How Time Team can help with fantasy worldbuilding

I’ve recently been watching a lot of old Time Team episodes (a British TV show hosted by Tony Robinson in which a bunch of archaeologists excavate exciting things over three days).

I think they have the best job ever. I absolutely love the fact there’s so much history buried under pretty much every innocuous field or footpath across the UK… Today they are excavating Roman roads and bridges… Last week it was an unfinished medieval castle… Next it’ll probably be an iron-age village…

Simply wow.

Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain -- remnant of a lost civilisation
Gratuitous travel photo (albeit on topic, sort of): Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain — remnant of a lost civilisation

Time Team also really gets me thinking about fantasy worldbuilding. From a research perspective, real world archaeology provides great insight into how people lived in pre-industrial times. Every time they dig up an old buckle, or fragments of clay pots, or a carved tool, or decorative beads… I start wondering how items such as these could be injected into my primary fantastical world of the moment.

Colour and light and telling detail.

But it also inspires me to incorporate archaeological principles into my fantastical worlds. After all, every inhabited imagined world also has a history. Why should they not have an ancient collapsed bridge from a lost civilisation (or an, er, aqueduct) — and more besides?

Three great fantasy examples

There are three fantasy works that stand out in my mind for their use of history and archaeology as part of their worldbuilding: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne, and Robin Hobb’s sprawling Farseer/Liveship/Rainwild Trader books.

It’s been a long time since I read ‘Song’, but I distinctly remember the use of ‘romanesque’ ruins in its more medieval ‘alternate France/Provence’ setting. And then there’s LOTR, which is saturated with historical references — and the Peter Jackson movies bring these brilliantly to life.

Robin Hobb’s books keep returning to the mystery of the near-forgotten Elderlings, whose ancient excavated cities and standing stones play pivotal roles throughout the various books. I’m sure there are many more fantasy works dealing with ancient and lost civilisations, but these are the ones which stand out for me.

Inventing histories

I tend to invent fairly detailed histories for my imagined worlds. I like to know who inhabited the lands first and who conquered them (and why), how they adapted/integrated (or not) etc. Using archaeological references in the narrative to convey setting is one really effective way of illustrating these histories without great swathes of exposition.

Of course, there is a fine line to walk here. It’s all very well inventing histories and remnants of lost civilisations to add texture and depth to the world, but unless they impact the plot, many readers would chastise the author for including them in the narrative. Although I embrace such details as a reader (in moderation), it’s far better if the writer in me can use them as solid foundations for plot points.

Aspiring archaeo-metallurgist

I did, in fact, once write a story in which the protagonist is an archaeo-metallurgy doctoral student. It has never been published (because it needs work), but I keep on thinking I’ll drag it out and take another look at it. It’s a piece of writing very close to my heart, because I based aspects of it on research I did back when I was a metallurgist (right down to the grumpy supervisor!). It was an attempt to use the whole ‘write what you know’ advice in the most literal fashion.

And so… every time they dig up a metallic object — or ‘find’ — on Time Team I feel an extra pang of envy. Given my metallurgical background, the role of archaeo-metallurgist seems tailor-made for me. I think if I lived in the UK or Europe, I might very well have headed down that track. (There are not too many ancient metallic objects being dug up in Australia.)

As it is, my inner archaeologist will just have to continue to live vicariously through Time Team.

Are there any other Time Team fans here today? What would be your ultimate dream archaeological discovery? If you’re a fantasy reader, can you share any other works that make good use of history and archaeology as part of the worldbuilding?


10 thoughts on “How Time Team can help with fantasy worldbuilding

  1. Why have I never heard of Time Team?!? It sounds fascinating! As you probably know, I wanted to be an archaeologist from the time I learned what the word meant (around age 8). I was talked out of that career path by my high school guidance counselor and into something “more reliable” and “sensible”, hence the degrees in psychology. But if I could make a major career shift, I would study and work in the field of archaeology in a heart beat. And like you so cleverly pointed out, it totally lends itself to some amazing ideas and inspiration for writing.


    1. I didn’t know you wanted to be an archaeologist ~ how excellent. Keep a look-out for Time Team, which is both fascinating AND addictive. We currently have re-runs screening every weeknight before the 7pm news.

      I still harbour dreams of running off to the UK to be an archaeo-metallurgist!


  2. Lately I’ve been thinking about worldbuilding and how to work in detail to really express the truth. I think because I’ve been working on a contemporary romance – set in a neighborhood I can drive to in twenty minutes – I underestimated how tricky it would be give it a sense of place. When I think about what you’re doing – digging into the architecture of another world – my eyes cross!


    1. Heh ~ setting is one of the things I love most about writing. (Who cares about the story? Just give me a fully realised and 3D setting!) Of course, I assumed it would be easier — although not nearly as fun — to do setting for our world, where you can use all sorts of common items… maybe not?


  3. I would totally read a book about an archaeo-metallurgist! The protagonist of one of my novels is a struggling historian–it was tons of fun coming up with the titles of scholarly and literary texts for her to refer to. 😀


    1. Yes, I can definitely imagine that. I’ve been meaning to read ‘Ash: A Secret History’ for years, since I understand there’s a lot of ‘research’ in that too… Since I have a research background, I think it’s inevitable I’ll use some of that knowledge in a book one day. (rubs hands together) Can’t wait!

      Actually, I have a little of it in my current WIP, come to think about it…


  4. Try the “Gentleman Bastards” series by Scott Lynch – the first in the series is “The Lies of Locke Lamora” – I think you’ll love them! I always try to add some “old” world in my fantasy worlds – it gives it depth and meaning (and Time Team is an essential Sunday-morning-in-pyjamas show!)


    1. You know, that’s the second time in 24hours Scott Lynch’s books have been raised to my attention — must be a sign! Thanks for the recommendation. I shall add to my TBR list.

      I’m glad to find another Time Team fan too — Thanks for stopping by. 🙂


  5. If it’s metallic finds you’re interested in, I recommend the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) online database of finds made and reported by the public. Almost all of the recorded finds (over 750,000) have come from metal detectorists but some also from walkers and gardeners.


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