Dungeons & Archaeologists

Dungeon map by Tim Hartin (paratime.ca)

The original roleplaying game, 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons, set the template for a hugely popular genre that persists to this day as RPGs, boardgames (such as Descent) and video games (such as World of Warcraft). The core activity in these games is to enter underground complexes of rooms and tunnels (dungeons), defeat their various inhabitants (dragons, if you’re out of luck) and steal their treasure. The player characters who do this are termed adventurers – or, by some these days, murder hobos.

As you may have noticed, there are very few dungeon-like sites in the real world, and real people who behave like D&D adventurers tend to have extremely short careers. Let’s ignore the murder hobos and look at dungeons from an archaeological perspective, to investigate why they are never seen on Earth.

A typical D&D dungeon is located just beyond the edge of a tract of wilderness, at a convenient commuting distance from a friendly settlement such as a semi-isolated farming hamlet. The first question for an archaeologist is whether the dungeon is inhabited by sentient living creatures. If not, it is either an animal warren (basically a very large anthill) or a tomb.

Apart from magpies, animals aren’t interested in collecting treasures. So let’s look at a tomb. A dungeon is always full of treasure when the player characters reach it, which means that the tomb must be extremely well hidden and unknown to the locals. Why else would the treasure still be there? Tutankhamun’s tomb survived almost untouched because it soon got covered by the backfill from a later, much grander tomb – which was robbed at an early date. And it certainly wasn’t possible for a few adventurers to wander into King Tut’s tomb guided by a map they bought from an old fellah at the coffee house. Carter had to employ a large team of farm workers to shift dirt for months opportunistically before they found the entrance.

Another possibility is that everyone around knows where the tomb is, but that it is tightly guarded, either by the authorities or by supernatural (possibly undead) beings. Since the treasure is still there, we may infer (again) that these guards make it too difficult for a few adventurers to wander into the tomb. You need an army. Archaeologists very occasionally do find treasures in unguarded tombs, and in every single case this comes as a surprise to us. Because if anyone had remembered the location of the treasure, they would have removed it a long time ago.

If instead there are sentient beings living in the dungeon, then to an archaeologist it is simply a settlement site, same in principle as the nearby farming hamlet I mentioned. Archaeologists don’t classify sentients into people and monsters, into good and evil. It isn’t clear to us upon arrival whether we can in better conscience raid the hamlet, the dungeon or more likely neither. We are simply dealing with paired settlements on either side of an ecological boundary. One practices agriculture and has few other riches, the other one does not produce much food but possesses great riches. Being so close to each other, the two communities must be aware of each other and in contact. We can see that any conflicts between them haven’t wiped either of them out so far, so most likely they are economically interdependent. The hamlet probably sells food to the dungeon inhabitants in exchange for treasure. Both communities are in all likelihood highly averse to the other getting wiped out by murder hobos. Such an equilibrium proves the farmers to be too weak to rob the dungeon dwellers and the dungeon dwellers unable or unwilling to farm the land. To an archaeologist, this setup is indistinguishable from a hamlet with a nearby stronghold or monastery.

If instead the dungeon’s inhabitants have only very recently settled there, it becomes difficult to explain why there is treasure in the dungeon. Did the new inhabitants bring it? Or did they defeat a group of strong tomb guardians? Either way, the dungeon is now basically an army encampment, and so again, not a place that four hobos can walk into.

There is also the issue of the underground spaces themselves. Most designers of D&D dungeons have a poor understanding of their physical characteristics. Are the underground passages largely natural caves? Then they will have quite a distinct morphology that differs depending on whether it’s a limestone karst system where a stream has eroded the rock away over millennia, a talus cave where fallen stone blocks have stacked on top of each other and left spaces under and between them, or lava tubes in a volcano. Such morphology is hardly ever recognisable on dungeon maps. Instead the spaces typically seem to have been excavated by means of mining technology, which demands enormous amounts of labour and produces spoil dumps nearby whose volume is about twice that of the dungeon or mine itself. Dungeon designers rarely pay much attention to the difference between natural rock sheets left standing in the dungeon, masonry walls and wooden walls.

Finally the issue of structural longevity. Archaeologists hardly ever encounter underground spaces that haven’t filled up with dirt or rubble. But there is often a sense in D&D that the dungeon is old. Since it is an open volume of air full of functioning doors and traps and hasn’t been flooded by groundwater, there must be magic at work unless someone is there to do continual upkeep and drainage work. And if, as seems to be the rule, the passages are artificial, then the integrity of the ceiling supports is of paramount importance. This is particularly true if the dungeon has been burrowed into earth or forms the basement of a masonry building. The basement of a ruinous castle quickly fills up with rubble unless masonry vaulting has been put in, and then the vaulting is likely groaning under the weight of rubble on the ground floor for which the structure was never engineered.

As you can see, studying archaeology is a pretty effective way to lose the ability to enjoy fantasy literature and roleplaying games not written and designed by archaeologists. But I believe that there are nevertheless pieces of archaeological information that can be used to add verisimilitude to your game scenarios, without making them hopelessly mundane.


  1. #1 Homo Australopithecus
    Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.
    May 22, 2017

    My other home is a castle.

  2. #2 Oerjan
    May 22, 2017

    “We can see that any conflicts between them haven’t wiped either of them out so far, so most likely they are economically interdependent. The hamlet probably sells food to the dungeon inhabitants in exchange for treasure.”

    Or the hamlet provides food to the dungeon dwellers as tribute in return for not being slaughtered; a fairly likely situation if the tribute-takers are strong enough to wipe out the hamlet but the hamlet is to weak to return the disfavour. This kind of neighbourly relations isn’t entirely unknown in our world… and in these cases the hamlet folks usually don’t object much if some outsiders kill the tribute-takers.

    Well, not until said outsiders themselves take up residence in the dungeon to take over as the new tribute-takers, anyway :-/

  3. #3 Martin R
    May 22, 2017

    This would rapidly become a political and military issue. “Dear King Falafel, we are a hamletful of loyal tax payers who are being extorted by a group of armed strangers who happen to own enormous riches. Please send troops. You wouldn’t want us to contact King Hamburger instead, would you?”

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    May 22, 2017

    at a convenient commuting distance from a friendly settlement such as an semi-isolated farming hamlet

    Which just happens to have shops selling all of the equipment that a band of would-be adventurers wishing to visit the rumored dragon’s lair might need, including weapons and armor that involve a fair amount of sophisticated technology. And they honor a trimetallic currency standard: N copper pieces equal one silver piece, and M silver pieces equal one gold piece. So in addition to Artistic License: Animal Behavior and Artistic License: Geology, you have Artistic License: Economics.

  5. #5 Martin R
    May 22, 2017

    Indeed you do! 😀

  6. #6 Tom P.
    Long Beach, CA
    May 22, 2017

    There were lots of times in the past where, if you were a Viking or Vandal during a wave of instability you could pick up some nice trinkets robbing tombs or monasteries. You’d pretty much have to be of chaotic evil alignment though–at least from the standpoint of the victims. But I’d like to see an archeologically informed scenario posted.

  7. #7 Martin R
    May 23, 2017

    Yeah, I think from the usual D&D perspective Lindisfarne isn’t the dungeon and the Norsemen aren’t the adventuring party…

    If you’re looking to rob the Norsemen themselves at home, they tend to keep their loot in bags under the floor of a farm building. I once took part in fieldwork to recover one of their hoards on Gotland. No dungeon.

  8. #9 Sean M
    May 23, 2017

    Martin R: However, situations like that have persisted for decades because the authorities were too busy or weak. Much of the Eighty Years War consisted of little parties holded up in strongholds collecting taxes at arquebus-point from villagers who really wished that one side would win so they only had to pay one set of taxes and had someone to complain to when the soldiers beat and raped them or burned their property for fun.

    The agrarian world was full of bands of wandering warriors looking for work or loot. They didn’t often find great treasures: apparently the records of the Golden Age of Piracy contain a lot of complaints “and they took three blocks and tackles, ten ells of sailcloth, and my best adze.” Captain Johnson’s book has stories about people who started by stealing three muskets and a canoe and worked their way upwards until someone’s navy caught them.

    Warfare between people living in neighbouring valleys or villages is horribly common and can last indefinitely. Thucydides talks about this, and Xenophon was a participant (although he was one of the lucky ones who was able to turn respectable and settle down).

  9. #10 Eric Lund
    May 23, 2017

    The agrarian world was full of bands of wandering warriors looking for work or loot.

    There were many reasons for the Crusades. Most of them were bad reasons, but among the good reasons was to give such groups a reason to bother somebody else instead of the locals.

  10. #11 BirgerJohansson
    May 23, 2017

    (OT) A master of fictional characters:
    “Roger Moore – Saint, Persuader and the suavest James Bond – dies aged 89” https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/may/23/roger-moore-saint-persuader-and-the-suavest-james-bond-dies-aged-89

  11. #12 Martin R
    May 23, 2017

    Sean M: I believe you’ll find that most D&D players will not be very happy if they find out that the valuables in the dungeon are three blocks and tackles, ten ells of sailcloth, and your best adze.

  12. #13 Kaleberg
    May 23, 2017

    Will Crowther modeled the original computer Adventure game on Mammoth Caves, a limestone formation in Kentucky. He wrote it to entertain his children after his divorce. Exploring the cave system with his wife had been one of the last good times in their marriage. Aside from a few magical creatures – e.g. dwarves and a troll – and a few magical animals, the cave was uninhabited, but full of lost magical treasures.

    If you’ve ever visited any caves in that area, you’d know that they are full of magical seeming formations made of flowing rock and glistening crystals. Time and water do amazing things to limestone. The formations tend to get names, some whimsical and some serious. One cave I visited in Virginia had a “room” full of food items. The visiting school children with us were spellbound. Another cave near Sydney in Australia had an entire wedding scene complete with a narrative of a reluctant groom, a jilted bride and so on. One can see how actual, natural cave landscapes could inspire the idea of exploring underground caverns for magical treasure.

    Will Crowther was part of a tech community that included students at MIT and Caltech who were fond of exploring their school’s extensive underground tunnel systems. At MIT you could stay in various basements for a mile or more if you could pick a few locks. They too were often full of treasures in the form of mad scientist like gizmos that dealt with HVAC, communications and so on. Combine spelunking with late night basement exploration, and you have a recipe for adventure.

  13. #14 Martin R
    May 23, 2017

    Love Crowther & Woods’ Adventure!

  14. #15 Eric Lund
    May 23, 2017

    At MIT you could stay in various basements for a mile or more if you could pick a few locks.

    You don’t even have to have any lock picking skills to do this. Just follow the basement from one building to the next, and you can easily cover a distance of a kilometer or more. It works on some of the upper floors as well. MIT claims to have the world’s second-longest extent of interconnecting hallways. Number 1, of course, is the Pentagon, but most of the Pentagon is inaccessible to civilians who are not DOD employees. MIT’s hallways are.

    That’s not to say that people don’t try to get access to the steam tunnels and other forbidden spaces. Among MIT’s traditions is that every now and then a group of students will successfully conspire to place objects on the Great Dome and other locations. The list at the link is not complete: it only goes back to 1994, so it doesn’t include the fully functional public telephone booth, among other things. IHTFP is an acronym which stands for a number of different things, the most common of which is “I Hate This Place” (if you’re smart enough to get into MIT, it’s assumed you are smart enough to figure out what the F stands for).

  15. #16 JustaTech
    May 24, 2017

    I think that your comment ” Archaeologists very occasionally do find treasures in unguarded tombs, and in every single case this comes as a surprise to us. ” might be a bit of an understatement.
    I watched an interview with an archaeologist working on a Mayan site that found an in-tact king’s tomb, full of treasure. The whole team was terrified, because if they didn’t get that stuff gone (or at least get more guards in) ASAP, they would very likely be killed by bandits for the treasure.
    Which isn’t a thing most people would think is happening nowadays.

  16. #17 JustaTech
    May 24, 2017

    When I think of creepy tunnels that might have treasure in them I tend to think of the crypts under Paris and places like that.

    D&D dungeons remind me strongly of the caves in Minecraft.

  17. #18 Martin R
    May 24, 2017

    Weirdly, most rich ancient cultures thrived in areas that are poor today.

  18. #19 Sean M
    May 24, 2017

    Martin: Well, yeah, and most cops don’t have an interesting case every week and get into a gunfight once a month or so. Most coders at startups don’t work 80 hour weeks, invent world-famous technologies, and flirt with beautiful people or battle fiendish hackers. Fantasies focus on the best-case and worst-case not the typical.

    But bands of rootless young men eager to take risks and commit violence are dead common, and so are unstable frontiers dotted with communities which hate each other but can’t destroy each other until they bring in some outside muscle. In D&D and in real life, the adventurers scatter or die or turn legitimate when order begins to reassert itself (there is that nasty rumour that John Hawkwood started his career as an archer and a tailor’s apprentice, and nobody can agree on when he was knighted and by whom, but when he died he was buried in a cathedral under a fawning inscription).

  19. #20 Eric Lund
    May 24, 2017

    Weirdly, most rich ancient cultures thrived in areas that are poor today.

    But rich and poor are relative terms. Modern Italy and Greece may not be as well off as northern Europe, but I find it hard to think of any Eurozone country as poor. Likewise, Shaanxi province (where the Qin and Tang dynasties had their capitals) isn’t one of the richest parts of China, but China as a whole has gotten rich lately.

    OK, much of the modern Middle East is relatively poor (including the areas where the Akkad, Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, and Indus River civilizations were), and so are Mesoamerica (the Maya) and Peru (the Inca). Some of that is due to environmental degradation (the “Fertile Crescent” isn’t so fertile anymore), and intermittent wars in places like Pakistan don’t help. Aftereffects of the colonial period are a major factor in the Americas. There is no guarantee that these areas will stay poor. Europe was a backwater for a millennium after the fall of Rome, but it eventually came back.

  20. #21 birgerjohansson
    May 24, 2017

    (OT) Most liberal country in Asia:
    Taiwan’s top court rules in favour of same-sex marriage https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/24/taiwans-top-court-rules-in-favour-of-same-sex-marriage

  21. #22 birgerjohansson
    May 24, 2017

    (OT) The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turns 50 years old today http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/music_box/2017/05/the_beatles_sgt_pepper_s_was_a_masterpiece_of_timing.html

  22. #23 Maggie Mungania
    May 31, 2017

    It reminds me of dungeons in the bible where prisoners were held. Valuables can hardly be found in them if unguarded.

  23. #24 Sean M
    June 3, 2017

    This post has inspired one of my own posts at https://bookandsword.com/2017/06/03/dungeons-and-historians/

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