Fantasy Archaeology part 3: The Argonath

Something suitably monumental for our first site. Everyone should be at least visually familiar with the Argonath – those massive statues of the founders of Gondor on either side of the river Anduin that the Fellowship take their boats past. The context of its construction is buried in the depths of the appendices, though, so I’ll quickly explain.

The Argonath as shown in the FotR film.
The Argonath as shown in the FotR film.

The Argonath was constructed probably around year 1248 of the Third Age; that is about 1700 years before the War of the Ring. Gondor had been going through a period of expansion and prosperity, with its peak around the year 1050, but things were declining, and Gondorians were generally kind of anxious. This information, remember, all comes from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. We don’t actually know their authorship, or when they were added to the story. Perhaps they were also collated by the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who is credited as the author of the Silmarillion.

In any case, the appendices present a view of Gondor and the Númenóreans — that is, the ethnic group of Gondor, the ‚high humans‘ who spent some time with the elves — permanently on the brink of collapse:

“Yet the signs of decay had then [the beginning of the Third Age] already appeared; for the high men of the South married late, and their children were few.”

“Atanatar Alcarin [reign 1149- 1226] son of Hyarmendacil lived in great splendour, so that men said precious stones are pebbles in Gondor for children to play with. But Atanatar loved ease and did nothing to maintain the power that he had inherited, and his two sons were of like temper.”

Maybe the Gondorians were right to be so anxious; they did spend the entirety of the kingdom’s existence at war with their neighbours. Starting with the founding of Gondor, when they antagonised all the local humans by deforesting the countryside.

It was Rómendacil II, the grandson of that Atanatar in the quote above, who had the Argonath erected. He spent most of his time being anxious about one of those groups of local humans, the Northmen, and their relationship to Gondor’s enemy, the Easterlings (guess what relative compass directions all these people lived in). As far as the Gondorians were concerned, the Easterlings were under the influence of Sauron and a lost cause, but the Northmen were related to the bloodline of Númenór (from before they went to hang out with elves), and therefore it was acceptable to have an alliance with them. Additionally, they provided a handy buffer between Gondor and the Easterlings.

Can you guess which circle is Northmen and which is Easterlings. (map from Encyclopedia of Ardaedited by me)
Can you guess which circle is Northmen and which is Easterlings. (map from Encyclopedia of Arda, edited by me)

In 1248, Gondor caught wind of the Northmen allying with the Easterlings, and because they were anxious about that, they sent out an army to destroy Easterling settlements in the north. Rómendacil then fortified the river at the border, forbidding any ‘stranger’ to pass through them, and had the Argonath erected. At the same time, though, he took a lot of the Northmen into his army.

That’s about all we know, which leaves us with a lot of archaeological questions we can ask. First of all there’s the practical details of how the statues were even made. How long did it take to carve them out of the rock? Who worked on them, and how were those workers housed and fed? That last one is what I think is the one to follow up. I suspect that it took long enough to construct that a settlement sprung up around the area to house the workers and their families. If we excavated that, I believe we could find a lot of interesting things about life on the border of Gondor.

There are a lot of questions there about identity. We have the Gondorians, the Northmen, and the Easterlings. It’s clear from the written history that these are considered discrete categories by… well, presumably by the elves and the Númenóreans, but seeing as there were Easterling settlements in the north for Rómendacil to destroy, there may well have been some overlap. How did the Northmen and the Easterlings describe themselves? Were there smaller groups, or a larger category they saw themselves as a part of?

The Third Age was a period when most of the human cultures of Middle Earth were absorbed into the cultures of Gondor and Arnor (see this article by Lalaith of the Middle Earth Science pages), and we know from the appendices that Gondor was constantly at war with and suspicious of Mordor and their other neighbours. How did people on the border define themselves during all of this? Did they turn towards Gondorian culture, with its prosperity, or did they define themselves in opposition? And how did ordinary people of Gondor in their everyday lives relate to people in neighbouring regions?

These are all very broad questions that we can’t really answer just with stuff that we find, but we could try doing some comparisons to trace different cultural influences. With such a large building site on the border, we would probably find evidence from many different groups. There’d be the buildings themselves, the style and manner of their construction, and the differences in those through the site. Everyday items like clothing, tools, cooking and eating materials – food residues maybe – religious and personal items, toys or games. Maybe we’d find some written sources, evidence of the planning and organisation of the construction, letters, or graffiti on the monument itself by workers!

All of these could hint towards how the people working on the Argonath related to each other and negotiated their cultures. What did they wear, how did they make food, how did they engage with material from the north, the south, and the east? How did they use it to differentiate themselves from each other? We could compare what we find to settlements in the center of Gondor and in the north and east, if any are known. I imagine that the influences would be quite mixed. Food would presumably come from nearby, but perhaps the ways of preparing it would differ throughout the site. Organisation within the site could also be interesting. Perhaps one area kept to Gondorian styles, while others lived more like various kinds of Northmen and Easterlings. Or maybe there was a complete mix of influences, and the settlement was organised in a totally different way.

Lastly, I would look for some evidence of how people saw the monument they were constructing. Something like this would probably have been written about and depicted in other places. Who did it have the most impact on, the Northmen who it was trying to keep out, or the Gondorians it was reassuring? What about the impact it had on the surrounding countryside, in terms of population, agriculture, and so on.

That’s enough about humans for a bit. The second site we’re going to look at is Khazad-dûm, the Mines of Moria.

Fantasy Archaeology part 2: Middle Earth bibliography

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a good first stop to try out some fantasy archaeology. The Lord of the Rings is a well-known story, and on top of that a lot of supplementary historical information has made its way into our world. That gives us a lot of information to work with before we set out to the actual sites, but it comes with its own set of problems…

Let’s have a look at the historical written sources from Middle Earth that have reached us.

I’m assuming readers of this will all be basically familiar with story in The Lord of the Rings. This is the most recent account available to us from Middle Earth; a quest/travel account set during the War of the Ring, at the end of the time period known as the Third Age. In particular, it covers the years 3018-3019. The books give us a fairly good insight into the political events and some of the cultures during the war, albeit from the point of view of relatively uninformed outsiders. Interestingly, though, the last book of the series comes with appendices. We can assume that these were added in the course of the books translation into our world, to give readers a historical and cultural context. The Appendices contain chronologies of major events, genealogies, the broad histories of some of Middle Earth’s races and cultures, and linguistic notes.

There is a collection of other supplementary works about and from Middle Earth, too. Notably the Silmarillion, a collection of elven sagas (collated and written down by the hobbit Bilbo Baggins while living among elves), giving a mythological history of the origin of the elves and the Númenorean humans they allied with. There are also several shorter and fragmentary tales and bits of information (helpfully collected by Tolkien scholars and nerds into wikis, so people like yr humble author, who don’t have every single book, have it a little easier).

So: great! We’ll just take all these writings as our guide, and go exploring to fill in the gaps, right? Except, no. You can’t just go around trusting everything that’s been written down; just like you’d ask about the provenance and purpose of any object you find, you have to ask some questions about any writing you use. Like: who wrote it? Who was intended to read it, and what was their relationship to the author? And even, how come this particular piece of writing made it to you? Is it representative of the context it’s from, or is it just that the author was an official who wrote on fancy clay tablets while everyone else just scribbled things on strips of tree-bark or something?

All the information about Middle Earth reaches us through the same filter – elves, via hobbits (who are specifically noted to be unusual hobbits, partly through their association with elves.), via J.R.R. Tolkien. Everything we know comes from the elves, and it really shows. We only get what they found important, and their value judgement. The bulk of the information is about elves, their history and culture. Then we get a fair amount of information about humans, but only those humans who are allies of the elves, who are considered ‘good’ and ‘light’. The dark, evil, swarthy, [continue listing derogatory adjectives at will here] humans, who didn’t hang out with the elves, they get a couple of sentences here and there at most. Same with orcs and trolls. (Orcs, it says in the Silmarillion, were created specifically to be a mockery of elves. Elves, it seems, must make everything out to be about themselves at all times. Even entire other sentient species.) Dwarves get a little more neutral treatment, but not much info.

A few works have tried to address this imbalance. Kirill Yeskov’s The Last Ring-bearer (which you can read in English here) gives an account of the War of the Ring from the other side, evening the score a bit against all the unflattering writing of the elves. Here is its description of Barad-dûr, the ‚fortress of Sauron‘, for example:

“[…] Barad-dúr […], that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle Earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic.”

I also made a lot of use of the Middle Earth Science Pages which collect together a lot of scraps of information on the different human cultures into a more coherent form.

So, as we prepare for our expedition, it’s important to remember that the information we are basing our planning on is flawed in many ways. Perhaps once we get to Middle Earth the historians of its various cultures could help us get a fuller picture of its history. And we would have one huge advantage on the real world: if we go to collect an oral history, we might find people who have been alive for hundreds of years, and have lived through events that we would consider deep in the past. (Although they do tend to make everything about themselves.)

But for now, based on what information we do have I’ve picked out a few interesting sites. Next up: the Argonath.

Fantasy Archaeology part 1

Here we go, Fantasy Archaeology: the blog series!

At Nine Worlds a few weeks ago, I gave a talk about archaeological exploration of fantasy worlds, an idea I’ve had for a while and which I’m going to turn into a series on this blog. This post will be an introduction, followed by a few posts covering the sites in Middle Earth I looked at for my Nine Worlds talk. Subsequent posts will be added as I read about more cool fantasy worlds to travel to!

So, what is this fantasy archaeology idea. I’m an archaeologist (that is, I have a master’s degree in archaeology. I’m not actually working in or studying archaeology at the moment, but I would like to again in future), and I’m a massive world-building nerd, and I enjoy combining the two. One way of doing that, of course, is having the real-life past influence fantasy worlds, and that is a worthwhile activity (especially when done well and not just as a reinforcement of common (mis)conceptions of the past), but the thing I want to look at is the pasts of the fantasy worlds themselves. What I get really excited about is a fantasy world with a robust and evident in-world history.

After all, that’s what happens in the real world. History is presented as a series of discrete time periods, but that’s clearly not how it works. Things change over time, ways of thinking and being evolve and overlap. Objects continue from one period to the next. Even before museums, physical traces of the past were around, and were part of people’s lives. A lot of fantasy worlds are based on a kind of medieval-ish Europe (albeit a skewed, homogeneous cis-white-het-man version of medieval Europe). And in real life medieval Britain, for example, you have the first Hexham Abbey, built around the 7th century, entirely from stones from Roman ruins. And not just the most easily accessible, nearby ruins, but the most impressive, large, and decorated ones around. Slightly older older might end up with somewhat… unlikely interpretations. Did you know for example, that Merlin helped to build Stonehenge? At least according to 12th century historians.

A wizard did it.
A wizard did it. (Source)

This is the kind of things I really like to see when I read a fantasy novel. It makes the whole world seem more real, more solid. And it can work better than a huge exposition dump about the history of your world. (Not that I don’t enjoy those a lot sometimes, I admit.) But I don’t just want to write a series of critiques of various fantasy worlds’ world-building. I’m going to take a proper dive into fantasy non-fiction. We’re going to go on an expedition, and excavate some of the promising sites of each world. Look at these posts as a kind of pre-excavation briefing. We’ll examine the information available to us about each world and its sources, and make some predictions about what we might find at each site. Maybe along the way I can explain some archaeological concepts, too.

In Part two, we’ll start into Middle Earth, and have a look at historical sources and the kind of things you have to look out for when using them.