“Speculum Fantasia” and thoughts on other Invented Worlds

Mark Hall has published an article, Speculum Fantasia – Middle Earth and Discworld as Mirrors of Medieval Europe on the European Journal of Archaeology blogsite. It’s an interesting exposition of how fictitious examples of what might perhaps be called ‘alternative’ histories intersect with what might be called’true’ history.  I was especially taken with his example of a report stating that:

“Ashdown Forest was both the best surviving heathland forest in Britain and the setting for A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories. As a result several million pounds of grant-aid had been allocated for conservation work to maintain the heathland and clear some of the trees – trees, it was noted, that Winnie the Pooh and friends would not have recognised and so they had to go.”

The point being that our narratives and stories  reflect back and alter the ‘real’ world.  For archaeologists, the lesson seems to be that archaeologically we’re going to find instances of these invented worlds, so we’d better know what to do with them:

“The question of what archaeology can learn from the popularity of these and other invented civilisations is a difficult one for me because of the paradox at its root. In the words of Terry Eagleton (2004, 4) ‘human existence is at least as much about fantasy and desire as it is about truth and reason’. Imagined realities have been an ever present part of the human drive to explain and adapt through narrative constructions. The same wellspring produced the creative drives for mythopoesis, invention, and material culture. Archaeological and historical explanations have grown and sought their own path, influenced mostly by an honestly meant desire to be objective. The paradox has grown as a consequence of the fantasy / truth split. On the one hand invention and mythopoesis are part of the human condition and so infuse the material culture / archaeological record. The cult of saints and the associated cult of heroes is a prime example: thus in the 12th century the abbey of Landevennec, Finistere, Brittany under the patronage of local secular potentates had a new chapel built dedicated to Landavennec King Gradlon, a fictitious first ancestor and king of Avalon. He was given a reality in stone, mortar and worship.9 On the other hand in a contemporary context we require an objective separation between archaeological, scientific, fact-centred analysis of reality and narrative desires. It can be hard to separate fact from fiction when fiction is a fact of existence.”

I found this article useful for thinking about other invented worlds, especially the online variety. I’ve argued elsewhere that virtual worlds can be amenable to archaeological study, and perhaps what Mark Hall’s article is suggesting is one way of approaching that virtual material culture.  The key I think is that line, ‘invention and mythopoesis are part of the human condition and so infuse the material culture / archaeological record’. In Second Life, everyone is a god. Everyone can say ‘fiat lux’, and there will be light.  The things we see in Second Life are the remnants of each user’s own personal myth-making.  Studying an individual parcel of land then in Second Life requires knowing the myth. An archaeology of a virtual world on this reading is an exercise in cosmology then…