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.


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