Archaeological themes in Skyrim. No, seriously. (1)

So, one reason for my general lack of productivity in non-work-related areas over the last few months has been the acquisition, at long last, of a modern games console (a very generous gift from a friend). Just in time for it to be obsolete, you might think, but actually this is the ideal time to get one. There are loads of good games — I could play nothing but “best of” games from now until Doomsday, basically, and all my friends who own them have deep game libraries they aren’t making much use of. 

Anyway, that is only tangentially what I want to talk about, which is Skyrim, and specifically the surprising amount of archaeology in that game. 

Now, a lot of RPGs have ancient ruins, lost civilisations, all that kind of thing. This is par for the course because it’s a good way to get people into a Dave-and-Gary-approved dungeon. But in Skyrim there is quite a bit more to this, particularly in the far west, in the Reach and the city of Markarth. 

Markarth is actually built on the ruins of a Dwemer city — that is, a city built by a now-vanished culture with technology far in advance of what Skyrim’s inhabitants, the Nords, are capable of. There is a big archaeological excavation in the city itself, and a museum not far from it. The archaeologist is the court wizard, and he’s exactly the kind of person you’d expect an archaeologist-stroke-court-wizard to be, an abstracted scholar who doesn’t recognise practical concerns as important compared to his research. 

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But that isn’t the really interesting thing about the archaeology in Skyrim. What’s interesting is that almost every quest in Markarth and its surroundings is about competing claims to legitimacy based on the past. 

Skyrim is a land torn apart by its history: you have the Empire, which defends its claim to Skyrim based on the fact that Skyrim has always been part of it — indeed, the Empire was founded by someone from Skyrim. By contrast, the nationalist Stormcloak rebels claim that the Empire, by signing a peace treaty that forbids their traditional religion, has turned its back on Skyrim’s history. 

The leader of the rebels is one Ulfric Stormcloak (Vladimir Kulich from The Thirteenth Warrior), and he started this whole thing off following something called the Markarth Incident, in which he chased out a bunch of rebels from Markarth. Not his rebels, you understand, but some different rebels. These rebels are the Forsworn, and they claim to be the indigenous people of the Reach, deprived of their land by the Nords. They look like this: 

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Suuuubtle.

If you talk to the Forsworn, they will give you an angry speech about how they were there first — and they are perfectly willing to do this while standing in a building that proves that the region was inhabited centuries before humans even set foot there. They seem to see no contradiction. 

Meanwhile, digging up ancient Nordic artefacts seems to be the national pastime. In one mission, you accompany a squad of troops from one faction or the other to capture a vital piece of regalia before the other side can use it to lend legitimacy to their claimant to the throne. There’s no suggestion that it has magic powers or anything (though it might) — your superiors explicitly say that it’s just to associate the claimant with the majesty of previous kings.

Material culture is super important here, and not just because it can help improve your Stamina Regeneration. 

I’m still unpacking what the archaeology in Skyrim means — partly because I tend to think about it for a bit, then go off to batter some bandits or undead to death with my magic hammer. But I think that it’s actually been thought about quite a lot — this is a game where one of the two main plots is about a fight over who controls the nation’s heritage, with the control of monuments and artefacts playing a really important role in that struggle. 

Although archaeology in Skyrim does involve at least 50% more fighting giant robots than in real life. 

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Archaeological themes in Skyrim. No, seriously. (1)

OK, seriously: Templars?

I try to make this a history blog rather than a blog about all the other things I like, like Forteana or comic books or games or what have you. But there are times when they interact (we’re going to have to talk about comics one of these days, maybe even tomorrow).

I write, from time to time, book reviews for Fortean TimesIt doesn’t pay, but I get free books and free copies of the magazine, and it’s a lot of fun. A recent issue (possibly even the current issue?) had some interesting stuff about conspiracy theories, and it made me think. 

Now, I know that (or at least, it seems to be the case that) the reason the Knights Templar are such a big deal in the world of conspiracy theory is twofold: firstly because the trial of the Templars is such an odd piece of medieval legal whatever-it-is, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, because the Freemasons made such a big deal out of them (or, if not the Freemasons, the secret-society community generally). After all, werewolf trial records are equally bizarre, but nobody gets all weird about secret conspiracies of werewolves. That I’m aware of. 

But “because the Freemasons made a big deal out of them” is just one of those questions that punts the question back one. People associate the Templars with conspiracy because the Templars are connected to the Freemasons and the Freemasons are connected to conspiracy. Fair enough, except what’s the Templar-Freemason connection? Of all the many weird organisations in the medieval world, why did they pick that one to get all weird about? Is it just that they had been suppressed and were therefore no longer around in some legacy form? 

I genuinely don’t know, and I kind of never wondered until now – possibly because I read Foucault’s Pendulum early on and therefore just assumed that conspiracy theories naturally involved the Templars. 

OK, seriously: Templars?

19th Century Folklorists Have A Lot to Answer For: 2

Noticing that it used an image of Kirk Douglas’s gristly horror-mug from 1958 rapefest The Vikings, friend of the blog Ian pointed toward this article about how things about Vikings are making a comeback and also about how the concept of the Vikings displayed in many of said things is basically one from 19th-century art and literature. Which is mostly true, I think. 

Actually, I thought the interesting thing about Pathfinder was that it portrayed the Vikings as just flat-out no-fucking-around bad guys, and you can see the same in recent films from Poland and Russia (well, recently released over here, anyway) where the romantic Viking national myth must be scorned in favour of some other romantic national myth. 

But yeah, the 19th century. Was there anything it couldn’t screw up? If, when I say “Anglo-Saxons” the image that comes to mind is of some stipply black-and-white picture of guys with trailing moustaches under some kind of oak tree, you can blame the 19th century for that. Hell, you can blame Hegel specifically if you like. Or the brothers Grimm. 

You think I’m exaggerating, but you are mistaken. This is the kind of crap I’m talking about: 

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It’s not the stupid hat and the stupid club that I’m concerned about. Oh no. It’s the noble gaze, fixed on some far horizon with new conquests and strange new … 

… sorry, I died for a moment there. 

But it’s true that the whole sort of romantic Viking image comes more or less straight from the 19th century — it was a time of national movements all over northern Europe, and part of that was people from Germany and Scandinavia trying to find some kind of roots for their culture that didn’t make them feel inferior to the people from southern Europe with the big tall buildings. 

You remember how well that ended. But long before the whole murdering aspect of it there was a more harmless putting-on-silly-hats and cultivating-ludicrous-moustaches aspect. Some things were done in the name of folklore that were good. For instance, Elias Lennrot copied down and/or made up the Kalevala, and without that we’d never have had The Day the Earth Froze.

Seriously, 19th-century nationalism brought a lot of literature, history and art into the spotlight that had previously been neglected. It’s doubtful whether my own old field of Anglo-Saxon studies would exist in its present form without sententious Victorian patriots. But on the other hand it’s hard to forgive the cultural legacy that even today dogs the whole subject. 

There’s going to come some time when I snap and decide I love Viking metal. But that time is not now. 

19th Century Folklorists Have A Lot to Answer For: 2

Movie Monday: Alexander (2004)

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I think there is kind of a general mistake in the types of films I’ve been watching where people think that biographies necessarily have the kind of story that makes an interesting movie. Case in point: Oliver Stone’s big, rambling what-the-hell Alexander

Now, unlike in the previous films, I don’t have the film on Youtube to link to, but never mind, eh? What you need to know about this movie is: 

  • It is one million years long (approx.)
  • Five hundred thousand of those years are Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy talking to the camera. 
  • The Macedonians have Irish accents, mostly, and the Greeks have English accents, mostly, which is actually not a bad way of quickly summarising the difference. 
  • Olympias (Angelina Jolie) has a Dracula accent to indicate that she is Illyrian. This is not a bad idea but comes out ridiculous. 
  • There are only two battles despite Alexander’s like entire life having been battles. 
  • The thing that got everybody all het up, i.e. the romance between Jared Leto and Colin Farrell, is not really all that big a deal, although it’s not glossed over. 
  • This movie can’t decide what it’s about worth a hang. 

Basically, Alexander wanted to conquer all the stuff he could because — that is a bad beginning to that sentence. Turns out that you don’t really need reasons to conquer stuff in the 4th century BC. What’s interesting about Alexander is that he was able to conquer stuff, but the film doesn’t really give you any feeling for what made him such a great leader or strategist. It has a lot of good bits in it, but it just fails to cohere somehow. There’s a void at the middle of it. I’m tempted to call that void “Colin Farrell” but honestly I think a better name for it would be “Oliver Stone.” It’s like he decided he was going to make a film that was incredibly huge and got like 99% of the way down the checklist, just omitting “make the viewer give a shit about any of the characters.”

If I had to guess, I would say that this movie is about “what is it that motivates someone to the point where they become this world-beating general and still aren’t satisfied,” but when I look at Colin Farrell groaning I just don’t care. 

Obviously, there are historical inaccuracies aplenty, but they are more the kind of garbling you get when you try to shove a long and incredibly complicated story into even a three-hour movie while still leaving time for a bunch of fight scenes. Not that I mind the fight scenes, chaotic and brown as they may be. They look cool. 

Around the time Pirates of the Caribbean (maybe the second one?) came out, Andrew Rilstone said something to the effect that there looked like there was going to be a wash of roughly-historical epics: The Last SamuraiTroyMaster and Commander. The blame for this has been variously laid on The Lord of the Rings and on Gladiator. Whichever you prefer, Ross Douthat proclaimed the genre dead around the time of Kingdom of Heaven, which he called “Boringus Maximus.” Now, Ross Douthat is a self-deluding ninny, but you have to admit he has a point about the early-2000s historical epic boom. And I kind of see what he means, too. Like Kingdom of HeavenAlexander doesn’t really make you root for anyone. Now, that’s consistent with the history — Alexander wasn’t really a nice guy, he was just an impressive one. There’s no reason to want one set of swine to be in charge over another. But in that case, maybe more impressive stuff in the film?  

I mean, say what you will about The Vikings (here is what I will say: it’s bollocks) but there’s no denying a lot of stuff happens

Douthat also thinks that modern actors just don’t look old-timey, which on the one hand, no shit, and on the other hand, Tony Curtis. 

Movie Monday: Alexander (2004)

The Charity-Shop Bookstore of the World

I have mentioned before, like in every other post or so, that I have this thing with impulse-acquiring books. I don’t really have the collector gene — my shelves are pretty well-stocked, but contain large numbers of beat-up old paperbacks. I read for data, mainly, although there are some books where I love the visual component (I wrote about the Yeavering excavation report earlier, for instance). 

So the reason that there have been no posts for the last couple of days is that I have been celebrating my birthday. Which was lovely, I should say. Several of my acquisitions will wind up being the subjects of their own posts. But the one that inspired this one is the Kindle. 

Oh dear, the Kindle. 

You see, I have this problem where I just acquire data sources. Like, I bought that 18th-century farm wife’s memoir hoax thingy because it was 50p and it was right there. What use do I have for an 18th-century farm memoir, real or fake? None. But it was 50p and it was right there. 

People digitise stuff for the Kindle and just stick it on Amazon for free. This generally falls into two categories: 

a) old stuff that is in the public domain, and 

b) self-published fantasy novels with ugly “covers”. 

It is, as you might expect, category a) that concerns me. Thus far, the titles I have acquired include, but are not limited to: 

The Letters of Queen Victoria

How to Behave: A Pocket Manual of Republican Etiquette (1887)

Twentieth Century Inventions: A Forecast

Travels in Tartary, Thibet, and China during the years 1844-5-6

The Treaty Held with the Indians of the Six Nations at Philadelphia in July 1742

Conduct of Sir William Howe

and on and on and on and on. I will certainly never read them all; I will probably never read most. But that isn’t what matters, really. What matters is that if I ever want to know what the 20th century’s going to be like (dramatic improvements in windmill technology!) I can look it up. 

In other words, I might be posting a little sporadically for a bit. 

Movie Monday returns tomorrow, though!

The Charity-Shop Bookstore of the World

As long as I don’t get killed

One of those things that you hear a lot about, particularly in the geek world, is weapons and armour, and it’s a subject that fascinates historians and archaeologists as well, even the ones who pretend to be too grown-up for it. I tend to think that everyone, from the derpiest History Channel person to the best-informed ARMA sword geek, tends to overestimate human pragmatism, and I suspect that actual fights were sufficiently chaotic and scary that the technical merits of one weapon against another were not as important on an individual basis as who slipped in the mud and got stepped on by a horse or whatever.

But not wanting to die is a powerful human motivator, even if not everything humans do as a response to it actually makes them less likely to die. And it can lead to some powerful ingenuity, as witness this armour created by Russia’s Chukchi people.

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That’s all hide, furs, hell, even wood and whalebone. And apparently it’s not too bad against arrows. That giant wing on the back looks like it would be pretty inconvenient, though.

I guess if you’re a nomadic tundra hunter, you make do with what you got. In some other cases, though, it’s clear that someone paid good money to look like a complete dingdong on the battlefield (or at home, whatever). Consider:

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“Just imagine. They’re holding onto their pikes … hearing the thunder of hooves … they look up and see … a concerned twit with a moustache. They won’t know what hit ’em!”

Some suits of armour are more for coolness than practicality. This one is described as a bear-hunting suit, which sounds like horseshit to me. I’d love to see someone trying to make their way through the woods in this thing, without peripheral vision or anything … they’d end up stuck to a tree. Others have suggested it’s for bear-baiting, so now it’s not funny, it’s just an indictment of our species’s meaningless cruelty. Oh well.

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It is scary-looking, though. If I saw that dude coming I’d run a mile.

Some types of body armour look very natural to us, somehow: Roman legionaries, knights … I think it is to do with what you’re likely to have owned a plastic figurine of as a child. But some tops of body armour just look crazy and outlandish. Actual WWI armour always looks to me like it’s from some horrible muddy sci-fi dystopia.

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I’m right, right? Those look like something from some crazy music video that stoner kids who thought they were profound would try to tell you about in high school or, alternatively, from a nightmare I had.

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This thing is as creepy as the thing it’s supposed to protect you from — red hot hunks of metal flying around the inside of a tank after it gets hit — is horrifying.

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Actually, this guy just looks like a baller.

You can see more weird-ass WWI armour here.

Why does everything from WWI always look horrible? I ask in all seriousness. Sherman tanks look kind of goofy and loveable; WWI tanks look like butchering tools. It’s nothing to do with their actual purpose; you’d rather be shot by neither. It’s just the feel somehow. Is it because of our associations when we think of WWI, or is it the other way around? Can Paul Fussell tell me?

As long as I don’t get killed

Occasionally I am a little bit serious

I am presenting at a conference on November 2nd! You can read more about it here.

It’s called Monstrous Antiquities: Archaeology and the Uncanny in Popular Culture, and my presentation is on Archaeology, Memory and Identity in the Fiction of H P Lovecraft. There’s a lot of other stuff I’m excited to see, too — if you don’t look at the titles in the link above and go “ooh,” I assume you are a close personal friend who reads my blog out of niceness.

I haven’t done a conference in like … four or five years? So that will be interesting. I am really looking forward to it.

Sorry for this short post; I have an early start tomorrow. Something a little more robust then, perhaps.

Occasionally I am a little bit serious