I am an Archaeologist. I am also a Gamer. It should also be noted here that I only became the former because of the latter. When I first started my career in Archaeology, I used to go to great lengths to hide that geeky, gaming part of myself. If you knew anything about the archaeological community in the UK as it was back then, you wouldn’t be surprised that I did my best to hide it from my Archaeological peers. Gaming was not an acceptable thing for a respectable Archaeologist to be concerning themselves with.
You have to bear in mind that, at least in the UK, this is a community where change happens slowly. The stereotypical Archaeologist, that eccentric gentleman with scruffy hair and outrageously bad taste in jumpers, wasn’t too far from the truth. It is a profession where, for example, we only just recently stopped using 35mm analogue cameras and that was only because the facilities to develop the film became scarce and too expensive. The debate concerning how archive safe digital photos are in light of this change is still raging and for very good reasons. But it does seem to be a profession that is adverse to new and emerging technologies. Most of the time it’s about the lack of funding, which is an entirely different discussion, but there does seem a reluctance to accept changes in practice. There seems to be a culture of this is how things have always been done and so ever shall they be.
So here I am stuck between two very different worlds (or so I thought). On one hand a universally well respected profession with a long history, which concerns itself with the past, which is adverse to new technology and full of people who don’t even own a telly and will look down on you if you talk about having seen a movie without having read the book. At least that’s how it felt to me. On the other my major past-time was not reading *shock-horror* but using products from an industry that is all about using the latest technology, experiencing stories in a visual way and very much looking to the future. How on earth could these two very different worlds be in any way related?
As it turns out they are very much related. You only have to look at the amount of times a videogame has looked to my profession for inspiration. Archaeology, or at least a form of it, has been used in almost every game I have played. From the likes of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted series to fantastical tales in The Elder Scrolls and Fable, to futuristic shooters like Mass Effect and Halo, archaeology is everywhere. And the reason for that is because archaeology is about telling the human story, about furthering our knowledge of the past, for the betterment of humanity today. And this is used as a plot device in many games, to drive the narrative forward regardless of the setting.
All of us Gamers have been there, we’ve all played games where the protagonist needs to find an item before the bad guys do or something very, very bad is going to happen. It doesn’t matter if it’s an Archaeologist Non-Player Character who has told the protagonist this and has set them on this quest or if it is the protagonist themselves who is this specialist in ancient knowledge and already knows, or over the course of the game discovers, what they need to do. And it doesn’t matter if you put this in the context of the present day, a fantastical world, or an extreme imagined future, the story is essentially the same.
And this is what I tell people who may find out that I’m an Archaeologist and a Gamer and comment that they think it’s an odd combination. When really when you think about it, it’s not. I think what they really mean is that they wonder how a real life Archaeologist can spend their spare time in a virtual world experiencing fictional stories and not sitting at home with their head in an archaeology text book. Maybe they think we all just live and breathe archaeology, admittedly some seem to, but that’s not me. I don’t live on a dig site and I go home each night and switch off. Perhaps that doesn’t make me a great Archaeologist, but people can think what they like; it doesn’t mean that it’s true and I can live my life how I want to live it. When I’m at work and out on site I know how to recognise, excavate, record and interpret archaeology. That is my job and I’m good at it. I just don’t see why I should have to eat, sleep and breathe it to be good at it. And why not play videogames as opposed to sitting watching telly, reading books or whatever other Archaeologists do in their spare time? I still don’t see why any Gamer should be judged for that, not just me.
The thing that surprised me is that since doing this job I’ve learnt I’m not the only one, LOTS of Archaeologists play videogames. Both our Finds Officer and Bone Specialist play RPG videogames. Even our Senior Project Officer plays videogames. Some of my fellow Field Archaeologists play games and one I used to work with would even bring his Nintendo DS with him to site and play it in the hut on his lunch break, something I’ve since been known to do as well. Despite me feeling the need to hide it out of fear of being accepted by my peers, many of them do it too. I’m not alone. They just don’t generally talk about it either and I think a lot of that has to do with the general perception that videogaming is a big fat waste of one’s time.
So I was both surprised and delighted when I realised that other Archaeologists were not just playing games too, they were starting to talk about it, to discuss gaming at their annual archaeological conferences in the United States. Not only it was becoming an acceptable subject in our community but there is also a name for it ‘Archaeogaming’. There was even an entire conference dedicated to the subject and a website maintained by Andrew Reinhard, who also has a book forthcoming (Archaeogaming.com).
I can’t honestly express how much I am thrilled by this. It’s a discussion I have been longing to have and to have taken seriously by other Archaeologists for along time. After all I only came to archaeology through my love of gaming, a truth I would rarely admit to others in the profession. I was just too embarrassed to admit it.
All those years ago whilst at University had I written a paper about this and submitted it I probably would have been laughed off campus. I was already gaining a reputation for being too journalistic; something which I thought was a little unfair. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that I love what I do and that it shows in my writing. My degree is not just in Archaeology, it’s also in Anthropology and Art History. I remember once being asked to write a piece on what would be my ideal museum display and I wrote about masks and their use on film. I imagined a whole gallery of famous masks from movies, from Phantom of the Opera to Starwars. I discussed things like identity and how the concealment of that identity was used to drive a narrative towards the big reveal that was often meant to shock and sometimes delight the viewer. But my efforts were not rewarded however, mainly I think because items from popular culture were considered to be low-brow and perhaps not something that a student of art and humanities should be discussing. Perhaps they thought it was more appropriate for film studies student. That frustrated me to a certain extent because the discussion of how to engage today’s audiences and encouraging them to visit museums was part of the reason we were asked to write that paper. But I digress, the point is now it seems discussions on what is happening in popular culture with regards to our profession is becoming more acceptable. And this is essentially what Archaeogaming is all about. Opening up dialogues within the Archaeological community concerning a growing media that has horribly miss -represented our profession for far too long and making suggestions on how we can change it. And in addition to this it is about how Archaeologists can become more involved in the games industry and perhaps use gaming to educate people on the work that we do.
As it stands the way Archaeologists are currently portrayed in videogames could not be further from the truth. The majority of us were no taught to use and be comfortable using firearms, for example. But the one single thing that annoys us more than a fighting mechanic or the way that these characters are dressed, is that some of these characters in videogames are called ‘Archaeologists’ at all. They are not Archaeologists, as Prof. Julia King has stated the term ‘Treasure Hunter’ would be far more appropriate (Reinhard, 2017, Archaeogaming). Tomb ‘Raiding’ is not what we do. We do not destroy environments just to remove artefacts. It is true; excavation is destruction. That is Archaeology 101. And the reason why we painstakingly record every tiny little thing we do. Because once it’s excavated it is gone forever. Full excavation of a site is only one tool in a whole range of methods we use to record and protect our historical environment. It is used only for two reasons, the pursuit of knowledge otherwise known as research digs, or because the underlying archaeology is under threat of destruction; otherwise known as Rescue Archaeology.
When an artefact is removed from its context, from where it was found and the very soil surrounding it, the story of how and why it came to be there, maybe even what it was used for and by whom and in what time, is lost. If you just hand me an artefact I can tell you what I think it is. But I cannot prove it. I cannot say for certain unless I know in which context it was found. What feature was it found in? What layers of soil were above and below it? Did another feature cut that feature? And was there items found in association with that? This is how an Archaeologist builds a story of how what we have found came to be there, what it was for and who may have used it. An artefact itself cannot tell us this, but the context in which it was found, what was around, above and below it, can. Archaeologists are experts at reading these signs and telling these stories. But we can’t do that through the artefacts alone.
Let me give you an example. One day I was standing in an evaluation, or trial trench, having dug out a pit that contained a small number of Roman pottery sherds. That pit was ‘cut’ into a ditch type feature. Meaning that when this pit was first dug, all those centuries ago, someone had dug it into a ditch that had already existed, therefore, the ditch has to be older than the pit. And if there is Roman pottery in the pit above, then then that pit and the ditch below it must be at least that date. This is known in the profession as ‘Relative Dating’ and is a practise that is almost as old as the profession itself.
So there I was with my measuring tapes and my drawing board, drawing the relationship between these two features so that we had a physical record of it, when I kicked something with my foot. To my knowledge the features had been fully excavated but sometimes on these sites there is a kind of stone that occurs naturally that is sometimes referred to as ‘iron pan’ because it looks like rusted old pieces of iron. When digging we will look for this natural ground because then we know we’ve reached the bottom of a feature. In this case a ditch. But the thing I kicked was not a stone. I bent down and gave it a tug and suddenly out of the bottom of this ditch I pulled out a long, heavily rusted, thin square length of metal that was most definitely NOT natural. On the end of this long metal shaft was a flat club shaped piece of iron, also heavily rusted, that would immediately made the object look like some kind of weapon, like a spear, for example? I was ecstatic! I leapt out of the trench stood up on the spoil heap so that my colleagues could see me, held this item aloft and yelled across the site “Look what I’ve found!”
I knew it was Roman; it had to at least be Roman because of where it was found. What was above and below it told me it could not be anything other than at least that date. Back in the office the finds specialists, who had never seen anything like it before, said no. No, that could not be Roman, it was just a horrid rusty old piece of modern iron and I must have been mistaken. Eventually it was sent to a guy who specialises in Roman artefacts and he confirmed that he had seen one of these things before and that yes it was indeed Roman. I had found an extremely rare Roman fire shovel.
Here is an extract from the actual report:
An unusual iron find was recovered from the base of ditch, context (35). The object consists of a long (670mm) shaft with a flat plate handle, a rectangular sectioned body, with two segments along the body twisted, ending in a leaf shaped point. The object is thought to be a fire or hearth shovel handle, and may be either domestic or industrial. The plate handle may have ended in a loop and ring for suspension, although the Poringland example ends at a slanted angle, and is possibly broken. The twists in the shaft are characteristic of these objects and are thought to have been used in objects of this length, due to the laminar bars of wrought-iron used in making them, in order to strengthen the metal, and prevent it from splitting lengthways (Brodribb et al, 1973, p.133). The actual shovel part of this object is missing, and as Manning states (in Frere, 1972, p.164) ‘The handle and blade were made separately and welded together’, so it is no surprise that this part has become separated.
Few of these shovels have been recovered in Britain, although they have a wide distribution (Crummy, forthcoming) Fire shovels could have been used in many scenarios, an example from a military site at Newstead in the Borders is known, and also from the Carrawburgh mithraeum on Hadrian’s Wall. One is known from a grave at Winchester, a house at Verulamium and an ironwork hoard from Lakenheath in Suffolk (Manning, 1985, p.13, A42). Fire shovels are classed by Manning as smith’s tools (1985, 13), but the one from Carrawburgh suggests that they may have been used for altar fires and it has been linked to the burning of incense from pine-cones, fragments of which lay beneath. The Verulamium shovel was found in a room which also contained a substantial hearth but no evidence of metal-working (Frere 1972, 77-8). The Winchester shovel was a grave deposit in a decapitated female inhumation, with infant, of the late 1st or 2ndcentury.”
(Hickling 2011, NAU Archaeology)
Sure enough, the full excavation of the site the following year revealed a beautiful pottery kiln, and larger pits containing hundreds of Roman pottery sherds. Therefore it is likely that the Poringland shovel, the one that I had found, had been in use during the production of this pottery, perhaps used to rake out debris from one of the kilns. The kiln was one of the most beautiful Roman features I have seen in this country. Sure, it’s not high status, like a villa with stunning mosaics or a military site. This was just everyday activity being done by everyday people in the past. But it’s a story that we were only able to tell in such detail because we had the full context in which this item was discovered.
Which leads me back to why the likes of Lara Croft and Nathan Drake are not Archaeologists, they are Treasure Hunters. We’ve never seen any of these guys use a trowel to excavate, draw or even so much as take a photograph of anything. More recently there have been attempts to make them more believable, by having them use terms us Archaeologists would recognise. In the 2013 version of Tomb Raider while talking about the artefact Lara wears on a bootlace around her neck she says “It was my first find!” Okay, maybe it was. But my first find was bagged and tagged with the context number and site number and now probably resides in the Museum of Cyprus in Nicosia. It’s not hanging around my neck on a bootlace. And the context in which it was found was recorded in painstaking detail.
It is notable that later in the series during the recent instalment Rise of the Tomb Raider, it is knowledge rather than items that Lara finds in these tombs. But ultimately she is after an item ‘The Divine Source’ and she is willing to go to extreme lengths to get it, even destroys these tombs to do so.
It seems that these characters tend go to these marvellous places with an entirely different agendas than that of a true Archaeologist. This is why we would prefer to have them called Treasure Hunters instead. The good thing is that Archaeologists are now taking notice of gaming, and how we are portrayed by these games. And like the portrayal of women and the inclusion of the LGBT characters, the only way we are going to change the perception of Archaeologists in gaming is to start having these conversations and to perhaps to start making games ourselves. I am glad that we can finally have these discussions, that Archaeologists can perhaps start to make use of Gaming in our profession somehow. This is an extremely exciting prospect for me and one I wish to very much be apart of. Now that my secret is out, and that Archaeologists and the Archaeological community as a whole are recognising the benefits of gaming, having discussions about gaming in relation to archaeology and the stories it can help us tell, I feel able and that it is the right time to tell my story. So in the next few months I hope to write down more stories and share with you my experience of being an Archaeologist and how it very much relates to me also being a Gamer.
Reinhard, A (2017) Archaeogaming at the Society for Historical Archaeology: A Response.
Hickling, S. (2011) Archaeological Evaluation on Land between Carr Lane and Shotesham Road, Poringland, Norfolk. Norwich: NAU Archaeology, Report 2586.