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.
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:
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.