Ripped from the Headlines: Looting, Museums, Archaeology, and Elder Scrolls Online

The storied and vast Elder Scrolls universe continues to delight and surprise the archaeologist in me, and today’s adventuring led me to the Ayleid ruins of Rulanyil’s Fall, a public dungeon in Greenshade offering two heritage-themed quests, both of which seemed to be ripped from the headlines. The Ayleids (wild elves) are a Daedra-worshipping ancient race in the world of Tamriel, and in Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), these ruins, a prime example of Ayleid architecture, have been repurposed as “Endarwe’s Museum of Wonder and Antiquities.”


Endarwe, the museum’s director, has a problem: the Worm Cult. Think of the cult as ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, but with the power to raise and enslave the dead. As with what happened in the real-world with Palmyra in August 2015, the Worm Cult has engaged in a campaign of looting, destruction, and death.


As the conversation with Endarwe proceeds, we learn the Worm Cult’s true purpose, as well as the main attraction of the museum: Warlord Ceyran. The museum serves as an Ayleid reliquary, preserving the remains of the feared warlord as a revenue-maker (think Lenin). If the Worm Cult gets its way, it will raise and enslave the Ayleid legend for its own ends.


We also learn a little bit more about Endarwe. He’s not just a keeper of the museum, but is also a collector, historian, and the leader of the Merethic Society.


As seen in the image below, the Merethic Society aggressively collects antiquities, presumably for preservation and display. The note about government intervention with collection resonates with real-world laws such as various memoranda of understanding between governments regarding the trade in antiquities, as well as the 1970 UNESCO Convention outlining rules governments should follow when dealing with antiquities collection and sale. To the Merethic Society, all is fair in collecting, and what is collected goes on display for the public, perhaps being laundered first.


Endarwe grants the main quest of the dungeon, “The Dead King”, which is to protect the remains of Ceyran from the Worm Cult. On the way down to the main exhibit, I stop to look at a few works of art set into niches, as do others who are questing in this space. I like how some players do take the time to admire the detail in the game before returning to the grind of killing evil.


The Museum of Wonder and Antiquities is the first official museum I have found (so far) in ESO, and this comes after leveling my character to 50 and punching out every item on every map prior to arriving in Stonefalls. This means that for the citizens (and players) in Tamriel in ESO, there is only one public museum to share, and only one focused on Ayleid culture to the exclusion of other races in the game. I found myself wondering if there are other public collections within the world, and will continue to look for them.


The museum is windowless, lit with ambient light and candles, and glowing crystals. There is no signage to be seen, and nothing to explain the antiquities on display, not even a QR code (joking).


Here’s a historic sword in a historic font. Who owned the sword? What did the font do before this place became a museum? We’ll never know.


Here’s a horse-art reliquary, but again, it’s fun to look at and adds to the feel of the space in the game, but there’s nothing more.


This is some kind of fetish and banner. Looks cool, but no info.


Halfway through the museum I stumble upon a Khajit (race of cat-people), Dulini, who is one of the few things alive (or undead) in the museum not trying to kill me. She has a quest-giver icon over her, so we talk. He thinks I’m a cultist, which is reasonable seeing as the space is currently overrun with them.


Dulini needs help, and offer the “Merethic Collection” quest in which I am to find four items of historic importance that he hid in advance of the Worm Cult’s arrival. One can easily draw a parallel with the occupation of Timbuktu by Ansar Dine and the partial destruction of manuscripts in the archives, partial because of the efforts to secure thousands of other manuscripts by Abdel Kader Haïdara and others. Another parallel is the hiding of antiquities in Palmyra, and their defense by senior archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad.


I agree to help, and the hiding spots are revealed on my map. Dulini is giving his life to save these artifacts, and I agree to do the same. Note that this is an optional quest, and also note that you do not have to turn in the antiquities once you recover them, although Dulini is putting his faith in you to do the right thing.


I set off, still looking for the remains of Ceyron for my original quest. I quickly come upon the first hiding spot, a vase.


Searching the vase reveals an artifact: Compass of the Lost Fleet. I collect it and continue.


Around the corner, I approach some suspicious rubble.


Digging reveals the Crown of Mansel Sesnit. I collect that artifact, too.


Getting closer to the holy-of-holies, I notice a loose tile and pry it up.


Underneath is the Sword of Aiden Direnni. I take it.


Lastly I find the Horn of Borgas stuffed in a bookcase, and place it in my rucksack. The four artifacts secured, I continue to the chamber holding the body of Ceyron.


The warlord rests face-up on a stone dais, lit candles nearby, and two tall candlesticks. He wears a chestplate and “shoulders” as well as a spiky crown. His hands meet over his heart. There are nothing but bones remaining.


Further examination awakens a spirit, and it’s not of the Warlord Ceyron. It’s the spirit . . . of a dead archaeologist.


Nanwen was a hired hand, killed in a cave-in. As with most of the archaeology-themed quests in ESO, safety issues are a big deal, and are often absent.


Poor Nanwen.


I have to tell him what his body is being used for.


As it happens, Endarwe (the museum’s keeper) was looking for the Warlord, but any set of bones would do. This meshes nicely with the trade and promotion of fake relics in the Middle Ages, drawing in crowds while making piles of cash for the owners.


On the way back to reception, we stop so I can turn in the relics I recovered for Dulini. The orc Orthuna challenges me, thinking I am on my way out with looted items. Note that in this Ayleid museum, and elf, an orc, and a khajit are all working together to protect these artifacts from the Worm Cult. This is unusual from a lore perspective as well, with orcs being of the Daggerfall Covenant and khajit siding with the Almeri Dominion. Political tensions are put aside against a common threat.


I decide to complete the quest, turning the items in. I received 265 gold for my trouble, about average for this kind of quest in this kind of environment for characters normally leveled to between 25 and 30.


I also get the opportunity to learn about the recovered items. Finally there is some history to be had.


But first, I get a lecture from Orthuna about the work of the Merethic Society. As it happens, the Society follows the bent of 19th-century antiquarianism, finding extraordinary pieces for an exquisite collection. Note what she has to say about archaeologists.


The Society buys and sells on any market, black or otherwise. I am beginning to feel queasy even though I saved the antiquities from a worse fate. At least these won’t be sold, and will be publicly displayed.


I ask about each of the relics. I learn about Borgas and his horn.


I learn about Aiden Direnni.


I learn about Mansel Sesnit.


And I learn about the Lost Fleet. All of this is Elder Scrolls canon, the series of six games being incredibly rich in lore.


Finishing this conversation, I make my way back to Endarwe with the ghost of Nanwen in tow. He is surprised to see us. He’s also dressed himself as a Worm Cult member.


Endarwe admits to his fraud.


And it becomes clear that I was used to protect the ruse. Killing the members of the Worm Cult was not done for ideological reasons, but one strictly pragmatic: money. If the hoax was made public, the money would stop coming in. This final reveal in the quest was, for me, breathtaking in its cynicism.


As with the completion of all quests, I am given a cash award as well as a prize. I am offered this as hush-money, and Nanwen’s Sword is a decent weapon, which I could choose to use, sell, or deconstruct for my blacksmithing skill. I have to complete the quest in order to complete the dungeon on my map, get the achievement, and earn experience. It’s a trade-off easily done in the virtual world. Why? Because in MMOs, the quests are infinitely repeatable — or I should say that the relics always repopulate in there original spaces after a certain period of time has passed.

I wonder then how many adventurers chose not to complete the quest, or chose not to hand in the four artifacts, taking the moral high road even though the Worm Cult was defeated within the walls of a museum it sought to rob and destroy. And what other meaning do players take away from this surprisingly complex duo of quests? A big part of me says, “not a lot.” For most players, it’s grab-and-go, cash-and-carry, quickly on to the next adventure. If we are to consider games such as ESO as places to educate players about looting and about conflict antiquities, the space is correct, but player habits often mean that these nuggets of wisdom, that these in-game morality plays get glossed over, and dismissed with the press of the “A” or “B” button. Getting players to pause and let something like this sink in is a tall order, but at least ESO makes the effort to at least try.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming

*All screengrabs were shot by me on September 6, 2015, via Xbox Live, playing Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited by Zenimax/Bethesda.

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