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. 



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. 

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: 



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)



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.





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:



“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.



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.



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.



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.



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

A pirate’s life for me, apparently

Yesterday I had all kinds of technical troubles with the post; today it is going to be an idle thought about piracy.

I don’t consider taking up a career in piracy, but it does seem to have a few things to recommend it. Notably, piracy seems to be one of those careers where you can secure lasting acclaim by honestly not being very good at it. In fact, of all the famous pirate captains in the world, only a few — Morgan and “Long Ben” Every most notably — managed to get away without getting hanged or having their stupid heads blown off.


All the really good pirate stories are in Captain Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates, which is usually attributed to Daniel Defoe on textual grounds. Textual grounds make my teeth itch, but what do I know?

Anyway, to return to it being OK to suck as a pirate, it’s true. Captain Kidd barely did any piracy at all, and was promptly caught and strung up. Calico Jack Rackham was stinking drunk when the law came for him and didn’t put up a fight at all. Bartholomew Roberts (whose real name was John Roberts — I have no idea why that is) stood on the deck of the Royal Fortune, apparently bravely defying the Royal Navy when they, as they do, gunned him down. At least Blackbeard put up a bit of a fight.

One of the things you notice when you do a little pirate reading is that pirate ships were basically beater cars. Pirates would run around the high seas playing Grand Theft Auto; grab a ship you like, sail it until it’s so fucked up by teredo worms it can barely float, ditch it. Shipyards and proper maintenance were high-cost investments that respectable merchants and navies could afford, but pirates didn’t really have the option.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some pirates. And I am not alone. The golden age of piracy inspires all kinds of stuff, from stirring adventure novels to … to … whatever the hell this is.

You know, I love living in the internet age. Check out this sweet-ass online version of the 2nd edition of Johnson’s book. How cool is that?

A pirate’s life for me, apparently

Movie Monday: Becket (1964)


OK, here goes.

You know, one thing you hear a lot about is discussion of what’s called “rape culture,” which is to say the prevalence in the media of images that portray rape as natural or acceptable or not that big a deal or something that women secretly want or what have you. And I mean, I am aware of that concept and I am aware of it when it is pointed out to me, but it was not until I started doing these historical movie reviews that I realised … I mean, these are three randomly selected historical Hollywood epics that I’ve done over the last month (not counting The Madness of King George) and all I can say is …

Jesus H. God, what is it with these movies and the raping? 

So, anyway, this is the story of Henry II and Thomas Becket, and deals with how Becket went from being regular old Thomas to Saint Thomas, i.e. being hacked up with swords right there in Canterbury Cathedral. It is based on a play by Jean Anouilh. Now, Anouilh famously got his information from an old book he bought in a second-hand shop because he liked the cover. And I am 100% behind this type of thinking. But it helps to double-check your sources when you do something like that. Observe:


When I read that I clenched everything I had to clench. And, weirdly, there is a ton of this Saxon-Norman malarkey in the first third of the movie or so, and then it just disappears until the very end when it crops up again.

Anyway, we begin with a flash-forward to after Becket’s death, then back to where Henry and Thomas are getting their drank on and wenching together. Initially, this is portrayed as good-natured hijinks, which, you know, whatever. But it turns dark as fuck when Becket and Henry get into one of this awkward social situations we all know so well. You know how it is when you’re out riding with your homie and you run into some old guy’s hut where he lives with his daughter, so you decide to send your troops and take her into sex slavery, but then when you get home to talk to your prisoner-of-war/mistress she talks about how she loves you and then you freak out, and the king reminds you that you promised him a favour and so he asks if it’s OK to rape you mistress, and you say yes, so she kills herself?

Yeah, how often have we heard that story.

Anyway, to go back to the Saxon-Norman thing, obviously Thomas Becket was not a Saxon. His parents were called Gilbert and Matilda, which is hardly Eadwulf and Cyneburh, and they were from Norman families. So there’s that.


Hmm hmm hmm.

Now, the film chooses to portray the relationship between Henry and Thomas as all about love, and if you were to suggest that there was a homosexual subtext here, I would say that maybe you don’t quite grasp the concept of subtext.

"No one does it like you, Thomas."

“No one does it like you, Thomas.”

So the whole rape-suicide thing is part and parcel of how this film treats women, which is not that they’re sexy sex objects that exist only to get raped into love (like in The Conqueror), but just that they’re basically meaningless props whose sole function is to provide plot points for the lives and struggles of men. It is only fair of me to say that this is an improvement on the last couple. It’s just still a little discouraging.

Other than that, hmm. OK, this film is pretty good, and it deviates from the history in details but gets the outline more or less right (like, in reality the process of Becket and the king falling out was much longer and more complicated, or in the movie Henry II and Eleanor have four children, whereas in reality they had like nine). The only thing that is just flat bullshit is, you know, the whole tormented relationship between Henry and Becket, which is the thing the whole film is about.

Like I said, this movie was adapted from a play, and there are some very play-like elements about it. For instance, there are little groups of three to four guys that hang out in most of the scenes: Henry has four drunken barons, Louis VII has like three supercilious French noblemen, there are three scheming cardinals, and the previous archbishop of Canterbury is accompanied by these three charmers:



Weirdly, the French have supercilious English accents, the better to convey their effete snobbery, but the Italians, represented by the Pope and his henchlings, have full-on you-like-a-to-meet-my-cousin-Guiiiiido comedy Italian accents.

It's-a me, Cardinal Mario!

Eeeeey! It’s-a me, Cardinal Mario!

What else? I mean, it’s a well-made movie. O’Toole in particular is playing the role he would go on to play so well in 1968′s The Lion in Winter. So these dudes have their hyper-intense unrequited love story and they just act the absolute fuck out of it. And there’s lots of great location stuff, big spectacular shots like you only get in a proper old Hollywood epic. So that’s nice.

So, yeah. This is a pretty good movie, but boy does it not give two shits about the female characters in it, which considering one of them is Eleanor of Goddamn Aquitaine is coming it pretty high.

Movie Monday: Becket (1964)

All the verisimilitude of an actual hoax

Tuesdays are a good day. I teach a class in the morning, and it is hard work. When I get done I feel relieved and kind of righteous, that pleasant sensation of having done something relatively difficult relatively well. On the way out of the building, there’s a little charity book stall, and I often find something I want to read there, or at least something I want to read enough to spend 50p on it. 

Last week’s acquisition was this: 



It also has a modern edition, which I gather is slightly different. 

Now, I love this type of thing. Everyday records by whoever from whatever period are completely fascinating to me — the little details, the turns of phrase. I love all that stuff. At great length it can get tiresome (see Bird, Isabella) but for a little dip-into-it 50p job like this? Perfect. 

Except it’s a hoax. 

Or at least, it certainly appears to be. And I have to admit that when I opened it up I was like “hey, this Herefordshire dialect is very different from the 18th-century English I’m used to reading.” But then, it might have been, mightn’t it? 

Now, I have to admit that there is no direct evidence to prove it is a hoax. But there’s also no direct evidence that it’s anything else — no one but the person who “transcribed” it ever saw the original, for instance. 

There are several things that are interesting about this thing. First off, the back of the edition I have gives absolutely no impression that there’s anything controversial about it. It just shows the beginning of the text: 

Anne Hughes

her boke

in wiche I write what I doe

Plus the usual blurbs and what have you. But once you get into the introduction, that’s another story. The whole thing is an exercise in trying to claim that this thing might maaaybe be authentic, using the most alarmingly bogus argument ever, i.e. that the author, Jeanne Preston, couldn’t possibly have had the skill to fake something like this. I’m talking the full-on Cottingley Fairies argument. If that’s your go-to argument, you’re in bad trouble. 

But belief in the book isn’t confined to the person writing the intro, who could be argued to have some incentive to believe in it. There’s a whole website devoted to vindicating the Anne Hughes diary, despite the strong reasons for skepticism. Even they don’t think the whole thing’s authentic; they think that Preston transcribed a real document but added her own interpolations, including stuff she invented and stuff that she copied out of other texts (notably the recipes). And there’s a lot more special pleading — so, like, for instance, the dates don’t line up with the year the book is supposed to be for — so maybe it’s for a different year but was mislabeled! There are errors? Well, Jeanne Preston had really bad handwriting! You get the idea. So why, given that they admit Preston falsified the text at least a bit, do they think there’s a real thing in there? 

Many people, foremost among them the Anne Hughes Research Team, believe there is the ‘voice’ of a real person speaking through the pages of this book. It sounds more clearly in the opening sections than it does in other places, but there is a ‘voice’.

There is a voice. 

That’s what we want, after all — to hear the voice of some long-dead person speaking to us (in ways that mostly confirm our prejudices about the period but have just enough surprising material to make us feel the confusion of authenticity, I would say if I were feeling cynical). And I think we’re willing to overlook a lot to hear that individual’s voice. 

Because of course we fall for that “voice” a lot in real life. The people who trick us all have that same voice. He sounded so genuine … 

but if I thought there was a voice, I would be reluctant to give it up too. 

All the verisimilitude of an actual hoax