Fantasy Worldbuilding Exercise, Part I: Archaeology Dig

So, for my first ‘real’ blog since restoring it to functionality, let’s just jump right in with a series of posts on some of the fantasy world-building exercises I’ve come up with over the years.  Most of these are entirely original, though a couple are variations on things I’ve seen in the past.  Several require one or more partners, but several others can be done on their own.  Let’s get started!


This first exercise, I have to admit, is something I’ve pulled from someone else.  In my first year of junior high, I had a very good history teacher (I’m afraid I no longer remember their name — it was more years ago than I’m willing to admit) who used a very similar exercise to demonstrate what sort of historical evidence could be found from archaeological digs.

Now, he made a mistake with his stratigraphy, which no-one in our class caught (but me.  And only at the very end.  Heh), which would have — if it were from a real archaeological dig — suggested that the society being studied started in the steel age, and devolved into the iron age, bronze age, and down into the stone age, but if you’re a writer, you should know better.  Writers, after all, need to know a little bit about everything (don’t believe me?  Think about how far traveled that Lord of the Rings meme about “Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys,” simply because someone scriptwriting the movie (the line is not in the book) didn’t know the word ‘menu’ would imply the existence of Orcish restaurants in Middle Earth), so they should know that the top layer in an archaeological did is the most RECENT layer, not the earliest.


I recommend a partner for this one (someone who is also a writer working on their world building), though over the next few weeks I’ll be providing a sample you can use to do the second half of it.  You may also want something to time yourself, several sheets of paper you can write on (as an academic exercise, I suggest using pencil and paper for the first part, since you MIGHT want to add sketches as you go, but the second stage can be done on computer or however you’re most comfortable), and — just in case you get stuck — a desk encyclopedia for reference (or Wikipedia works too, I guess, but if you’re using pen and paper the desk encyclopedia might work better).


You and your partner will each need (at least) five sheets of paper.  You can do this with as many ‘layers’ as you want, but I think five should be the minimum, and each ‘layer’ needs its own sheet of paper.  If you really want to challenge yourself, do this first section timed, giving yourself five minutes for each ‘layer.’  (If you do not have a partner, I will be providing a sample set in the next few blogs that you can work from)

Create for yourself a set of ‘archaeologists’ who each specialize in one of the following subjects:

(As a note, there are many other fields and sub-fields in archaeology, but these are the ones I feel best fit this exercise… and I don’t think it works with more than six)

For each ‘layer,’ you will have three ‘sites’ being dug. Assign two of these specialists to each ‘site.’  List 2-3 things each archaeologist finds on each site.  Some specifications:  Each Archaeologist will only report things focused on their specialty, though you can mention related incidentals (for example, your architect specialist can say there were mummies found in the pyramid, or your osteoarchaeologist can mention what the bones they found were buried in and\or what killed them, but neither are qualified to know what the dagger the bodies were buried with is made of, or what the writing on the tomb said).  Each layer will be from a different era, and you will be going backwards for each layer (for example,  you will start in the Medieval era, the next layer will cover Ancient, then Iron Age, Bronze Age, and finally go to the Stone Age), so make the findings era-appropriate.  This is for ‘fantasy’ world-building, so some of the items you find can be magical (and if you want to write a short bit about a particular archaeologist being effected magically by a cursed artifact, as long as you don’t kill them off before the final layer, go for it!), but do try to keep them something comprehensible.  And any writing found by the Epigraphist can only include fragmentary histories, at best.

Once each of you has all of your layers set up, trade with the other person, take the findings, and ‘interpret’ the history. Once you’re done, you have the “history” of your fantasy world.

If you don’t understand what I mean by this, over the next few weeks I’ll be presenting my own “sample” set of layers (culminating with my own interpretation of them) for this exercise:

  • Top Layer
  • 2nd Layer
  • 3rd Layer
  • 4th Layer
  • 5th Layer
  • Interpretation

Links will be added as the layers are posted.  Good luck, and remember to have fun!

Full Exercise List (Links will be added as the exercises are posted):

  • Exercise I:  Archaeology Dig
  • Exercise II:  Building a Government
  • Exercise III:  Bestiaries
  • Exercise IV:  Magic Systems… and Rules Lawyering
  • Exercise V:  Handling Fantastical Linguistics
  • Exercise VI:  Tools of the Trade (By Era)
  • Exercise VII:  Music, Art, and Architecture
  • Exercise VIII:  Arms and Armor (Or Armorless Arms?)
  • Exercise IX:  Historical Parallels
  • Exercise X:  Establishing Traditions
  • Exercise XI:  Is Meat Back on Your Menu?
  • Exercise XII: Making Money
  • Exercise XIII:  Quackery within Miraculous Medicine
  • …? (Reserved for when I’m inspired)
  • Conclusion:  The Things That Matter


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