The Geology of Skyrim: An Unexpected Journey

This is a piece I wrote for the European Geosciences Union blog, GeoLog, and can be found on their website

Back in January I did a talk at an event called Science Showoff, a comedy night based in London where scientists stand up in front of an audience in a pub and talk about funny stuff to do with their work. I talked about video games. Not any video game however, I talked about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

For those of you who don’t know what this is, it’s a fantasy role playing video game. It is a great game with some beautiful graphics, especially the scenery; including flora, fauna and rocks. So I did what any other geologist would do. I mapped Skyrim. This means I used all the internet resources I could to find out the locations of every major ore deposit in the region of Skyrim, colour coded them and placed them on a map. My aim was to find out a possible story for the geological evolution of Skyrim.

Like any scientific investigation, you start off with a theory and you commence your investigations to try to prove it wrong. In some cases it is very difficult to prove the theory wrong and so it remains valid, but in most others you do manage to prove it wrong somehow. However, this does not mean that the time and investigations were wasted; instead this process brings up new answers, and questions that scientists investigate further. In the case of mapping the geology of Skyrim, I came up with an initial theory that I presented at Science Showoff, and have since found that my initial theory was probably wrong. This doesn’t dishearten me though, it has proved an interesting journey – if unexpected – that I am sure has engaged and enthused many people.

First, I will introduce you to my map of all the major ore deposits in Skyrim. I am by no means claiming that this is accurate and I am certainly not claiming that the final interpretation is accurate either (forgetting for a moment we are discussing a fantasy location). My main reason for taking on this little project was to introduce geology to an audience that may not normally engage with the sciences and so the results of this investigation are not meant to be 100% accurate, but they are meant to be inspiring.

My initial map of Skyrim with ore locations indicated as coloured blobs over the coloured topographic map. Red = iron, blue = corundum, purple = orichalcum, white = quicksilver, grey = silver, yellow = moonstone. (Base map modified from one produced by Tim Cook)

My initial map of Skyrim with ore locations indicated as coloured blobs over the coloured topographic map. Red = iron, blue = corundum, purple = orichalcum, white = quicksilver, grey = silver, yellow = moonstone (click for larger). (Base map modified from one produced by Tim Cook)

For a geologist it is not enough to just have a map of where lots of rocks are. What we need is an understanding of the nature of the earth beneath our feet. In finding out how the rocks got where they are today, we can then build up a history of the evolution of the area – including different environments that one area of land went through over millions of years.

The most common types of rocks we find in Skyrim are iron ore and corundum. In this world, corundum isn’t actually a rock – but it is a rock forming mineral. Rocks are simply amalgamations of other minerals in the form of crystals or grains. In igneous and metamorphic rocks, formed from cooling magma or changed through heat and pressure deep in the crust respectively, the minerals are crystalline in form. In sedimentary rocks the minerals are generally granular – from other rocks that have been ground down as sediments into their individual minerals. Corundum most commonly occurs as a mineral in metamorphic rocks, so we are going to assume that our ‘corundum ore’ is a metamorphic rock of some kind.

It is really important to know in what order the rocks got where they are – which is the oldest and which is the youngest. The map above gives us some clues to the order in which the rocks were laid down. Near the top left there is an area of low topography, and inside this is a red blob with a blue blob in the middle of it. The most likely way for these rocks to be in this formation is that the iron (red) is older than the corundum (blue), so the corundum was deposited after the iron ore. Quicksilver is another name for mercury in our world, the most common ore of which is cinnabar. Cinnabar formation is associated with volcanic activity and hot springs. On the map you can generally see quicksilver (white) associated spatially with corundum and iron ore. If you look closely it appears that quicksilver is usually found on the higher topography, so from this it could be inferred that quicksilver was formed later than both the iron ore and corundum.

Towards the bottom left of the province of Skyrim, in the west, you can see a distinct area where there is a quicksilver blob inside an iron ore blob. This would imply that here the quicksilver is directly on top of the iron – but we know that there should be corundum between these two. This is what geologists call an unconformity. An unconformity represents a missing chunk of time in the geological record. When rocks get laid down – by volcanoes or rivers – it takes millions of years. If we are expecting a rock to be somewhere and see that it is missing, we know we are missing a period of geological time in this area and it presents an interesting puzzle: why has this happened? It could be because of tectonic movements of the crust: raising mountains, eroding them then redepositing other sediments on the eroded mountains, but all we see is a road cutting with some different looking rocks and some missing in the middle. This is one of the most important principles in geology, and for many other subjects. It was through identifying an unconformity that James Hutton discovered the concept of ‘deep time’ in 1788 – that the Earth is thousands of millions of years old.

Orichalcum is a bit of an enigma. Many historical texts in the real world refer to orichalcum and yet there is a lot of dispute over what kind of metallic material it was – was it an ore, an alloy or something else entirely? From around 428 BC in Ancient Greek texts began implying that orichalcum was chalcopyrite, a copper ore that can be formed in a number of ways, but always associated with hydrothermal circulation and precipitation in either a sedimentary or volcanic environment. Orichalcum can be seen on the map adjacent to quicksilver on high topography, indicating this may be the most recent rock to be formed in Skyrim’s history.

A cartoon of the four main rocks and the order in which they were laid down (oldest at the bottom). (Credit: Jane Robb)

A cartoon of the four main rocks and the order in which they were laid down (oldest at the bottom). (Credit: Jane Robb)

Iron ore in our world is most commonly derived from banded iron formations. These are at least 2,400 million years old! They represent the point from which organisms started photosynthesising and producing oxygen. As these rocks are so old, many of them have been deformed through metamorphism.

Knowing how individual rock types form doesn’t tell us the whole story about Skyrim’s evolution though. The crust of the Earth is mobile – in some places it pushes together (compresses) and in others it pulls apart (extension or rifting), destroying and forming new crust in those areas respectively like a large conveyor belt around the Earth. When different rocks that should be on top of another (like in the diagram above) can be seen next to each other on the same topographic level, we can infer that some tectonic movement has happened. In the east of Skyrim, we see an area of higher topography and several of the different rocks aligned next to each other.

A topographic base map of Skyrim with my annotations of a compressional fault (line with triangles on it, compressing approximately north-south) and extensional faults (lines with little lines on them). The yellow line A-B is showing the location of a cross section cartoon (below). (Map modified from one produced by Tim Cook)

A topographic base map of Skyrim with my annotations of a compressional fault (line with triangles on it, compressing approximately north-south) and extensional faults (lines with little lines on them). The yellow line A-B is showing the location of a cross section cartoon (below). (Map modified from one produced byTim Cook)

A topographic base map of Skyrim with my annotations of a compressional fault (line with triangles on it, compressing approximately north-south) and extensional faults (lines with little lines on them). The yellow line A-B is showing the location of a cross section cartoon (below). (Map modified from one produced by Tim Cook)

Cross section cartoon A-B of the rocks as they might be underground, showing extensional faulting and erosion. The black ‘ticks’ on the diagram indicate the direction of movement of the land relative to the areas around it. (Credit: Jane Robb)

Skyrim is surrounded to the south and west by mountains, the largest being the Throat of the World. Mountains usually form through landmasses compressing together and bunching up. As this happens the rocks around the area of compression undergo an intense amount of pressure and heat that changes the rocks from their original state – forming metamorphosed rocks. Two of our most abundant rock types are metamorphic – iron ore and corundum. These rocks are also the oldest we see in Skyrim, indicating that for the first part of Skyrim’s history (spanning at least 2 billion years) it was under the sea forming iron ore sediments. A rock, we cannot be sure what it was originally, was deposited on top of the iron ore several millions of years later and then both were squeezed and pushed into mountains and the rest of Skyrim.

Millions of years later, the land started to pull itself apart in the east of Skyrim. Extension is a common trigger for volcanic activity, and combined with what could either have been a warm and wet or marine environment quicksilver and orichalcum deposits began to form above the previously metamorphosed rocks.

In modern day Skyrim, we still see some hot springs and nearby volcanic activity in Solstheim as well as the east being aptly named The Rift.

The Geology of Skyrim: Project Impossible?

So I was touring the (video gaming) world of Skyrim again recently and discovered the area just south of Lake Yorgrim was particularly interesting with prolific hot springs. In Skyrim, Fallout and Red Dead Redemption I have also been particularly impressed with the simulated scenery. Bethesda should get a nod of approval from (extra) nerdy geologists of the world, and of course Rockstar.

It makes me wonder how exactly have they made these games with such great scenery? In Oblivion (the immediate prequel to Skyrim) the scenery was pretty dour, with much of the rocks and grasslands just the same set of pixels repeated until the horizon with little detail (and lots of pop-up). But Skyrim went further than just making the detail a little more interesting, they apparently made every area from scratch, putting an overwhelming amount of effort into the look of the game, and it paid off. I was impressed.

With the rise of Gamespot UK’s new franchise ‘The What If Machine’ exploring the extent to which science in video games is mirrored in real life, it is emphasised how much background research the makers of games must do to make them awesome. So, does this translate to how scenery is presented in games?

I was talking to one of the geology curators at the Natural History Museum recently who is an avid fan of the Elder Scrolls (of which the Skyrim game is a part of) and was amused to discover that he actually tried to make a mod (modification) for the game where you can become a geologist. As players of the game will know, you can mine ores in Skyrim, and if you subsequently visit a blacksmith you can use what you have mined to improve or make new weapons and armour. Take this a step further and you can make a mod to mine other minerals, be a geologist who looks at the landscape to decide where would be the best place to find iron/copper/gold/zinc and so on. Pretty cool, if you are a massive geek.

I also recently stumbled across a blog which had a post detailing the geology of Middle Earth. They had even made full geological maps and implied the kinds of tectonics that would have created the landmass. Wow.

It got me thinking: what if we could make a geological map of Skyrim?

If someone really wanted, I bet a mod could be made that turns this into an educational venture, where kids can play awesome role playing games where they fend off elder dragons, hunt for the lost Galdur amulet and (if they have no soul) then also submit to the Daedra god Molag Bal in order to get an awesome weapon (yes, I did get the weapon); while at the same time mapping the geological landscape and produce a working geological history of Tamriel (of which Skyrim is a province). Nice.

I think that this idea is totally workable as a real educational tool. The British Geological Society have recently released a couple of Apps for the iPhone/iPad, where you can find out what the geology is in your area, or the soil type under your feet. Now that is geology becoming up to date, so why not expand this further?

So, if anyone feels like this would be a fun waste of their time, knows if something similar has already been done or even how Bethesda went about making the scenery – then I would be happy to hear from you!

12 Top tips for doing your Geology Mapping Dissertation

As summer is around the corner and with it the holidays some may not be thinking of which adventure holiday they will go on next or trying to nag the ex boss for their job back. Some lucky people will be embarking on their 21 day minimum mapping dissertation field work. But don’t stress, sometimes there are serious casualties, and other times you just lose the will to live but other times it actually goes well and you can end up having a great time. Here are some top tips from me and my other ‘class of 2011’ friends’ for getting through that dreaded month.

No. 1: Don’t be a stranger

I think the major thing that got me through the highs and lows of my month on the Isle of Skye was the company. Five of us rented a house on Loch Eishort, as two were mapping the Sleat peninsula, two of us were around Beinn an Dubhaich and another one on the other shore of Loch Slapin. It was a lifesaver, and many a day did my friend and I sit in the car drinking coffee in the morning giving each other some mental motivation for the day. It may be to late to arrange to go with your fellow geologists, but failing that make sure you invite a friend/boyfriend/girlfriend up for a week or so to have something to look forward to. Or in the case of another friend of mine, get involved with the locals and enjoy some of their banter.

No. 2: Caffeine check

(And water) Never leave without your caffeine. Even if the day is sunny and warm and you don’t think you will need it – you will! Also, don’t forget water, and lots of it. You will be walking a lot, climbing and thinking (and drinking lots of coffee). It all catches up with you and you don’t want to be left walking home in the splintering heat (yes, we did get caught in the heat on the Isle of Skye and I paid for it!) with no water or food left.

No. 3: Take sensible days off

Don’t get tired or try to do it all too quickly, you will end up missing important details you will need later. Take days off and enjoy the scenery or the local tourist attractions. This will help when you go back into the field the next day. Additionally, it will stop you becoming tired in the field and having an accident such as falling in a gorge. I managed to fall in a gorge on the first day and had a close encounter with the chisel end of my hammer and my throat but still, if I hadn’t managed my time properly this could have happened at lot more, and not been so lucky.

No. 4: Check the map scales

This is important to know when you are drawing your cross sections, especially if you are in the midst of writing up, the work is getting to you and you are verging on delusional. Don’t forget that half your map is in feet and yards and the other is in metres. It causes a lot of mental confusion and a lot of redrawing. Trust me.

No. 5: Don’t procrastinate

It really pays off if you do the work quickly and efficiently and get stuck right in. You don’t want to end up taking up your entire three months of your summer holidays mapping, spending money on accommodation and travel and not having fun. It happens and usually is a result of lack of enthusiasm in the first place. Take a good playlist with you too, some good ol’ 80’s rock tunes really help. Our favourite was Whitesnake Here I go again. Have a listen and you will totally find the relevance:

No. 6: Take a moment and use your initiative

Sit down and look around, you will be surprised what comes to you.

No. 7: Back-up your map

Avoid the terrifying moments where the wind takes it off the cliff edge and your past three weeks of work is lost. Photograph it regularly and keep a track record of its progress. I would also recommend to write directly on the map in something that is permanent, and not on a substitute, noting grid references in your notebook or so lightly it might rub off. This wastes a lot of time later and you will forget exactly what was there or what you meant by ‘6105 9372 (6253 9384) sandy limey stuff – lumps of grey chertyness make it grey coloured’ obviously at a point where you had lost all enthusiasm. Is that meant to be grey coloured rock in real life, or the grey you used already for the granite in the East, what do you do now you obviously had some alter-colour scheme going when mapping a week ago…does this mean the rest of the map is wrong, was that actually meant to be granite then? And what does the grid reference in brackets mean?! You don’t need that stress. If you need to change things, have other blank copies of the map (that you will of course have printed out before you left for the field) and copy your exposures onto a new one and use your back record (from all those great photos of it). Note: an exposure is the small bit of exposed rock you see in the field, an outcrop is the full extent of the exposed lithology underground, and what you will be inferring after you have mapped all exposures. Some examiners take offense to interchangeable or outright wrong use of these terms in mapping. And use eight digit grid references, not six.

No. 8: Do the work as soon as you get home

Yes it hurts to think of carrying on after nine hours in the field but honestly it saves time in the long run. The information you need is fresh in your mind now and won’t be in a week or 2 months’ time. I would also recommend to draw simple sketch cross sections, at least keeping a note of the scale to check you aren’t missing something important like a fault that doesn’t go all the way through or folds that stop suddenly. Avoid inferring strike-slip faults where possible, unless the actual BGS maps show one. Something that big won’t have missed every geologist for the past few hundred years.

No. 9: Make good field notes

Record all of your thoughts and include informed speculations, these show your brain was working in the field and you were not just on autopilot, this is what the examiners will be looking for. Even if this means sitting for half an hour jotting down your thoughts and not getting moving with the mapping this could be extremely beneficial. Having calculated ideas of where and what to look for next will save you time in the field and get you extra marks.

No. 10: Take good samples (and a good hammer)

It is important to take samples of almost all of the rocks you come across, and of all the interesting little things you find within them. It will hurt later when you need to know more about something and you have no record of it – pictures sometimes just don’t hack it. In saying this, a good sketch can be key, as long as you make sure you highlight all the details you see that could be important later. Sed logs are fantastic for this, and really useful for later study. You can even do sed logs for igneous or metamorphic rocks, as there can be just as many interesting physical features here. Don’t settle for rock samples that have fallen off the main body of rock, they will generally be weathered and not good in thin section. This means you need a good, heavy hammer. My hammer was a proper geological one but couldn’t hack through a lot of the igneous rocks in my area, and so I was left with some rubbish samples.

No. 11: Look at the small details

Record everything, from the smallest augen to the angle a granite body intrudes at – it will be worth it when you figure out why you need that data when you are back in the lab.

No. 12: Enjoy it!

Make the good times count, it will really pay off when you get to day 17 of mapping and you need a little pick me up. Whether this comes in the form of a jigsaw, cards, some chick flick films, laughing at the sheep (or making friends with them, hell, they might be your only company for a month) or trying to hide from the other group of students who have invaded your land then think of the funny side and tell your friends when you get home.