Guest Post by Franki Webb, an archaeologist and writer. She started as a journalist but decided to chase her dreams of being an archaeologist.  Her writing mostly focuses the problematic nature of Western archaeology and archaeology in the media. Currently she is working as an archaeological consultant for an engineering company. 

Sarah Parcak, author of Space Archaeology defines the discipline as “any form of air or space-based data to look for ancient features or sites.” Space Archaeology is very much a real discipline, steeped in using the latest satellite data to find new archaeological sites normally difficult to see on the ground. This is very different to how archaeology is usually depicted in a number of videogames, such as Uncharted (2008) and Tomb Raider (2013), where data is curiously absent. Undoubtedly, audiences are familiar with archaeological themes in science fiction movies such as Forbidden Planet (1956); Planet of the Apes (1968); Alien (1979). Recently this trend has been represented in video games, with archaeology commonly used as a backstory in video games like The Dig and Heaven’s Vault. But it was in 2008 that we were first introduced to a new type of archaeologist from space: Liara T’Soni from Mass Effect.

Liara is different from the archetypal characters previously seen in games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted. These video games often show the discipline as exotic and exciting, normally with an adventurer stealing artefacts from cultures far removed from their own. But unlike these (thieving) adventurers, Liara T’Soni of Mass Effect is represented as a researcher with data and intelligence being her secret weapon. The series takes place within the Milky Way galaxy in the year2183 when interstellar travel is possible through the use of mass transit devices called Mass Relays. This technology believed to have been built by an extinct alien race known as the Protheans, when humans have made contact with multiple species outside our known universe and have planted themselves throughout the galaxy. 

Liara T’Soni in Mass Effect 1: Legendary Edition. Screenshot by Kaitlyn Kingsland.

Liara T’Soni is a non-playable character in the Mass Effect series, but she is also the trusted friend and possible love interest to the controllable protagonist of Commander Shepard.  Liara T’Soni is first encountered when Shepherd travels to Therum to find her and discover what she knows about her mother, Matriarch Benezia. Liara pleads with Shepard’s team for help when they find her who trapped herself in the Prothean security device to keep the Geth, a race of networked artificial intelligences, from reaching her. Liara becomes one of Shepard’s possible squad mates, available for dangerous frontline situations. At the beginning of the first Mass Effect, Liara is 106 years old and is studying archaeology to learn more of the Protheans. She is used to defending herself on remote digs—sites are often raided by privateers for artifacts.  Her dedicated research caused her to uncover patterns that hint to an ancient galactic conspiracy- unproven, but she follows her instincts. 

Unlike other video game representations, Mass Effect does it differently than fan-favorites like Uncharted and Tomb Raider. Liara is represented as a researcher and academic first. She spends most of her time in her office-bunker in the Normandy. She embodies the bumbling bookworm stereotype, one which is usually designated to males over the age of 60. Think Basil Brown in The Dig and Dr. Allen Chamberlain in The Mummy. The brilliance of Liara T’Soni is what makes her such a key party member. Her knowledge of the Protheans and the history of the galaxy allows for the story to progress. Her half a century of dedicated research caused her to uncover telltale patterns that hint to an ancient galactic cover-up. In Mass Effect, knowledge is more powerful than brawn, and when she is in your party she is able to interpret findings during missions, often using scientific thinking to aid and assist Shepard. 

In contrast to Tomb Raider and UnchartedMass Effect actually explores past sapien behaviour within the archaeological understanding. Many key scenes incorporate an archaeological or artifact, or take place in an ancient city or a dig site. Take for example a dig site on Mars unearthed the ancient technology that gave way to the human race’s ability to travel out of our solar system, the aforementioned the ancient technology Mass Relays. More notably in fact, during your first scenes playing Commander Shepard, you are on the planet Eden Prime walking towards a site where they have uncovered ancient Prothean technology. Prothean beacons are exceptionally rare pieces of Prothean paleo-technology and have survived intact in the millennia since the Protheans disappeared.  Known as the “Beacons », they were a system of instantaneous communication across the Protheans’ galaxy-wide empire. They were made to interface with a person’s brain, rather than through audio or video.Mass Effect isn’t without its faults, like most archaeology-themed video games, as archaeological sites are often trashed in order to reveal some concealed ancient artefact key to the narrative. But is this much further than the truth? Often on archaeological excavations, even the most systematic ones, less profitable archaeological evidence can be destroyed in order to get the knowledge and value within artifacts. The storyline of the entire trilogy begins with finding of the Prothean beacon during an archaeological survey. And the story itself is pushed and molded by the archaeological findings from none other than space archaeologist Dr. Liara T’Soni.

Franki Webb
9 July 2021

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