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

Archaeological themes in Skyrim. No, seriously. (1)

So, one reason for my general lack of productivity in non-work-related areas over the last few months has been the acquisition, at long last, of a modern games console (a very generous gift from a friend). Just in time for it to be obsolete, you might think, but actually this is the ideal time to get one. There are loads of good games — I could play nothing but “best of” games from now until Doomsday, basically, and all my friends who own them have deep game libraries they aren’t making much use of. 

Anyway, that is only tangentially what I want to talk about, which is Skyrim, and specifically the surprising amount of archaeology in that game. 

Now, a lot of RPGs have ancient ruins, lost civilisations, all that kind of thing. This is par for the course because it’s a good way to get people into a Dave-and-Gary-approved dungeon. But in Skyrim there is quite a bit more to this, particularly in the far west, in the Reach and the city of Markarth. 

Markarth is actually built on the ruins of a Dwemer city — that is, a city built by a now-vanished culture with technology far in advance of what Skyrim’s inhabitants, the Nords, are capable of. There is a big archaeological excavation in the city itself, and a museum not far from it. The archaeologist is the court wizard, and he’s exactly the kind of person you’d expect an archaeologist-stroke-court-wizard to be, an abstracted scholar who doesn’t recognise practical concerns as important compared to his research. 



But that isn’t the really interesting thing about the archaeology in Skyrim. What’s interesting is that almost every quest in Markarth and its surroundings is about competing claims to legitimacy based on the past. 

Skyrim is a land torn apart by its history: you have the Empire, which defends its claim to Skyrim based on the fact that Skyrim has always been part of it — indeed, the Empire was founded by someone from Skyrim. By contrast, the nationalist Stormcloak rebels claim that the Empire, by signing a peace treaty that forbids their traditional religion, has turned its back on Skyrim’s history. 

The leader of the rebels is one Ulfric Stormcloak (Vladimir Kulich from The Thirteenth Warrior), and he started this whole thing off following something called the Markarth Incident, in which he chased out a bunch of rebels from Markarth. Not his rebels, you understand, but some different rebels. These rebels are the Forsworn, and they claim to be the indigenous people of the Reach, deprived of their land by the Nords. They look like this: 


If you talk to the Forsworn, they will give you an angry speech about how they were there first — and they are perfectly willing to do this while standing in a building that proves that the region was inhabited centuries before humans even set foot there. They seem to see no contradiction. 

Meanwhile, digging up ancient Nordic artefacts seems to be the national pastime. In one mission, you accompany a squad of troops from one faction or the other to capture a vital piece of regalia before the other side can use it to lend legitimacy to their claimant to the throne. There’s no suggestion that it has magic powers or anything (though it might) — your superiors explicitly say that it’s just to associate the claimant with the majesty of previous kings.

Material culture is super important here, and not just because it can help improve your Stamina Regeneration. 

I’m still unpacking what the archaeology in Skyrim means — partly because I tend to think about it for a bit, then go off to batter some bandits or undead to death with my magic hammer. But I think that it’s actually been thought about quite a lot — this is a game where one of the two main plots is about a fight over who controls the nation’s heritage, with the control of monuments and artefacts playing a really important role in that struggle. 

Although archaeology in Skyrim does involve at least 50% more fighting giant robots than in real life. 

Archaeological themes in Skyrim. No, seriously. (1)