Selfies with the Dead: ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ and the Dehumanisation of Human Remains

Content Warning: Discussion of human remains in this blog post. No actual images of human remains are used, however there are images of digital human remains from the Shadow of the Tomb Raider video game, so please be advised.

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(Image Credit: Dia Lacina via Waypoint)

Recently, the third instalment of the rebooted Tomb Raider video game franchise was released. This game, titled Shadow of the Tomb Raider, places playable heroine Lara Croft in Meso-America and South America attempting to stop a Mayan apocalypse that she had unknowingly set into motion after stealing an artefact.

The game has received a fair bit of criticism not only for its gameplay, but for the content of the story itself. Despite being a property who has been in the public eye for over two decades, Tomb Raider has never been able to truly shake off its title – Lara Croft has always been a looter of tombs and ruins, despite any good intentions. Although this recent instalment has arguably made the most effort in confronting the inherent colonialism of being a “tomb raider”, the game still reproduces much of it itself (see Lacina 2018). Dia Lacina’s article on Tomb Raider and colonialism is a thorough breakdown of the game’s attempt to critique its own problematic setting, but only briefly mentions the problems caused by the game’s photo mode. What I would like to add, as an archaeologist, is how the photo mode plays into a well-known trope of colonisation: the dehumanisation of specific people, particularly their remains.

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(Image Credit: Resetera Community Member Sabrina)

Let me preface all of this by saying that I do not necessarily think the developers of the game intended for the photo mode to be used to take “silly” selfies with human remains! Photo modes in video games has been a relatively recent trend, with big name games like God of War and Spider-Man having their own versions of a photo mode as part of their gameplay. However, due to the context of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the addition of a photo mode touches upon an issue regarding human remains that I slightly touched upon in last week’s blog post: what are the ethics of displaying and photographing remains?

This question is a relatively recent one, coming as part of a renewed interest in the ethics of remains amongst archaeological bloggers, writers, and curators. Harries et al. (2018) write that although there are plenty of ethical guidelines for the handling and display of  human remains, less work has been done on creating uniform guidelines for displaying photographs of human remains. This is mainly due to a key debate that is still underway: are photographs and other depictions of remains equal to the actual remains? Or are they just a likeness, and therefore a separate thing? Is the very act of making the dead the subject of your photo (without their consent) an act of objectifying and dehumanising them?

To further tie these questions in with the themes of Tomb Raider, let’s consider dehumanisation. Dehumanisation of human remains, as well as living humans, was and still is a key component to colonisation efforts. The remains of Indigenous people across North America were often displayed as “educational tools” in museums or as “oddities and curiosities” in roadside exhibits. Regardless of the setting or the perceived intention, these places had commodified these human remains, removing any agency and “othering” them as objects on display, rather than people (Rewolinski 2014).

So, is the photographing human remains ethical? I do not claim to have any concrete answers, of course, but I think in the case of Tomb Raider, what changes the answer is the fact that the player, as Lara Croft, can take selfies with human remains. In this context, it could be argued that the human remains are used as props – the same way one would pose with a statue, a landmark, or any other object. Not to mention that many players use the dead in-game for the purposes of hilarity, juxtaposing a corpse with Lara Croft’s awkward smile (McGladdery 2018). I’d argue that the use of a dead body for one’s punchline would consist of dehumanisation, to be honest.

So perhaps the next time you, or Lara Croft, come across human remains…maybe put the camera away. And reflect on why you instantly “other” the remains before you, instead of treating them as what they represent: a person who once lived.

Screenshot_2018-10-01 Andy Kelly on Twitter
(Image Credit: Andy Kelly via Twitter)

References

Harries, J. et al. (2018) Exposure: the Ethics of Making, Sharing, and Displaying Photographs of Human Remains. Human Remains and Violence. 4(1). pp. 3-24.

Lacina, D. (2018). ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ Tries, but Fails, to Tackle its Own Colonialism. Waypoint. https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/d3jgeq/shadow-of-the-tomb-raider-review-tries-but-fails-to-tackle-its-own-colonialismhttps://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/d3jgeq/shadow-of-the-tomb-raider-review-tries-but-fails-to-tackle-its-own-colonialism

McGladdery, M. (2018) Grin in the Face of Danger: Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s Hilarious Photo Mode. LAD Bible. http://www.ladbible.com/technology/gaming-shadow-of-the-tomb-raiders-hilarious-photo-mode-20180913

Rewolinski, D. (2014) Remains to be Seen: the Disparate Disposition of Culturally Unidentified Human Remains under NAGPRA’s Final Rule. Unpublished Thesis. New York University.

Square Enix. (2018). Shadow of the Tomb Raider.


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The Archaeology of Vandalism

Monuments and, more specifically, the vandalization of monuments have become widely debated topics over the past year. American monuments of Confederate soldiers and others have been subject to destruction by activists across the country who protest against what they represent (Lockheart 2018) – just this week, the “Silent Sam” statue at the University of North Carolina was finally toppled by protestors. The statue was a monument to Confederate soldiers, originally gifted by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1909 and erected in 1913. The destruction of Silent Sam follows much debate and protest action over the statue’s presence, including the work of PhD student Maya Little, who painted the statue with blood and red ink in April (Vera 2018).

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“Silent Sam”, a statue at the University of North Carolina commemorating Confederate soldiers, after being toppled by protestors. (Image Credit: Samee Siddiqui)

And although people will decry acts of vandalism, they seem to forget that this is nothing new – vandalism is prevalent in our history and can be seen in the archaeological record, allowing us to get a better idea of the attitudes and opinions in the past. You might say it is one of the more “human” aspects of archaeology – while statues and monuments are built to showcase icons at fantastical proportions, graffiti will often represent the everyday person who is sharing their thoughts in a way that will be impactful and last thousands of years.

Two things should be noted before getting further into this blog post. Firstly, monuments do not equal archaeology in the sense that it represents history “as is”. Rather, monuments are a statement – they are intentionally created as an expression of a specific concept or opinion. Kirk Savage puts it best: “the impulse behind the public monument is the impulse to mould history into its rightful pattern” (1997: p. 4). It is a reminder to all who walk past it of a particular message. Many of the monuments across the world, unfortunately, represent white supremacist and/or imperialistic views – in the form of “celebrating” colonizers, racists, and others with bigoted thoughts. Secondly, I use the word “vandalism” here because the acts described in this blog are, by definition, vandalism – “deliberate destruction or damage to property”. However, I recognise that this word is loaded with a negative connotation that could imply disapproval so let me reiterate that personally, I believe that these monuments should be torn down and I am in full support of these activists and protestors.

Okay, enough preface – let’s take a brief trip through history!

Akhenaten, Disgraced in Name and Portraiture

To say that Akhenaten was a “controversial” pharaoh might be a gross understatement. During his reign in the 18th Dynasty, Akhenaten introduced a new form of religion to Egypt, centred around worship an entity known as Aten. This meant that the previous form of Egyptian religion – a polytheistic practice worshipping an entire pantheon of deities – was to be left behind (Reeves 2004). Akhenaten apparently attempted to rid Egypt of the previous cult of Amun by prompting destruction of any related art and goods, replacing them with work depicting Aten. This bout of vandalism and destruction can still be seen in surviving archaeology, including attempts to restore these works of art post-Akhenaten’s rule (Brand 2010).

After Akhenaten’s death, it didn’t take long for depictions of him and his religion to be removed – this includes the vandalism of many relief paintings, statues, and monuments. Akhenaten was nearly erased from history as a heretic as Egypt returned to its previous religious practice (Reeves 2004).

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A relief of Akhenaten – notice the chisel marks where his name has been removed. (Image Credit: Keith Schengili-Roberts)

Vandalism as Damnation in Ancient Rome

The Romans actually had a concept based around the vandalism of portraiture – “damnatio memoriae“, or “the condemnation of memory”. If and when an emperor was overthrown, depictions of said emperor were destroyed – this includes statues, busts, and even the portraits found on coinage (see below).

What makes this a rather unique form of vandalism is that it was formalised, with a legal process that prefaced it. The Senate was able to set damnatio memoriae into motion and a systematic destruction of the disgraced emperor’s legacy would begin: books were burnt, lists containing the emperor’s name were destroyed, property was seized, and legal contracts related to the emperor were often annulled (Varner 2004).

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A vandalised coin where the face of Emperor Commodus has been destroyed (Image Credit: the British Museum)

The Vikings and Their Graffiti Trail of Travel

One of the ways by which archaeologists and historians can see how far and wide the Vikings have travelled is through their graffiti – and there’s a lot of it. Some of our evidence for interaction between the Vikings and the Islamic world include graffiti found on Arabic coins – this includes images of ships, weapons, and runic inscriptions, as well as religious symbols, like Thor’s hammer or Christian crosses, gratified over text and imagery related to Islam. One interpretation is that this was a means for the Vikings to disassociate themselves from the religion (Mikkelsen 1998).

More general types of Viking graffiti have been found on various buildings and monuments. In Maeshowe, a Neolithic cairn found in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, a group of Vikings left graffiti behind that ranged from informative text about the purpose of their travel, to intricate designs and symbols, to writing that more or less reads “Ottarfila was here” (Towrie 1996, Forster et al. 2015).

Perhaps one of the more famous instances of Viking graffiti is found in the Hagia Sophia (see below), where indecipherable runes have been etched into the marble bannisters. Several images of ships have also been found graffiti in the church. In the article about the ships, Thomov makes an interesting connection between the ancient graffiti and the more modern graffiti that is also seen marking up the marble of the Hagia Sophia, wondering if both ancient and modern vandals had similar motivations for their graffiti. Perhaps to make one’s mark or place one’s name in a holy space…or just to express oneself freely in a space where this would normally be frowned upon (Thomov 2014).

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Possible Viking graffiti from the Hagia Sophia (Image Credit: The Wandering Scot)

As you can see, vandalism is nothing new – and nothing to scoff at or to simply write off. When used in an archaeological context, we get multiple layers of interaction at play: contact of different cultures (in the case of the Vikings), change in power and social status (Akhenaten and the Roman emperors), and ultimately, we see the expression of opinions and messages. The act of vandalising a monument, whether inspired by ideology,  religious beliefs, or “just ‘cos”, is an act of making a statement at the expense of whatever the defaced monument stood for. And today, these activists are making a stand against racism, against imperialism, and against colonialism by toppling these statues and monuments to the ground.

References

Brand, P. (2010) Reuse and Restoration. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. 1(1) pp. 1-15.

Forester, A. et al. (2015). Etched in Memory. RICS Building Conservation Journal. pp. 28-29.

Lockhart, P.R. (2018) Researchers are finding Confederate memorials faster than they’re being taken down. Vox. https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/8/7/17661154/confederate-memorials-southern-poverty-law-center

Mikkelsen, E. (1998) Islam and Scandinavia during the Viking Age. Byzantium and Islam in Scandinavia. Paul Forag Astroms. pp. 15-16.

Reeves, N. (2004) Who Was Akhenaten? [Lecture] http://www.academia.edu/download/35141349/Who_Was_Akhenaten_.pdf.

Savage, K. (1997) Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth Century America. Princeton University Press.

Thomov, T. (2014) Four Scandinavian Ship Graffiti from Hagia Sophia. Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 38 (2). pp. 168-184.

Towrie, S. (1996) Maeshowe’s Runes – Viking Graffiti. Orkneyjar. http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/maeshowe/maeshrunes.htm

Varner, E.R. (2004) Mutilation and Transformation: Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture. Brill.

Vera, A. (2018) UNC Protesters Knock Down Silent Sam Confederate Statue. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/08/20/us/unc-silent-sam-confederate-statue/index.html


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Not For You: Cultural Appropriation in Neo-Paganism and How Archaeology Plays a Role

Issues of cultural appropriation in “New Age” and holistic circles isn’t breaking news – over the past decade, there has been much in the media and news discussing appropriation of ritual garb, sacred herbs, and practices, often by white spiritual leaders who make financial gain through their appropriative acts without providing anything in return to those whose culture has been stolen. Although the material side of cultural appropriation is easy to spot (for example, the many, many examples of white people wearing indigenous war bonnets during festivals), it has also become far more engrained in some Neo-Pagan and modern witchcraft circles. Cultural appropriation doesn’t seem related to archaeology at first glance, but because appropriation is mostly performed through the creation and utilisation of material culture, it arguably is an archaeological issue.

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Just a small example of clashing cultures – a Norse rune alongside an oracle card depicting Egyptian deity Bast.

Arguably much cultural appropriation could be traced to comparative studies of religions – for example, comparative Indo-European mythology, which has resulted in the use of aspects of Hinduism in Celtic reconstructivism (Michale 2008). In some ways, this could be seen as coming from a good natured place – by utilising a form of soft polytheism, or the belief that all deities across religions are all aspects of the same god, it places all religions on a similar level of “respect” and does not place one particular religion over another.

However, this masks the negative effects of cultural appropriation. In Peter Grey’s book Apocalyptic Witchcraft (2013), he writes that “the New Age is one such form of cultural imperialism”, referring to the violence that cultural appropriation does towards the very rituals and rites that are being appropriated, torn from the cultural context that they originated from. An “outsider” from the culture will gain from their use (or, in many cases, misuse) of their practices – in a sense, they are stealing what is not rightfully theirs, which in some ways can recreate imperialistic power structures, especially if the culture in question has a history of being persecuted for practising the very beliefs that have now been appropriated.

The more malicious form of cultural appropriation is seen in the commodification of spiritual elements from other cultures by outsiders. The term “plastic shaman” is often used to refer to someone (often a white, non-native) who peddles “Native American spirituality” in the form of manufactured totems, jewelry, or oracle cards. This commodification often results in the homogenising of all Native American practices as one singular tradition, rather than the complex and diverse cultures that differ based on tribe and region (Lelandra 2008). The commodification of appropriation further “others” a culture, often advertising it as something “new” and “exotic” to Western consumers.

Ultimately, it seems that most instances of cultural appropriation can be traced to a similar cause that also creates pseudo-archaeological histories (which you can read more about here) in Neo-Paganism: a need for authenticity. Filan’s paper in Talking about the Elephant (2008) makes a great point about the word “authentic”, noting that “it is an outsider’s word”. Those outside of a culture want something “authentic”, something that is proven to be real and true, as they will not have the background knowledge to truly connect with the practice. Authenticity also implies a sense of insecurity as well – someone who has grown up in a particular culture knows that it is real, while an outsider will need reassurance.

This insecurity is similarly reflected in the pseudo-archaeological histories that have come out of many Neo-Pagan practices. In order to combat naysayers and disbelievers, many feel that they need to prove that their path is authentic and valid. So, in many ways, these drive for authenticity in both history and practice feeds into pseudoarchaeology and cultural appropriation – for example, Gardnerian Wicca extrapolates from different cultures (Celtic, Egyptian, etc.) to formulate its rituals as well as provide the aura of an ancient, authentic religion that harkens back to prehistory. This is also seen in “eclectic” paths, or spiritual practices that tend not to follow one particular pathway – by utilising “authentic” cultural practices and their histories as “proof”, their path is more “valid”.

The discussion surrounding cultural appropriation in Neo-Pagan and other New Age communities is still very tense, as practitioners try to balance between cultural diffusion and appropriation – on one hand, those who find themselves “called” to their current practice may feel as though they are not appropriating said culture at all, but rather can be seen as part of the culture due to their spiritual connection. Others argue that so long as the practitioner follows the laid out traditions of the culture and is knowledgable of their history (more specifically, by an elder of said culture), it should not been seen as appropriation (Barrette 2008). But there is a growing number of people within these communities who are becoming more informed about cultural appropriation and engaging with it, both on a spiritual level as well as a more aware, political and social level.

References

Barrette, E. (2008) Braiding Pagans: Cultural Etiquette in a Multicultural World. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Filan, K. (2008) Ain’t Nothing like the Real Thing, Baby…Cultural Appropriation and the Myth of Authenticity. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Grey, P. (2013) Apocalyptic Witchcraft. Scarlet Imprint.

Lelandra (2008) Devouring Kitsch: Image Collecting and Cultural Appropriation. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.

Michale, J. (2008) Druids and Brahmins: of Cultural Appropriation and the Vedas. Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopaganism Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. Immanion Press.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.