Fantasy Archaeology Part 4: The Mines of Moria

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.

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.