on the cervical vertebrae, which make up the neck. More unfortunate decapitations that required several more blows for a successful separation will also show related cut marks on facial features, such as on the mandible (Carty 2012).

Cut Marks on Vertebrae
Evidence of decapitation on vertebrae (Photo Credit: Museum of London Archaeology)

 

References

Armit, I. (2012) Headhunting and the Body in Iron Age Europe. Cambridge University Press.

Carty, N. (2012) ‘The Halved Heads’: Osteological Evidence for Decapitation in Medieval Ireland. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology.

Clark, R. (1995) The History of Beheading and Decapitation. Capital Punishment UK.

Dyson, G. (2014) Kings, Peasants, and the Restless Dead: Decapitation in Anglo-Saxon Saints’ Lives. Retrospectives. University of Warwick. (p. 32-43)

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Fallout Finds: Recreating Romans in New Vegas

In Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment 2010), the post-apocalyptic world of Nevada has split up into various factions (sometimes referred to as “tribes” in-game) that are in a constant struggle to regain control of the land, specifically the New Vegas Strip.

Arguably the major antagonistic faction (although your player character can choose to join forces with them near the end of the game) is Caesar’s Legion. Within the game’s lore, Edward Sallow, originally part of a faction called the Followers of the Apocalypse, came across a cache of books during his travels and became obsessed with those detailing the Roman Empire. Soon after, Sallow began to conquer and absorb local tribes into his ever-growing army through enslavement. By the start of the video game, Sallow has now taken the mantle of “Caesar” and rules over a sizeable army of soldiers, spies, and slaves and represents a significant threat to the New Vegas area.

Vulpes Inculta
Vulpes Inculta, part of the Legion’s Frumentarii, in his military uniform.

So how does these post-apocalyptic Romans compare to their real life, historical counterparts? Aesthetically, the New Vegas legionnaires have done their best to recreate Roman Imperial armour, but while historical armour had the luxury of gilding and other fancy embellishments depending on the status (MacMullen 1960), armour in New Vegas was restrained to whatever material that could be scavenged. This touches upon one of the major recurring themes of the Fallout series, which is the reuse of the debris of the nuclear war to create new weapons, tools, and armour. All legionnaires in New Vegas are outfitted in what appears to be repurposed American football gear and jerseys. Higher status officials, such as Centurions, will have have certain ornamentation to differentiation themselves from the average foot soldier – this may include metal spikes and paint on shoulder pads, animal furs, or helmet decoration, such as feathers. The Legate, as the leader of the army, wears specifically created metal armour, displaying his commanding status over all soldiers .

As a means of staying true to the historical Romans, Caesar’s Legion is mostly outfitted with melee weapons such as machetes and spears. However, advanced technology has also made its way into the ranks – guns are usually scavenged by soldiers and used when found, and higher officials will often have weapons based on the (futuristic to us) technology of New Vegas, such as thermic lances and pneumatic power fists. Like the Romans, the Legion also made use of crucifying as a method of punishment.

The organisation of the New Vegas Legion is a fairly accurate recreation of the historical Roman military, albeit rather simplified and re-appropriate several titles in roles that are only somewhat equivalent to their real-life counterparts (Sumner 1970, MacMullen 1984, Roth 1994). In New Vegas, the Legion has a hierarchical structure made entirely of men, with Caesar atop as dictator. Below him is the Legate, who leads the army, and the Centurions, who were commanders underneath the Legate. A Praetorian guard personally guarded Caesar himself, while the Frumentarri, based on the name given to food supply officers turned spies in the Roman Legion, were Caesar’s spy network. Those captured from conquered tribes and towns were promptly enslaved and fitted with bomb collars to prevent escapes; most slaves were put to work doing menial tasks, with those deemed too weak to be useful crucified or otherwise killed.

Edward Sallow
Edward Sallow in command of the Legion as Caesar.

From an archaeological perspective, the Legion is a interesting example of selectively recreating and repurposing the past for the sake of organisation and domination. Prior to his reign as Caesar, Sallow was known to look down on other tribes as “lesser” and “inferior” creatures. To Sallow, Ancient Rome spoke to these imperialistic and fascist tendencies, and so he created a totalitarian dictatorship in its image to dominate the land with his ideology.

Like many leaders in Ancient Rome, Sallow also claimed divine right as leader – as Caesar, he claimed that he was the Son of Mars, who had brought nuclear war upon the United States to cleanse it for Caesar’s eventual rule. This divine right to lead created the propaganda needed to not only present the Legion as a powerful force to enemies, but it also kept Sallow in power as the sole dictator.

This propaganda, like in real life, also takes form in the shape of art, specifically coinage. Currency in Caesar’s Legion are decorated with depictions of Caesar  and inscribed with Latin propagandistic phrases, such as “Pax Per Bellum” (Peace through War). The importance and value of the New Vegas denarius (silver coins) and aureus (gold coins) can be seen in their creation, as these were difficult-to-find materials and most likely also difficult to create in the current post-apocalyptic landscape.

The tag line of the Fallout video games is “war never changes”, a sentiment that could also be expressed as “history repeats itself”. The Legion of New Vegas is a prime example of how the ugly head of imperialistic forces will rear its head time and time again, sometimes in the same form it once held many, many years ago.

The Fort, the headquarters and main camp of Caesar’s Legion in Nevada

References

Anonymous. (2011) Caesar’s Legion. Nukapedia: Fallout Wikia

MacMullen, R. (1960) Inscriptions on Armor and the Supply of Arms in the Roman Empire. American Journal of Archaeology. (p. 23-40)

MacMullen, R. (1984) The Legion as a Society. Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte. (p. 440- 456)

Obsidian Entertainment. (2010) Fallout: New Vegas

Roth, J. (1994) The Size and Organization of the Roman Imperial Legion. Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte. (p. 346-362)

Sumner, G.V. (1970) The Legion and the Centuriate Organization. The Journal of Roman Studies. (p. 67-78)

Fallout Finds: A New Series

While I was explaining the idea of the Studies in Skyrim series to my partner, he suddenly cut in – “Why aren’t you doing a series on archaeology in Fallout 4? Isn’t that the most archaeological video game out there?”

And he was right – the Fallout series, which takes place after a nuclear war that devastates most of the United States in a post-apocalyptic landscape that is slowly repopulated by “Vault Dwellers” who escaped the destruction, is a great look at how future civilizations repurpose the past. A lot of the video games’ humour comes from hilariously misunderstood interpretations of “Pre-War” artefacts (for example, the belief that baseball bats were weapons used in the bloodthirsty fighting game of baseball).

So, starting in 2018 I’ll be writing a new series called “Fallout Finds” examining not only the archaeology of some of the Fallout games, but also what it may say about how future archaeologists will look at our material culture, and how future peoples may repurpose it for their own use. Stay tuned!

This Fallout 4 character is obviously the spitting image of me.

Studies in Skyrim: A New Series

Skyrim? The video game Skyrim? Who do you think you are, Alex, some sort of “archaeogamer”?

Well, not really…I’ll leave that to the professionals over at archaeogaming.com. But, as someone who has spent at least 400 hours on Skyrim across three different gaming platforms, I’ve come to realise that Skyrim, which boasts probably one of the most extensive material records I’ve ever seen in a video game, is a great jumping off point to talk about various examples of archaeological finds we have in the real world!

So, if you think tombs filled with the walking dead, rituals that utilise cannibalism, or even some of the magical alchemy ingredients are just inventions of a fantasy video game world, I’ll be delving into their actual, real world counterparts in this new series.

Plus, this gives me an excuse to play more Skyrim.

A Skyrim player character gets ready to be put through hell for the sake of screenshots.

Keeper of the Archives: Sith Archaeology and Propaganda

Keeper of the Archives is a new series I’ll be formally introducing to the blog next year, but because of the release of the latest Star Wars film, I felt like I had to provide a sneak peek! This series will be a fun look at archaeology in popular culture, specifically in the Star Wars (expanded) universe! Keep your eye out for more installations in the upcoming year.

Valley of the Dark Lords
Sith archaeological excavation sites outside the Sith Academy on Korriban

Unsurprisingly for a fictional universe that takes place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”, there is a fair amount of representation for archaeology in the lore of Star Wars. This is especially true for the Expanded Universe (recently made uncanonical with Disney’s acquisition of the franchise, but still canonical in the hearts of many fans – including my own!).

For Jedi, the role of the archaeologist was an alternative to following the path of becoming a Jedi Knight. Jedi archaeologists would train at the Academy of Jedi Archaeology before heading off with the Jedi Exploration Corps for excavation alongside other researchers, such as biologists and zoologists (Wallace 2010). On the other side of the Force, however, the Sith were also actively pursuing their own archaeological research.

In the video game series Knights of the Old Republic (Bioware 2003), for example, the Sith academy on the planet Korriban appears to be in the midst of a large scale excavation of the “Valley of the Dark Lords”, similar to Egypt’s own “Valley of the Kings”. The ruins of the tombs of several Sith lords have been uncovered here – Ajunta Pall, Ludo Kressh, Naga Sadow, and Marka Ragnos. As you enter the excavation site, you encounter numerous Sith students and droids at work – often in dangerous circumstances, as predatory creatures are also found throughout the ruins.

So why would the Sith care this much about archaeology? Most likely the same reason why archaeological research has been used by fascists and dictators in the real world’s past: propaganda. For example, excavations under Nazi Germany were led with the intent of producing results that would become part of the proud nationalism that so identified their political party (Galaty and Watkinson 2007). As a political tool, archaeology can be used as “proof” for a distorted past that gives credit to whatever propaganda a political party is rallying behind; that one race is better than another, that one’s beliefs are more true, etc. History can be a powerful tool for oppression, and the misuse of archaeology makes for an excellent tool in legitimising (Arnold 2008).

In the Star Wars universe, the same can be said of Sith archaeology. The Sith, unlike their Jedi counterparts, believe that one should be proud of the power they wield, and constantly seek more. The tombs of the ancient Sith, as well as most of the walls of the Sith Academy itself, are lined with massive iconography depicting towering statuary that lord over the valley itself, creating an oppressive aesthetic that fits the Sith ideology well.

Statues in the Valley of the Dark Lords
The giant statuary standing above the Valley of the Dark Lords

Of course, there’s another level of practicality in archaeology of the Star Wars universe – the past can actually talk back. Holocrons are common methods of recording information by both the Sith and the Jedi, allowing for users to be taught by the recorded holograms of those from the ancient past (Wallace 2010). Spectral beings, through the Force, can also be encountered and spoken with – this may come in the form of a benign spirit, such as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, or in a malicious spirit ready to fight and kill any mortal that dares to intrude, as seen in the many tombs of the Sith.

The Sith use this interactivity with the past as a tool not only for pushing their own propaganda, but also instilling the lessons they live by – that power is key, and only be defeating those around you can you succeed (Veitch and Anderson 1994). In Knights of the Old Republic, you infiltrate the Sith Academy as an apprentice  and are put to work diving into the ruins of the Sith tombs. The usefulness of this practice is twofold for the Sith masters – on one hand, the defence mechanisms placed into the tombs, which consist of dangerous creatures as well as dark Force spirits, can weed out the weak from the strong, an important aspect in Sith ideology. On the other hand, this also aids in the retrieval of many Sith artefacts – again, a showcase of power that works as propaganda, as well as a transfer of power itself. A Sith who wields the mighty sword of Ajunta Pall, for example, could lay some hefty claim on power within the Sith hierarchy.

In the Star Wars universe, the Sith are an example of the corruptibility of power – how greed for power, even if it begins with good intentions, can lead to the Dark Side. The same can be said for archaeology in a sense – although it may have started with the intention of discovering the past, in the wrong hands it can be used as a political weapon as powerful and as deadly as a red bladed lightsaber and corrupt any good that may have once come from it.

Valley of the Dark Lords II
The massive ruins of Sith tombs in the Valley of the Dark Lords

References

Arnold, B. (2008) The Past as Propaganda: Totalitarian Archaeology in Nazi Germany. Antiquity.

Bioware. (2003) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Galaty, M. L. and Watkinson, C. (2007) The Practice of Archaeology Under Dictatorship. Archaeology under Dictatorship. pp. 1-17.

Obsidian Entertainment. (2004) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II The Sith Lords

Veitch, T. and Anderson, K. J. (1994) The Quest for the Sith. Tales of the Jedi: Dark Lords of the Sith 2. Vol. 2. Dark Horse Comics.

Wallace, D. (2010) The Jedi Path: A Manual for Students of the Force. Chronicle Books.