Having recently reviewed the principal mortuary archaeology moment in The Witcher: Blood Origins television series on Netflix, I here wish to circle back and explore the broader archaeological dimensions of The Witcher season 1 (2019). I do this because this is yet another popular fantasy universe in which archaeological themes are prominent and integral to the plot. We are presented with the deep-time antiquity of the Continent as a source of key mysteries which shed light on the drama.

The first point is that The Witcher television show – based on books by Andrzej Sapkowski – draws upon European folklore and mythology and in a landscape with a deep and fragmented history and prehistory of racial conflict. Centuries earlier, the Conjunction of Spheres brought both humans and monsters to a world of elves. This was, however, an already ancient world of elves, dwarves and other beings. The elves had been defeated and dispossessed by the time The Witcher is set before being near-exterminated in the ‘Great Cleansing’; the elves that survive are hunted and live as outcasts. Those of elven blood are hated and feared, but they possess a propensity to wield magic, including Jennefer of Vengerberg and Princess Cirilla. In this tumultuous environment of competing human kingdoms and outcast elves, the witchers are monster-hunters roaming the world of slaying for coin, including the lead character: Geralt of Rivia.

We encounter the kingdom of Cintra, along with other kingdoms of the North, facing the invasion and the rising power of the southern empire of Nilfgaard. Meanwhile, a guild of bickering mages – the Brotherhood of Sorcerers – try to maintain the balance of power among the northern kingdoms overseeing magic academies including Aretuza and Ban Ard. The mages are compelled to join forces and ally against the invading forces of Nilfgaard who are assisted by their chief wizard Fringilla wielding chaos magic.

For this brief review, I cannot review all of the quasi-medieval and early modern elements to the rural and urban architectures and material cultures represented in the world of The Witcher, but I would like to focus on artefacts and monuments that exist as ancient relics and ruins, as well as mortuary archaeology dimensions.


The landscape of the Continent is punctuated by ancient obelisks. The first obelisk viewers encounter is not mentioned nor visited. Still, it is central and prominent at the heart of the royal palace within the walled city of Cintra (episode 1).

Cintra is besieged and Nilgaard’s forces ravage the city. Cirilla escapes but is captured by Cahir. For the first time, Cirilla unleases her unbridled magic which inexplicably breaks another adjacent obelisk which falls and creates a crevasse, allowing her to escape from Cahir (episode 1). We return to this obelisk in series 2.

Subsequently, while no upright obelisks feature in series 1, we are repeatedly shown obelisks as an integral part of the landscape of the Continent and they are referenced by the sorcerer Istredd who dabbles in archaeology.

At this stage, however, through Istredd we learn that ‘ancient ruins’ are seen as key to hidden truths regarding the nature of the Continent and its peoples. Notably, in episode 7 we find the troops of Nilfgaard overseeing a vast excavation of scaffolding and slaves and/or indentured labourers of a vast fallen obelisk in Nazair in excavations led by Istredd which he describes as a ‘magnalith’ recorded in runes but hitherto not discovered. We never get to learn where the ‘runes’ are written that reveal clues of the pre-Conjunction past of the Continent, but we gain a sense that Istredd’s archaeology (see below) is textual and antiquarian – texts harbour clues to monuments and ruins, the ruins and obelisks contain secrets to the texts’s meaning. We also learn that the obelisks are clearly of different scales and perhaps of different dates of construction, but little more.

In this series we are yet to be told how they relate to travel between worlds but obelisks are later revealed to be more than ancient relics: they are conduits between spheres. What is notable is how they operate as a subtle if repeated presence in the landscape, speaking of its deep prehistory and history but remaining enigmatic to the viewer and characters alike.

Elven bones

The magic academy of Artetuza is an ancient place – part temple, part fortress, and a locus of magic. Its deep-time story is lost to those that inhabit it and only some, notably Istredd with his archaeological interests, engage with its origins. In the second episode – Four Marks – Istredd encounters Yennefer in a chamber in Aretuza adjacent to Tor Lara – the Tower of the Gull. This chamber is surrounded and encased in the bones comprising its pillars, walls and doors, akin to a central European counter-Reformation crypt.

No one else is shown interested in this macabre environment, and Istredd studies/dwells there alone inexplicably and separate from the duties and practices of the female sorcerers of Aretuza. He explains to Yennifer that they are the bones of ‘dead elves’: ‘These elves built Aretuza’ and did so before humans. ‘Elves were the original sorcerers of the continent’. Yet, the elves were slaughtered in the Great Cleansing.

So, the bones represent the genocide of the elves and are perhaps intended to show a form of trophy and supremacy of the humans who stole their magic and co-opted their academy. Through bones and lies, Istredd explains that humans have been ‘rewriting histories with the stories we tell’.

Istredd however finds an alternative meaning in the bones. He instead wants to honour the elven sorcerers’ legacy. The bones for him not only embody the succession of elven to human sorcery but they speak of the lies told through bones, the dark history of genocide. Yet Istredd perceives their potential to resurrect aspects of the world from before the Conjunction of the Spheres: the key to the future lies in the deep past.

The Striga in Temeria in a Crypt

So far, we have addressed the monumental and ossuary relics of the ancient world of the Continent, but what of the ruins of the human world itself? Geralt heads for Temeria where the miners have a ‘pest problem’ which terns out to be striga – the unborn child of a cursed woman. We learn that Temeria’s King Foltest’s sister Adda is the woman killed by a curse. However, it inadvertently affected her unborn daughter too which we then are told was the result of incest with King Foltest.

Adda was buried in a medieval sarcophagus in the crypt from whence the creature emerges to kill and eat the livers and hearts of its victims. Foltest wants to hide the truth about the creature’s nature and origins for it will reveal his incest.

The castle above and the crypt are a cursed ruin – the environment uninhabited as the striga and filled with the bones of her victims.

Geralt’s fight with the striga is not to slay it, but to save it, and the princess whom it embodies.

The crypt is a classic Gothic realm, seemingly empty of corpses however, but for a single shallow chest-tomb bearing the effigy of a young woman – Adda – from whence the striga emerges.

Geralt defeats the monster by refusing it access to the tomb when daylight spills into the chamber. For reasons unclear, the bones of Adda and any clothing and artefacts interred with her are absent. Geralt therefore has space to climb into the tomb and magically seal it. Outside the striga reverts to human form as a frightened, feral naked teenage girl and despite harming Geralt, both the princess and Geralt survive thanks to the healing magic of the king’s sorceress Triss Merigold.

The effigy tomb is bizarre in being shallow and wide and its sculpture bears an air of 19th-century neo-Gothic realism rather than medieval aesthetics. The hands are clasped upon the chest, not in prayer, in this non-Christian context.

A royal infant girl’s burial

The saddest mortuary dimension of The Witcher series 1 involves no architectures, monuments or material cultures, and instead it relates merely to a murdered infant buried on a beach.

In episode 4 we encounter Jennefer in a carriage with the queen of Aedirn as part of her courtly duties as a mage. The queen seemingly has not given birth to a son and so the king marks her for death by an assassin.

Despite her best efforts, Jennefer cannot prevent the slaying of the queen and her baby infant by the sorcerer-assassin and his pet monster. She escapes with the child, but the blade of the sorcerer kills the child as she jumps through a portal.

Jennefer tries to bring the baby girl back to life on the beach. Having failed, she inters the small corpse in the sand.

This is a moment of stark reflection on mortality, fate and circumstances for Jennefer who sits on the beach with the corpse of the infant and dialogues with the body. Jennefer regretting the baby not having lived a life but tries to find comfort for the tragic loss in the many sorrows the infant has been spared. Jennefer tells the corprse that she hasn’t missed much – parents, friends and lovers – which Jennefer regards as ‘all fruitless’ and fleeting. ‘Let’s face it: you’re a girl… we’re just vessels…’. Jennefer claims, not fully believing her own words, that the infant as ‘cheated the game, won without even knowing it’. She picks up the infant corpse and rests it in a shallow grave saying ‘sleep well’.

This is a touching and dark moment of infant death as Jennefer reflects on the poor lot of women in their world and how, despite having gained power and beauty, she feels she has achieved little or nothing.

The Castle of Sodden Hill

The final archaeological dimension is a ruin – lying at a strategic point by a bridge over a river Yaruga, the ruined castle of Sodden is held by the sorcerers against the armies of Nilfgaard. The Battle of Sodden Hill is thus filmed in and around a genuine medieval ruin: Ogroszieniec Castle.

Sorcerers as Archaeologists

Series 1 of The Witcher also incorporates a stark critique of archaeology from the nihilistic perspective of Yennefer of Vengerberg.

As we’ve mentioned, Istredd of Aedd Gynvael is a sorcerer who explores ruins and ancient obelisks: he is an archaeologist of sorts and seems successful at it.

When he becomes Yennefer’s lover, he begs her to join him in his quest, both because it is free of politics and obligations to royal courts, but so they can be together. Yennefer spurns his vision of their shared future travelling the continent exploring ancient ruins. She retorts: ‘A life holding dustpans while you brush off forgotten bones? That’s not destiny, it’s slow suicide’.

Telling Tales

We’ve already seen how Istredd sees the bones of Aretuza as truth to the lies told by humans about their own history, but we have a second and key way in which The Witcher series 1 reflects on the fabrication of the human past: through bardic storytelling. Jaskier the Bard tells exaggerated tales of Geralt of Rivia and against his will but with his sustained sanction promotes his reputation. When asked by Geralt whether he has respect for the truth of Geralt’s deeds, Jaskier replies: ‘respect doesn’t make history’. You can’t get a better critique of a life as an archaeologist!

Concluding thoughts

The history and archaeology of The Witcher are the usual mixture of fantasy contradiction and confusion, blending dimensions of a ruinous, monumental, textual and osseous ‘ancient world’ akin to European prehistory and antiquity. Meanwhile, the medieval/early modern ‘present’ of the Witcher’s rival kingdoms is manifest in walled cities and towns as well as rural villages.

Mages transcend these worlds and attempt to tap into secrets from ancient times as text-driven antiquarians, seeking out ruins and obelisks.

Meanwhile tombs and crypts can be the denizens of monsters.

Death is omnipresent, but it is also recognised that the natural world is a fitting place the commemoration of the dead as much as an illustrious vainglorious effigy tomb.

Linking these strands, the true story of the Continent is based on genocide and lies about it, just as the Witcher’s own reputation is a fabrication of bardic tale-telling.