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…
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 And then there’s LOTR, which is saturated with historical references — and the Peter Jackson movies bring these brilliantly to life.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.
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.
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?