Monthly Archives: May 2017

Archaeology Ruins Heroes: “Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Re-examined”

Sorry for the spacing on my last post, internet. Things were busy. Things are still a bit busy, so I will regale you with another tale of a documentary I was made to watch in class!

That documentary is Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle: The Little Big Horn Re-examined. As the title suggests, this documentary, based on a book by the same name, tells the tale of archaeologist Richard Fox and how he used a combination of survey and excavation to reconstruct Custer’s battle at Little Big Horn.For those not up with their random battles in the American frontier history, the national mythos surrounding Custer is one of tragic defeat. Custer and his men fought an onslaught of Indians bravely, keeping order and discipline even as they were killed off to the last man. What is generally not highlighted is the fact that Custer was part of a battalion sent to remove a large settlement of Cheyenne and Dakota and force them back onto a reservation. While that fact is something that this film shies away from, it is not the main focus. This short documentary film makes the case that, in fact, the battle was much more chaotic than the popular imagination believes it to be.

Fox and his team to this by studying the distribution patterns of government bullets and shell casings and Native bullets and casings. The bullets themselves allow them to construct the direction of the battle, while casings, which are dropped on the ground after the gun is fired, tell them where the different forces stood. And that’s not even the coolest part. The coolest part is that they can track individuals by studying minute differences in the marks the firing pins of specific, individual guns make. That may sound really boring, but being able to track a single person is archaeology is amazing.

I will admit, however, that I was momentarily appalled by Fox’s field methodology. Don’t get me wrong; he’s going the right thing. He and his team use metal detectors and, when they find something, they dig a small hold to see what it is. Again, this is how you do the study he wants to do. But I was trained to dig things deep underground.. The number one lesson you learn is to always dig in lots (or whatever your terminology calls them) that leave a roughly flat surface. Never dig a hole. But here it’s fine. They’re ultimately doing a survey of things buried slightly underground and they’re taking good measurements of them. But I still had that momentary, emotional reaction.

Fox’s reconstruction of the battle relies on certain assumptions about military order. During the late 19th century, apparently, men were taught to form a ‘skirmish line’ by standing a few yards apart from one another. However, if fear or panic set in, they will tend to bunch as a natural tendency of humans. If things are truly desperate, they will flee and not fight back or only fight opportunistically. It’s somewhat unclear if he’s getting this information from historical texts or ethnographic study, but it does seem to make a certain amount of sense.

With this, Fox makes the argument that Custer’s men were on the offensive for most of the battle, not the defensive as is commonly accepted. While it was believed that they did not go north of what is today known as Custer Hill, the distribution of their bullets and shells suggest that they were headed that direction, presumably to capture the group of women and children who had left the settlement. Once they were outnumbered and their chances of victory looked slim, they began bunching. Individuals seem to have mixed with other parts of the force, breaking what would have been the accepted protocol of battle. As bunching worsens, the ratio of government bullets and casings goes down, suggesting that Custer’s men largely ceased to fight. This is especially true in the final stage of the battle, in which the remnants of Custer’s men attempted to flee into a ravine, an event attested to by Native eyewitness accounts and corroborated by the soldiers who would eventually find the battle ground who reported a number of bodies there. Here, there is only evidence of small amounts of opportunistic fighting by government troops.

I found this documentary to be quite engaging intellectually. Emotionally, I was somewhat cool to it. It’s an emotional subject matter – the US government sent a bunch of men to force people to live on lands far smaller than they were originally promised; these men sought to capture the women and children to force the Native men to comply; over two hundred men were killed, some of them while fleeing – but I didn’t find it as mind-blowing as I think I was meant to. Don’t get me wrong, the tracking individuals by their firing pins was fantastic, but I feel like I was supposed to have an attachment to Custer that I just didn’t and don’t. I remember hearing the words ‘Custer’s last stand,’ but I feel like I never really knew what that was. Which seems really strange, since I’m from just a couple states away. (BTW, did you know that this took place in Montana? I totally thought it was in South Dakota or something. This is more embarrassing when your home state borders South Dakota.) I think I learned about the events around it – Sitting Bull was fairly prominent in my high school history class – but this event didn’t really come up. I feel like a childhood hero was supposed to be shattered in my mind, but I found myself going “well, that does seem more plausible.”

Overall, I’d recommend it. It’s a quick watch if you can track it down. Also, firing pin signatures.

Mecha Marathon – Broken Blade

Rygart Arrow is the only non-magic user in a population capable of magic. One day, he is called away from his farm because his old friend Queen Sigyn of Krishna discovered an ancient golem (mecha) that cannot be controlled with magic. Rygart activates it in time to dispel a covert scouting squad of military golems paving the way for a larger invasion force from the bordering nation of Athens. While Krishna’s King Hodr battles with himself over the correct course of action in the face of invasion, Rygart joins the Krishna military with the ancient golem. Meanwhile, his old friend Zess leads the invasion’s scouting squad.

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screenshot via opening sequence

There are maybe three good things that I can say about Broken Blade:

  1. Queen Sigyn, a woman of authority, is an engineer. Is the HEAD engineer. I like seeing ladies in science-based roles.
  2. Golems are visibly and easily damaged by the enemy, even if the golem is piloted by a main character with plot armor. This is good. This adds intrigue to the people watching for the first time.
  3. The opening sequence features a beautiful song and pretty animation.

Unfortunately, that’s all the good things I can say.

Broken Blade suffers from a mishmash of unexplored tropes called characters that have no business taking a role secondary to our main character. None of these characters are truly memorable, and their respective stories are not coherently connected to their fellows in a way that benefits the narrative. There is no foreshadowing of a character’s Dark Past, and if there is, it is only contained to the episode in which the foreshadowing is introduced. There are no endearing traits that advance the plot in any way. In fact, the characters seem fairly stagnant despite any micro-developments that might occur within a single episode.

That same disconnect is felt in the narrative. The first episode introduces some interesting ideas regarding the ancients that built the magicless golem and potentially the source of everyone’s magic, but further episodes fail to illuminate these ideas. In fact, each episode will introduce some intriguing fact about a character’s backstory or historical event but, like the technology of the ancients, will fail to explore this in future episodes. The idea introduced won’t be fully formed by the episode’s end, then cast away forgotten for the next; this contributes to the disjointed feeling I got while watching it.

A fantastic example of this is Rygart Arrow, our main character. His endearment comes from his disability (lacking magic). His disability is framed as a narrative device that would potentially be a source of frustration, self-hate, and eventually acceptance. This arc never happens. As soon as Rygart becomes the pilot of the ancient golem, any intrigue he garnered through his introduction disappears. Poof. There it went as soon as the end credits appeared on the screen. The next time you see Rygart in the next episode, he is somehow okay with everything going on in his life.

And then there’s the ending. Beautifully animated, yes. Fantastic color scheme, yes. Adequate denouement? No. Like the other five episodes, the final episode ends at a point where the political background could take any direction and the narrative doesn’t specify how that goes. It was sudden and it didn’t seem to resolve anything.

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screenshot via opening sequence

Broken Blade is, in a word, convoluted. There are too many characters with narratives that don’t organically intersect. That disconnect is felt the entire run of the show and it only adds frustration and boredom to the viewing experience. I don’t recommend Broken Blade to anybody but it somehow got good reviews on Crunchyroll.