Breath of the Wild and telling stories through archaeology

I’ve been planning to write something about the archaeology of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for a while now (ever since my post on cyclical time in Zelda), and recently Eurogamer asked me to write something for their website. So here’s my debut as a freelance games feature writer. Enjoy!

http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-07-27-zelda-breath-of-the-wild-archaeology

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Unlocking the Secrets of Karpathia the Keybearer

This week marks 65 years since Michael Ventris announced his decipherment of Linear B, so it seems like a good opportunity to write about something from the tablets that I’ve long been curious about.

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The Linear B documents from Mycenaean Greece are notoriously laconic, mostly consisting of accounts and administrative records. Among these, even the slightest glimpse of personal character or hint of drama is enough to make a tablet stand out. My absolute favourite is Ep704, from the palace of Pylos. This tablet is mainly a record of land-allocations to temple personnel at Sphagianes, but the last line throws up some intriguing questions.

Karpathia the Keybearer holds two communal (plots); although she is obliged to work these two, she does not work them.

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Imagining the Future in Bricks: The Designs of Lego Space (Part 2 – the 90s)

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Last time we left it with the transition into the 90s and the beginning of the controversial neon era of Lego space. This is where it gets difficult for me to analyse things at all objectively. Although I had inherited some early Classic Space from my uncle and had picked up the odd small Futuron and Space Police set, it was with the early 90s sets that I was the right age to really get obsessed in a big way. Everything about these sets is, for me, coloured by nostalgia and immense affection. For a lot of the Lego fan community, this is a ‘silver age’, a come-down after the heights of Classic Space, but nothing will ever supplant the holy trinity of M:Tron, Ice Planet and the second Blacktron theme in my affections. Even so, let’s try and look at them as analytically as we can. Continue reading

Imagining the Future in Bricks: The Designs of Lego Space (Part 1 – 70s and 80s)

Space Lego.

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Have there ever been two words that go together quite so evocatively and conjure such boundless possibility? From 1978 to 1999 Lego released an unbroken sequence of original space sets, more than twenty years’ worth of spaceships, bases, rovers and robots. I was lucky enough to grow up right in the middle of this, a geeky kid as fascinated by space and science fiction as I was by knights and castles. Needless to say, I had a lot of space Lego.

I’ve written elsewhere about my own experience of a childhood lived through Lego bricks, about how those little plastic pieces lent physical reality and material texture to my imagination, how they continue to encode memories of my early life. What I’m interested in here is the world of Lego Space itself, and how it drew from outside inspiration. These ship designs and imagined spaces that mean so much to me – loosely defined but vividly depicted – where did they come from?  What were the influences on the small group of predominantly Danish designers who created them? Continue reading

The Afterlife of Baʿal

(or, What This Ugaritian Storm-God Looks Like Now Will Astound You!)

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Ba’al on a stele from Ugarit, now in the Louvre

 

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Reconstruction of the Temple of Ba’al on the acropolis of Ugarit. From Callot 2011

 

Ever since excavations began at the Syrian city of Ugarit in 1929, the importance of the god Baʿal has been clear. Among the first Ugaritic texts discovered at the site were mythological tablets recounting the legends of this god; Baʿal’s temple was excavated in prime position on the city’s acropolis, close to that of his father Dagan. While the supreme god El occupied the pinnacle of the Ugaritian pantheon, as more and more ritual and religious documents have been recovered from Ugarit, it’s become unquestionable that the city’s people felt a particular fondness and affinity for Baʿal, the archetypal king who had his palace on Mount Saphon overlooking the city.

But Baʿal was not solely an Ugaritian god and knowledge of him was far from lost with the destruction of the city around 1176 BC. Through the distorting filters of hostile Judaeo-Christian writings and the medieval and later traditions of demonology and the occult which reinterpreted them, Baʿal has enjoyed quite an afterlife which has taken him from Canaanite king and storm-god to lurid demon in the court of Satan. In this incarnation he’s spread through popular culture. It’s a massive amount of cultural baggage to have built up even before those first Ugaritic texts were discovered. Continue reading

Decorating Eggs in the Ancient World

It’s Easter! Which means everyone’s developed a bizarre preoccupation with eggs. How we chortle as adverts everywhere wheel out the same old egg-puns as if they’re the first to think of them. Egg-straordinary! Never mind; it means we get some chocolate. I’m particularly partial to Mini Eggs myself.

As you probably know, for many it’s traditional to paint and decorate eggs at Easter. Like many Christian festivals, there’s a healthy vestige of earlier practices in Easter, as the Church sought to appropriate and sanitise pagan spring fertility celebrations. The name Easter itself most likely derives from the Germanic goddess Ēastre, which in turn seems to come from the Proto-Indo-European word for dawn, and so is cognate with classical goddesses such as Eos or Aurora. So it’s no surprise to learn that decorating eggs is a practice with roots much older than Christianity. In fact we have painted eggs from the ancient Near East which date as far back as the third millennium BC.

How do egg-shells manage to survive for nearly five thousand years in the archaeological record?

Two answers. One: lots of them were found in tombs. Two: they used ostrich eggs.

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Minoan ostrich egg rhyton. Late Bronze Age

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The Writing Systems of The Legend of Zelda

I wrote a little while ago about the storytelling of the Legend of Zelda games, flushed with excitement for the then-forthcoming latest instalment ‘Breath of the Wild’. Well, that came out five weeks ago now, and I’m still playing it. As anyone who’s glanced at a video games review site recently will know, it’s very, very good. At some point I’ll write something about the archaeology of Breath of the Wild, which I find fascinating, but for now I want to bring all this Zelda talk a bit closer to the day job and talk about writing systems.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Zelda series has always placed game mechanics and fun over world-building and internal consistency. It’s largely eschewed the reams of invented lore that populate the bookshelves of other fantasy games, and it’s certainly not the kind of series that would bother itself with Tolkien-esque invention of fictional language. But, perhaps curiously, it has been very willing to experiment with inventing writing systems, and in true Zelda style there’s little consistency from one game to the next, which means it offers us some remarkable diversity. Continue reading