A brief interruption of service

Hi all, 

The blog is going to go on sporadic-posting mode for the next week or two. Work has gone absolutely crazy, and I’ve got a big event coming up that I need to prepare for. Never fear, I’ll be back; it’s just that other stuff is taking up far too much of my time right now. I will try to do the occasional small post, but no big ones. Never fear; normal service will be resumed shortly. 

A brief interruption of service

Movie Monday: Sign of the Pagan (1954)

Apologies for the lack of posts over the weekend; coming back from a trip, I missed the last train out of London and had to rely on a friend to pick me up. Thanks to her kindness, I did get home eventually, but not until very late at night, so no post on Saturday. Then I spent Sunday preparing for class and, er, sitting around in my pyjamas playing video games.

Anyway, as is the custom of our people, Monday is Movie Monday, and today’s film is 1954’s Sign of the Pagan, a movie I chose on no more recommendation than that it has Jack Palance playing Attila the Hun.



Yeah, you heard me. The first thing that leapt to mind was of course John Arsing Wayne in The Conqueror, but as we will see Palance is not quite so terribly miscast, although there were … interesting wardrobe choices. In fact, this movie is earlier than The Conqueror, which I was not expecting. If it was an inspiration for that crapfest, those guys had better hope the Lord is merciful.

Anyway, as with most of these old historical epics, it’s on YouTube, so you can follow along.

Here we go!

Now, the historical Attila is kind of a murky figure. He played a major role in an eight-volume history by a contemporary writer called Priscus, but unfortunately it was lost, so all we have are references to it from other sources. There’s some disagreement among the textual sources, but the basic outline of Attila’s campaigns against the Roman Empire and/or the Visigoths is clear. However, there’s much we don’t know about the historical Attila, and a lot of legend has sprung up around him.

The film takes an odd approach. Some of the time, it’s writing about the legend, and a lot of the time it’s just doing “for ‘Attila,’ read ‘generic barbarian’ throughout.”

Anyway, we begin with Marcian (utility Western star Jeff Chandler), a Roman soldier of humble origins, later to become the Emperor Marcian (reigned 450-457). In fact, the historical Marcian was originally a soldier of humble origins, although he probably didn’t look like a painted plaster statuette of Julius Caesar like this dipshit does. Marcian gets captured by the Huns while riding to deliver a message that displays a spectacular misunderstanding of what the separation of the Empire into its Eastern and Western halves meant.

The Huns are led by Attila, who …

… who …

Yooou … are my number one … hhhhhhaaaguy ….


… is Jack Palance in brownface.

This is a Bad Idea. Such a bad idea. But we’re not done with the story of this Bad Idea, although I’m not sure I took any pictures of it. Oh wait, I did. See, Attila has a daughter, Kubra (Rita Gam), who is not so bad. She’s like feisty and fierce and stuff, but she’s kind of nice. There is goodness within her. You can tell because:



She’s way whiter than he is. And she’s going to be whiter yet as the film progresses. So, yeah. 1954 won’t let us get through this movie without at least one dispiriting reminder of pervasive racial prejudice.

Aaaanyway, Marcian tricks Kubra into letting him escape, and rides to Constantinople to report in with General Paulinus. Who is a stock General, but he gets a mention here because:

Jeff Morrow!
Jeff Morrow!

It’s Jeff Morrow! Exter from This Island Earth! Look everybody, it’s Jeff Morrow!

The Eastern emperor, Theodosius II, is a cowardly schemer who plots to ally with the Huns and their various barbarian vassals while leaving the Western Empire to its fate. He also bullies his sister, Pulcheria. Now, when I saw this name, I laughed, but Theodosius II did in fact have a sister named Pulcheria, who ruled as regent when he was a kid. So there you go. 





Pulcheria flirts a bit with Marcian, asking him what the women in Rome are wearing and generally setting herself up as the goodie. He gets all flustered because he is a simple soldier and she is a princess; you know the drill. Then Attila turns up, crashing a banquet to which Theodosius has invited a bunch of barbarians with swell hats, and things get complex. Attila and Theodosius strike a deal, Kubra and Marcian flirt some more, and Kubra starts to get concerned with Christianity. Attila and Marcian are opposed to each other, but each honours the other as a plain-speaking, manly tough guy. All clear so far?

It’s a neat little diagram, actually. Kubra is the tragic love interest, Pulcheria is the proper love interest, and Attila is the stab-happy elephant in the room. Attila plans to attack Rome, knowing that Theodosius won’t do anything about it. Marcian suggests warning Rome, but Theodosius has him locked up. Paulinus and Pulcheria spring Marcian, they overthrow Theodosius and all march to the defense of Rome.

Meanwhile, Attila is getting more and more obsessed with prophecies and religion and worrying that the Christian God is going to fuck him up for defying Him. He has a confrontation with Pope Leo I in which Leo scares the shit out of him by knowing about a time one of his pet soothsayers got struck by lightning. He obsesses over a dream in which he died with the shadow of a cross over him. When it turns out that Kubra snitched him out to Leo, he loses his shit and kills her.

Marcian has arrived with his troops to defend Rome, but it turns out not to be necessary, because Attila, crazed with grief, guilt and superstitious terror, has ordered his men to retreat. Marcian and his guys lay an ambush for them, and in the fighting, Ildico, one of Attila’s wives, shanks him up a treat. The result:



Marcian and Pulcheria get married, Rome is saved for another … little while … and goodness triumphs over badness, except for Kubra, but she’s only a girl.

So, the good and the bad: first up, obviously the costumes and sets are pure Hollywood fantasy. I might make an exception for some of the wall paintings, but I have a hunch they’re actually in a later style, although I don’t know enough about Byzantine art to say for certain without looking it up.

haaaaaats beards


Some high-quality hats and beards, though.

Some of the history is kinda-sorta right. Like, for instance, Marcian did get to be emperor by marrying Pulcheria, but the invasion of Italy that Marcian intervened in — and in which Attila encountered Leo I — happened after that, not before it. And, of course, Marcian didn’t come riding to the rescue of Rome directly. He sent troops to menace the Hunnic homeland, possibly causing Attila to fall back to secure his own bases. And all this stuff about Christianity … it’s like The Robe up in this bitch.

What else? It’s weird that Theodosius and Pulcheria both have accents, but pretty much nobody else does. The battle scenes are what you’d expect; lots of guys in minidresses clanking tin swords together. It occurs to me that much of the “historical” aspect of 1950s historical epics is that they’re based on 19th-century novels (in general, rather than always specifically). I was surprised that the story of Honoria wasn’t in there at all, nor the whole thing with Aetius.

Jack Palance as Attila is … pretty good. He doesn’t play him as a “passionate barbarian,” even in the bit where he flirts with / molests Pulcheria. He’s nicely restrained most of the time, even funny and easygoing when it suits him. The dialogue is, as always, ludicrous.

So there you have it: I had no idea this movie existed this morning, so now I am more knowledgeable, if not exactly wiser. I hope you are too.

Movie Monday: Sign of the Pagan (1954)

I Love Fake History, Part I: Motel of the Mysteries

At the recent Monstrous Antiquities conference, I was talking to some of my fellow attendees about fake history and how much I like it. By fake history in this context, I’m referring not to frauds or hoaxes, but to non-narrative works of fiction which purport to be historical documents. I have talked about this before on the blog in my completely gobsmacked post about the fake history book about the Archers that came out. 

Sometimes this comes up in a gaming context, I guess because there’s some utility to this kind of document in gaming terms … but not as much as you might think. The classic example is probably Greg Stafford’s masterful King of Sartar, a collection of jumbled and enigmatic letters, sagas and historical texts relating to the life of the possibly mythical Argrath. However, although I’ve personally had a lot of use from this book at the gaming table, I think that the parts that are useful — the backgroundy stuff about Heortling society — and the parts that are compelling — the mysterious debate surrounding the existence or otherwise of the historical Argrath — are almost completely different. However, I’m not here today to talk about Glorantha. You can tell because I have other plans for the evening. 

What I do want to talk about is Motel of the Mysteries. This is my shit right here. It’s a 1979 book by David Macaulay about some future archaeologists excavating and interpreting a motel from the “modern” era (and again, you get that thing where you have a modern era which is now 35 years in the past, so even then there’s another weird layer happening). It is told with tongue firmly in cheek and is beautifully illustrated.



Like, check out this reconstruction of one of the burial chambers. Or this image of someone wearing one of the headdresses found at the site: 


 In order to understand why I love it so much, you have to understand my relationship with the works of David Macaulay. When I was a kid, David Macaulay was producing a lot of great educational works: big, lavishly-illustrated black and white books about the creation of ancient and medieval buildings. There was Castle and Pyramid and Cathedral and so on, and they had lots of cutaway illustrations, which always seemed to exercise a particular fascination for me when I was young. 


I love that sort of thing. 

Anyway, some of them were also made into a series of programs for PBS, which was the main TV that was watched in young James’s household back in the 80s. Starring Macaulay and Sarah Bullen as themselves, these things combined a little documentary (mainly aimed at younger viewers) with an animated story, often including the voices of notable British character actors. For instance, Castle has Brian Blessed narrating. I think they actually hold up pretty well, but you can judge for yourself!

I’m sure there are some inaccuracies and they’re a bit outdated now, but I still have a lot of love. And I think the mixture of fact and fiction is very effective, much more effective than in most things that try to do it. 

Now, most of these postdate Motel of the Mysteries, but I didn’t really encounter them until they were all already out, and then I ran into the historical ones first. Because they were cartoons about the middle ages on PBS in the 80s, obviously; I have probably seen Castle 12 times, and I had the book too. I think the others came from the library. Come to that, I think I checked out the video of Cathedral from the public library on VHS not long after my wife and I started dating, probably slightly perplexing her. 

So for me, then, David Macaulay’s art was what historical stuff looked like. And when this weird-ass, mysterious, humorous archaeology thing with such spot-on illustration — which was also kind of a sci-fi story, since obviously it’s set in the future, even if only nominally — swam into my ken, I was hooked. 



It sits on my bookshelf even today, and occasionally I just take it out and look at the pictures. Such a strange thing to exist. Well worth taking a look at. 


I Love Fake History, Part I: Motel of the Mysteries

Personal reminiscences of no interest to people who aren’t me

So, as you may recall, I wrote on Monday about Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and how kind of weird it is that the “modern” bit seems so dated — more dated, in its way, then the faux-historical sections. It made me think of this article, linked by a friend on G+, which shows the shopping malls of the 1980s. The passage of time is remarkably visible in a way that it isn’t when viewed continuously. No surprises there, of course, but still interesting to see.

I have no larger point, except that I have been reading a lot lately about the 1980s, largely as part of hobby-nostalgia. In fact, though, it’s the nostalgia of an age cohort slightly older than me, for a perceived golden age from about 1983 to 1989. I got into the hobby in about 1992, so by the time I encountered these things they were already memory-laden. I received them at second hand, in fragments, in an aura of used-book-smelling mystery, or, in one memorable case, in a giant cardboard box on my doorstep.

There is something always intriguing to me about old and fragmentary things; if you’ve read any of the vague, rambling personal posts on this blog you’ll know that I’ve spoken about it before. When I was a kid, comic books and roleplaying games and Doctor Who gave me that hit, and so did history and good writing. And then I studied archaeology; big surprise there.

Tomorrow I promise something more like actual content. Tonight it is late and soon it will be my bedtime.

Personal reminiscences of no interest to people who aren’t me

Movie Monday: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

You remember when I said that Movie Monday was going to be about movies that were allegedly based on historical events? I lied. There comes a time when it’s one-thirty in the morning and you’re staring dully at a Steve Reeves movie about the Battle of Marathon that you have to ask yourself what you’re doing with your life. (Mind you, it might still be on next week.)

In short, then, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. 



And if you are interested in some nostalgia (or, what the hell is wrong with you, haven’t seen it) you can follow along here:

OK, so.

First, a personal note. I was 11 and living in California in 1989, so some aspects of this film are very familiar to me, although I lived in Northern California, not Southern California where the movie is set. In fact, to begin with I wasn’t aware that the way the two main characters talked was meant to be funny, because every guy I went to school with talked like that. (Not every, but enough.) In fact, this may very well just have meant that all my school friends had seen the movie before I had and were imitating it; I am pretty sure I only saw it later on television or video, although it can’t have been that much later just judging by my memories of it.

Anyway, the plot is simple: two amiable dolts, in order to avoid failing their history class, go around history rounding up famous people and dragging them back to San Dimas, California in 1988. There’s a bit more to it, but basically the comedy comes in two halves: you start with the two modern idiots not knowing what to do in a variety of historical settings, then switch to historical idiots not knowing what to do in a modern setting. It’s pretty funny.

Because Bill and Ted are charmed fools, watched out for by a benevolent time-traveller, Rufus (George Carlin) and because their basic natures are free from vice, they actually do OK in history, where all good people they encounter know that they’re good. This plot device is rather like how Doctor Who works. And, in fact, as in Doctor Who, it sometimes seems that Bill and Ted don’t visit history, but movies — so, for instance, their trip to the Old West is really a trip to a Western: a saloon, a poker game, a bar fight, a chase and away. There are a few (but not many) little meta references in this bit, for instance:



There are also some clever little gags about the way that Bill and Ted study history — and not just that they’re oafs, but that their class is all focused on certain types of people. Like, the moment they arrive in medieval England, they run into a bunch of labouring serfs, look right at them and say “Excuse me! Do you know where there are any personages of historical significance around here?”

Historical significance is for ballers only.
Historical significance is for ballers only.

So that’s pretty funny. Anyway, they run around collecting people — Joan of Arc, Socrates, Beethoven, Freud, Abraham Lincoln, Billy the Kid, Napoleon and Genghis Khan.

I know I said that the Billy the Kid set is clearly a film set, but by contrast the medieval set is clearly a museum, with rows of armour standing on display.


I’m a little concerned about Genghis Khan. On the one hand, he’s played by Al Leong, and I approve of movies that have Al Leong in them:

However, when they see Genghis Khan, he’s like eating a giant piece of chicken and groping a serving girl, and he is greeeezy. Now, I’m not denying that, it being the middle ages, Genghis Khan would have been greasy as hell by modern standards. But everyone else in this film is nice and clean, so why is Genghis so foul? And why does he have a big-ass comedy barbarian club? They lure him with a Twinkie, and he goes grunting and panting after them. Hmmm.

If you threw a match, they would light up.
If you threw a match, they would light up.

Still, I love this movie. I mean, it’s stupid as hell, but it’s a little clever about how stupid it is. The bit where the guys try to pretend that the visiting historical personages are just their friends (“uh … Maxine of Arc … Herman the Kid … Bob Genghiskhan … So-crates Johnson, Dennis Frood, and, uh … Abraham Lincoln”) and Missy just smiles and nods is great. Likewise the fact that they consistently treat “The Kid” and “of Arc” as if they were those characters’ last names.

I think what I wasn’t prepared for watching this was how much of a period piece it is itself. Obviously, the gag is “historical people in the modern day / modern people in history” but this movie’s “modern day” is 25 years ago, and it’s very, very of its time. There’s a big aerobics scene, Missy has one of those headset radios, the band references, of course … it’s set around a culture whose defining locations are the mall and the water park. It is very late-80s. So there’s an added weird feeling of detachment, like this movie that is full of jokes about history and modernity is now about history and history. Which I guess is the fate of all such documents; no one thinks A Connecticut Yankee is like a scathing satire of modern mores or whatever.


Movie Monday: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Free Stuff Friday! (I am aware that it is Sunday)

So, I meant to post this on Friday but I ran out of time. Never mind: Friday’s loss is Sunday’s gain! I proclaim it Free Stuff Friday, the day on which I talk about things that are both good and free and which are related to history.

This week’s free history stuff, at least for me, has been related to my shiny new Kindle, for which all sorts of free crap is available. I believe there are various Kindle apps, so you can read .mobi files on whatever, so even if you aren’t in tiresome love with a new device you can read these things. My current list includes such gems of 19th-century relevance as:

  • Chapters in the History of the Insane in the British Isles
  • Old English Sports, Pastimes and Customs
  • Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson
  • The History, Manufacture and Religious Symbolism of the Scarabaeus, in Ancient Egypt, Phoenicia, Sardinia, Etruria, etc.
  • The Life and Adventures of Nat Love Better Known in the Cattle Trade as Deadwood Dick
  • The Mormon Menace
  • The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy

So yeah, if you have access to a Kindle app or Kindle and you like obscure 19th-century historical narratives, you could do a lot worse than to go to the Kindle store, select “history” and sort from £0 up.

The second thing, and one that I’ve talked about before, is The Appendix.  I have only been reading this little online history journal for a little while, but I am in love with any publication that includes a history of tattoo removal and a discussion of the 17th-century porn-educational tract The School of Venus. (Not safe for work, which is not bad for the 17th century)

My question to you is: what is your favourite free history thing? I know there’s a lot of great material out there on the web that I don’t know about, so share the ones you like the most with me. What should I have seen that I haven’t seen? Answer in the comments below, and the best answer will receive a Gonzo History prize pack full of … well, full of cheap junk. But hey, who doesn’t like prizes?


Free Stuff Friday! (I am aware that it is Sunday)

Sphinxes and Superheroes again

OK, so I know I said that I’d do the giveaway today, but I may be running out of time — it may come later or even tomorrow. Never mind, eh? Here are a few pictures from the sadly no-longer-with-us Marvel kids’ cartoon The Superhero Squad, showing that the fascination with the Sphinx continues.

Here, Hulk is battling Hyperion (yeah, Hyperion from the Squadron Supreme. Basically, we live in a permanent state of being inside the rabbit hole now).

The battle inside the Sphinx creates clouds of dust.
The battle inside the Sphinx creates clouds of dust.
Hulk goes flying out. I can't believe I saw this.
Hulk goes flying out. I can’t believe I saw this.
He comes up with some jaunty new headgear.
He comes up with some jaunty new headgear.
Technically, this is Hyperion's eyebeams coming out of the Sphinx, not the Sphinx having eyebeams.
Technically, this is Hyperion’s eyebeams coming out of the Sphinx, not the Sphinx having eyebeams.

Anyway, when I saw the Sphinx I was just reminded of the Monstrous Antiquities conference and thought I’d throw these pictures up here. More tonight if I get a minute.


Sphinxes and Superheroes again

Archaeological themes in Skyrim: 4

OK, so over the last few posts I’ve talked about my overall impression of the way archaeology works in Skyrim (and in Skyrim, if you see what I mean). I’ve specifically looked at the cases of Saarthal and Nchuand-Zel, but there are a few other things I want to mention before moving on to general conclusions. The first is that for a pseudo-medieval kingdom, Skyrim has got a lot of museums and educational institutions. In addition to the College of Winterhold, there’s a bards’ college in Solitude, which has a Professor of History and everything. And one of the very first plots you do when you join the College (after going down a dungeon and killing some monsters, obviously) is to falsify an ancient verse, on the grounds that a) it’s not in a modern enough style, b) it’s incomplete anyway, and c) by monkeying with it you can persuade the Jarl of Solitude to favour your side in an argument. That is some pretty sophisticated sociopolitical shenanigans for a fetch quest!

The head of the College finds the verse unsatisfactory.
The head of the College finds the verse unsatisfactory.

There’s a little museum in Windhelm, and it’s great — it’s basically a wunderkammer, full of weird items, both natural curiosities (including valuable alchemical reagents) and historical artefacts (like Ysgramor’s Soup Spoon, which is actually a fork). Although it’s partly meant to be a joke, it plays an important role in setting up its proprietor as an expert on antiques, which comes up in a plot, and as a harmless eccentric, which is a fakeout. He even talks about he was once an adventurer like you, but now contemplating these items is how he relives his glory days.

There are quite a lot of skulls, now that you mention it.
There are quite a lot of skulls, now that you mention it.

I’ve already mentioned the Dwemer Museum in Markarth, but I think it makes an interesting example — it is much more a proper museum, run by officials, patrolled by guards and full of valuable objects. I am given to understand that later on I’ll be asked to carry out a heist.



Lastly, there’s a tiny museum in Dawnstar, which is no more than a few display cases in this guy’s house. It is … odd. The museum celebrates a cult who worshipped Mehrunes Dagon, the main baddie in the previous game, Oblivion. Its proprietor wants to send you on some fetch quests with an obvious ulterior motive. I suspect a hammer-murdering lies in his future. So once again I’m struck by the diversity of the portrayals of archaeology and memory in this setting.



And this ties right in with one of the two main plotlines of the game, the war between the Stormcloaks and the Empire. Unlike in some similar games (say, Fallout: New Vegas), the conflict between the two factions is very complex and subtle in its differences. It’s very possible to find yourself sympathising with both sides. After leading an Imperial attack on Fort Dunstad, I felt genuinely remorseful for the killing — the game makes it clear that the Stormcloaks are, in their way, no less idealistic and patriotic than their Imperial counterparts. Each faction has its flaws — General Tullius, the Imperial commander, is a callous bigot, while Ulfric, the leader of the Stormcloaks, is an ambitious self-seeker. The Empire is flawed and authoritarian; the Stormcloaks are provincial and exclusionary. And all of this centres around their views of their own history. As far as the Stormcloaks are concerned, by turning their back on the worship of Talos, the god who was once a man, the Empire has violated Skyrim’s culture, a culture that is always talked about in terms of the ancestral, heroic dead. Same goes for the Empire: Skyrim has always been part of the Empire, Skyrim will always remain part of the Empire. Each side has its own version of a patriotic song condemning the other; although they differ in several verses, both contain the line “we’re the sons of Skyrim.” But everywhere you go, the history you encounter, whether from books or from archaeology, tells you that things are much more complex than that.

One of the really nice things about the game is that the setting’s history — as expressed in the previous games in the series — actually sees a lot of societal change. For instance, the Five Hundred Companions were once the warriors who fought for Ysgramor, basically Skyrim’s equivalent of the knights of the Round Table. Now the organisation is little better than a gang of mercenaries with an unpleasant secret. But they still collect artefacts to do with Ysgramor, including the hull of one of his ships, Jorrvaskr, and the fragments of his axe, Wuuthrad. You have to wonder if this is a way of bolstering their image as Ysgramor’s heirs in the face of their apparent diminution in the modern day. Similarly, another organisation in the game, the Blades, appear in Oblivion and the previous games as a noble order of warriors and agents who serve the Emperor, but turn up in Skyrim as a hunted secret society, on the run from the victorious Thalmor. 

This level of change in the “modern” setting is reflected in the history. Empires have risen and fallen, whole cultures have vanished or been exterminated. The Nords’ claim to being the people of Skyrim is contested, as you learn by exploring their tombs and the tombs of the societies that came before them — not to mention getting talked at by some of their victims. In fact, almost every group’s view of its own history is slightly off in some way. 

The thing that interests me the most about this is that this is very unlike how history and archaeology are treated in most fantasy literature. I’m not saying that history isn’t complex in some fantasy, because obviously it can be bewilderingly complex, but that it isn’t usually treated as this shifting and contentious thing. It’s usually the answer to a question, instead of the thing that raises questions. This is, probably not coincidentally, how history was viewed by the writers of the 19th-century adventure fiction that inspired a lot of fantasy authors. But in Skyrim, the legendary past is contested and mysterious, and there are a lot of people in the setting actively trying to manipulate it for their own ends. I think that’s very unusual in fantasy fiction and fantasy gaming, and I think the fact in Skyrim is worthy of mention. 


Archaeological themes in Skyrim: 4

Archaeological themes in Skyrim: 3

OK, yesterday we talked about the archaeological storyline in Skyrim that takes you to Saarthal, which is (nerd hat on) an abandoned Nord city from the Merethic period. As we saw, the plot is your basic dungeon malarkey, but there are a few sly comments in there that make it particularly interesting.

We now turn to the next (or maybe the first, since you can do the quests in Skyrim more or less in whatever order you like, or not do some of them at all, or whatever) archaeological storyline. This one is set in the west of Skyrim, in the Reach. The capital city of the Reach is Markarth, a town very unlike other Nord cities.



Nice, eh? That fancy architecture with the bronze domes tells us that Markarth is not actually built by the Nords. In fact, it occupies a city built by the Dwemer, or Dwarves, and abandoned long ago when that race just sort of … mysteriously disappeared. There are areas of it that still haven’t been explored, and one of these is the vast complex underneath the city, Nchuand-Zel.

You find the Nchuand-Zel excavation by talking to the court wizard, a guy called Calcelmo. Talking to the court wizard is something you do when you arrive in any new town in Skyrim, in my case because I’ve been murdering wizards with my hammer and taking their clothes, and the court wizard is a good way to turn those clothes into profit.

Calcelmo is an interesting example of the way scholars get characterised in Skyrim: as we saw in the last one, they’re often portrayed as sort of absent-minded, but Calcelmo adds a streak of callousness. I’ll explain later. In any event, he grumbles at you if you ask to see the excavation, but in the end he lets you go in if you agree to kill a big spider that’s lurking in there. Once you’ve done that, you find a dead member of the previous expedition and Calcelmo tasks you with going in to find what became of them. Predictably, they are all dead, and you find their various journals and stuff, fight the usual bunch of monsters (with extra cleverness, because there are actually two lots of enemies, who can be induced to fight each other) and come back. When you come back, Calcelmo pays you with the money he was going to pay the guys who died.




Like all Dwemer cities, Nchuand-Zel looks absolutely gorgeous, and it’s a huge amount of fun prowling around it picking off the foul-looking baddies, the Falmer (a former slave race to the Dwemer who didn’t disappear when their masters did. The common -mer element in Dwemer and Falmer, incidentally, is the same as the “mer” in “Merethic,” above).

The dead members of the expedition are where the archaeological content really gets interesting. Each of them kept a journal, and their notes are more than the prosaic series of clues you might expect. The four members of the expedition (apart from some soldiers who were guarding them) were Erj, Krag, Stromm and Staubin.

  • Staubin’s notes include a sort of general introduction to the expedition and are useful to locate the others. He expresses regret at the deaths of his students and talks about how “I have to bring this place back to life.” Clearly Staubin’s is a restoration-not-conservation guy.
  • Krag is the guy I think I would be if I were excavating the ruins of an ancient city. He writes: “It’s only been a day and I already miss my desk and chair. I thought it would be a little more fun to explore, but so far it’s just been fighting spiders and getting to view an occasional rubble pile. Hopefully we get to the main room soon so we can set up a camp and I can start cataloguing some of the items I’ve been able to find.”
  • Erj is the scoundrel of the bunch: he appears to have been scheming to skim off some of the artefacts found by the expedition and sell them to “a private collector” known to Krag.
  • Stromm is the one whose writing contains the most actual archaeology: he describes what he believes to be the function of the rooms he died defending, a set of what appear to be living quarters. In the centre of the area is a tree, which is bizarrely out of place in the stone and metal environment of Nchuand-Zel. Stromm speculates about what it might be, but can’t say for certain. I don’t think the tree is ever explained, but it resembles the Gildergreen, a tree which grows in the city of Whiterun and which is considered sacred to the goddess Kynareth.

Again, we see how the archaeological storyline is both just an excuse for a more-or-less standard dungeon run and something a little more. We have diverse motives and attitudes among the archaeologists, and some recognition of the idea of an illicit artefact trade. Indeed, there is a museum of Dwemer artefacts in Markarth, but the player is more likely to be interested in Dwemer antiquities because some of them can be melted down to manufacture weapons and armour, or indeed resold, which puts the player character more in sympathy with Erj!

Next: heritage in Skyrim, or what this all might mean.

Archaeological themes in Skyrim: 3

Archaeological Themes in Skyrim: 2

I am reliably informed that if I took a look at some of the expansions for Skyrim, I would discover even more archaeology in them. However, since I’ve been playing this game for the equivalent of several days of my life and haven’t even got halfway through it yet, I think the chances of my downloading more of it are pretty slight. Also I just started playing XCOM. But that’s a side point.

So far, I’ve found two actual archaeological excavations in Skyrim. These are at Saarthal, near Winterhold, and Nchuand-Zel, underneath the city of Markarth. I’m going to begin with Saarthal, as it’s the simplest of the pair, and I’ll talk about Nchuand-Zel tomorrow or whenever.

So, Saarthal. There are two (at least two) ways to get into Saarthal. One is a plot in which you go around looking for fragments of this lost amulet. It is a bit tiresome; you go into a tomb full of traps and undead, beat a guy, take his amulet, repeat. Once you have all the bits of the amulet, you take them somewhere else, fight all three guys, and you’re done. What’s interesting about one of the tombs, Saarthal, is that when you get there you can’t get in because the doors are locked. In fact, the whole place (it’s part of a larger ruined city) is locked down because it is part of an archaeological excavation.



This is the sight you see as you arrive. The crumbling buildings have been scaffolded, new steps have been built, and that little enclosure on the left is full of expedition supplies. The shelves you can see there are full of ancient burial urns, apparently excavated and waiting to be catalogued. They can be plundered of their offerings. The barrels are full of food.

Now, leaving aside the usual videogamey question of why a giant oaf carrying a magic hammer capable of killing a bear with one blow can’t batter down a thousand-year-old door, you’re left at a bit of a loss for what to do here. At least, I was, because the aforesaid giant oaf didn’t seem like a natural fit for a college that teaches you to be a wizard. But eventually I went there and they accepted me despite my obvious lack of aptitude. Once you’ve gone through some introductory courses, been shown your room in the dorms (I am not making any of this up), and met your fellow students, you get taken on a field trip to Saarthal.

You go on, and you and your fellow students are tasked to exist various different wizards who are engaged in the excavation.



(This is the library in the College of Winterhold, by the way. It is staffed by a brutish orc who threatens you with grisly murder if you mess with his books but is apparently OK with the students drinking wine at the library tables. I suppose they’re fellows and he can’t do anything about it.)

Now, once you get deep inside Saarthal, it loses its archaeological flavour and becomes just another D&D-lite dungeon, with traps and puzzles and a series of savage hammer-beatings for anyone or anything foolish enough to get in your way. So I’m going to focus on the very beginning.

One of the things that I did think was interesting is that your fellow students have very different reactions to arriving at the site. One of them asks you “do you think there is gold here?” which is, in fact, a question that has been asked by many arriving at a dig site in the real world. So fair play there. The guy you get sent to work for, Arniel Gane, is grumbling about having to work on the excavation instead of doing his own research, and when you find him he’s slacking off reading a book. His dialogue includes lines like “Well, certainly none of this will benefit my research,”  “I’ll be amazed if we find anything useful here,” and “It’s going to take forever to sift through all this.”

Now, this is foreshadowing — Arniel is working on some secret, apparently unauthorised, research. But I really like the little jokes and side-points that undercut some archaeology cliche. In this case, the abstracted, awkward scholar, usually the guy who’s super-keen on doing some digging, thinks the whole thing is a bit of a waste of time. It’s rather clever, and there’s going to be a lot more of it in Nchuand-Zel, which I’ll talk about tomorrow. Probably.

As for Saarthal itself, the teacher who leads you there also gives you a bit of a potted history of the place — there’s a lot of this kind of thing in Skyrim. You can more or less ignore it, but it ties seamlessly into a dozen other little history lessons found lying around the setting, either in stories about locations or in books that you can find. (Stocking the bookshelves in my several residences is one of my favourite pastimes, which again is just like real life except for the “several residences” part.) Saarthal was once settled by the legendary king Ysgramor, but was wiped out by hostile Snow Elves, sparking a counter-genocide by Ysgramor and his followers (the evocatively-named Five Hundred Companions) which has consequences well into the time of the game. But I’ll talk about Skyrim’s attitude to history in general in post number 4.


Archaeological Themes in Skyrim: 2