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.