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.

I! DIG! GIANT ROBOTS!
I! DIG! GIANT ROBOTS!

 

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.

640px-SilusVesuius'sHouse

 

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. 

 

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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.

SR-place-Markarth

 

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.

Ouch.

Nchuand-Zel1

 

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

Awesome names: first in a series

OK, so, like anyone else, I love a good gangster nickname. And there is no better source of gangster nicknames than The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury. I mean, it’s probably lies from start to finish, but it’s fantastic lies. And it has some of the best names in any work of scurrilous non-history ever published. Today we will be reviewing some names from it. These are some of my favourites, in no particular order: 

Sweeney the Boy, Terrible John, Silver Dollar Smith, Slobbery Jim, Razor Riley, Rags Riley, Mush Riley, Crazy Butch, Dan the Dude, Gold Mine Jimmy Carrigio, Big Nose Bunker, Yakey Yake Brady, Battle Annie, Gyp the Blood, Greedy Jake, Bill the Butcher, Worcester Sam, Louie the Lump, Patsy the Barber, Owney the Killer, Old Mother Hubbard, Happy Jack Mulraney, One-Armed Charley, Eat-’em-Up Jack McManus, Cow-legged Sam, Peg Leg Lonergan, Ike the Blood, the Lobster Kid, Cyclone Louie, London Izzy Lazarus, Hungry Joe, Goo Goo Knox, Kid Glove Rosey, Ida the Goose, Rough House Hogan, Hell-cat Maggie, Itsky Joe, Dopey Benny, Red Rocks Farrell, Dandy Jimmy Dolan, Ding Dong, Ralph the Barber, One Lung Curran. 

And here are some gangs: The Yakey Yakes, the Swamp Angels, the Squab Wheelmen, the Slaughterhousers, the Shirt Tails, the Rough Riders, the Pearl Buttons, the Parlour Mob, the Neighbours’ Sons, the Marginals. 

Aren’t those great? If you run games or write fiction, I think Herbert Asbury has a lot to tell you about scary badass names. 

Tomorrow we will talk about Viking names and how they are cooler than every bullshit fake barbarian name in literature. 

Awesome names: first in a series