Fantasy Archaeology Part 4: The Mines of Moria

Archaeology & History, Fantasy Archaeology

A thousand apologies for the delay, here finally is the last part of my Nine Worlds Fantasy Archaeology talk.

Humans are boring, time to talk about dwarves and orcs.

Illustration of the Mirrormere and the West Gate of Moria by J.R.R. Tolkien

Illustration of the Mirrormere and the West Gate of Moria by J.R.R. Tolkien

The basic history of Khazad-dûm, the Mines of Moria, is probably familiar to you from The Lord of the Rings: An underground city, carved out of the Misty Mountains by dwarves, lost when they awakened a Blarog, site of a war between dwarves and orcs, and later traversed by the Fellowship of the Ring, leading to the destruction of the Balrog by Gandalf. It seems like the city’s earliest form was a collection of natural caves above the lake Kheled-zâram, the Mirrormere. According to the legend recounted in the appendices, he founder of the city of Khazad-dûm is Durin I, known also as Durin the Deathless, the first dwarf to be awoken on Middle Earth, and, although we don’t have anything written directly by dwarves to confirm this, they apparently believed he was reincarnated several times to rule the city again. We don’t know a lot about the city, but it was apparently well-populated and well-defended, until the unfortunate arrival of the Balrog in the 1990s of the Third Age.

After the dwarves abandon Khazad-dûm, it becomes known as Moria. Moria didn’t stay empty and abandoned for long though. While the dwarves were building settlements in Erbeor, orcs moved in to their old dwellings. Unfortunately, we know even less about them. From records of their war with the dwarves in 2970 of the Third Age, we know that they had a leader named Azog, who killed the dwarf Thrór, starting the war. The dwarves eventually won the battle, greatly diminishing the orc population, but were unable to resettle Moria as they couldn’t get rid of the Balrog. There was a short-lived settlement of dwarves led by Balin, which lasted from 2989 to 2994 of the Third Age before being defeated by orcs. It’s not entirely clear what happened after the War of the Ring, but there are some suggestions the dwarves finally resettled there.

Since we have so little information about dwarves, there are endless questions to ask of Khazad-dûm, although it’s also difficult to narrow them down into anything practical. Of course some of the missing knowledge could be found easily by seeking out some dwarves, or at least some dwarven records. I have a lot of logistical questions: how did dwarves grow food and rear animals? Dwarf Fortress style mushroom farms? The engineering of their ventilation and water systems is probably fascinating, as well.

The earliest occupation of the caves interests me. The First Hall near the entrance and the area around the Mirrormere would likely be the places to excavate for this, to start establishing a chronology. Perhaps it’d be possible to find traces of prehistoric dwarves and their technology. Did hunter-gatherer dwarves use the caves, perhaps on a seasonal basis? When did they begin to settle there, and how did they first modify the caves? How quickly did the settlement there expand, and in what ways? Is it an unbroken history of expansion, or were there changes in demographics and styles of living, when the population shrank or the caves stood empty? How did successive generations of dwarves use the architecture and spaces inherited from their ancestors? We could construct a history of dwarven architecture all the way back to the very first inhabitants, given enough time. Dwarven technology, too. When did they first invent the metal working techniques they are known for? How did their engineering and food production techniques change? How did they interact with other mountain inhabitants, orcs, maybe elves or humans, at such an early time?

Archaeology is stereotypically all about digging through the garbage of people long dead. After all, in most circumstances you’re not going to find something as it was when it was used, you’re going to find it after it’s been lost or put away on purpose. Now, I wonder, where did the dwarves of Khazad-dûm put their rubbish? Imagine some shaft filled with layers and layers of the detritus of dwarvish life. Imagine the things it could tell us about their diets, technology, and way of life.

Another interesting aspect to investigate is the dramatic abandonment of Moria after the Balrog and the period of orc settlement. In the chronology, we have a reference to Sauron “[populating] Moria with his creatures” around 2480, but that is about 500 years after dwarves flee from the Balrog. Did Moria stand empty for that time, or did some of the native orc population of the Misty Mountains settle there?

Orcs are always depicted to be dependent entirely on and moved around by the will of Sauron or another ruler but how accurate is this? Was the movement of orcs into Moria voluntary, or forced? How did they get along with any orcs that were already there, and how did their social structure work? How did they use or repurpose the things left behind by the fleeing dwarves? What was the relationship between orcs and dwarves like before this period?

These are all broad and vague questions, of course, but it’s difficult to ask more defined ones with the little information we have about the circumstances around Moria and the orcs in the Misty Mountains. If there were orcs living in the Misty Mountains prior to the Balrog’s emergence, which the sources do suggest, then perhaps they had interacted in a more peaceful way with at least some dwarves before the war. Or perhaps because the doors to Khazad-dûm were so often closed during the wars of the Second Age the orcs only became properly aware of the cave city as the dwarves left. If orcs are the evil Other that a lot of the people of Middle Earth define themselves against, then how did the orcs see the dwarves when they came to settle in their abandoned city?

And what about that Balrog, and their coexistence with it? Do we accept the Balrog as an evil creature that slept in the mountain and was awakened by the dwarves, or was it something else – some geological event that made the caves uninhabitable. Mining operations do seem to be vulnerable to that kind of thing.

To build up a picture of orc occupation in Moria I would begin not with an excavation but with a walking survey of the halls. We would choose a representative random sample of halls and other spaces. In each, we will catalogue the objects found. This way, we could get an image of where the incoming orcs settled, and how they used the spaces and objects of the dwarves.

There is an interesting hint to the orcs using dwarven technology in the account of Thrór, whose corpse is mutilated by the orcs, who brand Azog’s name into his face in dwarven runes. Of course we should be careful about how much credibility to give this; since this was literally an incident that started a war, it was no doubt subject to exaggeration and mythologizing. Nevertheless it would be interesting to see whether the orcs made use of dwarven technology and cultural items, and to what extent. Perhaps we could even get an indication of how they viewed the conflict between them and the dwarves.

It’s hard to make predictions about what we’ll find here, as we know so little to start out with. I would expect to find some tensions perhaps between the Misty Mountain and Mordor orcs, although they seem to have been unified against the dwarves. I have an image of orcs living near the entrances and leaving the deep halls and mines to the Balrog (whatever it is) and the relics of dwarf life. But perhaps I’m wrong and we’ll find them happily in the deepest, warmest spaces. The Mines of Moria have a long and a dense history, and anything we find is likely to be surprising, and more complicated and complex than it seems.

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