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.
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.