Dragons, dogs and swords… the surprising science of Game of Thrones

Where we look at some of the gruesome/weird/wonderful science behind the plots and fates of the characters in the popular series.

26th October 2016
Dragons, dogs and swords… the surprising science of Game of Thrones

Valyrian Steel

A rare Valyrian sword is the ultimate highly prized accessory for the serious swordsperson in Westeros. We have a real world parallel in the form of Damascus swords – also famed for their sharpness, lightness and keen edge – but also made using methods now apparently lost and forgotten for hundreds of years.

Myths have grown up around both swords. In our world Valyrian steel was said to be created with dragon fire. Remarkably, this sounds almost tame next to writings found in Asia Minor, which recount that a worthy blade needed to be heated until it glowed ‘like the Sun rising in the desert’ before being plunged ‘into the body of a muscular slave’ so that his strength would be transferred to the sword.  So far so gruesome, but also (hopefully) fictional.

That's a smashing looking-sword you've got there, Jon...

In 2006, a study of a Damascus sword’s molecular structure by a team at Technical University in Dresden, Germany may have uncovered at least one of Damascus steel’s secrets… a form of technology that very much ‘cutting edge’ today.  The 17th century Damascus blade contained and was strengthened by carbon nanotubes – the first ever found in steel.  The blade also contained nanowires of mineral called cemenite, making it tougher still - tiny intricate structures being developed in labs across the world today give these swords their ‘magical’ properties

Here, There and Everywhere be Dragons

We all love watching Daenerys’s ‘real’ dragons, but where does the idea of flying, fire-breathing lizards come from, and why are myths and stories about the heard all around our world? Well – while we may never know for sure, there several intriguing theories that emerge from the swirling mists of time…

A popular and persuasive idea is that our prehistoric ancestors discovered the bones of dinosaurs, even whales, and began to imagine what these large, potentially terrifying creatures might’ve looked like when they were alive. The notion that some dragons breathe fire may well have been the result of early humans mining with – for instance - flaming candles to guide them in the darkness. Pockets of highly flammable methane gas build up underground – and a dramatic fiery explosion could easily be blamed on a angry creature who had been disturbed in its lair…

Even fire-breathing dragons need a loving mum

Anthropologist Dr David E Jones posits a theory with even older, pre-human origins. He studied monkeys in Africa who have highly distinctive cry of alarm that they make whenever they spy lions, snakes, or eagles.  What do you get if you cross a lion, an eagle and a snake? A dragon! Replies Dr Jones in his (very serious) book.  This theory gives us dragons as a sort of handy mnemonic for the things our mammalian ancestors desperately wanted to avoid being grabbed and killed by. This was such important information for survival that evolution has somehow ‘hard wired’ it into our brains, perhaps, and so we remain fascinated yet fearful of dragons to this day…

It’s a dog eat dog world

Recent scientific studies have shed light on the special, age old understanding between humans and dogs. So, even science says a dog is a man’s best friend? Well – yes, right up until you don’t feed him and the rest of your pack of hounds for several days because you’re hoping that they can dine on your defeated enemies in the dungeons of Winterfell. Wrong ‘un Ramsay Bolton finds this out the hard way when Sansa Stark sets his own hungry hounds on him. Soon enough they’re wolfing down the head of House Bolton like so much evil Pedigree Chum.

Yes, we know these are dire wolves, but they're still a Stark's best friend in GoT

Begin typing the question ‘will your pets eat…’ into Google, and the top result from its autocomplete function isn’t ‘leftover food’ or even ‘each other’ but ‘you if you die’. You might think Mr Snuggles would never do this to you, but according to website The Straight Dope’s forensic pathologist, dying alone with just a pet for company really isn’t recommended if you want to avoid what’s known as ‘postmortem predation’:  “ a dog may go for several days before finally resorting to eating the owner's body. A cat, on the other hand, will only wait a day or two.”

So - possibly Sansa could’ve got her revenge even more swiftly if Ramsay had been a cat person?

Warrior Women

In Game of Thrones warriors come in all shapes and sizes – two of the deadliest are the strong and broad shouldered Brienne of Tarth and the quick and small Arya Stark. Both women face a certain amount of scepticism about their abilities as fighters – and both women respond to this by, well, being really really good at killing people. But could women like this really have existed and thrived in the past?

Brienne of Tarth, kick ass keeper of oaths

The Ancient Greeks wrote of the Amazons – a tribe of women warriors. All kinds of myths swirled around them – they cut off a breast to wield a bow better, they killed their male children, they had a lot of sex with whoever took their fancy - so many unlikely stories in fact that the Amazons themselves seemed like a myth too. Until archaeological excavations of kurgans (burial mounds in modern day Southern Ukraine and Russia) revealed the remains of many Sythian-Samatian women buried with bows, and dressed similarly to the fighting men.  There’s also archeological evidence to suggest wear and tear on their bones and muscle markings, that indicate these weapons and other grave goods weren’t for show – they regularly used them, and rode horses, too. And that could be key – being on horseback it seems evens things up more for skilled fighters, whether they are male or female.

Could these be the origins of the real Amazons? A society where women were apparently free to chose an active, combative life on horseback if they wished?  Exactly where a real life Brienne or Arya would want to be…

 

 


The Science of Game of Thrones (Hodder & Stoughton)The Science of Game of Thrones by Helen Keen is out now (Hodder & Stoughton, Hardback £16.99)

 

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