Queen Himiko of Japan – The Archaeology Behind Tomb Raider (2013 & 2018)

“Myths are usually based on some version of the truth”

– Lara Croft, Tomb Raider

There was something to admire about Crystal Dynamics’s 2013 video game Tomb Raider, Lara Croft, the main protagonist’s of the franchise is a keen archaeologist and like many wide-eyed archaeology graduates wants to make a name for herself. In this rendition, her interest in exploration focuses much more on the archaeology she hopes to discover than the treasure she uncovers during her time as PlayStation’s pinup girl of the 90s. In the 2013 game, recent archaeology graduate Lara Croft travels to a lost island off the coast of Japan in search of the lost kingdom Yamatai. Unfortunately for Lara and her comrades, the island is crawling with cultists known as the Solarii, and soon she forced into a battle of survival as she tries to escape the cult and the a supernatural presence that is chasing her.

Like many gamers, I loved this version of Lara (before the daddy issues came along, damn you Rise), and as an archaeologist interested in East Asian prehistory, this setting sparked intellectual joy (thanks Marie Kondo) unlike the previous games, which stuck to the fail safe of pyramids and King Arthur. There aren’t many faults with this game, and like Lara I too became captivated by the legendary figure of the Sun Queen, Himiko.

In the game Queen Himiko (卑弥呼) serves as the antagonist to Lara Croft, creating a supernatural entity Lara not only has to fight but also has to use her wits and intelligence to keep one step ahead. A formidable opponent for Lara, the spirit of the ancient Sun Queen is transferred from body to body through ritual female sacrifice.  Himiko is essentially a plot device that allows Lara to realise her full potential as an archaeologist and tomb raider as she tries to solve the mystery of the island and its inhabitants.

Queen Himiko as she appears in the 2013 video game Tomb Raider

A quick history

Queen Himiko was the shamaness ruler of the Yamatai kingdom, an area of Japan considered to be part of the country in Wa (Japan) during the late Yayoi period. Himiko is not mentioned the first history books Nihon Shoki (720 AD) and Kojiki (712 AD). She is however mentioned in Chinese history books, specifically the he c. 297 Records of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo Zhi 三國志). These Chinese sources portrayed Himiko as a mighty sorceress and there are several such characters in Japanese history who could fulfill that role. Scholars in the 17th century proposed Empress Jingu. She became the defacto ruler of Japan in 201 AD ruling for the next 68 years until her death at the age of 100. However, Chinese sources claim when Himiko died there was a prolonged period of civil war which ended in the Yamatai making another woman their Shaman-Queen, a woman called Iyo (壹與). Jingu was succeeded by her (possibly illegitimate) son, Ojin.

However, the biggest mystery that still lingers till this day is where was the kingdom of Yamatai? In the video game Yamatai is depicted as having multi-period occupation island, but archaeologists believe the real Yamatai to have existed in some form in Kinki, the Yamato region of Japan.

The Yamatai Controversy

Andonyama kofun – burial mound of Emperor Sujin

Known in academia as “The Yamatai Controversy” , in the last century archaeologists and historians had two main contenders for the location of Yamatai. Kinki in the Yamato region of Japan and Northern Kyushu. However, an account by a Korean itinerary to Yamatai in Wei-shu disputes the theory that the kingdom was that far south in Kyushu.

It is likely that the kingdom was close to the old capital of Nara within mainland Japan, a potential archaeological site has been linked to Yamatai in Hashihaka. In 2009, excavations in Makimuku ancient ruins in Sakurai revealed the Hashihaka tomb, dating back to the late third century, and is said to be the location of the tomb of Himiko. The Makimuku ruins measure about 1.24 miles (2 kilometers) east to west and about 0.93 of a mile (1.5 km) from north to south. The ruins have ancient burial mounds, and a 306-yard (280-meter). In 2015, further investigations showed a burnt boar scapula found in the ruins of Makimuku, which may relate to the practice of burning animal bones to tell the future. The boar bone found at Makimuku measures 6.6 inches (16.7 cm) long by 2.64 inches (6.7 cm) wide. A further 117 frog bones have also been found at the site and there is a suggestion that they may have been used as an offering to the gods or in some other kind of religious rites.

Shaman Queen

In the video game Tomb Raider, Queen Himiko is said to have shamanistic powers and abilities, and there is some truth to this. Himiko is said to have practiced guidao, or Japanese kido, a type of Daoist folk religion. The Gishi no Wajinden (魏志倭人伝, ‘Records of Wei: An Account of the Wa’) described her as a having “occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people”. She was seldom seen in public and was attended by “one thousand attendants, but only one man”. Like the video game, Himiko had many female attendants and a legion of skilled warriors who were sworn to serve and protect her known collectively as the Stormguard. They guarded her decaying body until Lara is forced to fight them to get to her tomb to save her best friend Sam from being another sacrifice.

 The archaeological record shows reveals that some of these myths might have some basis in the truth. Between 1955 and 1964, a series of archaeological discoveries including the excavation of a tomb near Kyoto with numerous bronze mirrors possibly dating from the 3rd century.  A mirror, known as Himiko’s mirror, was found in the Higashinomiya Tomb in Aichi, Japan. Researchers analyzed the “mirror”  and found it had a slight unevenness to its surface – so slight the naked eye cannot recognize it. The uneven surface creates patterns on the back as light reflects off of the front of the mirror, seeming to project a magical image.

Tomb Raider 2018

Queen Himiko as depicted in the 2018 movie Tomb Raider

Unlike the 2013 game, Tomb Raider the movie released in 2018 starring Alicia Vikander as Lara, takes Himiko in a completely different direction depicting the queen as the “Mother of Death”. The movie has a big twist, unlike the game Himiko isn’t mystical, (the real Queen Himiko probably couldn’t control storms or transfer her essence across bodies) but rather she was the carrier of a deadly disease. Furthermore, she wasn’t malicious; in fact, she exiled herself to Yamatai to prevent the spread of the sickness. There is no mention of her shamanic abilities or her role as a religious figure, which spurs the video game’s main antagonist Mathias, who’s been stranded on the island for 31 years, to worship her. Yet, like her real life counterpart she is still shrouded in mystery and intrigue.

The real Himiko’s legacy is a reminder of how historical women figures are often forgotten. She doesn’t feature prominently in the history of Japan, and recognition as a ruler didn’t come till the Edo period in the 1600s. It is likely that the Japanese adoption of Buddhism and Confucianism didn’t do much to elevate the status of women. Fortunately, she wasn’t permanently erased. Himiko represents the first notable ancestor of a strong tradition of female religious leaders and political leaders in Japan and serves as a representation of the unnamed women forgotten to history.

An Archaeologist Recommends, Quarantine Books – Must reads! Part 1

Like so many self-isolating, quarantining, social-distancing or whatever you want to call it from COVD-19. I have found myself comforted by the array of books on my dusty shelves. I’ve picked up books that I bought months ago and later discarded, I’ve re-read books that I definitely forgot about and like many others have purchased books that I’ve always wanted to read, but just never had the time.

So I’m pleased to outline some of my faves, these three books focus on archaeology/history. Have any books you can recommend a bored, creatively-starved archaeologist? Please comment.

1. Breaking the Maya Code by Michael Coe: The book tells the story of how a group of archaeologists with different expertise manage together to crack the Mayan hieroglyphs. It’s told in stylish prose not often seen in many academic books, and this is why it’ one of my favourite books. It’s THE book that got me serious about archaeology. It’s an easy read, and takes the reader into the thought-process of interpretation that many archaeologists shy away from explaining.

2. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari: While strictly not an archaeology book, Sapiens tells the story of the human race from its first origins in Africa all the way to the present day. Personally as an archaeologist who’s interested in the bigger picture, books like these always peak my interest. The author doesn’t shy away from explaining complex issues in a way which can actually be understood and comprehended by most people. The book is based on the author’s own opinions and thoughts about the human condition and character, which is welcoming change from most books dealing with the human history.

3. The Parthenon by Mary Beard: Beard can definitely be hit or miss. But the Parthenon is definitely a hit. The books gets into the details about one of the most famous buildings in the world. The book takes us back in time describing how the temple was constructed and uses throughout history. It’s the ultimate tour of the past and present state of this glory Acropolis.

An Archaeologist Reviews Detectorists

The are so many movies and TV shows that use archaeology as their main premise, and much of the time they fail to capture its pure essence, instead focusing on the mythical, the adventure, the extraordinary. But a lot of the time archaeology can be really mundane. The excitement an archaeologist can experience finding a coin is rarely portrayed in film and I understand why: why would an audience want to watch the mundanity of anything, but that’s exactly what makes BBC’s Detectorists so inspiring. It is about the ordinary, the unexceptional and the insignificance of every day life.

Middle-aged detectorist friends Andy (Mackenzie Crook) and Lance (Toby Jones) blissfully while away their afternoons sweeping electronic wands across the local fields in an perpetual search for ancient treasures. Their time in the field offers them a brief reprise from the humdrum of everyday life. Written and directed by Crook, the BAFTA winning show starts with the two leading characters in not such a good place. Andy is unemployed and Lance is bullied by his ex-wife who left him for another man.

The concept for the Detectorists is novel, character driven focusing on the emotional truths of being misfits. Throughout their time as members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, they’re transformed into time travelers and explorers, experts in their specialized field. In the first season, Andy and Lance are convinced that their favourite territory contains a Saxon treasure trove, but they usually go home empty-handed, probably to the joy of many archaeologists watching.

In reality, many archaeologists dismiss detectorists as mere treasure hunters. There’s truth in this, in the last decade metal detectorists increasingly impinge on archaeological sites, leaving damage and removing artefacts, many of which are finding their way to antiquities dealers or even leaving the country. But Crook wants the audience to know his characters aren’t like this, deliberately adding a line where Andy says “I don’t sell my finds, I don’t agree with it. When I am a qualified archaeologist that’s when I get to see the good stuff.”

And it’s true detectorists spend their weekends braving driving wind and rain, and have been responsible for a series of spectacular finds in recent years. Not all are criminal detectorists stealing artefacts in the dead of the night. Anyone who’s encountered one in the field knows that those strange whistles and beeps of a metal detector can conjure up a special kind of magic. An excitement even in the most seasoned archaeologist can’t resist.

And the flip-side of the treasure-stealing detectorist is the dismissive commercial archaeologist. Andy, who qualified as an archaeologist in a the second series, finds himself working on a commercial dig. The site manager suggests getting rid of the Roman mosaic floor, which Andy has recently discovered. The underlying message is that commercial archaeology sometimes fails to identify and protect archaeology that may get in the way of their client’s development. Crook seems to be suggesting that by becoming so close to developers archaeology has lost its innocence, it’s true meaning.

The Detectorists explores the state of our archaeology and our attitudes to the past from the keen hobbyist to the overworked professional. Sir Mortimer Wheeler famously said “In a simple direct sense, archaeology is a science that must be lived, must be “seasoned with humanity.” Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows.” And that’s what this BBC shows does, it tells the story of a bunch of enthusiastic hobbyists quietly living for the next time they unearth more of our history.

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.

Wishful Drinking: Alcohol & Archaeology

I was an alcoholic. Yes, I said it. Whoa. That feels awfully cathartic. I am now a recovering alcoholic (or the preferred the term teetotaller). Fuck, I’ve fallen in the trap like so many Francos before me have, despite my best efforts to moderate my drinking. But, I can’t blame my addiction on some sort of genetic defect, because most of my family can have a drink without making a complete brat of themselves or being a complete arsehole.

It had been a sordid secret of mine for so long that I never fully confronted what alcohol was doing to my mind, reputation, and self-esteem. Why? Because how else would I escape?  I had multiple issues with living in a world I didn’t fit in. I cared too deeply, a painfully shy introvert as a kid, who as an adult needed alcohol to “come out” of her shell. I cared what people thought of me, I wanted everyone to like me. I suppressed the nerdy side of me throughout most of my life, the weird girl who picked up bones in the school playground and wondered if she had discovered a new dinosaur. Or the kid who would run home so she caught the season finale of Dragon Ball Z. How does a person process the world around them without a light buzz throughout their day? Even if its with a (blistering) hangover.

My love affair with alcohol only fuelled my low self esteem issues. That guy doesn’t like me? Fine – I’ll have a whiskey, I failed my first year of uni? Fine – I’ll go out on an all night bender. Drinking was my only (known) coping mechanism. There was something rather reassuring about coping with an identity crisis in a midst of alcohol addiction – it gave me reason to drink even more!

When I discovered archaeology at the ripe old age of 25, I knew I’d found a part of me that  had been missing for so long. But archaeology had opened up so many drinking opportunities too. Any undergraduate student can tell you the mischievous they got up to during field school.  Or the brain crushing hangovers and trying to use a trowel the day after. During my undergraduate, I studied creative writing,  because you guessed it! Yes! I wanted to be a writer (I STILL am, just not just a pen for hire). I drank a lot there too, but it wasn’t shoved in my face like it was when I studied archaeology.

There were plenty of lectures, which you betcha had wine receptions. Oh and wine receptions were my kryptonite.  I could drink without having to worry about my poor student bank account. What a horror the day after when I learnt of all the embarrassing and nauseating things I said to some of the most esteemed professors in the discipline, and the futile attempts to avoid them on campus. There was a lot of ducking behind walls and 360 turns.

Separating my addiction and my passion became almost impossible, and the more I delved in this world of lithics and pottery, the more I found solace at the bottom of a glass. I had imposter syndrome once I had a couple of drinks in me I believed I came up with the most profound observations and theories. There goes that low-self esteem rearing its ugly face  yet again. But, don’t get this twisted, while self-esteem was a chink in my low-levelled armour I was my worst enemy.  I went to lectures drunk some times and despite my best efforts to hide it I probably stank of booze and made no coherent sense as I tried to form futile counter arguments on a paper I probably hadn’t read.

When I finally graduated my masters with a distinction (after taking six months off because my addiction had swallowed me whole) , I worked briefly as a commercial archaeologist and almost like an extension of university, the drinking kept going and going and going, and I found myself unable to hold trowels due to the shakes. Like journalism, which is a very boozy industry, so is commercial archaeology but instead of attending fancy press conferences with a free champagne bar, archaeology was devoid of free booze. So not only was I abusing my body, I also abused my bank account.

In the sober community, there’s not a clearly defined rock-bottom, like when you wake up in a parking lot wearing a pink wig stinking of fags. For me, and like so many recovering alcoholics (or teetotallers), it was multiple small events. There were too many times to count where I had crossed the line of assholery. A Jerkyll and Hyde scenario that was easy to fix, but my refusal to admit I had problem prevented any solution. Rock-bottom came in the form of not knowing how to process grief. I know – shit. Emotions had never been my strongest point. I am devoid of them, like a blackhole or so I’ve been told by many exes and former friends. I had a succession of friends who had passed on and my answer was to drink the pain away.

However, there is a magic moment when you realise you have a problem. Mine was sitting on the train home with a can of budweiser, a lady next to me had handed me a tissue. She looked concerned, not like I was going to nab her handbag type of concern, but the concern a mother has for her daughter. As I looked at my reflection in the train window, my eyes were red and puffy – I didn’t realise I had been crying. My body was trying to process the emotion of grief without even letting my brain know about it. I got off the train and decided enough was enough and at 31 I couldn’t carry on like this. The rest of the budweiser was tossed in the bin.

When I had decided to stop drinking, it was a minefield. How do I tell people? How do I avoid or attend the post-work drinks? I wanted to know how was it possible to stop drinking without thinking of my internal conflict with addiction. Firstly, I had to divide archaeology from my drinking, they had become too intertwined and murky that I might as well been drinking in the trench.

Archaeology wasn’t the cause of my addiction, but it did facilitate my urges. I made a very public announcement to friends and family that I had decided to quit the booze for good, not for a month, not for spring, forever. FOREVER. This admission was the best thing I could have done not only for myself, but everyone around me; no awkward discussions, no suggestions of drinks, no pretence from me.

Despite only being three weeks sober I’d discovered that I am immensely more happy about this new found freedom and less worried about the awful things I could possibly do. I also started loving archaeology again, I read books, attended all the free lectures London had to offer. I rinsed my British Museum membership, attended all the exhibitions I could, solo and with others. The desire to reconnect with the one part of me that I wasn’t actively trying to conceal from the outside world allowed me to be that young grad student again, that girl who on rare times didn’t attend lectures immensely hungover, who assisted professors with symposiums, wrote essays with enthusiasm. This was me NO is me, just minus my addiction.