The study of archaeology in constructed worlds has been an interest of mine for some years now, reflecting my real-life interest in piecing together history from artifacts, excavations, written records, and organic fragments. Several years ago, I developed an interest in the archaeology of World of Warcraft and the Elder Scrolls world (Tamriel), prompting further interest in exploring the archaeology of fantasy worlds.
Archaeology is especially useful for the study of pre-modern societies. Modern societies, aided by the printing press, have an abundance of written records in the form of newspapers, journals, administrative records, and literature. The day-to-day records of, say, George Washington or Napoleon’s campaigns are well-established, assisted by a written culture that is both still preserved and that places enormous importance on chronicling events. The same cannot be said of pre-modern times, both because many records are lost, and because many pre-modern cultures, while literate, only used writing sparingly.
Fantasy worlds usually reflect this pre-modern paradigm. This is certainly the case of Westeros, where literacy was mostly limited to the upper-classes; a person of low birth, such as Ser Davos Seaworth was illiterate, and had little reason or opportunity to read. As a result of Westeros’ turbulent history and its low population of literate individuals, many historical events were obscured and, as a result, became legendary.
Therefore, a scholar or historian who truly wishes to piece together the history of Westeros must rely on archaeology in order to help unearth the truth. There are not many diaries and newspapers floating around to assist in this process. The limitations of history in Westeros are described by Samwell Tarly in A Feast for Crows:
“The oldest histories we have were written after the Andals came to Westeros. The First Men only left us runes on rocks, so everything we think we know about the Age of Heroes and the Dawn Age and the Long Night comes from accounts set down by septons thousands of years later. There are archmaesters at the Citadel who question all of it. Those old histories are full of kings who reigned for hundreds of years, and knights riding around a thousand years before there were knights. You know the tales, Brandon the Builder, Symeon Star-Eyes, Night’s King … we say that you’re the nine-hundred-and-ninety-eighth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, but the oldest list I’ve found shows six hundred seventy-four commanders, which suggests that it was written during—” (Chapter 5)
The actual, systematic study of archaeology is not well-developed in Westeros itself, as it would take the combined efforts of maesters, patrons, and a clear purpose. Perhaps if someone like Tyrion funded some excavation work and figured out that older artifacts can be found below newer ones, some work might be done to advance archaeology as a formal science in Westeros. The Wall would be a prime target because of its antiquity and the likelihood of layers of debris buried beneath it. Other ancient sites like Storm’s End, Pyke, Winterfell, and Casterly Rock would also be of interest. Winterfell will have to be massively rebuilt in the case of a Stark restoration–who knows what secrets could be unearthed in its lower levels and crypts during this process? And if it ever becomes safe, the mother of excavations would occur in the ruins of Valyria, which undoubtedly has a very interesting tale to tell.
But even without formal knowledge, proto-archaeology has been occurring throughout Westeros. This sort of archaeology mostly comes about through the renovations and reconstructions of important buildings like castles, or other work. Take for example, the Dragon Pit in King’s Landing. This ruined building was the site of some digging in order to hide a cache of wildfire during the reign of the Mad King (A Clash of Kings, Chapter 49). Given the history of this building–which first housed dragons, and then used as a storage pit for bodies during a plague–digging underneath it could potentially reveal a lot about the history of the inhabitants of King’s Landings, their diets, and perhaps something information about dragons as well. The Red Keep has also undergone major changes, including the construction of secret passageways within them and the burning of the Tower of the Hand by Cersei Lannister. Information about the Red Keep’s structural and architectural evolution could potentially be gleamed during reconstruction and renovations in the tower.
In summary, there are certainly a group of people in Westeros who are very interested in the history and timeline of their realm, and individuals like Tyrion and Samwell seem to want to dig deeper into understanding the past. While modern tools are not available to them, there is potential to explore and understand more about the history of Westeros through some basic archaeological methods, namely through looking inside and under castles and other notable landmarks, or studying the urban histories of large cities like King’s Landing and Oldtown. Whenever peace returns to Westeros, some exploration along those lines might be forthcoming. With its plethora of ancient sites, it would be an archaeologist’s paradise.