The City of Greyhawk was built from the wealth of looted tombs that litter the Cairn Hills and the southern shores of the Lake of the Unknown Depths. While a great many of these have been plundered over the years by the greedy and the foolish, it is not uncommon to find one that retains at least some of it's valuables. But, exactly who did all of this buried wealth belong? Some, undoubtably, came from the Flan and the Suel, but not all. So who were these other cairn-builders, and what were they like? What did they leave in their tombs? Read on, and find some of this out...
Author: Erik "Iquander" Mona
The Myth of the Cairn-Builders
by Erik Mona (Iquander@aol.com) and Copyright by Wizards of the Coast
Used with Permission. Do not repost without obtaining prior permission from the author. Originally posted to the RPGA Living Greyhawk Message Board
The tombs, barrows, catacombs and burial mounds of the Cairn Hills present an interesting quandary to the scholars of the Flanaess. Current wisdom suggests that the Flan first civilized Eastern Oerik, and that, aside from certain demihuman enclaves in mountains, hills and forests, any ruins or sites of ancient activity can be ascribed to them. The cairns of the hills north and west of Greyhawk, however, defy this logic. Though many can be defined as Flannae or even Suloise in origin, even more seem to defy such classification, giving signs of age that place them far, far older than the first Flan who fashioned a tool with thankfully opposable thumbs. To explain this factual conflict, most scholars refer to the "Cairn-Builders," a kind of catch-all pre-Flan race that, among other actions, interred their dead on the southern shores of the Nyr Dyv.
Unfortunately, a careful study of the architecture and craftsmanship of discovered cairns, and of the artifacts rescued from them, reveals evidence that the "Cairn-Builders" were in fact at least three distinct peoples who differed from each other as greatly as an ancient Suel Imperial Senator differs from a Rhennee wisewoman.
The most common "mysterious" cairns seem to have been excavated by a race completely unknown to us. Bas-relief wall murals enhanced by crude paints of animal fat mixed with natural dye reveal a dark-skinned folk with slightly slanted eyes and woolly, kinky hair. Common artistic themes within these cairns reveal a massive army of skeletal warriors emerging from a dark gate or portal. These creatures are depicted battling humans wearing animal masks, or animal headed humans. Animals frequently represented include hawks, jackals, crocodiles and domestic cats. The background of all such cairns show a large pyramid lording over plains of grain and fruit, marked regularly by a maze of canals and irrigation ditches. Some cairns additionally depict a towering ebony-skinned figure seated in a regal pose, though many lack this possibly deific image. Unplundered cairns of this type are difficult to find, as large, pyramidal capstones loudly courted attention of the region’s first tomb raiders, centuries ago. Informed sages date these cairns as some 5000-7000 years old.
A second set of cairns, noted for their polyhedral interior design, appear even older than their pyramid-capped brethren. Apparently the remnants of an ancient, unknown people, the cairns display few wall paintings or images of the builders. Most artifacts rescued from the cairns are intricate glassworks, often featuring several wildly clashing colors and artistic, rather than utilitarian, design. Ivory statuary removed during Greyhawk’s first Treasure Boom, mostly depicting great cats or spider-shaped creatures of fiendish mien, brought high bounties in the Free City, though they command more tepid interest today. The floors of these cairns display colorful mosaic patterns of highly polished agates and rounded bits of glass, apparently dredged from the beaches of the Nyr Dyv. Smooth, almost mirrored ceilings reflect torchlight from these rocks, creating haunting scintillations. All too often, however, dark smudges of soot mar the ceilings, the leavings of bonfires lit by treasure hunters requiring a speedy source of illumination.
The last of these cairns is thought to have been plundered more than a century ago. Due to this difference in time, the most often circulated rumor about them may not be true at all. Whispered tales told by aged demihuman prospectors in the City of Greyhawk suggest that the sarcophagi of these cairns invariably produced no corpses, even if the cairn’s seal had not been broken since construction. Instead, bright orange man-shaped husks of empty skin rested within the coffins. These skins have not been seen in decades, the last on public display in a traveling circus is thought to have been destroyed during warring in the western Bandit Kingdoms in the Winter of 578 CY.
The last "common" set of cairns, by far the oldest, lies nearest the shores of the Nyr Dyv. These sites seem to be simple barrows, hidden only by a small pile of rocks or, rarely, lozenge-shaped blocks of stone. Under ground, however, their compelling mysteries come to life. While the air within most sites in the Cairn Hills is stagnant and often infested with strange molds, the atmosphere within these cairns tickles the nose, evoking memories of morning, dew-soaked gardens. Porous shafts, no wider than a man’s finger, sprinkle the walls here, somehow catching the winds outside and generating a slow, high-pitched moaning that is at once both haunting and beautiful.
Aside from the intricate construction of the cairns themselves, these tombs hold few examples of art. The presence of weaponry (primarily swords and arrowheads) suggests that these beings may have been warriors. Study of unearthed skeletons seems to confirm the suggestion, with many specimens displaying signs of severe injury, such as missing limbs, broken bones and crushed skulls. Height ranges from seven to seven and a half feet tall. Rumors abound that Greyhawk’s Guild of Wizardry recovered a singular treasure in the mid fifth century – an intact specimen, preserved as in the moment of death not unlike the Incorruptibles of Zodal, whose bodies do not decay. If tales are to be believed, the creature appeared androgynous and possessed deep ebony skin and cold, dead, brilliant white eyes. What can be made of these tales is anyone’s guess. The Guild now denies any such discovery.