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.

Sooo…

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.

In the Maw of the Earth Monster

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Some caves are truly awe inspiring and it’s no wonder people have so often associated them with the sacred. Needless to say, one can exploit such a rich domain to extract gameable/storytelling content…

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Inspiring tidbits:

  • Cave of the 4 Winds
  • Caves of the Earth Lord/ Earth Owner
  • associated with rain and thunder spirits
  • Caves of the Inner Maze
  • Lair of  soul-stealing sorcerer
  • the cave opens its mouth at midnight
  • sacred stalagmites (guardians)
  • stone idols
  • Land of the Dead
  • body preserved by fire and then mummified
  • the Mazatec fear the Masters of the Earth who live underground
  • it is said that thunders are controlled by little old men
  • access to the cave-tunnel is difficult as it lies in a deep, steep canyon filled with enormous boulders; its size dwarfs the human visitor
  • representation of a skeletonized figure whose heart is still in place
  • shell trumpet, incense burner
  • cenotes are sources of evil winds; plants and animals that inhabit them , especially tortoise, are sacred

 

On the matter of Ambivalent Entities

or how to say no to D&D alignment:

From the Nahua perspective, nature is not always beneficient, and absolute good or evil does not characterize the major entities. A benevolent manifestation of the earth mother, tonantsij, may kill if she feels neglected, while even the feared spirit of death, miquilistli, can be entreated to spare a patient’s life. In the Nahua view, nothing happens without a cause.

Extract from Chapter 2, Rites of Passage and Other Ceremonies in Caves, Doris Heyden.

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 […]

The romance of archeology: extract

 

I’m gonna put a bunch of these extracts on my blog. I fucking love this book. The writing… the entertainment value is incredible!

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

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Chapter One: The spade is mightier than the pen, p10

The recall of the veterans to arms was sponsored by Alcibiades, handsome, aristocratic, very rich, and very clever, and quite the most gifted in effrontery of any Athenian of that time; and in the sequel he proved to be the most debonair of all the plausible rascals of history. The soldiers, and boys under military age, and the discharged veterans all leaped to the call of opportunity. Our veteran in Euboea got together what little he needed, and then, before he left his new little house, he buried in a terra-cotta pot under his floor the balance of his money, among the pieces being a number of the new coins that had been minted that very year and paid to him when he was discharged. He hurried to Athens, was enrolled, and sent on board the fleet which was so eager to go that the ships raced one another down the Saronic gulf, as all the women of Attica on top of the houses at Piraeus waved them bon voyage. The expedition was the greatest debâcle of history. The entire force was killed or captured. The pot of coins, after 2,333 years, turned up accidentally by a spade in 1921, is one of the thousands of pitiful mortalities of that ill-starred expedition now archeologically authenticated.