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.