In previous posts I’ve explored the funerals in Game of Thrones seasons 1-5 but I have yet to explore other aspects of the fantasy material world from an archaeological perspective. Yet, at the 2019 4th University of Chester Archaeology Student conference on the theme The Public Archaeology of Frontiers and Borderlands, one of the students, Emma Vernon, selected to explore the ramifications and significance of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros Wall and its archaeological influences and potetials for public engagement and education regarding frontiers past and present.
Subsequently, I’ve edited Emma’s work, developed by her as an assessed assignment following her presentation, for publication in the conference proceedings. Out before the end of the year (with luck), the edited collection will contain a mixture of revised and extended versions of the select students’ work. These will appear together with chapters by invited contributors composed by heritage professionals and academics. Together, the book will explore and reflect on the politics, popular culture and public engagements with frontiers and borderlands in archaeology.
Fictional frontiers take multiple guises in the forthcoming book. In addition to Emma’s chapter, elsewhere in the collection, another student – Sophie Billingham – will be reflecting on Hollywood representations of the Great Wall of China. Meanwhile, an interview with Roman archaeology expert Dr Rob Collins explores public archaeology and Hadrian’s Wall, touching on how fictional frontiers have been inspired by Hadrian’s Wall, not least George R.R. Martin’s Wall, but also how heritage organisations and sites have been using GoT to promise their sites.
So, as well as tackling real-world frontiers and borderlands and their material and monumental dimensions, the forthcoming book will also critically reflect on the relationships between these walls and fantastical and fictional frontiers.
To support Emma’s work, I briefly explored what images I might utilise to accompany her text. Everyone who has seen the television show or has access to the internet can readily acquire images from the TV show or artist’s impressions of the Wall. Therefore, reproducing an image of the vast magical 8,000 year-old, 700-foot ice wall garrisoned by the Night’s Watch, dividing the Seven Kingdoms from the Wildlings who live beyond, seems surplus to requirements.
Still, I was particularly looking for ways of comparing the fantasy frontier to real-world monuments to help the reader reflect both the stark (pun intended) contrast in scales, but also upon the similarities in perceived functions, organisation and significance. Similarities include the idea of the wall as a place apart, where garrisons’ identities are discrete from those of people beyond and behind the frontier. Other parallels include supply chains, signalling systems, forts, lookout points and a zone rather than a line constituting the frontier spreading back from, and forward from, the Wall. Moreover, the fictional frontier is shown to create and perpetuate inequalities between people hitherto undivided. The Wall makes us think of how walls can have complex monumental biographies of use, abandonment and reuse.
In my search, I found some amazing infographics here and here, but the real-world comparanda were simply famous modern and ancient world tourist landmarks, such as the Pyramid of Cheops at Giza, Egypt, and the Eiffel Tower, Paris, Frace. What I really wanted was a comparison with other, real-world walls.
Much closer to what I was looking for was a lovely simple infographic published in the Daily Dot which serves to illustrate the comparative heights of the Wall against 3 famous real-world monuments: the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall and the Berlin Wall. However, I realised that the scale simply wasn’t correct: the historic walls were actually rendered too large, as was the human scale. Also, I wanted to compare it with at least one extant fortified border, as well as, because of my research interests, Offa’s Dyke.
As a result, I decided to try my hand at creating my own, inspired by the Daily Dot example, but with as close to accurate relative heights as possible based on available information from Martin’s novel and from archaeological sources for the real-world frontier works.
This is the result. I hope it is of interest and I welcome feedback. I think this might serve to support Emma’s chapter. I addition, I think it helps us to reflect on both the similarities between frontiers in fantasy, and past and contemporary worlds despite the ludicrous contrasts in scale. After all, fantasy and reality are in dialogue: Martin’s Wall is shaped by visions of the past and experiences of ancient ruins in our landscape, and his wall in turn influences audiences expectations and perceptions of ancient frontiers. This is what the public archaeology of frontiers and borderlands is all about, and working to create engaging graphics to communicate our stories and prompt critical reflection is a significant dimension of our endeavours. In particular, I think the efficacies and the futilities of wall-building are both brougth to the fore through this comparative graphic.