Wednesday, April 10, 2019

If Only We’d Never Taken that Treasure: Some Musings on Archaeology and the OSR

Dream and Fevers recently posted on how the real Viking Age offers richer fodder for RPGs than the common, content-thin stereotypical vision of that period. I had to nod reading that post, as I have just been teaching a course this term on Viking and Anglo-Saxon history and archaeology, so I could only give this sentiment a hearty Amen!!! In fact, there have been multiple times in the past year, while lecturing on some aspect of ancient/medieval society, that I’ve been struck by something that I’d like to see at the RPG table.

So why don’t I discuss some of them? 

Today’s post explores ancient treasure-hoards and the various ritual roles of Iron Age hoards and weapon deposits in northern Europe - then asks what would it change if looting that dungeon might cause trouble for the realm? 

Right, so I'll take this +1 sword and the gold, you take the silver...
we'll give Bob the clay pot since he's in the bathroom...
(British Museum)

Especially in OSR-world, where XP-for-treasure is fairly typical, few things will brighten the eyes of an average dungeoncrawling party like a big pile of treasure. Carting that loot away is a goal, an end; a resolution. In many old stories, however, snatching buried treasure can create problems. In Beowulf, a runaway slave’s theft from a dragon’s hoard provokes the ancient beast and sets the stage for Beowulf’s final, tragic arc (you can see the influence of this scene on Smaug’s wrath after Bilbo troubles his hoard, too). So treasure may have angry guardians (pretty standard fare in dungeoncrawling, of course) or the treasure itself may be cursed - also a pretty traditional feature of RPG hoards, not to mention the Rhine-Gold or, um, this other thing that Bilbo found once. 

But there’s another way to get in trouble for hauling away treasure, and it has to do with the reason the treasure got stuffed underground in the first place.  

In real life, ancient treasure-hoards are common enough to inform archaeology in important ways. In Roman archaeology, we tend to identify coin-hoards by the apparent intent of the hoarder; for example, between savings hoards or emergency hoards (based on various aspects of the composition of the hoard). As the names suggest, a ‘savings hoard’ is like a hidden piggybank, a nest egg squirreled away somewhere - and then never retrieved by the owner, perhaps because they died before coming back for it. An emergency hoard is more like oh-no-the-barbarians-are-coming-so-throw-the-stuff-that-really-matters-in-a-jar-and-bury-it-behind-the-woodshed - and you can probably see why that kind of situation might also prevent the owner from getting home safely to recover the hoard. 

Now, whether we’re thinking of a savings hoard or an emergency hoard, both approaches assume that the hoarder’s intent was primarily economic; the hoard’s coins had monetary value and the hoarder wanted to preserve their own access to that value.  That should seem sensible, but even for the Romans, we continue to debate whether the ancient economy functioned in ways parallel to a simplified modern market system (in my opinion, the market-forces side is winning that debate, but that’s a conversation for another time).

But what if a hoard was buried for non-economic reasons? Transactions that involve economic value also can happen primarily for ritualistic cultural and social reasons. This becomes more important when we look, say, at hoards and treasures buried in Iron Age northern Europe, far to the north of the Roman frontier, by people whose concept of wealth was not governed by monetary assumptions and for whom a market framework is much more questionable. There is a long Bronze Age/Iron Age prehistory of imported Mediterranean artifacts - treasures and luxury goods made by Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans - heading up the Rhone-Rhine corridor into northern Europe. Once these goods reached the north, they were often handed out to loyal followers by chieftains who controlled the trade routes. In fact, the ability to control those trade routes was an important part of holding power - not for tax profits, but because the symbolic prestige attached to southern luxury goods had its own value, its own power - in particular, the power to honor, reward, and motivate armed retainers by ‘paying’ them with such tokens of prestige. [The principle is the same as giving out gold and rings to retainers in Anglo-Saxon literature - but in this case the treasure is foreign and its value is tied explicitly to its exotic nature and its derivation from a higher-prestige, powerful, more technically-complex society far away). 

Ok - RPG application point one - if your setting has the stereotypical savage barbarians living on the edge of the map, consider that they might actually be more integrated into your setting than you’ve assumed. Rather than being fanatical isolationists, those barbarian chiefs may depend on access (by trade or plunder) to ‘civilized’ goods in order to prop up their own position as warlords. And imperial, ‘civilized’ culture may already be reshaping those ‘outsiders’ in all sorts of hidden ways. In this kind of setting, a looted treasure’s value might depend less on its nominal ‘gp value’ and more on its cultural weight and the level of heroic retainer that it might suitably attract. 

Great, but what does any of this have to do with buried hoards and murderhobos hunting gold? 

Well, consider: if these northern Iron Age societies didn’t use a monetary system, but southern treasures were quite valuable for social-political reasons, then why would one stuff them underground, or cast them into a bog or lake? Why, as seen in some sites in Denmark’s Illerup Valley, would people take prestigious, valuable Roman swords, break them, and then throw them into a lake? 

One explanation for some of those treasure-depositions looks quite plausible: as payment…not an economic payment, but a honor-binding, social contract-forming payment to the power(s) believed to be active and associated with that bog, lake, etc. In other words, if such foreign luxuries could honor and bind powerful men to one’s service, then why wouldn’t the local spirits or divinities be just as interested in such a bargain?

Now let’s apply this to your fantasy rpg setting. You’ve got a whole landscape chock full of dungeons which are themselves chock full of ancient treasures. Maybe some of those are savings hoards or treasuries of archaic lords who fell in battle and never came home. Maybe others are emergency hoards buried by those old kings’ subjects before they fled. But others…well, some of those treasures were left behind quite deliberately, in an age even before the mountains had chosen their homes…left by chieftains who sealed bargains with fey and elemental powers to shape the land itself as they desired. That fertile vale with the river that never floods its banks in springtime? Purchased 1,000 winters ago, sealed by the hoard under that dungeon. That limestone plateau that hasn’t dropped a sinkhole for 3 dynasties? Look to the gold littering the cenote bottoms. 

Enter your murderhobo, gold-and-XP-hungry PCs. 

Loot the wrong dungeon, and that river-valley will flood next spring with the fury of a water elemental scorned. Snatch gold baubles from the cenote well, and the Hall of 10,000 sages will collapse into a hole in the earth itself. And kings know this. They know that there are ticking time-bombs out there that might or might not wreak havoc in their realms. Some kings guard fiercely against this threat; others seek to exploit it. 

Former site of the Hall of 10,000 Sages...oops!


In this kind of setting, here are some possible scenarios:

+ What if finding the treasure was the start, not the end, of the adventure? The foe across the eastern marches is arming for war; to make things worse, in a village square one day’s march from that frontier, builders uncover a bronze pot full of ancient golden trinkets. The jar is inscribed with the name of an ancient sage. The king panics; nobody knows what this treasure does, but it must do something. If the PCs can get to that old sage’s buried archive, research what his hoard was meant to do, and get back in time to prevent enemy raiders from disturbing the hoard, then the king will pay handsomely (and let them keep the hoard…if doing so is safe).

+ Sabotage…by treasure: asymmetric warfare on a whole new level! The Tyrant of Flame Hill has armies too powerful to defeat and cruelty too fierce to describe. All the land lies under his violent rule. But an old legend claims that a treasure buried under his mountain fortress ‘turned off’ the volcano beneath that castle. If the PCs can sneak in and steal that treasure, the tyrant may be overthrown by the fire elementals that rest dormantly beneath him (yes, this is just like Mount Doom, but the goal is to sneak the treasure out! :-).  

If you’ve made it this far, please leave a comment and let me know whether this discussion has been interesting and useful - or not - and whether it seems accessible or too technical. If this kind of approach is helpful, then next I may explore the nature - and downfall - of ‘international communications’ and palace systems in the Late Bronze Age Near East - a system that offers an interesting model for RPG campaigns where PCs are ‘special’ and can shape the whole setting even without being individually super-powered. 

Thanks for reading!

  • ‘Gundobad’ 


  1. It makes me think of A Warning to the Curious:

    1. Wonderful, atmospheric illustration of the principle. Thanks for the link.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, it's always great to see people not just enjoy your work but build off it. There's so much to say about the Viking age and it's good to have a writer with a better education in the field than mine to tackle it.

    Also, if you're looking for more blogs to read that take a more academic approach check out:

    1. I actually just stumbled across "bardiches and bathhouses" a few days ago, and I look forward to exploring it. Thanks for making sure I'd seen it. 'Joseph Manola' at also has quite academic, enjoyable posts. One nice thing about the RPG community is that over here, being a nerd has always been cool. :-)

      I'm really just processing recently that my profession opens opportunities to say some meaningful things to my hobby. But we all contribute from different perspectives and backgrounds. Please keep doing what you're doing - your post on Vikings helped motivate me to open my blog so I could join the conversation!

    2. I'm a big fan of the Wicked City too, a lot of the stuff I've written for my setting based on Ahmad ibn Fadlan's writings were partially inspired by Manola.

      And it is really great to have the opportunity to educate people about history at the same time as contributing to the hobby. I'm glad that I've inspired you to start sharing your thoughts here, I look forward to seeing what you write next.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Quite fascinating! Looking forward to what's to come.

  5. Bardiches and Bathhouses is one of the best!

    (Excuse the deleted post above: Weekend mornings!)

    1. Yes!! That blog really showed me what an academic approach to D&D looks like and I'm forever grateful for it.

  6. This is great stuff!

    I'm reminded of a museum I visited (the Danish national museum) that featured a lot of artifacts recovered from swamps that were believed to have been sunk as some sort of sacrifice.

    I've been curious ever since about the cultures behind that kind of sacrifice.

    From a gameable perspective, what happens when these sacrifices are plundered by ignorant adventurers?

    1. Thanks! I imagine the artifacts you saw were likely from the Ilerup river basin, a microregion with all kinds of artifact-deposit sites laid down over multiple centuries. Really fascinating stuff.

  7. I am quite enjoying your posts! I am a History geek and really enjoy its intersection with RPGs.


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