A Lesson in Taphonomy with Red Dead Redemption 2

Note: I struggled about whether or not to write about this game due to the issues surrounding its development and the poor treatment of workers (for more information, please read this article from Jason Schreier). However, I think it marks an interesting development in the ever-growing world of virtual archaeologies, so I proceeded to write about it. That being said, please show support for the unionisation of game workers by visiting Game Workers Unite.

Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Studios 2018) has only been out for a short while, but many players have been praising the level of detail that has gone into the game. One of the most striking features, at least to me as an archaeologist, is the fact that bodies actually decay over time. That’s right, video game archaeologists – we now have some form of taphonomy in our virtual worlds!

But wait, what istaphonomy“? Well, you may actually get a few slightly differing answers from archaeologists – we all mostly agree that taphonomy refers to the various processes that affect the physical properties of organic remains. However, it’s where the process begins and ends that has archaeologists in a bit of a debate. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m gonna to use a definition from Lyman (1994), which defines taphonomy as “the science of the laws of embedding or burial” – or, to put it another way, a series of processes that create the characteristics of  an assemblage as recovered by archaeologists. This will include not only pre-mortem and post-mortem processes, but processes that occur post-excavation, as identified by Clark and Kietzke (1967).

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Promotional Image Credit: Rockstar Games (2018)

Let’s start with the pre-mortem processes, which are often ignored in discussions of overall taphonomy – firstly, we have biotic processes, which sets up the actual conditions of who or what will be deposited in our final resulting assemblage – this can include seasonal characteristics of a particular region, which will draw certain species to inhabit the area (O’Connor 2000), as well as cultural factors, such as exploitation and, unfortunately, colonisation/imperialism (Hesse and Wapnish 1985).

Now, let’s use some poor ol’ cowboys from Red Dead Redemption 2 as examples of post-mortem processes – Content Warning: Images of (digital) human remains in various stages of decay are about to follow, so caution before you read on!

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Image Credit: YouTube user WackyW3irdo (2018)

With our biotic processes providing us with these cowboys who have moved West for a variety of reasons, we now need to determine our cause of death to continue with taphonomy. This falls under thanatic processes, which causes death and primary deposition of the remains (O’Connor 2000). In our example above, we would probably be able to find osteological evidence of trauma due to the cowboy getting shot to death.

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Image Credit: YouTube user WackyW3irdo (2018)

In time, we soon see the work of taphic processes, or the chemical and physical processes that affect the remains – this is also sometimes referred to as “diagenesis” (O’Connor 2000). Much of what we consider to be “decay” when we think of decomposition will fall under this category of processes. Sometimes this will also affect the remaining structure and character of bone that will eventually be recovered.

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Image Credit: YouTube user WackyW3irdo (2018)

Now, imagine we take this body and, as seen in the YouTube video from which these images come from, toss it down a hill. Okay, this is a bit of an over-the-top example, but it showcases another category of processes known as perthotaxic processes. These processes causes movement and physical damage to the remains, either through cultural (butchery, etc.) or natural (weathering, gnawing, trampling, etc.) methods. Similar to these processes are anataxic processes, which cause secondary deposition and further exposure of the remains to other natural factors that will further alter them (Hesse and Wapnish 1985).

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Image Credit: YouTube user WackyW3irdo (2018)

The above image shows the remains of the cowboy finally reaching his secondary place of deposition after being tossed from the top of the hill and now drawing the attention of scavenger birds – this showcases an example of an anataxic process, as the body is being scavenged due to exposure from secondary deposition.

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Image Credit: YouTube user WackyW3irdo (2018)

At this point, we begin to see how all of the aforementioned processes have affected our current archaeological assemblage-in-progress: we clearly have physical and chemical signs of decay, with physical alteration due to post-mortem trauma (tossing off of a hill) and exposure (including gnawing from other animals). This results in some elements going missing, some being modified, and others being made weaker and more likely to be absent by the time the body is recovered archaeologically.

Now, we also have two processes that occur during and after archaeological excavation that, again, often get overlooked: sullegic processes, which refer to the decisions made by archaeologists for selecting samples for further analysis (O’Connor 2000) and trephic processes, which refer to the factors that affect the recovered remains during post-excavation: curation, storage, recording, etc. These are often ignored as they don’t necessarily tell us much about the context surrounding the remains, but they are vital to consider if you are working with samples that you did not recover yourself or have been archived for a long time prior to your work.

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Image Credit: YouTube user CallOfTreyArch (2018)

Environmental differences will also affect the sort of variety within the overall taphonomic process – for example, wet environments (say, like the body of water seen in the image above) will cause the body to become water-logged, which may speed up certain taphic processes and create poorer preservation. More arid environments, like a desert, may lead to slightly more preservation in some cases due to the lack of water that may damage the bones.

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Image Credit: YouTube user CallOfTreyArch (2018)

Although the game certainly speeds up these processes and streamlines them in a way that removes some of the other variables that you would see in real life, I’d argue that Red Dead Redemption 2 might currently be the most accurate depiction of taphonomy that exists within a virtual world and may present new opportunities for developing models that could aid in furthering our understanding of how remains may decay under certain circumstances.

At the very least, it could make it easier and less smellier to do taphonomic experiments!

References

CallOfTreyArch. (2018) Red Dead Redemption 2 – In-Game Corpse Decay Timelapse. YouTube Video. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5izZ2gv17M8

Clark, J. and Kietzke, K.K. (1967) Paleoecology of the Lower Nodule Zone, Brule Formation, in the Big Badlands of South Dakota. Fieldiana: Geology Memoir. pp. 111-129.

Hesse, B. and Wapnish, P. (1985) Animal Bone Archaeology: From Objectives to Analysis. Taracuxum Inc.

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

O’Connor, T. (2000) The Archaeology of Animal Bones. Sutton Publishing Ltd.

Rockstar Games. (2018) Red Dead Redemption 2.

WackyW3irdo. (2018) Red Dead Redemption 2 – Decaying NPC Body Timelapse. YouTube Video. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2AoQyynYFM


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.

Deciphering the Past and Present: Secret Codes in Fallout (and in Real Life!)

“Secret codes”, like archaeology, can set off the imagination, prompting images of spies, secret agents, and hidden treasure. It is easy, based on popular culture, to imagine that archaeologists are constantly stumbling upon glyphs that must be translated to find secret rooms or solving puzzles using hidden codes to evade dangerous traps.

But unfortunately, like many depictions of archaeology in pop culture, this isn’t really the case in real life.

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A rail sign in Fallout 4 signifying that the Railroad HQ is nearby.

One example of hidden codes in popular culture can be found in Fallout 4, utilised by the ultra secret organisation called “the Railroad”. Like their real life Civil War-era namesake, the Railroad leads a group of marginalised people (in the case of Fallout 4, these are the “Synths”, or synthetic people who are often met with violence and persecution by humans) to freedom through a series of routes and safe houses to avoid hostile forces hunting them down. In order to maintain secrecy and safety, the Railroad often utilises a series of pictures as codes to other agents – these symbols can alert others to danger, or to notify where safe houses are.

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A rail sign in Fallout 4 signifying that danger is nearby.

These in-game secret codes were most likely inspired by the real life phenomenon of what are generally referred to as “hobo codes”. These symbols were created by “hobos”, or transient, homeless people who travelled the United States after the end of the Civil War, usually by illegally riding freight trains that began to criss-cross the country. These “hobo codes” provided safety for other fellow hobos through warnings of dangerous people or obstacles ahead, as well as pointing out where one could find food, shelter, or work (Innocent 2015).

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A “hobo code” symbol from a scene in the television series Mad Men – this signifies that a “dishonest person lives nearby”

But what about real-life archaeology? Are there no real instances of finding secret messages amongst ancient ruins?

Well…kinda.

In many ways, we can consider the recovery of “lost” languages to be similar to this romanticised idea of unearthing hidden codes during excavation. For example, thanks in part to the recovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, Egyptian hieroglyphs – which had originally confused and mystified academics who would occasionally come across these mysterious symbols on artefacts and ruins – were finally able to be deciphered by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822 (Robinson 2012). Another example can be found in Mesoamerica regarding the Mayan hieroglyphs, which are still being deciphered to this day (Stuart 1992).

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A replica of the Rosetta Stone in Madrid, Spain (Photo Credit: Juan Naharro Gimenez)

However, what most people would imagine to be “secret messages” are more in line with pseudoarchaeological ideas. In fact, many allegedly “secret symbols” that had been “recovered” in the United States are often fake artefacts used to promote the racist, pseudoarchaeological notion that hidden communities of Europeans existed in North America, pre-dating Native Americans. For example, in the Ohio Valley region alone, there are been many cases of so-called “ancient inscriptions” using Welsh and Irish Ogham. But there was little, if any, credible evidence to back any of these claims (Ball 2006).

So what is it about secret messages and symbols that so quickly excites the imagination? Maybe we just want some sort of intentional communication with the past? Maybe knowing that our past ancestors left behind something for their future generations makes us feel better about ourselves?

Or maybe its just cool. Who knows, really?

References

Ball, D.B. (2006) Scribbles, Scratches, and Ancient Writing: Pseudo-Historical Archaeology in the Ohio Valley Region. Ohio Valley Historical Archaeology. 21. pp. 1-29.

Bethesda Softworks. (2015) Fallout 4.

Innocent, T. (2015) The Lost Art of Urban Codemaking. Communication Research and Practice. 1(2). pp. 117-130.

Robinson, A. (2012) A Clash of Symbols. Nature. 483. pp. 27 – 28.

Stuart, D. (1992) Hieroglyphs and Archaeology at Copan. Ancient Mesoamerica. 3. pp. 169-184.


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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

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 


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.

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/


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.

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).

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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.


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.

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.

 


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.

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).


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.