An Archaeological Exploration of Sagebrush – Part 1

So here’s a neat thing – I’m starting a PhD in September (2020). Honestly, the whole thing still feels a bit surreal, because I never imagined myself doing a PhD. For the longest time I didn’t even know what a PhD was, but as I slowly started to figure it out I also began to think that it might be something I was interested in. So I decided to take a big chance and am so, so fortunate that it has actually worked out! Now comes the exciting, challenging, and fun part of figuring out what the heck I’m actually doing, with the added challenge of starting it all during a global health pandemic. It certainly will make my new PhD journey unique!

Cults are something I’ve always been interested in, and that interest has only grown stronger as my interests in pseudoarchaeology have also developed. I see a lot of parallels between cults and pseudoarchaeology – in each you have people excessively devoted to their beliefs in a person, thing, or idea that tend to differentiate from mainstream beliefs. In some cases there’s some pretty overt overlap between pseudoarchaeology and cults. For example, in her book about the Raëls, Susan Palmer mentions that many of Raël’s first followers were people who were interested in Erich von Däniken’s ancient astronaut theories. Another more recent example is a popular esoteric alien-theorist/former Ancient Aliens guest who seems to be in the midst of setting up his own “religion”. I’m not going to name names because he likes to send threatening letters to anywho who dares describe his “religion” with different words. But you can read about it here. Point is, there’s more overlap between pseudoarchaeology and cults/alternative religions/new religious movements than one might think. And so that’s what I’m hoping to focus my PhD on – examining the relationships between cults/new religious movements/nationalistic movements, archaeology, and pseudoarchaeology in North America. I’m also hoping to throw in a look at how pop culture might be involved, given the influential nature of pop culture and the popularity of archaeology and pseudoarchaeology within it. And with the fact that there already is an example of a cult operating via social media (Sherry Shriner), I’m thinking pop culture is an important thing to look into. I’m sure my project ideas will narrow down as I begin my PhD journey, but that’s a quick overview of what I’m thinking about at the moment.

Approaching the gates of Black Sage Ranch (Sagebrush, 2018)

That’s what brings me to Sagebrush. Sagebrush is a 2018 game by Redact Games, available as both a PC and console game. I recently acquired it as a PC game as part of the amazing Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality that Itch.io recently offered. Sagebrush is a first person game, where the character (you) explores the compound of a 1990’s cult called Perfect Heaven, which died collectively by mass suicide. The purpose of the game is to explore the compound, collecting clues along the way to give you an idea as to what happened at the compound. Sounds kind of archaeological, right? Exploring a landscape of past human activity, looking for small bits of material culture to help you understand what these activities were. Given that it’s a video game (I love video games) about a cult in which I can explore it through an archaeological lens, I decided it would be fun to just that – to explore Sagebrush as an archaeologist. A little bit of archaeogaming, if you will. The game is not particularly long and only takes a few dedicated hours to complete, but it would still take one overwhelmingly long blog post to discuss it all! So instead I’m going to split my archaeogaming explorations into a few smaller, more manageable blog posts. Starting at the very beginning of the game as the main character (you) approach the gates to the Black Sage Ranch.

As you begin, you don’t know much about the cult or its property. You hear a woman speaking, sharing her memories of when she first encountered the cult. You don’t know who she is, but it becomes obvious she was a former member of Perfect Heaven and is sharing her experiences with someone who is interviewing her. Though it’s never made entirely clear, it seems as though your character has listened to these recordings prior to heading to the Black Sage Ranch and is recalling these recordings as you explore the property. These periodic narrations, or oral histories, are an important part of Sagebrush. Just as in archaeological research, the oral histories shared throughout the game offer you an opportunity to engage with the landscape of the cult’s property beyond just the material objects themselves. Yes, the material objects and landscape you encounter on the Black Sage ranch are important, but the oral histories shared with you lend additional insight into how the members of Perfect Heaven structured their lives around the landscape and those objects. They offer another method of knowledge generation. And they definitely play a very important role in the game. I’ll be referencing these oral histories often in my discussions about the game.

The map of Perfect Heaven’s property (Sagebrush, 2018)

You don’t have much in the trunk of your car, which you leave parked just outside the ranch’s gates, but you’re equipped with just enough to get you started – some wire cutters to help you cut the fence and get onto the abandoned property. Once you cut open the fence and enter the property (for the sake of these discussions let’s assume you have landowner permission to enter the property and they’ve lost the key to the lock on the gates), it makes most sense to head first to the large building just ahead of you. One of the windows has been broken, but if the property has been sitting unattended for some time then the broken window is likely the result of general weather-related deterioration. Fortunately the doors to the building are unlocked and upon stepping into the front entrance you find a map sitting on a table. The map is basic, but useful. It shows you, with labelled names, the locations of all the structures on the property. Archaeologically, maps are incredibly useful. If we don’t already have a map of the site (i.e. some historic sites I’ve worked on have included maps of the original property ownership and some of the structures built on the properties), we’re definitely going to create a map. There are two ways to create a map of an archaeological site – using fancy electronics to generate a beautiful digital map, and using a ruler and compass to create a hand-drawn map. Unfortunately the game doesn’t give any sense of scale on its map, but that won’t stop me from doing a bit of additional mapping of the structures for my archaeogaming discussions. We’ll just have to use our imaginations a bit!

And that’s where I’m going to end the introduction to this Sagebrush archaeogaming mini-series. Site surveys are an important part of archaeology, so part 2 will be the beginning of our site survey. We’ll use that to find our starting point, the first bit of information to set us on our archaeogaming path to find out what happened at the Black Sage Ranch.

Suggested Readings:

The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage, and Video Games