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.

An Archaeology of Sudden Death: A Fallout Case Study

Content Warning: This post will discuss human remains and death from disasters and acts of mass violence. Although I will not be posting any actual images of real human remains, I will be using images of human remains from the video game Fallout 4. There may also be discussion of disasters and violence that may upset others, so please do not read if you may find this triggering.

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The Player Character and their neighbours watch as a nuclear bomb hits Boston, Massachusetts in Fallout 4.

When archaeologists recover human remains, its often from burials – whether these are elaborate affairs, simple depositions, or whatever could be considered the most loosely defined “intentional” placement of remains. Of course, there are exceptions – sudden deaths, from accidents to murders, will often result in bodies found in “unusual” ways, or at the very least, in a context different from a more intentional burial. Sometimes, the spatial context of the body may provide clues to how the person may have died.

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An unfortunate victim of the Great War in Fallout 4 – it is likely that they died after being crushed by furniture when their house was blown apart in the nuclear blast.

In the world of Fallout 4 (Bethesda Softworks 2015), the “Great War” occurred in October 2077 when the United States, the Soviet Union, and China exchanged multiple nuclear bombs, causing death and destruction at a massive scale. The actual gameplay is set in a post-apocalyptic world, hundreds of years after the Great War. Here, the United States has been completely changed into a new world, with people attempting to make new lives on the wasteland surface, often by using the remnants of the past – recycling old materials, living in the ruins of Pre-War buildings, and attempting to recreate Pre-War factions (see previous posts on Fallout‘s Legion and Kings factions). As the Player explores many of these ruins, they may come across the remains of those who most likely died in the original nuclear fire of 2077.

Of course, there is a bit of scientific liberty being taken here – most of the remains that the Player Character can find are ridiculously well-preserved (all skeletal elements are intact and articulated?! that’s a bioarchaeologist’s dream!) despite being hundreds of years old and subjected to the open environment.

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More victims from the Great War of Fallout 4 – possibly killed immediately in the blast while in bed.

That said, this phenomenon of human remains found in contexts relating to a sudden and unexpected death (and, sometimes, with significant preservation) has many real world parallels. Many instances are found in more natural settings, where sudden deaths are caused by accident or forced upon the victim unexpectedly –  for example, bogs are, as Karin Sanders (2009) writes, “natural darkrooms” that preserve those who die within them almost perfectly (for more on bog bodies, see this blog post).

Arguably a more famous example of a natural force aiding in the preservation of victims of an unexpected death is Pompeii – in 79 CE, nearby volcano Mt. Vesuvius erupted, covering the land with ash and debris (Deem 2005). Those who died during the eruption and covered in ash deposits were ultimately “preserved” through the impressions of their bodies, which were able to be  examined through casts (Luongo et al. 2003).

Natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions are often studied by archaeologists using the creation of various models – this allows for examination of the impact of the disaster on the surrounding people and environment, like how it may have affected population numbers (Torrence and Grattan 2002). Not only does focusing on natural disasters let archaeologists further interpret how past people may have reacted to and managed emergencies and their aftermaths, but it may also help us deal with natural disasters in the present and future – this point is especially critical today with the effects of climate change causing destruction and displacement around the world.

Disasters, both natural and human-caused, are not always so kind to the remains of its victims. Impact, force, and other acts of violence may cause bodies to be less preserved. Stretches of ground may become unintentional mass graves, with bodies strewn everywhere. In these cases, we turn to methods developed within “forensic archaeology” – this refers to a sub-field in which the focus is mainly on applying archaeological frameworks to contexts referring to crime, as well as search and recovery scenarios (Hunter and Cox 2005). This means that many forensic archaeological methods are based on recovering and identifying individual human bodies, which is vital to dealing with disaster archaeologies. For example, as I previously mentioned, the bodies of victims will be found “commingled”, or entwined with multiple individuals found in one context – there has been many developments within forensic archaeology for separating and identifying individual bodies (human and non-human), ranging from manual observation to the use of data and spatial analysis (Adams and Byrd 2008). These methods have been used in recent recovery missions following massive tragedies, such as the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks in New York City (Mundorff, 2009).

It should be noted that, in contrast, there are often times resistance to the idea of “excavating” sites of disaster – for example, Gabriel Moshenska (2009) writes about bombsite archaeology and how it is rarely performed for the intention of examining a bombsite as a bombsite. There is an implication that archaeological acts are similar to “opening up old wounds”, contrasting with the idea of archaeology as recovery in the previous section. Archaeology of disaster sites are fraught with emotion – filled with painful memories, particularly with more historical sites.

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One of the more “humorous” tableaux in Fallout 4 – the remains of a soldier neatly tucked in bed with plush animals and a book. Is this actually how they died, or perhaps a post-mortem staging?

Many instances of human remains in Fallout 4 are meant to invoke “morbid humour” – occasionally, one might find a skeleton posed in a compromising manner, like on the toilet. This is most likely one of the reasons why the human remains in Fallout 4 are often articulated and intact – for quick and immediate identification by players, and for the ability to create comical situations by posing the dead. And yet, there are also “death tableaux” meant to establish the realities of war onto the player – bodies found in beds, cowered in hastily made shelters, skeletal hands found clasped together even hundreds of years after the Great War. These unintentional portrayals of a sudden death, forever immortalising the true nature of war: senseless, uncaring, and ultimately…fatal.

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Two bodies from Fallout 4 – one in a wheelchair, and one sat next to them. They are surrounded by flowers, candles, and other “offerings” – did they die here, and then become a memorial? Or were they purposely placed here after death?

References

Adams, B.J. and Byrd, J.E. (2008) Recovery, Analysis, and Identification of Commingled Human Remains. Humana Press.

Bethesda Softworks. (2015) Fallout 4.

Deem, J.M. (2005) Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Hunter, J. and Cox, M. (2005) Forensic Archaeology: Advances in Theory and Practice. Routledge.

Luongo, G. et al. (2003) Impact of the AD 79 Explosive Eruption on Pompeii, II. Causes of Death of the Inhabitants Inferred by Stratigraphic Analysis and Areal Distribution of the Human Casualties. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. pp. 169-200.

Moshenska, G. (2009) Resonant Materiality and Violent Remembering: Archaeology, Memory, and Bombing. International Journal of Heritage Studies. 15 (1). pp. 44-56.

Mundorff, A. (2009) Human Identification Following the World Trade Center Disaster: Assessing Management Practices for Highly Fragmented and Commingled Human Remains. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Simon Fraser University.

Sanders, K. (2009) Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination. University of Chicago Press.

Torrence, R. and Grattan, J. (2002) The Archaeology of Disasters: Past and Future Trends. Natural Disasters and Cultural Change. Routledge.

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.

 

Preserving Play: Video Games as Digital Artefacts and the Status of Games Preservation

Archaeology and video games have been a hot topic in the past few years – not only is it a growing sub-discipline of its own (for more information, check out archaeogaming.com or the new Archaeogaming book that has come out of that website), but we also seem to talk about video games and archaeology a lot on this blog (see: Fallout, Skyrim, Dragon Age…plus many more in the near future!). However, this all utilises the video game as its own digital space, inside which archaeological theory can be applied. But what about the video game as an actual artefact?

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(Image Credit: Nintendo of Europe)

Like any artefact, video games have been the focus of preservation efforts for some time. Not only is preservation vital for digital academics and historians, but many game enthusiasts appreciate the ability to play games from their childhood that may be inaccessible any other way. Two of the main methods of preservation have been migration and emulation. Migration refers to the movement (also known as ‘porting’) of a game from an older and/or obsolete gaming system to another, more recent/active one. Emulation is arguably a more popular method, where a program is created to emulate both the game and the original software it ran on, creating a more “accurate”, preserved version of the game.

Video game preservationists include designated research groups, such as the Preserving Virtual Worlds Project. It has also become an industry in its own right, with new re-releases of classic games and systems and large scale conventions becoming more popular as “retro gaming” and nostalgia become extremely marketable to the general public. However, most preservationists consist of hobbyists and fans who seek to not only preserve video games, but to make them accessible to everyone, usually by making emulated games and emulators free to download online.

This latter group of video game preservationists have found themselves in hot water recently, as Nintendo, a popular video game company, is taking legal action against two major emulation websites for illegal distribution of their copyrighted games. While this may seem understandable, it should also be noted that many of these emulated games have not been in distribution for a long period of time and will most likely never been regularly distributed again in stores. So the situation is slightly more complex – how can we preserve these games if the game companies will not?

So, what is in the future for video game preservation? Some propositions for going forward with a more “formal” (read: without breaching copyright or including illegal downloading) preservation approach include utilising the museum approach and returning to more backwards compatible consoles (in other words, allow for newer consoles to play older games on them), as well as a more organised push towards migration/emulation of all games.  However, the heart of game preservation will arguably remain with the hobbyists and fans who will continue to produce downloadable versions of well-loved games online, regardless of the legal issues ahead.

Perhaps archaeologists and heritage specialists should consider video game preservation as part of our respective fields? After all, if we consider the video game as a historical/digital artefact, doesn’t that deserve saving as much as the more physical artefacts? With the growing popularity of “archaeogaming”, it seems like more archaeologists might find themselves looking more into preservation techniques of ATARI games instead of looking at pottery! And to be honest…that sounds awesome. Maybe I got into the wrong archaeological field?

References

Barwick, J. et al. (2011) Playing Games with Cultural Heritage: A Comparative Case Study Analysis of the Current Status of Digital Game Preservation. Games and Culture. 6 (4). pp. 373-390.

Guttenbrunner, M. et al. (2010) Keeping the Game Alive: Evaluating Strategies for the Preservation of Console Video Games. The International Journal of Digital Curation. 1 (5). pp. 64-90.

McFerran, D. (2018) The Retro Gaming Industry Could Be Killing Game Preservation. Eurogamer. https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2018-02-09-the-retro-gaming-industry-could-be-killing-video-game-preservation

McFerran, D. (2018) What Does Nintendo’s Shutdown of ROM-Sharing Sites Mean for Video Game Preservation? NintendoLife. http://www.nintendolife.com/news/2018/08/feature_what_does_nintendos_shutdown_of_rom-sharing_sites_mean_for_video_game_preservation 

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.

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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)!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

References

Anonymous. (2016) Blackreach. Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Blackreach

Anonymous. (2016) Dwemer. Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Dwemer

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

Camelworks. (2018) Blackreach – Skyrim – Curating Curious Curiosities. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rpo96hu7NVQ

Paterna, I. (2012) Names, shapes, and functions of ancient Greek objects: a changing relationship. CHS Research Bulletin. http://www.chs-fellows.org/2012/11/27/names-shapes-and-functions-of-ancient-greek-objects-a-changing-relationship/

The Bog Unicorn: The Power of Preservation in Dragon Age (and in Real Life!)

Content Warning: Some images of preserved human remains are below.

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The Inquisitor atop the Bog Unicorn, a DLC mount available in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

In the 2014 video game Dragon Age: Inquisition, you play as the Inquisitor who heads the latest Inquisition against an army of demons and heretics. As the leader of such a massive organisation, your character is able to get supplies and aid from all corners of the world of Thedas, including some incredibly fantastic and exotic mounts. One of these mounts is known as the “Bog Unicorn” – a horse that had been preserved in a bog environment that has been brought back to life by the sheer power of the spirit. Although the game does not go into much more detail regarding the backstory of the Bog Unicorn, the design of the mount somehow manages to hit a lot of really interesting points about the phenomenon of “bog bodies” in real world archaeology. So let’s break it down…

To start, what is a “bog body”? In short, it is a body that has been preserved within a bog due to the acidic and anaerobic conditions of the surrounding environment. Bog bodies have been recovered since the 17th century. Prior to focusing on the conservation of archaeological finds, most bog bodies were either discarded or, in some cases, ground up into a medicinal powder called “mumia” (Aldhouse-Green 2015).

There has been an observed phenomenon of recovered bog bodies across parts of continental Europe, with additional cases found in Ireland and Britain. Most of these bodies have been dated to around the Iron Age, and many have been observed to have characteristics that may reflect a violent death (sometimes referred to as “overkill”). This has led to one interpretation of bog bodies representing those who were killed as part of a ritualistic sacrifice or as a punishment (Giles 2009).

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The Grauballe Man, an Iron Age body recovered from a bog in Denmark (Photo Credit: Sven Rosborn)

The design of the Bog Unicorn manages to convey a lot of detail about bog bodies without actual textual explanation. For example, let’s take a look at the physical appearance of the mount. The Bog Unicorn is not skeletal, but has what appears to be a dark, leathery hide covering its body. Its hair is also a strange, rust red colour.

As you can see from the photo above of an actual bog body, this is the typical appearance of organic material that has been preserved within a bog. Sphagnum, released once bog moss dies, is the agent that causes the “tanning” effect on any soft tissue – this is what causes the colouration in both skin and hair found on bog bodies (Aldhouse-Green 2015).

Found-A-14th-Century-Sword-Dropped-in-a-Peat-Bog-758x505
A 14th century sword found in a peat bog in Poland (Photo Credit: Muzeum im. ks. Stanisława Staszica w Hrubieszowie)

Another noteworthy detail in the Bog Unicorn’s design is the sword thrust through the horse’s head, creating the “unicorn” effect – this is perhaps a nod to another phenomenon in the archaeology of bogs and other watery environments. Water has often been considered a liminal space (in other words, a sort of boundary or in-between place), as well as a source of life. It is possible that the deposition of remains in watery environments reflects a belief in water as a pathway to the spirit world, or perhaps more indicative of cyclic beliefs in regeneration and fertility (Bradley 2017). Weapons and other artefacts have also been noted to be recovered as deposits from water – possibly used as proxies for the human body in a ritual? It should also be noted that many weapons that are deposited in this way are often fragmented or ritualistically broken, perhaps to mark a sort of “death” of the object (Bruck 2006).

To wrap this discussion up, let’s move on from the physical appearance to talk more about intent. The Bog Unicorn, in the lore of the game, is explained to be a restless force that has moved beyond death to serve again. In other words, the Bog Unicorn is between life and death, floating somewhere in the middle as a sort of undead creature. To represent such a force as a preserved corpse from a bog is actually quite fitting, especially when one considers how a bog body is basically suspended between life and death (or at least, decay). As mentioned above, watery environments appear to have been identified as a liminal space – bogs even more so, as they were sort of in between land and water. If we take into consideration that bog bodies were part of a “punishment” involving their ritualistic killing, it might be that this liminal space proved to be the final, posthumous punishment – unable to decay and “pass on”, these bodies were left preserved, floating in some natural purgatory. But even if that’s all conjecture, there is still something so perfect about having a Bog Unicorn, who is between life and death, this world and the next, be your spectral-yet-physical steed for a battle that takes place between our world and the spirit world.

References

Aldhouse-Green, M. (2015) Bog Bodies Uncovered: Solving Europe’s Ancient Mystery. Thames & Hudson.

Anonymous (2015) The “Bog Unicorn”. Dragon Age Wiki. http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/The_%22Bog_Unicorn%22

Bioware (2014) Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Bradley, R. (2017) An Geography of Offerings: Deposits of Valuables in the Landscapes of  Ancient Europe. Oxbow Books.

Bruck, J. (2006) Fragmentation, Personhood, and the Social Construction of Technology in Middle and Late Bronze Age Britain. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 16(3), 297-315.

Giles, M. (2009) Iron Age Bog Bodies of North-Western Europe. Representing the Dead. Archaeological Dialogues 16(1), 75-101.

Werewolf? Therewolf! Lycanthropy in Skyrim (and Real Life!)

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

Werewolves

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)?

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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).

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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.

References

Anonymous. (2016) Werewolf (Skyrim). Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Werewolf_(Skyrim)

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.

 

Written in Stone: Standing Stones in Skyrim (and in Real Life!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

Reinventing the “King” in Fallout: New Vegas

Recreating the past is a common thread in Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment 2008) – previously on the blog, we took a look at how the Legion, the main antagonistic force of the game, based their entire structure and aesthetics on the Roman Empire. This is the case of many of the Factions (or “tribes”, as they are referred to in-game) in the Mojave Desert; it makes sense, after all, that survivors emerging from the rubble of a nuclear war would identify closely with what little they could scavenge from the Pre-War world.

The outside of the King’s School of Impersonation.

Just outside of the New Vegas Strip, in the community known as “Freeside”, is a Faction that the player character may align themselves with: the Kings. Located in the remains of a building called ”the King’s School of Impersonation”, this group dresses themselves in black leather jackets, their hair perfectly styled into a pompadour, and they speak in an very specific Southern drawl…

Sound familiar?

Yes, in the canonical lore of Fallout: New Vegas, there is literally an entire Faction of Elvis Presley impersonators. The leader of the Kings, known simply as “the King”, stumbled upon the remains of an Elvis Presley impersonation school as a young, lone scavenger. Inside, he appears to have found a plethora of paraphernalia dedicated to the singer, including posters, videos, and records. Inspired by Elvis’ music and all-around attitude of rebelliousness and freedom, the King styles himself in Elvis’ image – this also includes his manner of speaking and, although this isn’t conveyed through the animation in-game, his particular manner of movement and dance.

The King, leader of the Kings, wearing his best Elvis look, complete with Elvis smirk.

But why Elvis Presley? Surely information could be found on other Pre-War figures and groups to emulate? Well, given the icon status of Elvis, even after death, it makes sense that he would have much more paraphernalia left for scavengers to uncover (especially in Las Vegas!). Elvis was also, like many celebrities, a sort of figure that was relatable to the average person – in the lore of New Vegas, the King self-identifies with the sort of carefree and rebelliousness attitude that Elvis exudes in the videos that were left behind. This relatability is also attached to a bit of self-projection and desire, as well – Elvis represented high charisma, fame, and sexuality that created an immortal icon that has clearly bested even death. There’s a reason that Elvis Presley impersonators still exist in large numbers to this day! You could even argue that elements of the Elvis aesthetic and persona have leaked into other avenues as well – what we, the general populace, tend to think of when we think “the 50’s”, or “rock ‘n’ roll”, or the ever-popular subculture of “rockabilly”, regardless of how correct it is, has been forever influenced and overwritten by the Cult of Elvis (Fraser and Brown 2002).

The King auditions a new member of the Kings as he does his own Elvis routine.

So what can we extrapolate from this archaeologically? There’s certainly something to be said about iconography and interpretation – whereas Caesar of the Legion was able to find history books on Imperial Rome, the King had to interpret who Elvis Presley was and what he stood for, based solely on the little information he could gather. Which is why we end up with almost a religious cult surrounding Elvis within the Kings Faction – the King believed Elvis to be, if not a deity, than at least someone who was profoundly worshiped and imitated through the Pre-War world. And although we, in real life, could consider that interpretation a stretch…is he really that wrong? From clothing to statuary to tattoos to museums to yes, impersonators, Elvis is, for lack of a better word, worshiped to this day by others. Perhaps what we should take from this, as archaeologists, is that iconography can have a sort of nuance behind it. Is there really a difference between religious worship and more of an idealised, celebrity worship? How can we differentiate between the two in the future archaeological record? And, better yet, will future archaeologists be able to?

Or maybe future archaeologists will just assume we all worshipped Mickey Mouse. I mean…it could be worse, I guess.

References

Anonymous. (2011) Kings. Nukapedia: Fallout Wikia http://fallout.wikia.com/wiki/Kings

Fraser, B.P. and Brown, W.J. (2002) Media, Celebrities, and Social Influence: Identification with Elvis Presley. Mass Communication and Society. (p. 183 – 206)

Obsidian Entertainment. (2010) Fallout: New Vegas

On the Chopping Block: Decapitation in Archaeology

On the Chopping Block: Decapitation in Archaeology

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

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)