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

Movie Monday: Agora (2009)

One of the assignments in my history class is to write an article on a single individual from ancient Greece, Rome or Egypt: this comes early in the year when we’re dealing with the ancient world. Because there’s so much out there about Julius Caesar or whoever, I try always to put a little extra effort into providing some female choices. Even so, it isn’t easy; I always get like six essays every year about Cleopatra, presumably because female students who want to write about a woman from history (and before you get all huffy, the male students always write about men but no one makes a big deal out of it) don’t have too many options in terms of sources they can easily access.

Which brings me to Hypatia of Alexandria, another popular choice. I suspect she’s popular largely because of this film, which some of them may have seen.



So, anyway, this movie is about the said Hypatia (Rachel Weisz, as you can see), and more generally about the conflict between paganism and Christianity in the Roman empire of the 4th century. There are some historical inaccuracies, for sure, but I think this film has some elements that make it well worth seeing.

Sadly, this might mean that my review will not be very funny.

Anyway, so we have Hypatia, who is a philosopher and mathematician. She has an indulgent old father, an ambitious young suitor and a slave who loves her from afar. Religious tensions between Christians and pagans lead to violence, in which her various supporting characters wind up on various sides. This culminates in the destruction of the library of Alexandria. We flash forward a couple of years, and now the main conflict is between Christians and Jews. Hypatia is continuing to puzzle out how a heliocentric universe is working, which translates into various philosophical malarkey about “the centre.” And then it all goes wrong.

Now, my perspective on this is mainly as a historical film, but I should say that it has the problem common to almost all films about science and mathematics, which is that the process of doing math is not exactly very visual. So the story is told in a series of sudden flashes of insight, which is not, as I understand it, how things really work. On the other hand, philosophers of the ancient world did continually use mathematical or scientific theory to prove bullshit aesthetic or philosophical points. So that goofball movie tradition is actually in the right place.

One of the things that’s interesting here is that some of the weirdest incidents in the whole thing are true, or at least based on the surviving sources. Like, there’s a bit where Orestes, Hypatia’s suitor, basically does a big awkward-funny proposal scene in the best rom-com tradition, and she responds by handing him a handkerchief with her menstrual blood on it to highlight the unpleasant reality of carnal desires — this story comes from a later Byzantine source, but still.

The casting in this movie is great. Davus, who starts out the film as Hypatia’s young slave, looks perfect — like, he could be one of those Hellenistic mummy portraits I talked about earlier. Ammonius, the head bad guy monk, is dressed in ragged robes and given a scruffy beard, long hair (originally) and an accent, the better to code him as Al Qaeda.



It’s not the first time this image has been used — Harry Turtledove deployed it effectively, for instance — but the film then immediately throws a change-up, with Ammonius helping impressionable new recruit Davus to go around feeding the hungry and caring for the wretched. He also has a sense of humour which I think is actually pretty plausible for a cult leader.

I think my favourite thing about the film is that Hypatia has the prejudices of her class. Like, when the aforementioned Davus is standing by, listening in on her lecture, two of her students get into a religious quarrel. She quickly shuts them down, and then proclaims that they are all equals, and should never quarrel. Because quarreling is only for slaves and riff-raff. When Davus finally flips the fuck out, you can see how society’s bullshit — specifically including Hypatia’s bullshit — has turned him into the late antique equivalent of a bomb-throwing radical.

There are some historical inaccuracies — I’m not convinced by those legionaries, for instance — and there are some elements that seem to be largely made-up, like the whole idea of Hypatia investigating the idea of a heliocentric cosmos and discovering elliptical orbits, which is more what you might call a metaphor. So, yeah, there are a lot of fluffy dates and a lot extremely dodgy science and philosophy. But it contains things that are good to think, which I approve of.

Criticism of this film, and the discussions surrounding it, have centred mainly on the question of whether it does or doesn’t condemn Christianity. (There is a highly fictionalised burning-the-library-of-Alexandria moment, for instance, and the whole Christians-as-late-antique-Al-Qaeda thing.) I’m not sure this is quite right; the Christians are shown as being pretty divided about how much of a pack of bastards it is necessary to be, a fact that is also reflected in the sources.

I will say this: for a pretty good film, this movie has a pretty crap first ten minutes. There’s a bunch of waffly philosophy and a completely gratuitous butt shot. Like, it couldn’t be more uncalled for. I think they’re trying to point out that Hypatia considers the slaves not to be people at all, so she doesn’t mind being naked around them? But when I saw that, I was like “oh dear, we’re in for it.” I turned out to be wrong.

So anyway, yeah. I thought it was worth it.

Movie Monday: Agora (2009)

Monstrous Antiquities: Wrap-up

So, there you have it. The four posts below sum up my experience of the conference, and they are full of links and goodness.

As for me, obviously I had a great time. Like I said, I am still trying to get the lid back on my head. This may be because the things I’ve been thinking about recently have been largely Victorian adventure and horror fiction as well as comic books and so on. I think I may be doing that thing that we all do when we reach a certain age where we attempt to locate ourselves within the general progress of Western culture. It’s like when you realise that Jack Kirby was a genius and Roy Lichtenstein was … not. Or that wargame miniatures draw on the vocabulary of monumental sculpture. Or … something.

I’m not making sense, which is probably because it’s late. I guess what I’m saying is that for me (and probably for no one else; I’m just an outsider to the topic) the conference really showed me the ways in which archaeology and art and folklore and occultism and charlatanism and quackery are all bound up with each other. And that isn’t necessarily weird — there was a book some years ago now about the influence of archaeology on Seamus Heaney, and if it’s influencing modern poetry then why can’t it be influencing video games? Blah blah blah everything is interconnected. Maybe that’s it.

I think that for me personally the history/archaeology impulse and the sci-fi/horror/nerdery impulse are very closely linked, in the sense that they are connected to my love of incompleteness and systems and the feeling of being on the borders of the unknown. That’s why I always like things that are weird and fragmentary and marginal.

As for the conference itself, it was brilliant. I liked that it was thematically tight enough that the papers wound up commenting on and tying into each other (especially the Egyptology ones) and that it was still broad enough to admit a lot of very diverse papers. It felt like a sweet spot to me. I thought the Petrie film night was fantastic, and I would have loved to have seen more of that kind of thing, although maybe not more 90-minute films. But surely there must be some way to work in, I don’t know, an art show or a field trip or something? Not necessarily this conference, I just mean in general. But if people want it to be this conference that would be fine too. I’m just saying the variety was great. Crowd was good, conversations were good, and there wasn’t one paper where I went “uff, I’m just sitting through this one.” And that’s a one-track conference. I’ve been to conferences where I was in a session that was entirely about my specialist field and found myself thinking “I have no idea why I’m listening to this.” Not that a paper is bad necessarily, just that it says nothing to me. But not here.

I’ve thanked everyone already, I think, but I know that doing a gig like that is a lot of work, so, you know, thanks again to the organisers, to the other speakers, to the volunteers, and to you, reader, for coming along to the blog to read about it. I hope you stick around. Not to be a shill or anything, but there’s a contest on Friday and you could win some inexpensive prizes. I’m just saying.

Monstrous Antiquities: Wrap-up

Monstrous Antiquities: 4

All right. It’s Friday night, I’ve got a glass of fancy gin I bought in a fit of prosperity, and I’ve got nine, count ’em, nine papers to get through tonight. Can I do it? Let’s find out!

Jasmine Day was also talking about mummies “as travelling companions,” but as she could not be present the paper was read by Tina Paphitis in a Jasmine Day costume. I am completely serious. She talked about the idea that the mummy represents some aspect of colonial guilt in horror fiction. A lot of this tied effectively into Ellie Dobson’s paper from the previous day. I enjoyed her montage of similarly-attired high priest characters from mummy films. Apparently it sometimes happened that mummies travelling on ships were blamed for storms or other bad happenings. I kind of liked the analogy she made between the high priest bringing the mummy to Britain or America and the image of people smuggling in a dirty bomb. Interestingly, vampires and Frankenstein could play the same monster-as-WMD role, but the Creature from the Black Lagoon could not.

Next up was George Richards, who was talking about Ancient Egypt in comics and cartoons: specifically, the Tintin adventure Cigars of the Pharaoh, Silver Age appearances of the Sphinx, and, my hand to god, Thundercats.

I got really wound during this talk because I was internally asking myself why Mumm-Ra was blue, and the only answer I could come up with was “Skeletor is blue,” and that’s a Fred Hoyle question, because it only punts the question back one: why was Skeletor blue? I asked Allison and she said “because he’s undead,” like that should somehow be obvious. Oh well.

And now, comics in which the Sphinx has death rays:

wwandru113 Kane


If you have not read a lot of Silver Age Superman comics, by the way, you don’t know what you are missing. They are, how you say, hopping mentile.

The thing that occurred to me during this talk was that Metamorpho had an Egyptian-style origin, maybe the only Silver Age hero to do so. I like Metamorpho.

One comment I really appreciated here was that comic artists seem to really like Egypt, visually. The art is instantly recognisable, the style is distinctive and can be imitated, and Egyptian art is even comic-book-like in a way that, say, Roman art isn’t.

OK, next up: author James Goss talked about the theory and practice of eternal curses. Now, through no fault of his, a lot of this paper — or what I got out of it at least — was a little similar to Dobson and Day. At least the first half. The second half took off a bit more, although I have my doubts about one aspect of his analysis. He was reading out some curses found on actual tombs on Wikipedia and then comparing them to the complete text in order to show how they had been “sexed up” to bolster the case for curses — he called actual Egyptian curses “disappointingly tame.” I wasn’t convinced — one line of a curse he quoted is “further, I shall seize his neck like a bird.” That sounds bad. I do not want to have my neck seized like a bird. I mentioned this after the conference to one of the Egyptology types there and he said “oh yeah, the Egyptians loved seizing necks” or words to that effect.

I wondered if the dungeon trap didn’t come from the literary trope of mechanical traps in Egyptian tombs.

Then there was a break.

Right, next up was Joanna Paul, with “The city disinterred: confronting the uncanny at Pompeii”. I am not a classicist, but I did go recently to see the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibit and furthermore I chose an image from Pompeii as the cover for the volume of ARC I co-edited with Ali Klevnas. 


So there was a lot of good stuff here, and I was particularly struck by the way the casts are displayed at Pompeii — right in the middle of houses or other rooms, sometimes apparently at random. At the British Museum they way they did it was to leave the casts right until the end, so that you walked through the “rooms” of the Roman house before coming face-to-face with the dead. It was interesting. In one way, it was much more shocking, because you experienced the bodies as people rather than curiosities, but in another way you could argue that it was sanitised, since the bodies are kept separated from the house.

There were a lot of interesting points in this talk. I was particularly fascinated by the point that there are very few Pompeii ghost stories. The dead there are very material — but the living can be kind of ethereal, as in the display that reproduces Julius Polybius and his family as holograms. Interesting. Veeeeeeery interesting. Obviously, as a burials guy, I was particularly interested in this point, but also just … you’re looking at a frozen image of the moment of someone’s agonising early death. As Michael Shaara might have put it, “a fellow needs some privacy at a time like that.”

Next up, Gabe Moshenska talked about M.R. James and his excavations at Bury Abbey. Gabe delivered this in costume also, in this case dressed as a spook or possibly phantasm. This he tied in to “Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad,” a story that gave me the whimwhams one late and lonely night in Cambridge about 11 years ago.

For all that James was basically an “antiquarian fusser,” he did do some field work — on a dig in Cyprus in 1887-8, and at the chapter house Bury in 1902-3. There wasn’t much of this excavation published, sadly, but Gabe pointed out some ways that it could have served as an influence on two of his stories, “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” and the aforementioned “Oh Whistle.” Gabe pointed out the way in which the latter story is also an attempt to take the sheet-ghost and make it scary. That actually never occurred to me at the time, which I think indicates that it succeeded. One other interesting thing he pointed out was that although James himself was a medievalist, his monsters are usually more modern than his field would suggest. “You need familiarity for horror.”

Closing out the session was Caterina Minnitti, talking about the presentation of ancient Egypt in video games. Now, when you do something like this, you sometimes wind up just cataloguing the obvious absurdities, and there was a certain amount of that. Take a look at this guy, for instance:


Crocodile with a laser on his head! That’s both magnificent and idiotic at the same time.

Now, that’s obviously in a game that has strong magical elements (Age of Mythology). But one that that she pointed out that I thought was very interesting was that even in games that are ostensibly mainly historical, Egypt is where the weird shit is located. “Orientalism is alive and well in video games,” she said, but also pointed out that in many ways this was an idea with roots that stretch right back into the period being discussed. For example, she quoted Herodotus as saying that Egypt had “the most wonders.” Greece and Rome are, you know, political, military, economic, and Egypt always winds up being somehow mystical. There are certain nations that we tend to have a habit of thinking of as particularly spiritual — I’m thinking Tibet here, or even India in general — and I guess this was the case for Egypt.

But seriously, video games! At this point I was seeing Aegypt everywhere. I think there’s going to be a post on the Skyrim thing next week.

So then it was lunch. Am I gonna go for it? Yes I am.

Coming back, we led off with Katy Soar on “There’s something about Nodens: statues and survivals in the works of Arthur Machen.” This was mainly about The Great God Pan and “The White People,” and it was interesting. Apparently the identification of Nodens as “Lord of the Abyss” is so much bullshit, but of course that’s what Machen was working with. And it’s interesting that Machen’s notion of survival seems to be that the civilised veneer of the present is just a skin on a past that’s horrible, whereas the Lovecraftian vision is that the past outwardly seems noble and empowering but is a lie.

And of course survivals as a concept were a thing in the anthropology of the time. Spiritualism is also into the idea of collapsing time in the same way — they’re both concepts that involve confronting the past in the present.

Also, there is squishiness. Helen Vaughn’s body should be firm and permanent, but it’s weird and fluid. There’s a similar tentacley image in “The Novel of the Black Seal.”

Nearly there! Right, next up, Nigel Tallis talked about folk horror, which it turns out is completely a thing. Now, not being British, I missed a lot of the shows to which he was referring, but I believe that Children of the Stones is up there in the trinity of things that scared the piss out of Britons d’un certain age, together with Threads and Ghostwatch. He also referred to his talk as “Nigel Kneale appreciation,” which is fair enough. I also have respect for anyone who says “most folk songs are Georgian pop music.” He also talked about the idea that people really don’t like hearing that their archaeology is uncertain, to which I can only say “nailed it.” But archaeologists have to be unafraid to say “I don’t know.” This is another difference between archaeology and fringe stuff, I guess?

Folk horror in a lot of ways is kind of a village-green version of Machen, in that it’s the idea that you have these folk customs that link you to the past, but that at heart they turn out to be completely vile and evil. The bucolic turns out to be horrific. Interestingly, though, two of the big examples, The Wicker Man and the Doctor Who story The Daemons, both involve folk customs that are actually fake, with some other person manipulating the yokels to their own ends.

And with a rush of breath we come to the last one. That’s Tina Paphitis again, this time in her own words. She was talking about “Horrors of the past: barrows and barrow-lore in fantastic fiction,” and of course if we’re talking about barrows in fantastic fiction we’re talking about Tolkien. Who knew a thing or two about literary barrows himself, of course. Barrows have a long folkloric history, and they’re actually one of the few areas where we know a little bit about how early medieval people encountered earlier barrows, naming them after heroes and considering them to be both very important and maybe a leetle threatening. In fact, there’s a good barrow bit in one of Cornwell’s Arthur books, harking back to Saturday morning.

She also talked about a Grant Allen story from 1892, in which a dude encounters some ghosts of prehistoric people, and it includes a section so baller I must quote it:

They were savages, yet they were ghosts. The two most terrible and dreaded foes of civilised experience seemed at once combined in them.

OK, no, I’m not letting that one go without further elaboration. The two greatest enemies of civilisation are barbarism and ghosts? Really? The guys with the epaulettes are sitting around their maps going “but gentlemen — what if we face an enemy that is both barbarian and ghost?” And they say nothing but swallow hard and reach with trembling fingers for the brandy.

Apparently, the Stonehenge audio guide leads you around the circle widdershins. There you go, Changeling scenario writers. Gave you that one for free.

OK, that’s it for the papers. Tomorrow, time permitting, some kind of retrospective on the whole thing. Then I’m at a wedding on Sunday, and Monday is, of course, Movie Monday. lway

Monstrous Antiquities: 4

Monstrous Antiquities: 3

OK, we’re back for the third in what will probably be a four-part series on my time at the Monstrous Antiquities conference at the Institute of Archaeology at UCL last weekend. As you have probably gathered by now, I had a grand old time. Today we’ll be covering the papers that closed out Saturday, the film night that evening and, if there’s time, the first couple of papers from Sunday. That said, onward!

The first paper after lunch was by Marek Kukula from the Royal Observatory: “‘The Accursed Galaxy’: Astronomy, archaeology and the appeal of cosmic horror.” And it was the business. You know, here’s the public face of British astronomy talking about Jack Vance in a way that indicates that he actually knows what he’s talking about. He opened up with a Pascal quote: “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me …”.

So, key points: astronomy is, in many respects, looking directly in the past. When you look up at stars, you are of course seeing light that took hundreds, thousands, even millions of years to reach you. And the scale of astronomical antiquities is vast. Prehistorians can have ten-thousand-year margins for error in their work, longer than the entirety of history. Geologists think prehistorians are fooling themselves about their work being old. And astronomers think geologists are on some bullshit.*

(*If you are an angry geologist, that was me, not him. I mean, it was me, not him whether you are an angry geologist or not, but you know what I mean.)

“Alternative” theories came up again, and we were introduced to the technical term used in astronomy, which is the same as the one we use in archaeology:


waaaaaaaaait for it ….


And then it’s a bewildering tour of the history of ideas in proper Fortean style, best represented by a lunatic with some coloured string, but here represented for technical reasons by bullet points:

  • The Curiosity rover is doing digs on Mars. Dont’ look in the hole!
  • The eruption of Tambora in April 1815 coloured Turner’s sunsets, caused the Year Without a Summer, which in turned caused Mary Shelley et al. to be stuck inside in bad weather, which in turn caused Frankenstein, which in turn basically caused science fiction.
  • Lovecraft was scared witless by the implications of astronomical deep time. (And interestingly, unlike most people, astronomy rather than geology was where HPL got his deep time fear — he loved astronomy. Even the name Necromonicon may be derived from a poem called the Astronomicon.)
  • Plus also Jack Vance, whose deep-time-ness extends into the future rather than the past.
  • And M. John Harrison, come to that.
  • And a whole lot of other stuff I haven’t put in my notes, like the face on Mars, astronomical alignment of the Pyramids (which caused the above comment), archaeoastronomy in general, all that kind of thing. In twenty minutes!


Anyhow, this actually did me a big favour, since I was up next and my talk had been haphazardly cut down from its hour-long version. I rushed through a bunch of stuff about Lovecraft and the post-Lovecraftian Mythos, especially focusing on the use of archaeology in “The Rats in the Walls,” The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Long story short: Lovecraft feared being cut off from his heritage, which he regarded as an actually meaningless but symbolically very important source of strength. (And if you want to say that this is how Pillars of Sanity work in Trail of Cthulhu, I think that makes sense.) But naturally, since it was something that Lovecraft relied on to keep himself happy and healthy, he spent his fiction smashing it to bits, and archaeology here serves as the wrecking ball. Post-Lovecraft Mythos authors have not pursued this theme, possibly because they don’t share HPL’s concern with heritage.

Last up was Egyptologist W. J. Tait, whose talk was about monsters — and specifically why Egyptian legend doesn’t seem to have a lot of the kinds of monsters that other types of folklore have, such as giants or ogres. Even in the story of Sinuhe, which has been described as the Egyptian David and Goliath story the antagonist isn’t a giant. This is another presentation where I wish I had been taking photographs, because I know less than nothing about Egypt, so my main concern is monsters, and ancient Egyptian monsters look either very cool or completely fucked up. (Interestingly, Lovecraft wrote a story that ends with this as the dramatic reveal.) They’re often a combination of (to paraphrase the talk) “dangerous beasts, fire and knives,” which not coincidentally is the new title of my forthcoming album.

I don’t think I caught the answer to why there are no giants, as I was frantically scribbling scary monster descriptions in my notebook, which shows you where my priorities are. So apologies for that.

So then it was movie time. Well, more accurately it was dinner time. I ran off and ate, taking the opportunity to finish This Book Is Full of Spiders. Then back to the Petrie Museum for Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm.

Oh lordy.

Now, as it happens, I like a good bad movie, so I was well-served by the movie evening. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, because if you are the kind of person who is reading my blog, then there is a better-than-average likelihood that you are the kind of person who wants to see this film. But let me make a brief digression.

When I was young (judging by the date of the film, about 10 or 11), there was a poster for this film in the Horror section of my local video store, Midtown Video. And this was in the glory days of the local video store, of course, before the big chains dominated but after VHS had been around long enough for places to have a good selection. I was in there pretty frequently, and I always looked at that poster with a mixture of weird chills and incipient adolescent perviness.

Oh, don't look at me like that.
Oh, don’t look at me like that.

Now, here is a small spoiler: this poster represents an actual scene from the film, in which Hugh Grant puts speakers on the top of his house and plays snake-charmer music in order to lure evil snake-woman Amanda Donohoe out of her house so that Peter Capaldi and, erm, thingy, his love interest, can break into the place and rescue her sister. The love interest’s, that is, not Amanda Donohoe. And when the music plays, she rises up out of a basket and does a little sashay-y snake dance to the door and leaves.

I just want to see what was going on five minutes before that. What could she possibly have been doing in a basket? Like, it’s Thursday night, nothing on, so I’ll put on my vinyl villain outfit and four-inch heels and sit in a wicker basket. With the lid on! How did she even get it closed? And what did she do once she had closed it? Did she have her library book in there?

But what you’re asking yourself is “yes, James, the plots of horror movies don’t make much sense, but does this have the necessary level of anarchic goofiness and over-the-top shock?” And the answer is, well, yes, kind of. It is full of suspect acting, and the last fifteen or twenty minutes are just a carnival of absurdity that I wish I could tell you about but can’t without spoilers.

Anyway, see for yourself. Note: not even remotely safe for work and also probably copyright violation, so you should, you know, buy it if you can. It’s less than a tenner on DVD.

I have also just downloaded the book by Bram Stoker for the ol’ Kindle. I’ll be interested to see how much of the original survives into the film. I’m going to go ahead right now and say I bet the attempted dildo murder is not in the original. But I could be wrong.

I love this idea. I love the fact that the Petrie Museum has a film club. If the Whipple Museum of the History of Science had sci-fi film nights I’d die of dehydration in there. I love all that arts-engagement stuff, as who doesn’t, but naturally I’m particularly fond of it when it’s trashy, geeky and disreputable. I am sad I didn’t have any popcorn, but you can’t have everything.

OK, I know I said I would try to do Sunday morning next, but this is pretty long already and I need to be getting back to work. Stay tuned on Friday for Sunday, I guess.

Monstrous Antiquities: 3