Fossil Fragments: Clues to the Past, Reminders of Mortality
Huge, huge thanks to Ilaniel, who wrote her dissertation on turtles, for helping me with the paleontology bits!
Fossils in Azeroth appear to be a product of verisimilitude instead of lorecrafting. With so many parallels to paleontology out-of-game, how do Fossils hold up within Azeroth? There’s a bit of a disconnect as the player discovers Fossil artifacts because they’re neither linked to a playable race (Draenei, Dwarf, Night Elf, Orc, Troll) or one integral to questlines (Nerubian, Vrykul, Tol’vir). At first, fossil fragments come across as a fun filler, a race that thankfully had an ilvl 359 shield and some rare pets added. In researching this article for an angle, I was reminded of the last few couplets of Ogden Nash’ poem “Next!”:
Amid the megalosauric wassail
I caught the eye of one small fossil.
Cheer up, old man, he said, and winked-
It’s kind of fun to be extinct.
Fossils are also the pre-history of Azeroth, an important time that the Explorer’s League feels compelled to preserve through their museum in Ironforge and expeditions. They remind the player of a time before their race existed, let alone the current political squabbles. In a world where players are meant to feel somewhat integral to Azeroth (see Ilaniel’s excellent post!) this is a sobering thought: Azeroth will continue to grow and change, regardless of your own involvement. On Earth, life as we know it now makes up less than 1% of all species. The fossils lying in the fields are monuments to extinction—your player, your race, your achievements will have the same fate.
As I described in my earlier post on museums, the Explorer’s League maintains a museum featuring fossils and other artifacts from their excavation projects, such as Uldaman. It’s a traditional 19th-century museum, with stodgy curatorial notes relating artifacts to current research projects and cultural propaganda. It’s a safe hypothesis to say that the Explorer’s League is responsible for classifying most fossil fragments, as they’re the only group that’s expressed interest in preserving them (unlike most of Azeroth, which takes pleasure in blowing up the past). They’re not perfect though: they have recent bones from the Battle of Grim Batol classified as fossils, imprecise dating methods, and a belief that fossils are easily found in rich soil. (As I learned from Ilaniel, the best sites to create a fossil are not the best sites to find fossils in. Fossils get buried quickly in lush areas with water, but are easiest to dig up in desert areas.)
As for the actual digsites in WoW, it’s a mixed bag with regards to accuracy. The process of fossilization occurs when remains are quickly buried, the bone minerals replaced by rock minerals over thousands of years. As such, areas prone to flooding in ancient times make excellent fossil beds because water is an effective agent at burying remains—if the remains are not buried, they will be eroded and scavenged. This also explains why there are many more fossils for invertebrates (organisms without backbones) and aquatic vertebrates (e.g. fish) then there are of land vertebrates (land animals). However, when one wants to dig a fossil up, an area with rich soil and vegetation is a hinderance because there isn’t much exposed earth. As such, the fossil digsites in Tanaris, Blasted Lands, Desolace, and Burning Steppes are ideal digsites, while the Un’Goro and Plagueland digsites are less plausible and more time-consuming. And in general, the half-exposed fossils are impractical although visually dramatic: they’d erode quickly and leaving them behind would be unheard-of at a digsite.
Like Earth, Azeroth began as a unified landmass. The in-game book The Old Gods and the Ordering of Azeroth describes the formation of Kalimdor as follows:
The Titans empowered a number of races to help them fashion the world. To help them carve out the fathomless caverns beneath the earth, the Titans created the dwarf-like earthen from magical, living stone. To help them dredge out the seas and lift the land from the sea floor, the Titans created the immense but gentle sea giants. For many ages the Titans moved and shaped the earth, until at last there remained one perfect continent. At the continent’s center, the Titans crafted a lake of scintillating energies. The lake, which they named the Well of Eternity, was to be the fount of life for the world. Its potent energies would nurture the bones of the world and empower life to take root in the land’s rich soil. Over time, plants, trees, monsters, and creatures of every kind began to thrive on the primordial continent. As twilight fell on the final day of their labors, the Titans named the continent Kalimdor: “land of eternal starlight”.
There is evidence to suggest that Azeroth’s evolution took a similar trajectory to that of Earth’s, albeit a bit accelerated if Azeroth has only existed for 147,000 years. In addition, the Titans had a magical hand in speeding up evolution, creating plants, humans, and animals to populate their planets. Artifacts such as the Vicious Ancient Fish and Ancient Shark Jaws allude to a time where oceans covered most of the planet, an equivalent to Earth’s Panthalassa, a vast global ocean. Over time, plant life sprung up in tropical climates, as seen in the Beautiful Preserved Fern and Shard of Petrified Wood. Current equivalent climates would be Tanaris and Stranglethorn Vale: sandy, bordered by water, with palm trees. Some artifacts parallel those found on Earth: the Black Trilobite, Twisted Ammonite Shell, and Strange Velvet Worm. Of course, there are differences such as the presence of living dinosaurs in Un’Goro crater, but we can safely say that most fossil fragments are thousands of years old.
Instead of tectonic plates slowly drifting apart, as on Earth, the landmass of Kalimdor was violently shattered during the Sundering 10,000 years ago, splitting the continent in two. The Sundering of the World describes it as:
As the aftershocks from the Well’s implosion rattled the bones of the world, the seas rushed in to fill the gaping wound left in the earth. Nearly eighty percent of Kalimdor’s landmass had been blasted apart, leaving only a handful of separate continents surrounding the new, raging sea. At the center of the new sea, where the Well of Eternity once stood, was a tumultuous storm of tidal fury and chaotic energies.
As a fossil is loosely categorized as a preserved specimen over 10,000 years old, one may assume that all fossil fragments on Azeroth reflected life on Kalimdor before the Sundering. The resulting continental split explains why vestiges of fossils are found on Eastern Kingdoms in addition to Kalimdor. Many fossils were undoubtably lost in the earthquake and resulting maelstrom, as well as damaged in the climate changes.
Strangely enough, the artifacts that are from extinct species carry the least monetary value in Azeroth. The Vicious Ancient Fish, Twisted Ammonite Shell, and Black Trilobite all vendor for 1g; while small trilobites commercially sell for cheap amounts, large trilobites and the other fossils would fetch a much heftier sum IRL. Their flavor texts still reveal an interested in paleontology, as they feature accurate details. “Myths persist of living trilobites of supposedly epic proportions” describes the Black Trilobite, and in fact, ancient trilobites on Earth appeared in a variety of sizes, some up to a meter long. The Vicious Ancient Fish is labeled as followed, “There are those who believe that oceans once covered all of the continents, allowing fish fossils to be found in locations hundreds of miles inland,” and it’s easy to believe that was once the case seeing how susceptible Thousand Needles and the Wetlands were to flooding after the Shattering. While archaeologists on Earth would find this fascinating, perhaps those on Azeroth do not because of their self-centered values in a time of glory and war. They’re more interested in artifacts that can shed light on the current battles or some perceived cultural superiority. Curatorial notes for artifacts at the Ironforge Museum praise the efforts of the alliance in the second war (Horde catapult), the scientific prowess of the Night Elves (Highborne Astrolabe), the craftsmanship of the ancient dwarves (Uldaman relics), and the endurance of the dwarven animals (Toothgnasher’s Skeleton).
The Devilsaur Toothand Feathered Raptor Arm are both artifacts that are based in paleontology facts but are a bit different because close descendants are currently thriving on Azeroth, as opposed to their extinct counterparts on Earth. The Feathered Raptor Arm is a nod to the paleo theory that birds evolved from therapod dinosaurs: “Among the Explorers’ League, there are those who believe that birds are descended from dinosaurs such as this raptor. The feathers suggest some kind of missing link between the two different kinds of animals. Alternatively, this creature could just be one of the many strange monsters which infest Azeroth.” Raptors can be found in several zones, notably Stranglethorn Vale, and collectors heavily prize the in-game vanity raptors. The Devilsaur Tooth (also formerly a hunter trinket reward) alludes to how species adapt and physically change through millennia: “Devilsaurs are among the largest predators to ever walk Azeroth. While most died out long ago, some thrive in isolated pockets to this day. There is much speculation about the purpose of the devilsaur’s degenerate front arms. One theory is that they help Devilsaurs rise to a standing position; another theory suggests that the arms titillate females. More observation is necessary.” The arms of Tyrannosaurus rex, the most obvious comparison to the Devilsaur have long been an area for discussion along similar lines: as a means for grasping mates, standing up, or grasping mealtime prey. In addition to the arms, the Devilsaur draws comparisons with T-Rex for its imposing persona. New players are terrified of the stomping Devilsaurs when first visiting Un’Goro. Taming rare devilsaurs was a sign of prestige for hunters and their leather was used for well-itemized gear in vanilla. Thankfully, enterprising corners of Azeroth (goblins, the Darkmoon Faire) have left the devilsaurs in peace instead of exploiting them as tourist attractions.
Turtles are another species that have both roots in paleontology and fanciful roles in Warcraft. (Ilaniel tells me that the flavor text for the Extinct Turtle Shell is mostly accurate, save for the tripartite categorization.) In Warcraft, players ride turtle mounts fished up from pools or from the Trading Card Game, kill turtles for their scales for armor, obtain vanity turtle pets, and interact with Tortolla, the turtle demigod. The Extinct Turtle Shell has the same model as several other shields, most notably Kresh’s Back, from the lumbering turtle in Wailing Caverns. Goblins use turtles as mounts and in the second war, Orcs used turtles as underwater war vehicles. As a hunter pet, turtles have the ability Shell Shield, which reduces damage taken. In this context, it’s unsurprising that turtles would once again be repurposed for combat.
An item of some interest to the Explorer’s League is the Proto-Drake Skeleton, vending for 20g. Proto-drakes served as the model for many Northrend-era mount rewards, bulkier and stronger than traditional dragons on Azeroth. They share visual similarities to Azerothian Pterrodaxxes, but are only found in the wild on Northrend. The flavor text describes proto-drakes negatively as “generally bestial and display none of the great intelligence and wisdom of true dragons,” yet they have served as mounts for the Argent Crusade in Icecrown and the Vrykul in Howling Fjord. It is stated that the Titans created these flawed dragons from “Galakrond, a massive proto-drake whose remains can still be seen in the Dragonblight” and further research reveals that the Titans created the later, more intelligent dragons that habit Azeroth currently, displeased with their initial efforts. This tale echoes Zeus’ displeasure with the human race, in which he wishes to wipe them out and begin afresh, yet is thwarted by Prometheus’ efforts.
The Imprint of a Kraken Tentacle is exceedingly valuable to the Explorers’ League, vendoring for 200g. The flavor text reads, “These gigantic squid are servants of Neptulon the Tidehunter and normally dwell in the Abyssal Maw and not on Azeroth. The fact that this imprint is fossilized in ancient stone suggests that the mighty creatures have been visiting this world for millennia.” Neptulon, the most powerful of the Elemental Lords (a powerful group that led the armies of the Old Gods against the Titans), plays a large role in the lore of Vash’jir as he is the ruler of the water. Throughout the zone, the players learn of the terrible attacks the naga, Queen Azshara’s followers, are planning and try to thwart them by defending Neptulon. The quest arc ends with Neptulon retreating and later reappearing in Throne of the Tides, in which Ozumat kidnaps him. The presence of Kraken Tentacles outside of Vash’jir is exciting because before Cataclysm, Neptulon was a mysterious force, assumed to lurk in the Abysmal Maw. With these tentacles, there is proof that Neptulon was involved on Azeroth, possibly to keep tabs on Ragnaros, his sworn enemy, or the Faceless Ones that multiplied all over Azeroth after Cataclysm.
Neptulon’s depiction as a pseudo-ally is a radical step for Cataclysm: previously, the Old Gods and their allies were evil personified. In Wrath of the Lich King, Ulduar brought renewed interest in Titan lore: the prehistoric Titans distrusted the evil tendencies of the Old Gods and waged war, imprisoning some such as Yogg-Saron, and banishing others. C’thun and Yogg-Saron have proved to be two of the most dynamic and complex raid encounters, while players since Vanilla fought Ragnaros and killed Therazane’s daughter, Princess Theradras, in Maraudon. There were even rumors that Neptulon helped transform Queen Azshara’s followers into the naga and protecedt them. Yet in Cataclysm, some of the Elemental Lords have turned sympathetic. Neptulon is worth saving and it appears his naga have turned against him. Therazane, the Stonemother, begrudgingly helps players yet scolds them for killing her daughter.
The Explorer’s League would be especially interested in collecting fossils related to the Titans because these gods created the dwarven race, the focus of my next article. The Titans aimed to create a race, the Earthen, that would help maintain Azeroth in their absence, but the Curse of Flesh created by the defeated and bitter Old Gods thwarted some early efforts. The initial wave of Earthen transformed into vicious and slow-witted troggs, which were locked away in Uldaman. The next wave of Earthen retained their mental agility, but lost their stone skin as a result of the curse. After the Sundering, they went into hibernation for centuries and emerged with greatly reduced elemental powers. Therefore, the Explorer’s League is an organization that preserves dwarven heritage just as much as it is a place for scholarship and research. As such, curatorial notes for non-Titan fossils should be taken with a grain of salt, as the curators may not be as interested in unrelated artifacts. (This could explain the strange dating on the Tanaris eggs and Un’goro fossils!)
Some of the rare items seem superficial compared to the exacting flavor text and links to the Titans in the grey artifacts: sure, they provide the player with some fun pets and mounts, but really, a fossil coming to life? Upon closer examination of the lighthearted flavor text, the repeated use of the word “Eldritch” stands out. “Eldritch magic,” as it is called, is speculated to be the reason why your player breathes life back into rare fossil fragments. Derived from Middle English, a combination of “elf” and “kingdom,” it currently refers to something strange or unearthly and was popularized by Lovecraft in his writing. The term “Eldritch” shows up a few times in Warcraft: it’s used to describe a cloth helm, gloves and shackles associated with Myzrael (a terrible princess), and legs that drop from Prince Tortheldrin, the twisted leader of the Highborne, in Dire Maul. So, enjoy your cute pets and ride your fossilized mount proudly, but be mindful of the price you may pay for using strange magic.
I’ll conclude this analysis of archaeology fragments by looking towards the future: the Ancient Amber. The flavor text reads, “The diminutive humanoid figure trapped within this massive hunk of amber is impossible to make out, its outline seeming to waver and blur even under the most steady scrutiny. The object makes those who look into it for too long uneasy, as if some time over the past millennia the fossil had become tainted with bizarre, eldritch power.” The humanoid figure trapped in the amber is you, a fossil corrupted by your own eldritch power. It’s a metaphor for the power and skills the humanoid races have gained in the past millennia, but also puts these accomplishments in a greater perspective. In the grand scheme of Azeroth’s lifespan, the events covered in World of Warcraft are a blip on the radar. By the time of the next Shattering, you may be the next Insect in Amber, preserved with your epics in a museum.