Fantasy Fortifications — Part 2: Technology and Materials

This article is part 2 of a series on Fantasy Fortifications by Toni Šušnjar.

This section, being technical, depends a lot on the nature of the fantasy in question. Is it low or high fantasy? How widespread is magic? Are there any fantastical/magical materials present? Can magic be used to reinforce buildings. Good examples of magical-yet-not-obviously-so fortifications are Helm’s Deep (Aglarond) and Minas Tirith from Lord of the Rings. Both Aglarond fortress and main wall of Minas Tirith had been built using magic – yet that magic takes the form of really advanced technology, and provides obviously fantastical fortifications without obviously breaking any laws of physics (Angrenost/Orthanc and Barad-dur are more obviously fantastical).

Both building and siege technology is important aspect in designing walls. When it comes to siege technology, it can take various forms. But primary difference is lack or presence of stone-throwing weapons (catapults / onagers, ballistas, trebuchets) and their technological advancement, and lack or presence of gunpowder weapons.

When it comes to materials however, another factor is their presence or absence. Where there is stone available, crude stone fortifications may appear long before they are technically necessary. Where there is none, fortifications will be built out of other materials – brick, or wood and earth – long after stone fortifications had appeared elsewhere, unless significant logistical capacity exists for getting building materials from afar. This logistical capacity is always connected to waterways: an ox cart, transporting 1 500 kg of stone, cannot cover more than 15 kilometers per day.

Lastly, question is also one of timespan. Stone and brick fortifications take a long time to build, and are expected to last. Earth-and-wood fort however can be built very quickly, and due to nature of materials requires frequent maintenance. Because of this, any temporary fortifications will utilize either wood, earth or both.

Earth and Wood

Wood and earth are the most and accessible building materials for fortifications. Even if there are no trees around, there will be earth. Most fortifications in Western Europe from VI to X century were built from wood and earth.

If there are no siege weapons at all, pallisade and/or earthen rampart with ditch are usually enough. The only threat in such a scenario are ropes and ladders, which can be defended against relatively easily as long as defenders can actually utilize height advantage provided by the wall.

Siege weapons change design significantly. Depending on the nature of the same, pallisade may be abandoned or slightly reinforced by earthworks (it has to be thin enough to lean over). Earth rampart will be significantly reinforced, in order to withstand projectile strikes. If gunpowder siege weapons (e.g. cannons) are present in great quantity, fortifications will consist of massive earthen ramparts in order to absorb projectile strikes, while face (the part of fortification we see) may be covered in grass, wood or stone.

Earth and wood are the first and most primitive materials for building fortifications (though unshaped stone is not much younger, necessarily), and are thus a good choice for basic fortifications. However, wood is also utilized for many other purposes – even a small house already requires 12 centennial oaks. Fort Trelleberg in Sweden required 800 000 square meters of forrest. By 12th century, forrests of Europe were already significantly depleted.

Stone

Stone is used for more advanced fortifications. Early stone fortifications were crude dry walls, with rough pieces of stone placed on each other. As techniques developed, so did wall design. First the stone pieces were shaped into regular blocks. Later walls had two structural walls made of stone blocks, with space between them filled with rubble. This rubble helped absorb projectile strikes, thus reducing damage to the wall. Some such walls could be 8 to 10 meters thick.

Such walls could be dry as well, but also could be reinforced in several ways. Romans in some of their constructions – e.g. Diocletian’s Palace in Split – drilled holes in stones and connected them with iron or lead rods. In other cases, limestone mortar was used to connect stones, and sometimes was also poured to connect the rubble between the structural walls. Usage of mortar significantly improved wall’s ability to resist impacts, as Roman mortar was flexible and compressible enough to absorb and dissipate some of the shock of the impact.

Brick

Brick was also used in fortifications where stone was not available – for example, Aurelian walls of Rome were built from brick. Brick is much less resillient than stone, however, so such walls were easier to damage and less resistant to elements. Brick becomes more popular during and after XV century, as it is more resistant to cannon fire than stones are.

For the Fantasy Writer

As already noted, fantasy can afford to be more fantastical in its choice of building materials. Fortifications could be literally raised or grown out of ground, shaped from lava or molten rock and so on. For more traditional approaches, however, it is necessary to keep the above factors in mind – especially the presence of building materials, as that will determine what a fort is built of, even as its shape is decided by the weapons which could be utilized to assault it.

What Do You Say?

What are some of the traditional materials and techniques for building fortifications in your world?

References

  • Osprey – Crusader Castles

 About the Author:

Toni Šušnjar is an amateur historian and fantasy enthusiast with particular interest in Ancient and Medieval history as well as Medieval and High Fantasy. He also writes Military Fantasy blog.  You can follow him on the Military Fantasy Facebook page.

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Aldarion
Member
Aldarion
Yora

Great video about wood castles. If you want to know about how castles work in general, Shad is the guy.

I am familiar with his videos. Good stuff. EDIT: Other good Youtubers, though not necessarily for castles, are Scholagladiatoria, Lindybeige, Kings and Generals, and BazBattles.

Yora
Member
Yora

Great video about wood castles. If you want to know about how castles work in general, Shad is the guy.

Yora
Member
Yora

In theory you can tell stories with anything. The question always is what you want to say with it.
Indestructable materials seem to fall into the category with other things that are good for silly nonsense fun, but I see little use in them for stories that try to feel plausible.

Creating materials that are much more harder to break or deform than it is to make them is actually not that difficult or strange. There are a lot of materials that change their properties very significantly when heated and allowed to cool down. Take different powders, mix them, add water, shape them, and then burn them, and the resulting ceramic will have very different properties than the stuff you crushed into powders.
While not indestructable, carbides can be stupidly hard.

Aldarion
Member
Aldarion
skip.knox

Good article, mate.

Thanks.

What I can never figure is, if it's indestructible, how is it shaped? You can't sharpen something to a point without destroying a bit of it. You can't poke a hole in it, or make armor or pretty much do anything with it except find interesting pieces for wall art, like finding driftwood.

Also, since matter can neither be created nor destroyed, everything's indestructible, right?

Yes, yes, I know. Nobody asked me. 🙂

There are actually several possibilities:

  1. It is only indestructible by weapons utilized, not indestructible overall. This means that it can be shaped by whatever can affect it, and new weapons may appear that will render it destructible.
  2. It is destructible, but only by means which are impractical for weapons utilization in the period. For example, if material is vulnerable to slow heating on extreme temperatures – well, you may be able to technically achieve such conditions, but can you use that as a weapon? Not until you get to lasers.
  3. It is a composite of several materials, and process of mixing and cooling them changes physical/atomic/crystalline structure of material in a way that later renders it indestructible even to processes used to create material in the first place. Kinda like diamond on steroids.
  4. And of course, everyone's favourite:

[​IMG]

Insolent Lad
Member
Insolent Lad
skip.knox

What I can never figure is, if it's indestructible, how is it shaped?

It could harden after being shaped, like concrete. Or it could even be 'grown' like some sort of crystal-thingy.

E.L. Skip Knox
Member
E.L. Skip Knox

What I can never figure is, if it's indestructible, how is it shaped? You can't sharpen something to a point without destroying a bit of it. You can't poke a hole in it, or make armor or pretty much do anything with it except find interesting pieces for wall art, like finding driftwood.

Also, since matter can neither be created nor destroyed, everything's indestructible, right?

Yes, yes, I know. Nobody asked me. 🙂

Good article, mate.

Aldarion
Member
Aldarion
Black Dragon

What are your thoughts on the use of (nearly) indestructible materials in a fantasy setting? For example, adamantium? Do you think that they detract from the storytelling?

Yes. No. Maybe. Depends.

Nearly indestructible materials are best used sparingly, for obvious reasons – although that will also depend on story purposes. In some cases, they are a very good – and important – aspects of the story. For example, nearly-indestructible construction of Orthanc and Othram* serves to constrain the attacking force. Thus Saruman still survives to give some information, and siege of Minas Tirith becomes a contest of will more than that of physical strength. They also serve to explain how Orthanc and Tirith palantirs managed to remain intact when most others were lost. But most cities and buildings in Middle Earth are very much not indestructible, and that means that you cannot just "button up" and hope to survive.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, you have similarly indestructible fortress in Storm's End. In this case, it is likely to play important role in war against the Others. Some others may be of similar construction.

It can detract from the story if overdone, however. If everything is indestructible, question becomes "how do people even manage to fight"? Of course, such question, well answered, may also place foundation for a rather interesting setting. But more than that, it may well feel cheap, that it is so easy to become invulnerable. So overall, you can use them – no problem with that – but only if you have a good reason to do so.

* Main city wall of Minas Tirith.

Antonio del Drago
Admin
Antonio del Drago

What are your thoughts on the use of (nearly) indestructible materials in a fantasy setting? For example, adamantium? Do you think that they detract from the storytelling?

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