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TARDIS Bokeh. Photo (cc) Capt. Tim.

There’s an interesting post on Archaeolog: Archaeology, Science Fiction, and Pop Culture, by Dan Shoup, who’s more normally found at Archaeopop. In it he puts forward two propositions.

  1. In the popular imagination, archaeology is a form of science fiction.
  2. Archaeologists should embrace this, and start writing science fiction that promotes their vision of the past and agenda for the present.

I’m sympathetic to this, but I’m not sure I agree with all of it, and I’m certainly not as enthusiastic as Dan.

On his first point I think he’s right. For a lot of the public archaeology is a form of science fiction. Common things you hear from the public on a dig are: “Where’s yer hat ‘n’ whip?”, “Let me know when you’ve found Atlantis.” and “I suppose the only way we’ll ever really know is if someone builds a time machine.” I’m much more lukewarm on his second proposition. Just because the public thinks something, that’s not enough itself to justify doing it.

One reason I’m not entirely happy about it is that it sits awfully close to the tired line that all historical documents are fictions. There’s probably a long blog post to be written against that, but if it is true then we need a new word to distinguish fictions like “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Lord of the Rings” from fictions like written statements on criminal courts or till receipts. That’s not what Dan is arguing though.

Instead he’s drawing on Science Fiction in the tradition of Robert Heinlein. This is fiction based on and extrapolated from grounded scientific speculation.* It’s also clear by inference that Dan sees intentional archaeological fiction as being quite different from typical academic archaeology. One response would be a sarcastic cheer for archaeologists who find the actual doing archaeology bit too hard or too boring, but that misses a lot of what science fiction is. Making a plausible fiction demands putting the archaeological speculation into a ‘real-world’ (or close) context. Done properly hard SF explores the limitations of science. One example of this in a biological context is ‘Wheelers‘ by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart which looks at what possibilities for life and various reproductive strategies in the solar system. They admit there’s a bit of a fudge in side-stepping the problem of how two species learn to communicate with each other rapidly enough for the story to work, but most of the book is an exploration of an idea by authors who normally write non-fiction.

I should also confess that if my thesis gets re-written into one book then it’s most likely to come out either as a novel, or novel interspersed with explanatory chapters because I’m interested in the human process of using astronomy. That’s not always apparent from a list of tables and graphs. It’s the process of making notes for this which leads me to my bigger concern. It’s far more likely that I’ll split it into two non-fiction books, though because I rapidly hit a wall when I tried sorting things out in a NaNoWriMo.

Writing fiction is not the easy way, if you do it properly. It’s not simply a matter of good science, there needs to be a narrative too. Not everyone can write fiction. In the case of some archaeological writers the further they’re kept away from the public the better. This doesn’t apply to all archaeologists but I’d rather read good academic articles from archaeologists who can’t write fiction, than the same archaeologist writing bad fiction. Despite that the proposal does raise some important points.

I like the idea of public engagement being an integral part of the PhD, especially for publicly funded students. I can’t see how it would work in the UK though. We’re pressured to finish the thesis in three years if we’re full-time. Despite that some form of public display whether it’s an art-work or a display at the local museum or something else would be a good idea. At least it would if it shifted attitudes to public engagement. Again, in the UK, the archaeologists I know are all happy to talk with the public about their work. However, it’s not rewarded work. Archaeological outreach is collapsing in the UK and it’s possible that the choice for some people in the future will be either public outreach or a job. This needs leadership with someone willing to put money to implement policy. I doubt it’ll come from the AHRC, the major funding body in the UK, in the near future though, as they’ve been cutting funding to publicly accessible archives like the ADS and AHDS.

Where I do part company more seriously is the need for archaeologists to produce pop culture accounts of the past as opposed to publicly accessible information. If popular culture is the culture that people make for themselves then it seems a bit odd to say they’re doing it wrong and that specially trained professionals should do it for them. Archaeologists are people too so there’s no reason they shouldn’t participate in popular culture; it’s the implication of driving others out that doesn’t seem right. Everyone should have a right to engage with their past, and archaeologists may be more useful if they give them the tools or raw material to do that rather than a finished product. That doesn’t mean everyone has the right to be taken seriously or go around damaging sites to prove their pet theory. I think conservation is a harder line to hold if you hold a simple equation that Archaeology = SF.

Despite that it’s an interesting post. Some archaeologists have an interest in science fiction which keeps bubbling up in different ways. Some people like Greg Fewer have used it as a seed for serious work on extra-terrestrial archaeology. I think Dan Shoup has an interesting lever for pulling apart arguments on public archaeology. It’s not necessary to agree with all, or even any, of what he says, but it’s helpful starting point for asking what is archaeology for?

*I don’t see the need for the diversion into speculative fiction, there’s a long tradition of SF writers writing about the past as well as the future, which strengthens his argument.