Playing an archeologist in D&D?

In the Tomb of Annihilation adventure you have to find an ancient ruined city somewhere in the middle of the jungle, enter its dungeon, destroy an evil artifact and defeat the evil lich. All very principled. And you can play as an archeologist (or an anthopologist).

Kind of.

You’re still gonna play a fighter, a wizard, a bard or whatnot, but you can choose the aforementionned disciplines as “backgrounds”.

Apart from the fluff, an archeologist has the following ability:

Historical Knowledge

When you enter a ruin or dungeon, you can correctly ascertain its original purpose and determine its builders, whether those were dwarves, elves, humans, yuan-ti, or some other known race. In addition, you can determine the monetary value of art objects more than a century old.

That’s nice, I guess.

But… It’s a bit weird really. Well, first, obviously there’s a major difference with using archeology knowledge for a dungeon master to help with verisimilitude and a player who plays an archeologist…

If there is an archeologist character, it implies the discipline of archeology in-world. Tomb-robbing is often a central thing in D&D (as it is in my campaign), but that’s pretty much the antithesis of archeology, which can be described, I think, as a systematic method centered around a scientific basis for the purpose of finding and studying ancient artefacts.


It is true that the players can be somewhat methodic – in killing and looting everything!

It’s the scientific part that’s a hard pill to swallow for me. You see, archeology did not exist before the 18th century. Indeed, to see the emergence of archeology first you had to have a couple of things in place: scientific theory, a surging interest for things of the past of course, and, let’s not forget, an era of colonialism

Of course, you can do what you want with your elfgame, but for an obsessive-compulsive like me, who wants things to make some kind of sense (as much as a silly game as D&D allows), something that is so steeped in a very modern background that implies modern knowledge and modern infrastructure (universities and museums and so on) is off-putting.

With all of that in mind you could have an archeologist character, but I think you would need either just simply disregard all of the above (the de facto solution) or you could craft a campaign that fits this kind of premise and in that case, it would be very far from the usual vanilla fantasy… But maybe not uninteresting.

Archeologist Treasure Hunter

Or you could just dump the whole thing (with its anachronism and ethical problems) and just refluff the archeologist background as a Treasure Hunter… I mean, it’s a fantasy trope for a reason.

Plundering Mayan Tombs (for inspiration)

All following excerpts are taken from:

Deep within, in a large chamber hollowed from bedrock, lay Burial 10, a grave of extraordinary richness and diversity. The king’s corpse was laid on a wooden bier, surrounded by the bodies of no fewer than nine sacrifices youths. Offerings included a spectacular assemblage of pottery vessels, many decorated with Mexican deities and motifs. One of these bears the legend “the drinking vessel of the son of Spearthrower Owl”. There was also a ceramic effigy of an old trident-eyed god, who sits on a stool of bound human longbones. In one corner lay five turtle carapaces of increasing size, three still arranged on a rack in the form of an ancient marimba (a percussion instrument much like a xylophone). A small jade ornament carved into the head of a curl-snouted caiman provides a further link with Yax Nuun Ayiin, as does the offering of a headless caiman laid next to the body.

Canaa or “Sky Place” is the largest structure at Caracol. Its form echoes a Preclassic model, a platform crowned by three pyramids arranged around a central court. Their sequential phases conceal a number of wealthy, though unidentified, tombs. Other parts of the complex clearly served residential, administrative or religious functions.

In 1997, excavations deep within the mighty Structure 2 uncovered a buried temple, now called 2B-sub. Beneath its floor was found the lavishly provisioned Tomb 4. It contained the skeleton of a man shrouded in textiles and jaguar skin, both partially preserved by an applied resin. Among the offerings were a jade mosaic mask; a pair of heirloom Early Classic jade ear ornaments; beads fashioned from bone, mother of pearl and spondylus shells; collections of spiny oyster shells; obsidian “eccentrics”; and the fragmented remains of lacquered wooden objects. There were a number of fine ceramic vessels – one in codex style – originally wrapped in loose-weave cloth. The most outstanding of these was a plate with an image of huunal, the so-called “Jester God”, a divine patron of kingship.

A jaguar cushion atop a reed effigy caiman forms his throne, roofed by a canopy representing the sky and crowned by the great celestial bird, the avian aspect of the god Itzamnaaj. The seat itself was reached by a ladder, draped with a cloth marked by the king’s bloody footprints, the contribution of a sacrificial slain at its base.

A depression in the courtyard facing Structure J-5, high in the West Acropolis, alerted archaeologists to the presence of a collapsed chamber beneath. Excavation revealed a vaulted tomb, Burial 5, the richest yet found at the city. It contained the body of a mature male accompanied by two juveniles. The lord’s skull has been deliberately flattened during childhood (to produce the sloping forehead associated with the Maize God), but a better sign of his high status are the inlays of jade and pyrites drilled into 15 of his front teeth. Among the grave goods was a large quantity of jade, including finely worked bead necklaces and a figurine placed in his mouth. A hematite mirror – with 85 of its mosaic platelets still in place – was found set at an angle, positioned to reflect the king’s image in death as it did in life.

In 1949, the great Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier was restoring the inner sanctuary of the Temple of Inscriptions when he noticed that on of the great slabs of its floor had an arrangement of 12 stone-plugged holes. The plugs were removed and the holes used (as they had been intended) to lift the slab, revealing a rubble-packed shaft. This proved to be the mouth of a stairway leading deep into the heart of the pyramid. After four seasons of effort digging out the compacted fill, excavators had followed the steps 80 ft (25m) down, negotiated a change of direction, and come to a short corridor. At its end was a stone box containing the disarticulated skeletons of five or six individuals and, to its left, a triangular stone door. The sealed doorway was first penetrated on 13 June 1952, when an intrusive flashlight revealed a sight that still has no equal in the Maya world.

Dungeon Design: Pyramid of the Magician

I keep saying this, if you want good inspiration for your D&D setting, you can’t beat the real world.

Here’s a case in point:

The mayan city of Uxmal is one of the greatest archeological site of the Yucatan peninsula. Among several other restored structure on the site, the so-called Pyramid of the Magician (that’s not what it was called back in the days) is at the center and the most impressive.

The Pyramid of the Magician, or the House of the dwarf as it is also called, is so named because according to local folklore it was built in only one day, ( as a challenge from the gods in one version) enabling the enigmatic being (surely a magician or a ugh dwarf because who else could succeed!) who managed that feat to become the ruler of Uxmal.

(the complete story is of course a lot more intricate than this!)

It has a distinctive architecture as it is somewhat round (for a pyramid), has five levels and is about 100 feet tall.

And here’s where it gets particularly interesting… Archeologists have found out that the pyramid has been built in FIVE successive phases – one temple per phase – the earliest is only partially exposed as a result of more recent superimposed constructions.

(So, local folklore got it all wrong, but still a cool story worth stealing for a game!)

Now, we can safely guess that a new building phase was othen motivated by the will of a ruler to outshine previous ones, establishing his own importance in the eyes of his contemporaries. Sometimes the earlier temple kept his original purpose, sometimes it was refurbished into something different. If it was a new dynasty say, what did it do with the tomb or worshipping altar, of a previous one? Sealed it off in indifference? Or (as D&D stuff now) use its deceased occupant as an angry undead guardian!

A few more random thoughts:

  • The Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal is one structure among at least a dozen BIG structures. So following this, it could be part of a whole site to explore – Dwellers of the Forbidden City style- not just a single dungeon.
  • False doors and false stairways seemed like a staple of these mayan pyramids. Add some clever traps and here we go.
  • There’s several entrances all over the place, some a lot more grandiose than others. One was through a elaborate serpent’s mouth.
  • Mayan art do love its serpents. Jaguars too.
  • Masks friese are impressive.
  • Stela are everywhere and have a lot of useful information engraved over them
  • The old TSR adventure The Hidden Shrine of Tomoachan is the closest thing to this. It has a lot of nice features, many inspired by mesoamerican culture, but it was designed as a tournament play module and is accordingly very limited in what it tries to accomplish. Still, we had a lot of fun as a group when I ran it.

Herodotus, The Histories -Extract- Labyrinth of Egypt

It has twelve courts covered in, with gates facing one another, six upon the North side and six upon the South, one after another. and the same wall surrounds them all outside; and there are in it two kinds of chambers, the one kind below the ground and the other above upon these, three thousand in number, of each kind fifteen hundred. The upper set of chambers we ourselves saw, going through them, and we tell of them having looked upon them with our own eyes. The chambers under ground we heard about only; for the Egyptians who had charge of them were not willing on any account to show them, saying that here were the sepulchres of the kings who had first built this labyrinth and of the sacred crocodiles. Accordingly we speak of the chambers below by what we received from hearsay, while those above we saw ourselves and found them to be the works beyond the human. For the passages through the chambers, and the goings this way and that way through the courts, which were admirably adorned, afforded endless matter for marvel, as we went through from a court to the chambers beyond it, and from the chambers to colonnades, and from the colonnades to other rooms, and then from the chambers again to other courts. Over the whole of these is a roof made of stone like the walls; and the walls are covered with figures carved upon them. each court being surrounded with pillars of white stone fitted together most perfectly; and at the end of the labyrinth, by the corner of it, there is a pyramid of 240 feet, upon which large figures are carved, and into this there is an underground way.

A labyrinth, with an underground level and an adjacent pyramid? That’s a megadungeon right here!

The romance of archeology: extract – V

Magoffin, R.V.D, Davis, Emiy C.The romance of archeology, Garden City Publishing Company Inc., 1929, New York

Chapter Eight: Archaeology in British Isles, p 173-174

The stone huts cleared of sand are large, with ceilings as high as ten feet, but the doors are low, so that even a short man must stoop to enter. Inside a typical house were found stone tables, stone cupboard shelves, a fireplace, and scattered household articles of a seaside home of the Stone Age — bone laddles, drinking cups of whalebone, simple earthenware dishes, and polished stone axe-heads. in addition there were beads and amulets of walrus ivory, which the fishermen and their dark-haired wives wore to set off their costumes of animal skins or to ward off evil. An unexpected discovery was that huts were connected by a network of indoor streets made of roofed-over stone passages. The untidy villagers cast kitchen refuse on the roofs of these indoor streets, and at times even built campfire there and cooked their meals.

In the corner of one cottage the archaeologists discovered a mysterious grave containing two skeletons. These appear to be not the remains of inhabitants of the stone house but victims entombed by some gruesome rite when the house was built. Barbarians elsewhere have been known to sacrifice a victim at the foundation of a new building in order to confer a magic stability upon its walls. The meaning of the burials is carved in plain view on a slab in front of the grave; but the marks have defied modern scholarship. They are like, and yet unlike, runic letters.

The romance of archeology: extract – IV

Magoffin, R.V.D, Davis, Emiy C.The romance of archeology, Garden City Publishing Company Inc., 1929, New York

Chapter 5: The Glorious Past of Hellas, p107-108

In the argolid, on a mountain spur 912 feet high, Schliemann in 1876 first found a double ring (87 feet in diameter) of stone slabs. Twenty-three feet below the surface he came upon the first of five graves. In it and the others (a sixth grave was discovered later) were found face masks of solid gold, bracelets, rings, daggers (sixty swords and daggers in one tomb), ivory, amber, silver, bronze, alabaster, diadems, pendants, grasshopers of gold with chains of gold wherewith the royal ladies attached them as ornaments on their dresses or in their hair; more than seven hundred ornaments in all. Nothing to equal this had ever been found before. Small wonder, it is not, that the world got into training for an archeological race?

The romance of archeology: extract – III

Magoffin, R.V.D, Davis, Emiy C.The romance of archeology, Garden City Publishing Company Inc., 1929, New York

Chapter 3: Glamor of the Gift of the Nile, p67

Reisner believed  from the first that he had discovered, not a burial, but a reburial. Pharaoh Sneferu had made a tomb for his queen Hetepheres near his own pyramid at Dahshur. Sneferu died and was entombed. When Hetepheres died, her son Cheops placed her mummy in the prepared tomb, as is proved by inscriptions. Thieves broke into Queen Hetepheres’ tomb, but were discovered, and of course killed, before much treasure, if any, had been carried away. Cheops, seemingly, was having a secret tomb prepared near his own pyramid, but did not wait for its completion, but removed his mother to it at once.

Inside the tomb chamber was a marble sarcophagus, over which lay a number of faïence-inlaid sheets of gold. On the floor were several chairs overlaid with gold, and a set of eight marvelous toilet jars of alabaster. on what was left of a palanquin and bed were four identical inscriptions which, when translated, say: “the mother of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Follower of Horus, the guide of the ruler, the favorite one whose every word is done for her, the daughter of the god of his body, Hetepheres. ” Inside a gold-encased box […] containing deben rings, ” were found two sets of ten anklets. These rings for the legs are inlaid with dragon flies of malachite, lapis lazuli, and red carnelian. They are of different diameters, graduated in size to fit the leg. On the floor also were discovered three cups of gold, two gold and five copper razors, three gold and four copper knives, as well as several flint knives and many pieces of pottery and alabaster. To the dismay of the excavators, when the lid of the sarcophagus was raised, no mummy was inside. It must have been hidden somewhere else.

The romance of archeology: extract – II

Magoffin, R.V.D, Davis, Emiy C.The romance of archeology, Garden City Publishing Company Inc., 1929, New York

Chapter 3: The Glamor of the Gift of the Nile, p 58

Queen Hatshepsut’s temple architect, Senmut, seems to have been this Egyptian Elizabeth’s Essex. In building the temple for his queen, he introduced his own portrait behind various doors in it. In the season 1927-1928, the Metropolitan Museum’s Egyptian Expedition found he had also dared to start a tomb for himself deep down and directly beneath her temple. Only one room of his tomb had been decorated before his downfall. Its ceiling represents a chart of the heavens, the best, and one of the earliest astronomical charts thus far found. Senmut also brought down from Assuan to Karnak two granites obelisks 97 1/2 feet high for the Queen’s jubilee. They were the tallest obelisks ever made with the one exception of that erected at Heliopolis by her enemy (and also her half-brother and nephew), Thothmes III […]