Readers of this Blog will have seen the recent entry about an obsidian vessel that I saw whilst on holiday in Crete recently. Fans of George R.R.Martin’s popular Game of Thrones novels will instantly recognise this material as dragonglass, which is referred to by some of the characters as ‘fire given form’. Jon Snow finds a cache or hoard of ‘dragonglass’ weapons at the Fist of the First Men in the second book….
PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW
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and distributes them among his brothers in the Night’s Watch. They prove to be unexpectedly useful when self-confessed craven Sam Tarley uses a dagger against one of the White Walkers.
This material that archaeologists know as obsidian as discussed earlier turns up in the Middle east, the eastern Mediterranean, the Americas and other places beside. The working of the material is often stunning, leaving cores with flake scars so evenly spaced as to make you think they were worked by a machine.
Martin’s Game of Thrones series of novels (still unfinished) frequently draw upon archaeology and ancient history. Though set in the fictional kingdom of Westeros, this is recognisably ‘high medieval’ world comparable to England during the Wars of the Roses, complete with a hierarchical society of king, lords, knights who show off their prowess in jousts, seneschals, castellans, men-at-arms, archers with longbows, crossbowmen and commoners. There are even trebuchets for siege warfare, each with its own name, reflecting the grim humour of the besiegers.
But it is Medieval world conscious of its historical backdrop, which goes back thousands of years.The timescales are incredibly long – the Wall (a kind of Hadrian’s Wall but built of ice not stone) has been held by the Night’s Watch for eight thousand years, so long in fact that it is not clear whether Jon Snow is the 998th Lord Commander or merely the 675th as Sam points out (A Song of Ice and Fire 5: A Dance with Dragons, p.100). The rather slippery understanding of time in Westeros has been picked up by Adam Whitehead in a short article ‘An Unreliable World – History and Timekeeping in Westeros’ in James Lowder (ed.) Beyond the Wall Exploring George R.R.Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (Benbella Books, 2012). If you compare the same time span in a north west European context, the Wall would have stood from the flooding of the English Channel in the middle of our Mesolithic period up to the present day. What stuctures could possibly have survived the passing of so much time? Maybe the pyramids are our best comparison. The great pyramid at Giza was built about 2500 BC but the Wall is made of ice and it’s in a cold northern environment.
Sam is the budding archaeologist and historian. As a steward he serves a maester and has access to the library, where he is fascinated by all the old records – much to the incomprehension of Jon Snow who can’t understand where his friend has been all night. Sam tells him he can work out what the garrison of the Wall was thousands of years ago from looking at records of amounts of food shipped to the wall to feed the garrison. Sam’s records are written on parchment and badly decayed in some cases, copied half-a hundred times over the years. It is reminiscent of the Vindolanda tablets with their troop manifests and duty rosters… or the auxiliary diploma displayed in the Discovering Archaeology gallery at Manchester Museum, which refers to a Syrian recruit in the Roman army of northern Britain. Maybe Sam is going to make nerdy chic fashionable, in which case there’s hope for the curatorial profession!
The historical backdrop is Valyria, a superpower rather like Rome that was destroyed by a cataclysm (like the erruption of Santorini and the supposed decline of Minoans?). Valyrian roads run dead straight across the landscape; skilfully crafted Valyrian swords are greatly prized by the ruling families; and powerful artefacts inscribed with glyphs of the writing system still circulate in the aftermath. Perhaps Valyria was inspired instead by the Aztecs of Meso-America?
For all its gritty historical realism it is, none-the-less, a world in which magic is present, though used sparingly by Martin. The last dragons supposedly died out a hundred years or more earlier but the power of the magic deployed by pyromancers and red priests appears to have been mysteriously amplified just as rumours are circulating of a three headed dragon in the east and the return of a claimant from the previous ruling dynasty of Westeros – the Targaryens.