As discussed in the previous Horizon Zero Dawn Post, archaeology in Horizon Zero Dawn is an unspoken theme which exists in the game’s landscape and collectables. For more on how I am currently approaching the Archaeogaming of Horizon Zero Dawn and the background on the game, see the post from 28 June 2019. 

For this post, I want to focus on the artifact assemblages present in Horizon Zero Dawn. Specifically, in how the placement of artifact assemblages is similar to that of real-life assemblages as found in archaeological excavations as well as the contexts in which artifacts can be found. Returning to the premise of teaching archaeological thinking subtly, Horizon Zero Dawn incorporates material culture from our near future which the player discovers. In the inventory, players can view a small image of the item with a description of the item. For example, in the resources inventory there are simple items which the player collects and can use to craft necessary items, like arrows. These items can be as simple as bits of plant and bundles of wood. 

Other items which can be picked up through various means are items which are known to us presently but to a future humans with no understanding of our world, the interpretation of items is present. Specifically, the presence of analogue and digital wrist watches and keys stand out from the rest of the resources. These items have interpretations in the name and description but the inclusion of images of the item allows the player to understand what the item is in terms of our world. This representation of these artifacts holds the archaeological elements of provenance in telling the player where they commonly find these artifacts. There is the added benefit from the description and “used for” category to allow the player to interpret what the artifact is considered to be in terms of uses and value that the artifacts hold for Aloy’s world.


Figure 1_analogue watch.jpg
The resources inventory screen showing the image and interpretation of an analogue wrist watch. Screenshot by Kaitlyn Kingsland.


For example, the analogue wrist watch is known to Aloy as an “Ancient Black Bracelet” in which the name presents the Nora’s cultural understanding of a common item for people of today. The description offered more information about the item in terms of Aloy’s world. The description suggests that analogue wrist watches are a commonly found artifact in Aloy’s world which has some sort of value to the economic functions of the gatherer-hunter communities. This can be drawn from the fact that the item is a common item as stated literally in the text and that it can be sold for a fair amount of currency to all merchants. The description also offers the provenance in the “sources” category and the potential uses that the item has for Aloy, and subsequently the player.

A similar description and interpretation of the keys is offered to the player through Aloy’s inventory. This one is more notably consistent with the post-modern critique that interpretation of artifacts cannot be separated from ones own culture. Keys like our modern key sets are apparently not part of the Horizon Zero Dawn world and therefore they cannot interpret the artifact outside of their own cultural knowledge, providing the description by the Aloy, and the Nora for that matter, as a set of ancient chimes.


Figure 3_keys.jpg
Ancient chimes in the player’s inventory. Screenshot by Kaitlyn Kingsland.


Artifact Context

The maps which allow the player to find the collectable artifacts overlays provides an interesting understanding of the “ancient” world, especially when considering archaeology. The player knows the general location of the artifact on the landscape. Not only does this provide context for the artifact on the “ancient” landscape but also it provides context for the location on Aloy’s landscape. The map serves similar purposes to GIS for “real world” archaeology. On the map, the player can determine where the artifact is in terms of its relation to the cities and ruins. From this context, several layers of information can be extracted. These map locations also provide the player with a set of questions which may arise. These questions may be about location in terms of altitude, proximity to cities, proximity to ruins, and the questions regarding the reason for playing the artifact in an area of difficulty.

For example, the Banuk artifact location depicted below is fairly close to the world’s major city of Meridian. The player can ask when the artifact was placed there or when the city was founded. These questions relate to the closeness of the artifact to the major urban area. Did the Banuk originally found the city or were they driven out when the city was place? These  questions may be answered by the artifact or in gathering more information about the Banuk and Meridian, but these questions also arise particularly due to the map location.

Figure 7_Banuk figurine mpa context.jpg
A screenshot of the map showing the location of a Banuk artifact and the context of its location in the world. Screenshot by Kaitlyn Kingsland.

For other artifacts, the landscape may also provide answers and questions for the player. The player can interpret the artifacts and synthesize hypotheses regarding the culture which placed the artifact in the location. Going back to the ancient vessels, the location matters for helping the player understand how the map functioned for the “old ones” which might differ from our knowledge about the world today as the “ancients” include the fabricated near future.

Landscape and Ruins

In looking at the context of artifacts, it is important to acknowledge the ruins which exist from our world. These sites are visible on the map to see the site from an aerial view as well as on the ground. At ground level, it is possible for the player to understand the context of the ruins, not to mention the cities and towns of Aloy’s world. For the ruins, the player has context from knowledge about our world which provides an exercise in interpreting landscapes. Landscape studies could be done in the towns and cities of Aloy’s world but archaeologists generally tend to deal with ruins. Since archaeologists generally tend to excavate and analyze ruins rather than currently inhabited site, the player is allowed to analyze a site like an archaeologist would. 

Starting with the landscape itself, the player can analyze and interpret the landscape via the ruins and attempt to determine the function of each building. The two figures below show several aspects of ruins which the player is able to analyze and interpret archaeologically. The first screenshot shows the ruins of a street. The player knows that this as there are corroded street-lamps along the road which is lined with the ruins of buildings. The player based on their basic knowledge of our world’s towns can archaeologically analyze the landscape to understand what these buildings might have been and how the town might have looked prior to destruction. Archaeologists essentially do this as well. Sites are interpreted and analyzed based upon the prior knowledge of the archaeologists and the archaeologists imagines how the ruins might have been used and for what they were used. 


Figure 8_ruins for landscape archaeo.jpg
A screenshot of one of ruins of one of the “ancient” towns which players can visit, explore, and interpret archaeologically. Screenshot by Kaitlyn Kingsland.


From a large scale view, players can have Aloy climb to upper levels of buildings as well as mountains. From the higher altitude, players gain a better understanding of the site and its uses. The screenshot below depicts a different angle from the same site as the previous screenshot. Archaeologists make plan view maps or use GIS to better understand the landscape as a whole. While the player can use the map to gain an accurate depiction of the site, they can also take higher ground to provide perspective and context which the map may not provide. Again, the player uses their information about our world to interpret the site like an archaeologist would. The player brings information to the table regarding the site by using knowledge of the “real world” to determine what are roads but then they interpret and imagine what the site might have been and how it might have been used by the inhabitants.


Figure 9_higher view of landscape archaeo.jpg
A screenshot of the same ruins from the previous image of the “ancient” towns at a higher angle which players can visit, explore, and interpret archaeologically using new information from this different angle. Screenshot by Kaitlyn Kingsland.


Another important aspect of the ruins is the assemblages and artifacts which can be excavated in game. While exploring the player comes across what the game dubs “ancient debris” in which the player finds artifacts from the “ancients” and they can collect and analyze the materials found at the site. While exploring the ruins, the player finds a mound which has the symbol for valuables above it. When the player approaches the mound and interacts with it, they find an assemblage of “ancient” artifacts as address earlier. Items like are familiar like the “Ancient Bright Bracelet” which is a digital wrist watch, the “Ancient Chimes” which are keys, and “Ancient Toothpicks” which is a utility knife. Simply collecting the items provides the player with the opportunity to partake in interpretation of each artifact but also, if they spend some time looking at the “ancient debris” menu, they can interpret the assemblage as a whole.

Figure 10_ruins assemblage of artifact.jpg
A screenshot from the same ruins found in the previous two figures of an “ancient” town in which an artifact assemblage was encountered. Screenshot by Kaitlyn Kingsland.

This artifact assemblage analysis is a practice in which archaeologist partake each time they excavate or analyze excavated materials. While this type of archaeological work may be less common for the player to actually do, the exercise is still present and may provide a player with an understanding of what archaeologists do. As a tool for teaching the public the skills of an archaeologist, this assemblage analysis is potentially the most accurate in describing what archaeology tries to accomplish. However, unless the player takes a screenshot of the assemblage or spends time looking at it, the information and context is lost after the player removes the items from the debris. This can provide the player with an understanding of the value of documentation and why archaeologists constantly are writing, drawing, and producing digital content in their work. 

Figure 11_artifacts found in ancient debris.jpg
A screenshot taken after interacting with the same assemblage and viewing the contents of the “ancient debris” pile which was pictured in the previous figure.

It is in these assembles and ruins that archaeological artifacts for the Horizon Zero Dawn world can be found and players can begin to ask questions about the past people of the game. The player inadvertently begins to think more archaeological about the game world and the developers placed artifacts in an archaeological way. Horizon Zero Dawn provides examples of digital landscape archaeology and teaches the players (however subtly) to think archaeologically about the world and its material culture. 

—Kaitlyn Kingsland, Archaeogaming
9 August 2019

1 Comment »

  1. With the ubiquity of video games in undergraduate students’ lives now, I would love to see some of these concepts incorporated into an intro to archaeology class as an entrance point for concepts like context…and of course an evaluative project narrative after! The pedagogical possibilities are endless!

    Great post!!


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