Two dystopias, but also some cats.

Heyyy. I have a week off, for some relaxing and some activism, and I’m gonna try to get through some of the backlog of blogpost drafts and ideas I’ve accumulated during an overwhelmingly busy August, while I’m hanging out at my parents‘ house with  my parents‘ cats.


In August I managed to read two dystopias in the space of one month, like real life hasn’t been bad enough. The Handmaid’s Tale for my own entertainment (…“entertainment“), and The Circle for the August meeting of my book club.

There was an interesting session at Nine Worlds this year (I’ll make a con writeup post at some point I promise), titled „Creating Original Dystopia in a Somewhat Dystopian World„, with some discussion about the purpose of dystopian literature: whether it’s voyeurism for people who don’t really have it bad in life, or inspiration to fight our own dystopias, or keeping us feeling hopeless because the real world doesn’t have Chosen Ones to save the day.

(Aside: Here’s one of my favourite songs in the world, on this theme.)

The dystopias I put into my brain recently don’t have chosen ones. They’re about the concepts behind and the building of dystopias, rather than the ending. Which is interesting, now that I think about it, and is a distinction that didn’t come up in that panel.

Anyway, I have Thoughts:

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

I really wasn’t very into this book at all as I was reading it, although the discussion at the book club maybe softened my opinion a little bit. The book presents a surveillance cult dystopia, which I can best summarise as: Google as run by Scientology slowly takes over all aspects of life. Which sounds like it should be a fun if possibly a little cliché concept for a thriller, but instead it’s just… kinda boring. The book spends 300-400 of its 600 pages on exposition, and maybe this is supposed to read as a slow build up of the creepy overtaking the ordinary, but reading someone’s day-by-day induction at their new job just isn’t an entertaining experience. Especially right on the heels of Handmaids Tale, which felt really tight and emotional to me, although I know some people find it dry. Maybe The Cirlce would have benefitted from a less linear structure, too, with flashbacks showing how things were at the beginning and the slow ramping up of the main character’s indoctrination into the weird google cult.

The depiction of the weird google cult really weakened the message of the book for me – and it’s a message I broadly agree with –  by how much of an obvious, anvilicious strawman it was. To be fair I wasn’t sure for the first one or two hundred pages. I’d glanced over the Goodreads reviews when the book got picked by the bookclub, and they said the book was soapboxy; I couldn’t tell whether the horrifying surveillance tech the author was describing was supposed to be bad, or whether he thought it was good. Especially since their consequences were so bafflingly naive. Forcing everyone to use their real names online curbed all trolling? Have you been to the internet? The technologies described were so clearly creepy that it didn’t ring true that anyone would give them as much power as scientologoogle gets in this book. The analysis comes across as shallow, and the emotional arc of the slow reveal of the dark side of surveillance doesn’t really work, at least for me.

Most of the people at book club really enjoyed the book, though. One of them suggested to me that it was a good introduction for them to the dangers of tech monopolies and surveillance, which is maybe true. I still think it could’ve stood to be about half the length. Take out the awkward sex scenes and the egregious antisemitic coding of the bad nerd boyfriend also, while you’re at it. Make it a tight 2-300 page book about someone’s life being subsumed into a tech cult and I’m there.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while, since it’s a ~classic~, and as it’s everywhere right now because of the TV show, I finally did. It was possibly the most stressful reading experience I have had all year, so I can’t really say I enjoyed it, but… I appreciated at least parts of the experience.

A lot of people way more qualified than me have written a lot of critiques recently of the book(/show), especially the way it clearly uses American slavery narratives and themes without acknowledging it or addressing race in any way. Opinionating on that is definitely outside my lane, but I recommend checking these articles out, they definitely influenced my thinking once I’d recovered from my initial emotional reaction to the book. Here are a few I could find again (I resolve to get into the habit of saving the things I read from now on):

I also really agree with Mikki Kendal’s commentary on twitter, the passive acceptance and surprise of the protag was a big reason the flashback parts of the book was so stressful. I was especially disappointed in her lesbian friend, though. You should know! You should know when to get out and when to fight. Did you not have any friends who were POC, &/or Jewish, &/or trans, &/or disabled/neurodivergent who could warn you? We all know our history. Reminds me of the conversations I’ve been having recently about people who are surprised about Nazis still existing.

Which brings me to one of the things in the book that really punched me in the gut, as a parting blow, which is the historical notes in the epilogue. I thought maybe I would get some relief, knowing that the Gilead regime eventually fell, but nope. I got the opposite. A historian presents the context behind the text of the rest of the book, a document discovered on audio tapes. He says:

It appears that certain periods of history quickly become, both for other societies and for those that follow them, the stuff of not especially edifying legend and the occasion for a good deal of hypocritical self-congratulation. If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opinion we must be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learned by now that such judgements are of necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to understand.

What a final thought to leave on. No matter what horrors a society might perpetrate on you, future historians will find a way to feel superior about their rational justification of your suffering. (Also there’s maybe some kind of irony here about Margaret Atwood’s own use of history, but I can’t quite articulate it.)

Alright, something lighter for my next post, I promise! Here, have another cat:


Nine Worlds!

I’m going to be at Nine Worlds Geek Fest in west London again this weekend. I can’t wait to be done with the next three days of work and dive into the relaxing bath of a weekend of friendly and kind nerd stuff. I’m not doing any talks or panels this year, but excitingly, I’m gonna be selling some art!! I’m super pumped.Nine Worlds Schedule for Saturday at 1:30pm, room Chalon, Pop-up MarketI’ll be at the pop-up market in Chalon on Saturday afternoon, with my colouring-book-zine 6 kleine Viecher, and a new one, titled Beafts.

Sneak peak of BEAFTS as a w.i.p.

I should be right near the door, look out for my sign!

Sign for my colouring books. £2 each.

(I’m also gonna be offering commissions after the weekend! I’ve made some flyers that I’ll also have on my table.

The commission info page isn’t up yet, but it will be by the end of the week!)

Hopefully I’ll see you on the weekend, friends!

I feel like, I feel like, I’m on my journey home.

The title doesn’t match the song in the title image but shhh. I like them both.


I didn’t take too many pictures at the German Sacred Harp Convention, but I enjoyed it immensely. Being home in my city… doesn’t get rid of the weirdness in my brain, of course, but it does feel like it gives me a more stable base. And singing feels so restorative, even when I don’t believe at least half the things in the lyrics. My week since has been better than it might’ve been.

One of the two songs I lead that weekend.

I also went into a secondhand bookstore and bought myself a book of poems that caught my eye.


I did it again yesterday. Maybe it’ll become a habit.


Things I’ve read recently: oh boy I need to learn how to write more about things I actually like, not just complain about bad books.

I’m trying to get back into the habit of noting down my thoughts in Goodreads!

I seem to be in the absolute minority in Goodreads re: Agatha Christie’s Autiobiography, but it’s just not that good, y’all.

 An AutobiographyAn Autobiography by Agatha Christie

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wasn’t too impressed with this overall, I gotta say. The beginning was enjoyable, but mainly because Christie’s reminiscences about her childhood and parents made me think of my own family history. As the book goes on it seems to get less insightful, more repetitious, and less interested in making anything accessible to the readers; I tortuously dragged myself through the last third of it. She says that she’s talking to herself, in this book, and it does feel like sitting in a Cafe listening to Agatha Christie talk to herself. She doesn’t really introduce or describe any of the people or events in her life, she just expects the listener to be already familiar. At one point she mentions avoiding the press, and I did a double take, having been given no indication so far that her work had already gotten popular, or how she felt about it.

You don’t really get an idea of how she feels about most things. Sure, as she says in the introduction, she wants to reminisce only about pleasant things, but a little introspection would have made me much more invested in the story of her life. She also seems to have very little sense of perspective, of her life compared to others. About her Victorian childhood she says that her family weren’t really rich, they only had two servants. Later as she travels the world, she conspicuously gives the courtesy of using their names only to the white people she meets. Any „locals“, even ones she spends time with, only get a description.

She also repeats herself a lot towards the last half of the book. Maybe she got away with not editing out her repetitions because the was the great Agatha Christie, but it would have been a benefit to the book.

I did find the descriptions of her early life pretty charming, but I couldn’t recommend this book unless you’re a huge Christie fan and completionist.

The next two are great, tho.

The Second Mango (Mangoverse Book 1)The Second Mango by Shira Glassman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this one slowly, between other books. I picked it up whenever I was feeling sad or anxious or overwhelmed, and needed something easy. Its fairy tale quality was like a balm for my troubled brain. Simply written, with immediately loveable characters, and I was expecting a bitter-sweet ending and got an entirely sweet one instead.

The dialogue doesn’t always read realistically, and it has the feeling of a YA or children’s book, except for the open and matter of fact inclusion of adult romance and sexuality. It makes for a really calming and simple read, without any boredom.

This is a book about queer and (somewhat) gender non-conforming Jewish women (of colour) in a fantasy world, and I am not all of those things, but I felt very at home in this world. I’m so happy there’s a few more in the same universe to keep me company.

A Spool of Blue ThreadA Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a lovely reading experience. As opposed to the Agatha Christie Autobiography, which contained a lot of events but little feeling, not very much happens in this book, in the sense of action, but it’s full of complicated, relatable emotion and compassionate understanding of humans. I tore through it, completely invested in these people’s lives, and while sometimes a story where nothing much happens has unsatisfying endings, the last few sections of this book recontextualised what happened in the fist half of the book in a very satisfying way.

I recommend this if you love people and want to be absorbed in a beautifully ordinary slice of life.

Ein Lebens & Lesestoff Update

Ich habe mir vor ein paar Wochen spontan meine Haare wieder kurzgeschnitten, und ich finde mich gut damit! Aber ich träume trotzdem schon wieder von langem Haar. (Letzte Nacht hatte ich wirklich einen Traum, in dem meine Haare schon halblang gewachsen waren.)

Was gibt’s sonst so neues. Wie immer dreht sich mindestens die Hälfte meines Lebens um was ich gerade lese:

Ich habe in letzter Zeit, sehr zu meiner eigenen Freude, mehr Energie und Konzentrationsvermögen zum lesen. (ein Buchklub ist sehr motivierend!). Im Moment lese ich vier zur gleichen Zeit:


6 kleine Viecher

Buy it on Gumroad.

Es ist fertig! Ich hatte die Idee für dieses kleine Heft vor ungefähr 5 Jahren, und letztes Jahr hab‘ ich – mit etwas Ermunterung von sehr geduldigen Freund_innen – einfach ein Stück A3 Papier gefaltet und endlich angefangen, es zu zeichnen.

Ich habe auch schon Ideen für das Nächste… vielleicht dauert es diesmal nicht ganz so lange, aber ich kann nichts versprechen. Bis dahin könnt ihr mit dem Link da oben erstmal den ersten Teil kaufen!

Das Original fällt schon langsam auseinander.


It’s been a busy, um… year and a bit, and my blogging habit has fallen over a little bit, but hey guess what: I still have opinions about museums! A little while ago, I visited a really cool museum in Lübeck, the Hansemuseum.


(Source) I neglected to take my own photos of the outside, but it’s a pretty striking building, boxy in a pretty way. A lot of stairs, though. Maybe there was another entrance I didn’t see, but it didn’t look like a very accessible place for anyone with movement difficulties.

I was predisposed to like this museum, since I’m from Hamburg, a proud Hanseatic city, and since historical economics and trade is my favourite academic interest. But even with my biases, I think this was a very well designed museum.

A video of me using my ticket to activate a display screen with the German version of its content.

First of all, it had a lot of cool digital toys. The tickets come with a RFID chip, which allows you to select a language at the beginning of the exhibition, and then change many of the screen displays to that language with a touch. Other displays simply repeated the same information in several languages, but I thought the customisable screens were a very clever idea to save space, and also engage visitors.

There were also a lot of infographics. The infographic was a major method of information delivery in most of the rooms. As a very visual person, who gets tired and distracted standing around reading large blocks of dry text on walls, I found this a very effective and pleasing way to absorb the information. Colours, images, and symbols make learning a more pleasant experience.

You might notice that all but one of the images so far have shown light text on a dark background. This is part of the last aspect of the museum that really pleased me. The exhibition was divided into two kinds of rooms. The light on a dark background rooms presented interpretation: concepts, narrative, and reproductions.


The boat of a group of traders travelling to Novgorod. Complete with soundscape.

These rooms were interspersed with lighter rooms, characterised by dark text on light background, and displays of actual artefacts.


A more traditional museum room.

To me, these functioned like an evidence section to the claims made in the darker rooms. Of course, by their very nature they still present interpretation, but I like the break between the two different kinds of information and presentation. Unfortunately they suffer from the problem traditional museum rooms often have, that it’s difficult to tell which order to look at things in to cross the room without missing anything. But overall it’s effective!

If you’re ever in Lübeck, I definitely recommend looking into the museum. Although if you have mobility access needs, maybe check in with them first.

2014: Books I Read and other memory aids.

Covers of all the books I read in 2014 according to GoodReads

Almost three weeks into the new year isn’t too late to post a year re-cap post, right? In any case I’m starting my first ever permanent full-time job (in archaeology, even!) tomorrow, so it seems like an appropriate moment.

I have a pretty awful memory. I think it used to be better before depression really hit me in the face about 5 years ago, but it wasn’t ever that outstanding, probably. That’s why I like using sites like Goodreads. When I remember to update them, they work really well as a memory aid. Although for 2014, “really well” might be overstating it. But looking at the reading I’ve done this year prompts my foggy head into remembering a little bit of what was happening.

Recollections: I don’t really know what I was doing in between Shaman in January and the audiobook of 12 Years a Slave in April, to be honest. Logic suggests it was mainly weaning off SSRIs and having a lot of weird and vivid dreams. I got a temp job in late spring, which wasn’t great but saved me from having to go to the job centre, at least, which is a boon to anyone’s well-being. I applied to a funded PhD place and failed to get it, and spent a bunch of time panicking about my career and future. I started feeling my way back into archaeology with some courses and volunteering at a dig.

The summer was pretty excellent, with family holidays, and nerdy things, and seeing friends and making new friends. Nine Worlds was a great achievement and good feelings high point, culminating in a very clear memory of McDonalds in the middle of that last night that no-one wanted to end. I followed that up with a stay in a certain flat in Sweden full of books and warmth. A good summer.

I got some experience working and being frustrated at not having the time and energy to do art. But my skills improved and I had a lot more ideas, I think. I didn’t finish any large project like I was hoping for this time last year, but there’s been a few times recently where I’ve felt about drawing and writing a bit like I did when I was a teenager. In a good way. Maybe all of those self-indulgent concentrated packages of tropes that I consumed made me less self-conscious. That’s something I’m going to try to nurture.

2015 is shaping up well so far. I got that archaeology job that’s starting tomorrow; an unexpected late birthday gift from the universe. I’m going to keep making things, but I’m not going to put pressure on myself for that, lest I scare the ideas away. But my goal for the year is this: I will read diverse books, and I will write down my thoughts about them as I finish them. (I already have a slight backlog, but I am working on it. Shhhh.) And if I can manage it, I’ll keep a diary more often, too.

And now I’m going to sleep, so I’m well-rested tomorrow.

Fantasy Archaeology Part 4: The Mines of Moria

A thousand apologies for the delay, here finally is the last part of my Nine Worlds Fantasy Archaeology talk.

Humans are boring, time to talk about dwarves and orcs.

Illustration of the Mirrormere and the West Gate of Moria by J.R.R. Tolkien

Illustration of the Mirrormere and the West Gate of Moria by J.R.R. Tolkien

The basic history of Khazad-dûm, the Mines of Moria, is probably familiar to you from The Lord of the Rings: An underground city, carved out of the Misty Mountains by dwarves, lost when they awakened a Blarog, site of a war between dwarves and orcs, and later traversed by the Fellowship of the Ring, leading to the destruction of the Balrog by Gandalf. It seems like the city’s earliest form was a collection of natural caves above the lake Kheled-zâram, the Mirrormere. According to the legend recounted in the appendices, he founder of the city of Khazad-dûm is Durin I, known also as Durin the Deathless, the first dwarf to be awoken on Middle Earth, and, although we don’t have anything written directly by dwarves to confirm this, they apparently believed he was reincarnated several times to rule the city again. We don’t know a lot about the city, but it was apparently well-populated and well-defended, until the unfortunate arrival of the Balrog in the 1990s of the Third Age.

After the dwarves abandon Khazad-dûm, it becomes known as Moria. Moria didn’t stay empty and abandoned for long though. While the dwarves were building settlements in Erbeor, orcs moved in to their old dwellings. Unfortunately, we know even less about them. From records of their war with the dwarves in 2970 of the Third Age, we know that they had a leader named Azog, who killed the dwarf Thrór, starting the war. The dwarves eventually won the battle, greatly diminishing the orc population, but were unable to resettle Moria as they couldn’t get rid of the Balrog. There was a short-lived settlement of dwarves led by Balin, which lasted from 2989 to 2994 of the Third Age before being defeated by orcs. It’s not entirely clear what happened after the War of the Ring, but there are some suggestions the dwarves finally resettled there.

Since we have so little information about dwarves, there are endless questions to ask of Khazad-dûm, although it’s also difficult to narrow them down into anything practical. Of course some of the missing knowledge could be found easily by seeking out some dwarves, or at least some dwarven records. I have a lot of logistical questions: how did dwarves grow food and rear animals? Dwarf Fortress style mushroom farms? The engineering of their ventilation and water systems is probably fascinating, as well.

The earliest occupation of the caves interests me. The First Hall near the entrance and the area around the Mirrormere would likely be the places to excavate for this, to start establishing a chronology. Perhaps it’d be possible to find traces of prehistoric dwarves and their technology. Did hunter-gatherer dwarves use the caves, perhaps on a seasonal basis? When did they begin to settle there, and how did they first modify the caves? How quickly did the settlement there expand, and in what ways? Is it an unbroken history of expansion, or were there changes in demographics and styles of living, when the population shrank or the caves stood empty? How did successive generations of dwarves use the architecture and spaces inherited from their ancestors? We could construct a history of dwarven architecture all the way back to the very first inhabitants, given enough time. Dwarven technology, too. When did they first invent the metal working techniques they are known for? How did their engineering and food production techniques change? How did they interact with other mountain inhabitants, orcs, maybe elves or humans, at such an early time?

Archaeology is stereotypically all about digging through the garbage of people long dead. After all, in most circumstances you’re not going to find something as it was when it was used, you’re going to find it after it’s been lost or put away on purpose. Now, I wonder, where did the dwarves of Khazad-dûm put their rubbish? Imagine some shaft filled with layers and layers of the detritus of dwarvish life. Imagine the things it could tell us about their diets, technology, and way of life.

Another interesting aspect to investigate is the dramatic abandonment of Moria after the Balrog and the period of orc settlement. In the chronology, we have a reference to Sauron “[populating] Moria with his creatures” around 2480, but that is about 500 years after dwarves flee from the Balrog. Did Moria stand empty for that time, or did some of the native orc population of the Misty Mountains settle there?

Orcs are always depicted to be dependent entirely on and moved around by the will of Sauron or another ruler but how accurate is this? Was the movement of orcs into Moria voluntary, or forced? How did they get along with any orcs that were already there, and how did their social structure work? How did they use or repurpose the things left behind by the fleeing dwarves? What was the relationship between orcs and dwarves like before this period?

These are all broad and vague questions, of course, but it’s difficult to ask more defined ones with the little information we have about the circumstances around Moria and the orcs in the Misty Mountains. If there were orcs living in the Misty Mountains prior to the Balrog’s emergence, which the sources do suggest, then perhaps they had interacted in a more peaceful way with at least some dwarves before the war. Or perhaps because the doors to Khazad-dûm were so often closed during the wars of the Second Age the orcs only became properly aware of the cave city as the dwarves left. If orcs are the evil Other that a lot of the people of Middle Earth define themselves against, then how did the orcs see the dwarves when they came to settle in their abandoned city?

And what about that Balrog, and their coexistence with it? Do we accept the Balrog as an evil creature that slept in the mountain and was awakened by the dwarves, or was it something else – some geological event that made the caves uninhabitable. Mining operations do seem to be vulnerable to that kind of thing.

To build up a picture of orc occupation in Moria I would begin not with an excavation but with a walking survey of the halls. We would choose a representative random sample of halls and other spaces. In each, we will catalogue the objects found. This way, we could get an image of where the incoming orcs settled, and how they used the spaces and objects of the dwarves.

There is an interesting hint to the orcs using dwarven technology in the account of Thrór, whose corpse is mutilated by the orcs, who brand Azog’s name into his face in dwarven runes. Of course we should be careful about how much credibility to give this; since this was literally an incident that started a war, it was no doubt subject to exaggeration and mythologizing. Nevertheless it would be interesting to see whether the orcs made use of dwarven technology and cultural items, and to what extent. Perhaps we could even get an indication of how they viewed the conflict between them and the dwarves.

It’s hard to make predictions about what we’ll find here, as we know so little to start out with. I would expect to find some tensions perhaps between the Misty Mountain and Mordor orcs, although they seem to have been unified against the dwarves. I have an image of orcs living near the entrances and leaving the deep halls and mines to the Balrog (whatever it is) and the relics of dwarf life. But perhaps I’m wrong and we’ll find them happily in the deepest, warmest spaces. The Mines of Moria have a long and a dense history, and anything we find is likely to be surprising, and more complicated and complex than it seems.

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.