The Revenants of the Dragon Age series: The Archaeology of the Walking Dead

In 2017, while I was writing up my masters thesis news broke of an unusual Roman British skeleton from Stanwick, Northamptonshire. Buried face down, the corpse’s tongue had been cut out and replaced with a flat stone. These type of burials are known widely as deviant and/or non-normative burials. News broke at the same time I was playing Dragon Age Inquisition, a game set in a world where the undead come back to cause trouble at every corner. Death in video games is more of a hurdle (regeneration or starting a level again is the only real death our protagonist will face) than something to fear and more so in a game like Dragon Age, where narrative decisions mean characters can come back through apparitions or necromancy, such as the Haunted in Act III of Dragon Age II or the character of Cole in Dragon Age: Inquisition or most gruesomely Leandra Amell’s grisly demise in All That Remains.

In Dragon Age, there are a number of faceless enemies that the protagonist faces, the most encountered are the reanimated corpses, a key enemy in A Village Under Siege, or the terrifying arcane horrors (dead mages possessed by a pride demon). However, one of the most formidable opponents you face are the revenants. In English folklore, a revenant is a person who has returned, supposedly from the dead. Borrowed from French, revenant was originally formed from the present participle of the verb revenir (“to return”). It literally means “one coming back,” either from another place or from the dead. The Romano British skeleton seemed to have suffer a mutilation that may have been a basic attempt to stop the corpse feeding on the living. Given the bacteria found in the skeleton’s bones, there could also have been a contagious epidemic at work, for which the deceased had been blamed, leading to the stone being placed in its mouth as punishment.

Although it may seem silly to us, there was a genuine belief in what we would deem today to be ‘superstitious’ or ‘occult’ in the ancient world. There was a very real fear of the dead rising from the dead and it can be seen in the archaeological record across medieval Europe. A site at Wharram Percy, a deserted medieval village in Yorkshire, England unearthed skeletal evidence of a probable medieval belief in revenancy. Historical accounts from Britain and Ireland tell of fear of revenants in general, while some accounts from Scotland and Ireland (and one from England) also hint at revenant blood-sucking – a fear linked more specifically to vampiric aspects of the revenant tradition. The scientific analysis has revealed that the individuals’ skeletal remains had been deliberately mutilated, decapitated and burned shortly after death. Medieval folk believed that corpses could only reanimate and become revenants in the short period between death and decomposition. Skeletons could not become revenants. Only fully fleshed intact corpses could do so.

Revenants were said to be stronger and bigger than they were when alive. This reflects how they appear in Dragon Age, being spirits of desire or pride that possess a warrior’s remains, and thus they appear as a heavily armored undead knight. They rise from the ground causing panic in the party and most are boss-level characters at least in Origins. The archaeological record reflects fear of undead warriors coming back from the dead, a warrior was someone to fear in life, but apparently even more so in death. Excavations near the Yorkshire town of Pocklington have discovered two revenant Iron Age burials.

A revenant burial in Pocklington, Yorkshire. (c) History Blog

The excavation revealed that one burial of a younger man who was speared repeatedly in the grave. The other was a senior man buried in a chariot with two horses. Both burials date to the 3rd century B.C. It has been argued that the manner of post mortem treatment was used to use of the control death of a powerful figure (e.g. witch, king) or someone suspected revenant, meaning social reputation of the person was valid in death as it was in life. Further afield in Sweden, a high-ranking warrior buried in grave 18 in Bjär, Gotland, with weapons, riding equipment and horse or dog, has been regarded as a potential threat to society after his death, as it could be assumed because of thy symbolic fixation of his corpse by stones and blades.  The body was fund close to a water body. Fear of revenants and their disposal in watery places may also help to explain the bog burials uncovered by archaeologists in northern Europe, these bodies were discovered pinned into peat bogs with thorns and stakes.

So how did revenants become a genuine belief? Were they nothing more than stories passed down from one generation to the other around the table to entertain, scare or teach a valuable lesson through storytelling? Although their origins may have started in the Iron Age, they became much more well known by English historians in the Middle Ages. There was a revenant caused trouble in Buckinghamshire as told by William of Newburgh in the 12th century. After trying to sleep with his still-living wife, pestering his still-living brothers, and then bothering some livestock, the locals decided the revenant had to go. Their quest for knowledge ended up going all the way to the bishop of Lincoln. The bishop’s advisors flat out told him that a common way to get rid of a pesky revenant was to cremate it. This was not an acceptable answer. In the end, the locals were told to open the revenant’s grave, put a scroll of absolution on the body’s chest, and rebury the body. (The bishop supplied the scroll by the way.) The Christian way worked and the revenant stayed dead.

A famous example of a warrior revenant is in the martyrdom of Oswald, it is Oswald himself, the hero and warrior, who is mutilated by the Mercian pagans. Oswald was King of Northumbria from 634 until his death in 642, and is venerated as a saint with a particular cult in the Middle Ages. Oswald brought the two Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira once again under a single ruler, and promoted the spread of Christianity in Northumbria. After eight years of rule, in which he was the most powerful ruler in Britain, Oswald was killed in the Battle of Maserfield while fighting the forces of Penda of Mercia. John Damon (2001, 403-05) is concerned with the fact that Oswald was decapitated post-mortem, and the ‘trophification’ of the severed limbs in both cases. This could be from a fear of rising from the grave much like his messiah Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, contemporary Old English records have little to say on the matter of prone burial, and everything we know of them is from the archaeological record.

Medieval communities in England believed that the only way the dead could walk is if a demon entered the body, props it up on its feet and then makes it take a few steps. This ideology was spread by Thomas of Cantimpre, a Flemish medieval writer and theologian, in his manual for preachers, Bonum universalede apibu. Thomas’s language emphasizes the demon’s manipulation of the body as an object: “[The Devil] moved [the body] at first in the coffin. . . suddenly the Devil roseup with the corpse”. Similar to the revenants of Dragon Age, demons in Medieval Europe were believed to seek out cemeteries in order to rob graves of their occupants. Thomas’s interpretation of revenants as demonically possessed means they are corrupted only corporeally. In Dragon Age, where warrior bodies are rife for demons, there are two forms of revenants, one takes the form of a corpse and the other a demon, which reflect the uncertainty of what they truly were and what medieval people feared, was it a fear of death or the fear of the devil? The creativity of Bioware to reflect the mental attitudes of medieval cultures to a wider audience allows video games to be a serious medium to convey archaeological and socio-historical ideas or theories. While it may be naive to think this way, as Dragon Age has demonstrated video games can become an effective approach for understanding the more nuanced religious and supernatural beliefs of our ancestors, even if we have to level up to do so.

  • Caciola, N., 1996. Wraiths, revenants and ritual in medieval culture. Past & Present, (152), pp.3-45.
  • Damon, John Edward. “Desecto capite perfido: bodily fragmentation and reciprocal violence in Anglo-Saxon England.” Exemplaria 13, no. 2 (2001): 399-432.
  • Mattison, A., 2016. The Execution and Burial of Criminals in Early Medieval England, c. 850-1150: an examination of changes in judicial punishment across the Norman Conquest(Doctoral dissertation, University of Sheffield).
  • Toplak, M., 2018. Deconstructing the deviant burials: Kopparsvik and the rite of prone burials in Viking Age Scandinavia. Met

We are not Imposters: Dealing with Impostor Syndrome and archaeology

I don’t think I’m the only female archaeologist who’s looked around a room and thought what the hell am I doing here? I regularly do this, and I’m training my brain not to allow these thoughts to take over like Dory from Finding Nemo I constantly repeat “Just keeping nodding, nodding”. Because these thoughts are insidious, they creep up on you in the middle of a sentence, as you enter a conference room, or even when writing an email. The feeling is everywhere. I once was invited to speak at a conference on the topic of archaeogaming. My online articles had proven popular with a number of people following the subdiscipline and I felt absolutely ecstatic to be recognised. The conference moved online and even from the comfort of my own sofa, I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there. Apparently a lot of archaeologists feel the same, a quick search of the terms “imposter syndrome” and “archaeology” on Google, produces 1,030,000 results. A lot of archaeobloggers like myself have posted about it, feeling the weight of their own inadequacy, most of which are women and underrepresented racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, hardly surprising when you look into the evolution of the subject.

Like most of them, I can almost pinpoint where my imposter syndrome took hold. This feeling started off during my postgraduate studies, I sat in my Archaeological Theory class in University College London, tired and exhausted from trying to understand the amount of assigned readings from the night previous. Words like “processualism” and “middle range theory” popped out of my head as quickly as they got into it. Impostor syndrome is not the root cause of the problem, I realised that after taking Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that my worst enemy was not the lecturer probing me for comebacks on my theory, or that overenthusiastic undergrad asking me the impossible questions that I needed a reference for. It was me. I was the one with these thoughts in my head after all.

When I was talking to my therapist, she noted that I constantly put myself down. “Sorry I’m just being stupid” was/is apparently one of my favourite phrases or my ultimate favourite was/is “I’m a bit of an idiot.” According to Marisa Peer, author of I am Enough repeating negative phrases about oneself makes the mind believe them. So the fact I was talking to myself in such a negative way almost everyday made me believe I was in fact “stupid” and an “idiot.” When I decided to do a presentation for the local history group about the archaeology of our area I walked in thinking “I’m too stupid to do this”. During my undergraduate studies I did a presentation comparing the use of Jade in Neolithic China to to that of the Classic Maya in Mexico. I remembered being so filled with confidence because I kept saying to myself “I can do this” something one of my favorite videogame characters Lara Croft repeatedly says to herself during the course of the game Tomb Raider. The power of my own words had changed my outlook so quickly. So what changed? Having strong role models is imperative to development when I had just started off I latched on to strong independent thinkers who not only encouraged me but who took their own time to help me. When they moved on I felt isolated and alone, and worried about my own capabilities.

As archaeologists we aren’t supposed to know all the answers. Within my career, I have known academics who know very little about digging, and I have known fieldwork archaeologists who struggle to present their ideas to an audience. What’s important even if you know you have weaknesses you can change them with some discipline and self belief. It’s really that simple. During this last week, I realised one of the most important things for me is writing, be that on this blog, journal or website. I took Peer’s advice and started writing a little everyday so it would become a habit. When you repeat the same action every day, even if it’s only for ten minutes you start adopting healthier habits. I started by writing ten minutes of my blog, and started writing a new article, by the end of the week I had three ready to publish articles! One of the persistent worries I hear from other archaeologists is that they don’t know enough especially from students, when I was helping them study Aztec hieroglyphs I told them to learn just one every day. Once they have memorised one, they could easily memorise two.

Let’s be real even if we don’t want to admit it, but Imposter Syndrome is ubiquitous with archaeology because of the very nature of the subject. The material culture reveals a number of traits regarding human behaviour, but human behaviour by it’s very nature is capricious especially during periods when humans weren’t fighting for survival. This means archaeologists can never really assert a clear and standard theory to explain human behaviour, which can make us feel somewhat unqualified. But none of us can really be fully qualified to make such assertions without a time machine. We can make informed theories even if we can’t prove them. The archaeologists that I have great respect for know this. They’ve also trained their brains to accept this and not strive for absolutes. These feelings are the hijackers sabotaging our rational brain to make us believe the feelings instead of the facts. As archaeologist even if we accept that our ignorance of their world is vast, we can’t allow impostor thoughts to block our pursuit of knowledge.

The Archaeologist’s Ikigai (生き甲斐)

Like many within the current isolation bubble (COVID-19 for time-travellers reading this) I have turned to more soul-searching ways to burn daylight. I often find myself browsing through the various books on my wishlist on Amazon, looking for something that might answer the nonsensical questions buzzing around my weary mind.

I finally managed to get around Tim Tamashiro’s book on How to Ikigai. There are many ways in which I strive for a fulfilling life but like most I have found myself stuck in a rut, feeling the opposite – unfulfilled bogged down by societal expectations and entrenched daily routines.

Ikigai (生き甲斐, pronounced [ikiɡai]) is a Japanese concept that means “a reason for being”.

A reason for being is not as simple as it seems, because like most things our Ikigai is intertwined with modern day society expectations – paying the rent, having a family and public perceptions on what it means to be “successful”. That’s the problem for millions of people: how can you feel fulfilled when you’re constantly weighed down by burdens such as financial responsibilities and built -in routines – all of which dominate our lives?

Well let’s break it down: there are four parts to Ikigai, which roughly translates to:

  1. What do you love?
  2. What are you good at?
  3. What does the World need?
  4. What do you get paid for?

For myself the answer for the first question comes quite easily: archaeology. But does doing what you love translate well into doing what you’re good at? This is where for a long time I dawdled on the concept of Ikigai. What does being good at archaeology truly mean? Does it mean I understand the patterns of human behaviors? Good knowledge of human history? Or am I really exceptional at digging holes?
Before I decided to become an archaeologist, I developed a talent for understanding the detail, which made my articles about Japan and history insanely popular when I freelanced as a journalist. My sense of belief and purpose however still remained on an individual level, despite spending a lot of my young adult life in a country (Japan) that focused on the collective rather than the individual. But most importantly my talents didn’t necessarily connect with my passion.

After years of studying and traversing the perils of academia I soon realised that scholarly archaeology was nothing more than fanciful projects appealing for funding and getting lost in the bibliography of quite dull publications. For many of us archaeology is still entrenched in layers of jargon and dryness. While museums and television programmes allowed for the public to view archaeology from an outsider’s perspective the feeling of inadequacy still permeates people’s understanding – the leave it to the experts sentiment is felt throughout “amateur” spheres and casual participants. Is archaeology delegated to academic research in ill-forgotten journals? Yes, but it is also so much more, it’s about understanding our ancestors’ story. A story which in theory should be available to everyone.

The story is out there within the dusty books lying on library shelves, the unpublished papers saved on hard drives, and the bones left in boxes stored in forgotten archives. Our Ikigai is clear: the world needs for people to feel connected with their past. We need people to connect to their past just as much as they connect with their present and future. For the longest time in my life I was paid to write, to make the mundane interesting and informative, when I gave it up to pursue my passion for the human past I thought no more of connecting with audiences through the medium of word.

But the medium of word is flexible, it’s multifaceted, while many academics frown upon the flowery and indulgent prose littered in popular non-fiction it’s a tool, a weapon against the tedious monotone of academic writing. People might walk around the ruins of a fallen civilization taking in the awe and other-worldliness, but that’s no use if the visitors don’t understand it’s significance.

If archaeologists really care about the past and what it means then their ikigai needs to be conveying the story to the masses in every medium possible through art, film, prose, movies and virtual experiences like video-games. Without making it a niche experience or laughing it off as an amateurish hobby. We can’t all experience archaeology through the 10-year excavation process, but we can make sure that experiences are accessible and inclusive. Why can’t video games, movies, TV shows provide a sense of interaction with the past that many kids might not otherwise have?

We can try to align these conscience efforts with meaningful actions that will fulfill our lives, but we can’t do it on an individual level it has to be done as a collective, together as archaeologists we can encompass all the properties of Ikigai to tell a story not fully told.

An Archaeologist reviews As Above So Below

My new series is An Archaeologist Reviews, in which I watch terrible (sometimes good) archaeology movies in order to get a better perspective on what the media portrays vs the reality. First up is As Above So Below, starring Perdita Weeks, which was released in 2014.

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I am a huge addict for dramatically fictional accounts of archaeology-gone-wrong. The discipline had been romanticized with grand ideas of treasures, unleashed curses, and  demons concealed for millennia being awoken by archaeologists exploring uncharted territory.  It makes for some exciting cinema, despite the reality being oh so much different. But, let’s be honest the archaeology/adventure genre in movies has been kind of crap of recent, apart from the Indiana Jones series (minus Crystal Skulls) this particular area of cinema has been a let down over and over again. So when I found out about As Above So Below, a horror movie set in the Paris Catacombs I was again skeptical.  Archaeology and horror is not a new concept, movies featuring ruins, mummies have been around since the dawn of cinema.  Despite the constant stream of disappointment I jumped at the chance to see this in the cinema.

Set in the style of a found footage documentary the movie follows Scarlett Marlowe continuing her late father’s work searching for Nicola’s Flamel’s Philosopher’s Stone. The location of the stone is within the Paris catacombs (of course it is!), and despite the dangers of running around in uncharted territory, Scarlett or Dr.Marlowe jumps at the chance of getting her ill-prepared footwear a little wet. The opening scene sees us introduced to archaeologist Scarlett (excuse me Dr. Marlowe), a university professor of a mere 30 years old with two PhDs, and the ability to speak 6 languages and two dead ones (of course!) and an expert in Krav Maga, because she must have ample of times preparing for her illegal adventures and not you know doing any actual research or teaching.  One of these PhDs is in urban archaeology, a master’s chemistry, and a second PhD in the fictitious symbology.

The movie moves along to George, who she enlists to help her uncover the whereabouts of the Philosopher’s Stone, further complicated with their unresolved sexual tension, and that time she left him in a Turkish police station. Charming this Scarlett, I mean Dr. Marlowe. Together they break into churches, defaces archaeological artifacts, and generally cause mayhem around Paris until she makes it illegally into the catacombs.

In the catacombs, the story changes from adventure movie to straight up horror.  As they venture further into the weaving tunnels of the catacombs a strange, singing cult can be heard; a ringing telephone deep underground echoes throughout the tunnels, and ghastly apparitions start appearing.  “The only way out is down,” says La Taupe’, a former friend of their guide who disappeared two years ago after going to explore the catacombs they now find themselves trapped in. They do as he says.

After a number of puzzles and trials, (to be honest too boring to actually write about) they finally find themselves The Philosopher’s Stone! Finally, Dr, Marlowe can vindicate her father, who spent years, writing questionable research papers for reputable academic journals!

But of course in Tomb Raider style, an important magical artifact is of course not what it seems; “it’s a trap!”, and they find themselves cornered with only their smarts and wits to escape. Scarlett figures out ‘as above, so below’. As they descend, they are faced with the same catacombs but reversed. It’s here, in this labyrinth mirror-world, that the deaths begin as they continue to descend over a thousand feet down.

One girl is murdered pretty horrifically by the rabid La Taupe. Benji the cameraman falls down a shaft after a woman lunges at him from the darkness mirroring an earlier, non-fatal tumble. George sees his little brother, who drowned in a cave when they were young, drowning again. Everything becomes a tense maze of ghosts of regrettable secrets that the characters have trouble letting go of.

As a horror movie, there are some genuine scares especially near the end of the movie, when three of the remaining characters are confronted by what is supposedly the devil. The movie uses the jump scare tactic, but also allows for quiet moments where filmmakers leave some points to the imagination. The movie deals with regret and grief much more efficiently than its use of archaeology, allowing the characters to move on physically from their own literal and metaphorical hell.

However, the movie’s main issue is its characters. Firstly, the protagonist Scarlett Marlowe is a questionable archaeologist, much like any media portrayal of the profession, she’s reckless, intrepid and obnoxious. “I’m not doing this for financial gain,” Scarlett says in some interview footage that plays at the end of the film.  Obviously not, because if she tried to get this little adventure published, her professorship will be in the dirt much like the friends she took down there in the first place. Unfortunately, we never get delve into Benji’s regret, and many of the characters apart from George and Scarlett (I mean Dr. Marlowe) are used as death fodder.

Overall, As Above So Below is a semi-decent horror movie with a tense creepy atmosphere.  However, the use of  predictable archaeological tropes to progress the story fails to allow the movie to embrace its weirdness. While Scarlett makes for a decent horror-film protagonist, she has the attributes: resourceful, intelligent, brave, and of course a complex relationship with her father (Indiana and Lara I’m looking at you)  – I doubt she’d make a very able archaeologist.

Lara Croft: the problematic archaeologist

She proved to the world that women can make exceptional protagonists. She embodies woman empowerment, wit and adversity, but Lara Croft also represents the colonial values of old school archaeology.  Like many archaeogamers, I’m a huge fan of Lara Croft, even Classic Lara, who stole artefacts and disseminated archaeological sites just because she felt like it. In the first Tomb Raider, she says it herself: “I’m sorry, I only play for sport.” But as the reboot series tried to transform Lara to less of a female avatar built for the male gaze to a relatable hero, she fell more victim to Western imperial privilege. Oh the irony.

This wasn’t an issue with her character in 2013’s Tomb Raider. When the game was released we were introduced to a very different, much younger and inexperienced Lara. She eventually becomes reminisce of the fierce warrior we all know and love. Her trials throughout the game proved that she could take care of herself no matter what was thrown at her while still taking a moment to awe at the ruins and artefacts she encountered. I loved 2013’s Lara Croft, she reflected the metaphorical journey of becoming an archaeologist that it was hard not to root for her.  In the game, Lara voyages to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai on an expedition (not to look for her lost father, thank you kindly Alicia Vikander) funded by her best friend Sam. The trip turns into a fight for survival as she finds herself stranded on a desert island with cultists and a supernatural force who refuses to let her leave. The story focused on her trying to break into the archaeological world with a huge discovery, and that’s the key difference to its successors.

Rise of the Tomb Raider shows us quickly that Lara has changed, she’s become more interested in hunting an organisation known as Trinity, (who she believes is behind the death of her father) than in archaeology. Before in 2013’s Tomb Raider, Lara was mesmerised (as much as she was afraid) of the island she was stranded on. But the narrative device of seeking revenge leaves her more in John Wick territory than Howard Carter’s trench. In Siberia, Lara joins the Remnant (descendants of the prophet Jacob) in order to defeat Trinity. Lara is less interested in discovery and the excitement of the archaeology she finds, and more the need to prove that her father was right (about Trinity and the supernatural). Rise of the Tomb Raider gives Lara less agency in her decisions, which only makes her less competent as an archaeologist and explorer.

But her incompetence doesn’t equate to British imperialism, she might make bad decisions, but she’s not a looter or a thief. That however changes in 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider, everything I had loved about Lara was shattered with her intro in Cozumel, Mexico. As Lara Croft “takes” a knife protected within a pyramid, she becomes part of the gang of white folk traipsing around the world, stealing treasures from other cultures.

Even the antagonist, the leader of Trinity and esteemed archaeology professor, Dr. Dominguéz underestimates Lara’s entitlement  saying “It never occurred to me that you would just take it.” Not only does she freely steal a clearly valuable piece of cultural heritage she also triggers a massive tsunami that kills almost all the inhabitants of Cozumel. The relatable Lara that Crystal Dynamics wanted us to so truly love in 2013’s Tomb Raider had disappeared. The consequences of her actions and her remorse are left out of the rest of the game. The empathetic Lara, who went to immeasurable lengths to save her friends in 2013, unintentionally drowns a whole town and she hardly manages a shrug. But it only gets better, Lara then “discovers” the ancient and still living city of Paititi, where she does simple tasks for the indigenous people, who seem incapable of doing any sort of action before Lara came swooping in. This is obviously a citadel purposely built  for Lara to steal plenty of Indigenous souvenirs along her way.

There aren’t many more ways for it to get worse in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, right? Wrong! The introduction of good old human sacrifice elevates the game to Apocalypto level of racism and inaccuracy. It’s true sacrifice was practiced by many different cultures of pre-columbian South America, but that’s true of almost every culture in the last millennia. Humans were killed because of contemporary ideological beliefs, be it religion, politics and/or conquest. The use of sacrifice in Shadow of the Tomb Raider reflects the savage Indian trope. In order to implement sacrifice into the main storyline, the developers needed to recontextualise parts of the practice separate from white colonialist ideas of good and evil. Later in the game, Lara replaces Unuratu (the leader of Paititi) as the hero of her own people.  Lara doesn’t just steal artefacts in this game, she steals people’s destiny. Unuratu can’t save her people, she needs Lara for that.

After Lara does indeed save the day, she returns to her manor in the British countryside with a butler bringing her a fresh pot of tea. In typical colonial fashion, she returns to her comfortable life and her crimes are left unpunished.

Why we need Indiana Jones

The media is often our strongest ally and often our greatest enemy. Drones of students decide to follow the footsteps of their heroes (Richard O’Connor, Lara Croft, Indiana Jones), allowing them to break the norm and enter a world quite unlike their own.  The media has painted archaeology as a profession of discovery, uncovering visually attractive finds, sites and civilisations. But often the journey to find our truths leaves many unanswered questions and because of this archaeology is often linked to mysticism and mystery. These mysteries are often supernatural in nature and it’s often up to the archaeologist to figure them out, think Relic Hunter, Bone Kickers, and of course Tomb Raider. It’s a victim of the Bond-effect creating a powerful brand for the the archaeology profession but posing no resemblance of reality. 

I suspect not many people watched Indiana Jones believing that archaeologists went around destroying archaeological sites and shooting sword wielding henchmen, but you’ll be mistaken if depictions like Indiana have little impact on the profession. Despite producing a sharply divided reaction among archaeologists, media representations of us are some of the most powerful. 

These stereotypes allow for more than just an appealing career, they form the public opinion on the profession. You can often find TV programming which focuses on the words like Ancient Lost Secrets Reveal the Hidden Mysteries of the Dead. There is a reason for this, if archaeological programming used words which reflected the profession it would be along the lines of Excavations Identify Farming Tools Reflecting Migration Patterns which of course sounds far less sexy.

However, these depictions of archaeology inspire real interest across the world. We want people to be motivated by the past, enough to support our work or even venture into the profession themselves. Even if these embellishments are far from the truth, they are the catalyst to get interest in the human past. And no matter what my colleagues might say, Lara Croft will always be my favourite archaeologist.

Archaeology of Video games

For many, video games offer a distraction from the harsh cry of reality. They grant us a chance to delve into a world unlike our own. I loved being able to shut off the demands of homework when I got back from school. One of my favorite games was Final Fantasy VII, the steampunk world that Square Soft invented was so far from my own mundane existence it was very easy to switch off and immerse myself into its story. But, my favorite games were the ones which took place in a medieval fantasy world, they had just the right blend of anotherness and familiarity to make me feel content. I loved running around derelict towns, and fantastical ruins that it awoke a part of me that I never thought about before – a love of history and archaeology.

I can name a few video games which use archaeology as it main premise, there is of course Tomb Raider, and her male equivalent Nathan Drake’s Uncharted.  These games mashed with the supernatural make archaeology a world not left to the dead. Although the realities of archaeology are hardly ever shown, it allows for the mystery to draw you in. For archaeology to truly be effective in video games, it’s not the truth or accurate depictions of history that need to be implemented. It’s the aesthetic quality of the archaeology, seeing ruins and the degradation of civilization is just as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying.

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An ancient elven temple in the Dragon Age: Inquisition’s DLC Trespasser  ©  Bioware

One of my favorite visuals in video games comes from the fantasy series Dragon Age, in the DLC Trespasser, your character travels to a number of abandoned and ruined temples to uncover a plot to take over southern Thedas during a period of political uncertainty. The temples and structures are ancient elven, although they could be picked right from the North York Moors or the Scottish Highlands. 

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Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire a “real” ancient elven temple.

The aesthetics for ancient elven ruins weren’t plucked from the artist’s imagination although there is definitely a degree of creative licensing. These ruins are based mostly off medieval monasteries, most of which were destroyed during Henry VIII’s reformation.  Ruins tend to inspire a distant world long gone, one that sparks our imagination. In 2013’s Tomb Raider Lara voyages to the land of Yamatai, a forgotten feudal kingdom off the south coast of Japan, the island is full of ruins, most which are remarkably still intact. Although running around the island killing cultists had some fun, I was taken back by the beauty of the Kofun-period ruins. Just like the elven ruins of Dragon Age, they aren’t picked from an artist’s imagination.

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The reboot of Tomb Raider in 2013, took place in Yamatai, an insland full of ruins  ©  Crystal Dynamics

When I lived in Japan, I visited a place called Nokogiriyama home to a sprawling Nihon-ji temple complex. There are a number of reliefs carved into the side of the mountain which definitely are reminisce of Yamatai’s Queen Himiko’s statues. Game environments like these allow us to explore the past from more than just a player’s perspective. Interaction is a key to gaming, a medium that has allowed us to explore ancient environs. When it’s done successfully, a la Tomb Raider and Dragon Age, it can inspire gamers to seek the real truths, or spark their own creative imaginations.

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Nokogiriyama definitely had some real life Yamatai vibes. It is home to one of the biggest buddhas in Asia.

There are the plenty of other examples of the use of archaeological ruins and artefacts, but these two are my favorites. There is something very much ingrained into our psyche about archaeology and the mystery of what our ancestors left behind. When we interact with these environments in game it allows us to think of its functionality, its beauty and its past. In Trespasser when we go further and further into the evanuris to discover the truth of the plot, we discover a past that in fact is very much like our present. A world full of conspiracy, intrigue, betrayal but yet one full of beauty and humanity.

My love/hate relationship with UNESCO

I’d long decided that while in someways I hated subjecting archaeology to the realm of needless hierarchy, UNESCO or The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was a necessary evil. The list of world heritage sites now comprises of more than 1,000 sites across the world, and the list keeps growing with economically more developed countries obtaining relatively more listings.

When I worked at a UNESCO world heritage site, I believed like many that UNESCO was a privilege bestowed on some of the most important and well-preserved monuments in our history.  But, I soon became jaded when I saw the endless tour buses deposit overeager tourists on our doorstep early every morning.  There was a plague of invasive tourism that UNESCO bought along with the prestige. Naivety led me to assume that these initiatives unite people in a common effort to protect shared cultural heritage. While that may work in developed countries, the influx of tourists in countries that lacks the infrastructure to support them contributes to the deterioration of many historical (and natural) monuments.

This is what makes UNESCO status divisive; like most things there is a negative side to every positive. While the UNESCO may damage archaeological monuments by promoting tourism, they have spared countless of heritage resources from the bulldozer. We should care about every world heritage asset not only only our own.  There is more to culture and our heritage than DNA, we construct our identities from stories, objects and buildings that conjure up our ancestors’ past: their glories, tragedies, or simply their day-to-day lives. So when Penny Mordaunt suggested pulling out from UNESCO due to budgetary concerns, it felt like a betrayal not only to our national past, but the world’s collective identity as people.

Currently UNESCO has no clear guidelines or effective methods to control the commercialisation of world heritage sites, and its talk on sustainability is more a verbal exercise than enforceable. So unsurprisingly when the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from UNESCO, many had cited the reasoning was that it provided no real protection for archaeological and historic treasures.

Of course the reason behind US’s withdrawal from UNESCO was to convey a political message.  In October 2011, UNESCO admitted the Palestinian territories to the organization as an independent member-state called Palestine. This triggered a US law which cut off American funding for any organisation that recognised an independent Palestine.

After studying archaeology for years, I’ve learnt that you can never separate politics and heritage, because ultimately heritage relates to people’s identity. Despite what World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald S. Lauder  wants you to believe, “In recent years, despite the best efforts of outgoing Director General Irina Bokova, UNESCO has strayed from its mission to preserve history and has allowed itself to become politicised, demonstrating a continuing and disturbing bias against Israel.”

Take a look at other countries such as Egypt, where during a night of riots young activists formed a human chain around the National Museum that borders the square, helping security guards protect the treasures within. In places, where competing political narratives force the public to try and keep hold of their heritage. But it’s crucial to remember that largest part of UNESCO’s budget is spent on education initiatives in developing countries. Leaving UNESCO is not necessarily going to impact the heritage of the UK, but it would definitely convey a message of how disconnected we are with the  shared heritage of people around the globe. Political or not.

 

 

 

Archaeology as my identity

Despite years of studying, months in a muddy field, and endless days counting fragments of bones in a lab, I was still not a professional archaeologist. And as I mingled with new acquaintances or bumped into old school friends I constantly referred to myself as an archaeologist. I felt like I was telling some insidious lie, and have perpetuated it throughout the last two years. I had tried and tried like most graduates to get a job within the heritage industry that paid more than just above minimum wage. If I complained,  I kept hearing those words that archaeologists hate: “you do it because you love it” as if love alone could pay the rising interest on my credit card bills. But then I realised; that archaeology was more than just a way of paying the bills it was how I came to view the world; it had become my religion.

Archaeology goes beyond interpreting the material culture of the past, there is something about studying archaeology that changes your way of thinking in current society. You start to assess everything around you as though you were seeing it from the future, the questions of what, how and most importantly why become everyday occurrences. The need to constantly assess human behaviour becomes part of everyday life. It becomes just another cognitive function.

When I worked as an office worker, I constantly referred to myself as an archaeologist. This may be as some have pointed out as a form of self-validation, but to me it was true. I was never going to be the world’s best admin assistant, I was going to discover something no one had ever seen before, because archaeology was and always has been my end goal. Like those “writers” starting their first novel at a cafe, exchanging ideas with fellow writers. It’s the same premise, when you see another archaeologist drool over a piece of flint, or another jump for joy over a worked deer antler – the only bone that has come out of a tonne of soil – you start to understand what archaeology means, not just to our understanding of the past but to the people who do it.

In a modern world so fast and self-involved, I think we all feel a little disconnected from the past. My way of thinking has been shaped by my experience on the field, by my life counting bones, by the conversation post-lecture. Archaeology becomes more than just what we interpret about history but how it’s directly relevant to us.