Studies in Skyrim: Vampirism Yesterday and Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Studies in Skyrim: Big Game Collector

With the addition of Hearthfire as downloadable content, Skyrim allowed players to build and live in their own customisable homes. One of the options for buildable rooms included a “trophy room”, where players can erect trophy versions of some of the creatures that can be killed in-game. This ranges from real world game like bears to the more mythical beasts like dragons. Yes, even in  a game where you can kill and mount living tree creatures called “Spriggans”, the very human fascination with animal remains still exists!

A dragon skull mounted in my character’s trophy room.

Hunting trophies appear to be somewhat culturally ubiquitous, and can be found throughout the archaeological record. Although most discussion on trophies in the Prehistoric tend to focus on headhunting and human remains (see Armit 2012), we do have plausible evidence that some recovered animal remains from sites were most likely kept as hunting trophies.

Of course, animal remains were used quite often in Prehistoric life in ways that went beyond decor and trophies – modified bones reveal that it was common to create tools (needles, pins, combs, etc.) out of hunted animals. Another common interpretation for animal bones and other associated remains found in more “domestic” contexts is that they may have had some sort of ritual use – for example, there are many instances of animal bones deposited in pits and building foundations (Wilson 1999). Arguably some of the most famous examples of ritual use of animal bones are the Star Carr deer frontlets – these cranial fragments with the antlers still attached were possibly worn as headdress or masks during rituals, perhaps as a way of evoking a form of transformation by the wearer (Conneller 2004).

A deer “frontlet” that may have been used as a mask or headdress from the Mesolithic site of Star Carr (Photo Credit: Neil Gevaux, University of York)

Hunting trophies as we understand them today were popular as far back as the medieval period, where hunting for sport not only resulted in trophies of animal remains – there were also “living trophies”, in which big game and exotic animals were captured and kept in menageries. The popularisation of natural history exhibits and taxidermy in the 19th and 20th centuries also brought with it a new wave of displaying hunted animals, both for education and for the sake of, well, showing off your hunting skills. However, this wasn’t the only way to display one’s hunted game – it was also quite popular to commission paintings of hunting trophies, which would eventually evolve into the popularisation of photographing one’s kills (Kalof 2007).

After encountering a tough snow bear in the wild, I immediately had to have in displayed in my character’s new home.

Ultimately, if we look at the concept of “trophy animals” as a whole, what can we learn about human-animal interactions throughout history? The concept of a “trophy”, regardless of the method in which it is displayed, is centred around the objectification of the dead animal. It is also often a sign of power and a visual reminder of the sort of hierarchies in place in society – after all, trophy rooms and hunting for sport are often associated with masculinity and elite status. Unsurprisingly, there are also associations with hunting trophies and colonialism, with many photographs showcasing white men in pith helmets next to their “exotic” game in colonised regions of the world (Kalof and Fitzgerald 2003).

But here, in our fantasy video game, our trophies stand – perhaps problematic by nature of their associations in real life – but also as reminders of the system in which Skyrim runs, where I fondly remember how that one snow bear managed to kill me at Level 3 at least a dozen times. And now that snow bear is stuffed in my house. How the tables turn.

Hunting trophies can be found all over Skyrim!


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

Conneller, C. (2004) Becoming Deer: Corporeal Transformations at Star Carr. Archaeological Dialogues 11(1). pp. 37-55.

Kalof, L. and Fitzgerald, A. (2003) Reading the Trophy: Exploring the Display of Dead Animals in Hunting Magazines. Visual Studies 18(2). pp. 112-122.

Kalof, L. (2007) Looking at Animals in Human History. Reaktion Books Ltd.

Wilson, B. (1999) Displayed or Concealed? Cross Cultural Evidence for Symbolic and Ritual Activity Depositing Iron Age Animal Bones. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 18(3). pp. 297-305.

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.


Anonymous. (2011). Altmer. The Elder Scrolls Wikia.

Anonymous. (2011). Blades. The Elder Scrolls Wikia.

Anonymous. (2011). Dwemer. The Elder Scrolls Wikia.

Anonymous. (2011). Orsimer. The Elder Scrolls Wikia.

Anonymous. (2011). Races (Skyrim). The Elder Scrolls Wikia.

Anonymous. (2011). Redguard. The Elder Scrolls Wikia.

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

Boozer, A.L. (2015) The Tyranny of Typologies: Evidential Reasoning in Romano-Egyptian Domestic Archaeology. Material Evidence: Learning from Archaeological Practice. Routledge. p. 92-110.

Hill, J. and Evans, R. (1972) A Model for Classification and Typology”. Models in Archaeology. Methuen. p. 231-273.

Studies in Skyrim: Lessons in Typologies, from Dwarven Fortresses to Nord Ruins (Part I)

Today’s blog post is actually the first of a two-parter – there’s just too much to talk about in one post! The second part of this post will be published sometime next week…until then, enjoy reading about how (thanks again to YouTuber Camelworks for inspiring this post with his own Skyrim-based series, Curating Curious Curiosities).

At some point during the main quest of Skyrim, the player must enter the depths of Blackreach, a cavern located deep underneath a Dwemer (the Dwemer, also referred to as Dwarves, are an ancient and extinct race within the Elder Scrolls universe) ruin called the Tower of Mzark. Blackreach contains the remains of a massive mining project headed by four Dwemer cities: Arkngzthamz, Mzulft, Raldbthar, and Bthar-zel. After miners in Blackreach discovered a new, precious mineral known as “Aetherium”, the Dwemer immediately got to work building new buildings and machinery to help with the extraction and preparation of the ore. Although the exact use for each of the buildings are never further elaborated on within the game’s lore, it can be assumed that these were built to house miners and researchers working in Blackreach.

Some of the Dwemer ruins found in Blackreach.

Yet something stands out among the Dwemer buildings and machines…tucked away behind the remains of a tower, the player can find a ruined pillar of sorts. But upon further inspection, you may notice something different about this pillar – it has noticeably different patterning etched into the stone. These patterns actually reveal that these are ancient Nordic ruins (Camelworks 2018)!

Are these ancient Nordic ruins among the Dwemer remains?

But how can we tell these aren’t Dwemer ruins? After all, what’s the difference between one pile of rubble and another? Well, let’s look at the style of each of these ruins…

The Dwemer style tends to be rather geometric with straighter lines and shapes – the few curved motifs are usually found in the form of thick spirals as evident in the image below.


Meanwhile, ancient Nordic designs are more circular – we see more concentric circles and ovals, following the general shape of the burial tombs that these designs are most often associated with.


But while the Dwemer have long disappeared, the Nordic culture still exists within the world of Skyrim – so, how can we tell that the pillar found in Blackreach is of ancient origin, rather than a more recent development created by travelling Nords? Let’s compare the styles of the two time periods, then! As seen in the image above, the ancient Nords were fond of circular patterns that followed the general shape of their burial tombs. But look at the image below of a “modern day” (at least, within the world of Skyrim) Nordic building – again, they still favour circular patterns, but now they are more interwoven into chain-like patterns that interconnect each individual circle into a large piece.


In real life archaeology, this process of classifying stylistic traits is often used in creating typologies – by using particular aspects of an artefact or building, archaeologists can create a typology which can assist in creating a general chronology, or to differentiate between different cultures (as you can see in the above examples of the Dwemer, the ancient Nords, and the present Nords!). This is quite popular within the study of ancient ceramics (Paterna 2012) – for example, look at the image below for a sampling of typologies created to describe Greek pottery.

Examples of Greek pottery typologies (Image Credit: Ioanna Paterna)

Next week, Part II of this post will be published – it will get more in-depth with how Skyrim takes typology to the extreme in order to differentiate between cultures within the (relatively small) space that the video game takes place. Stay tuned!


Anonymous. (2016) Blackreach. Elder Scrolls Wikia.

Anonymous. (2016) Dwemer. Elder Scrolls Wikia.

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

Camelworks. (2018) Blackreach – Skyrim – Curating Curious Curiosities. YouTube.

Paterna, I. (2012) Names, shapes, and functions of ancient Greek objects: a changing relationship. CHS Research Bulletin.

Studies in Skyrim: Werewolf? Therewolf! Can We Find Lycanthropy in Archaeology?

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

“Legends can take a life of their own, particularly when there are grains of truth, as here we have the very real threat of werewolves”

Lycanthropic Legends of Skyrim, Lentulus Invenitus


In the world of Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios 2011), werewolves (and other lyncanthropes – for example, were-bears!) exist. Within the lore of the game, lycanthropy was created by the Daedric Prince (in the Elder Scrolls universe, the Daedric Princes are basically deities) of the Hunt, Hircine. The power to transform into a werewolf is seen as both a blessing and a curse to some characters – while the player can meet unfortunate souls who are tormented by their beastly curse, there are others, such as the Companions, who use and spread their power as a gift to members of their group. Regardless, nearly all non-playable characters within the game will be fearful and hostile of werewolves, illustrating a deep fear of such beasts embedded into Skyrim‘s culture.

In the real world, werewolves can’t be found in person as easily as they can be in Skyrim, but they are still prevalent in both myth and media. From the 1941 film The Wolf Man to the 2011 television hit series Teen Wolf, the werewolf has a long history of terrorising people, from our imaginations to the big screen. Werewolves can be found in the folklore of many cultures across the world, with a rich history that stretches as far as ancient Greece. In general, a werewolf is defined as a person who has transformed into a wolf – however, effects of the moon (i.e; full moon transformations) and particular powers vary across myths (Beresford 2013).

Most of this information has been derived from studying written texts and oral histories. But can we see this in the material culture of the past? Not necessarily in the guise of the “werewolf” that modern audiences are familiar with…but perhaps we can explore the individual elements that, together, create the werewolf of popular fiction.

The Ardross Wolf, a Pictish stone carved with the image of a wolf. (Photo Credit: The Highland Council, Museum and Art Gallery)

Wolves are not uncommon as artefactual iconography – across many cultures, one can find wolf motifs decorated various objects and ornamentation. For example, there are many instances of wolves depicted on artefacts of warfare in Iron Age Europe – from the rare carnyx (Celtic trumpet used in war) created to look like the head of a wolf, to armour decorated with ferocious animals of the wild, including wolves. There are also examples of wolf iconography on other artefacts, usually depicting the wolf in a natural scene, such as in the pursuit of prey, or as the victim of hunting by humans. Whether in war and peace, it can be argued that depictions of the wolf are centred on similar traits: wild and dangerous.

A burial from the Aztec’s Great Temple that included the remains of a wolf alongside gold artefacts (Photo Credit: Mirsa Islas, Templo Mayor Project)

Actual skeletal remains of wolves are, of course, found as part of the overall environmental narrative found within certain archaeological contexts. In many places, such as Great Britain, wolves are extinct, which makes the recovery of their remains an interesting development for interpretation. More interesting, perhaps, are examples in which there is evidence of the utilisation of wolf remains. During the Iron Age in Europe, there is some evidence that suggests that wolves were hunted and then eventually used as ornamentation, such as the perforated wolf teeth found at the site of Choisy-au-Bac in France. Recently, excavations at an Aztec temple in Mexico City has recovered the remains of a wolf surrounded by a large collection of golden artefacts – the current interpretation is that the wolf was part of an offering, and was adorned in gold prior to burial (Garcia 2017). Additionally, excavations in parts of Siberia have found wolves that had been buried in a manner similar to what would have been afforded to humans, suggesting that wolves and humans were considered similar in some aspect – perhaps similar to the kinship felt between dogs and humans (Hill 2013)?

A panel from the Gundestrup Cauldron showing a Wheel God surrounded by various hybrid animals (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

If we consider the “werewolf” as a sort of hybrid creature, more archaeological material becomes available for consideration. Instances of hybrid creatures iconography are often associated with folklore and mythology – take, for instance, Medieval bestiaries or Egyptian statuary depicting sphinxes. The Gundestrup cauldron, a “cult cauldron” from Iron Age Denmark, is covered with an entire zoo of faunal iconography, both real and fantastical. These animals are portrayed with figures that have been interpreted as gods, thereby suggesting the religious significance of the artefact. Some of the more fantastical creatures are hybrids, including winged horse-like beasts and serpents with ram horns (Green 1998).

The remains of an adult female buried with horse and cow remains from “Duropolis” in Dorset, England (Photo Credit: Bournemouth University)

As for skeletal remains, one can argue that we do see “hybrids” in the form of mixed assemblages of human and faunal bones – but it must be stressed that it does not mean that all instances of mixed burials represent ideas of hybrid creatures (although there are examples of what may be intentional hybridisation!). Instead, it may be more beneficial to examine these burials as possibly representative of ancient cosmological ideas regarding animals, or alternatively, how humans at the time related to the animals deposited alongside human remains. There are many examples of these mixed burials in archaeology, sometimes referred to as “special deposits” or “associated bone groups” and often considered part of ritual. The Iron Age site of Danebury is especially noteworthy for mixed burials of human and faunal remains recovered from pits, possibly used for rituals of fertility and renewal (Cunliffe 1992, Hill 1995).

So, okay…maybe we can’t find werewolves in archaeology (although please let me know if there are actual instances of lycanthropic iconography that I’ve missed!). But it did provide an excellent exercise in thoroughly investigating a concept by isolated certain elements of it, which is often an important aspect of developing archaeological interpretations. Luckily (or maybe unluckily) for future archaeologists, modern day pop culture will certainly leave behind many instances of werewolf memorabilia to uncover.


Anonymous. (2016) Werewolf (Skyrim). Elder Scrolls Wikia.

Beresford, M. (2013) The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture. Reaktion Books.

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

Cunliffe, B. (1992) Pits, Preconceptions, and Propitiation in  the British Iron Age. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 11 (1). pp. 69-83.

Garcia, D.A. (2017) Aztec Golden Wolf Sacrifice Yields Rich Trove in Mexico City. Reuters.

Green, M. (1998) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. Routledge.

Hill, E. (2013) Archaeology and Animal Persons: Towards a Prehistory of Human-Animal Relations. Environment and Society: Advances in Research 4. pp. 117-136.

Hill, J.D. (1995) Ritual and Rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex: a Study of the Formation of a Specific Archaeological Record. Archaeopress.


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


Anonymous. (2016) Standing Stones. Elder Scrolls Wikia.

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).

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)



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)

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 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.