Archaeology as Science Fiction

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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

4 Responses

  1. Tileman says:

    Hi Alun,
    In a rush — but one thing I would take issue with is that yes uni­ver­sity out reach is col­lapsing or all but gone — the cul­min­a­tion of sev­eral years of gov­ern­ment policy — am not too sure how much ahrc has with extra mural sec­tor -, but out­reach in the form of com­munity archae­ology sems to be on much firmer ground. If had longer I would go on about how archae­ology at uni­ver­sity level seems to have thrown in the towel but has an inter­est­ing space for it in the avocational/ commercial/ volun­teer sec­tor
    nag me next week when I’m back from Finland and will dig out some links for you

  2. Cole says:

    The French have it right with his­toire mean­ing both story/narrative and his­tory. For me the two are inex­tric­ably linked.

    Archaeologists tell stor­ies about the past. They may at times be dull stor­ies but they are stor­ies non­ethe­less. I don’t see a prob­lem with con­sid­er­ing archae­ology as fic­tion, par­tic­u­larly when in so many examples (espe­cially pre­his­tory) aca­demic prose is very rarely factual.

    At the end of my doc­toral stud­ies I felt I was no closer to truly under­stand­ing the Neolithic of the Outer Hebrides than Piggott had been fifty years earlier. The evid­ence has improved, as have the means of under­stand­ing and inter­pret­ing it, but our prox­im­ity to pre­his­toric soci­ety remains as dis­tant and elu­sive as it ever was. That is partly why I left archae­ology. The not know­ing was some­thing I just could never reconcile.

    But this is what archae­ology is all about and is the source of its attrac­tion (to both archae­olo­gists and the pub­lic): enga­ging with mys­tery, uncer­tainty and explor­a­tion. It’s not just about answers or facts or truths but about try­ing to glimpse at the dif­fer­ences between ourselves and our ancest­ors of 100 or 1000 years ago. Archaeology is uniquely placed to achieve this through the things and places we study. Objects and curi­ous that people once used and inhabited.

    I think you’re right that archae­olo­gists have to engage more with the pub­lic but this is noth­ing new. Archaeologists have exper­i­mented with altern­at­ive ways of com­mu­nic­at­ing the past for over half a cen­tury. Stuart Piggott’s and Keith Henderson’s Scotland Before History (1958) remains one of the most enga­ging and access­ible books on Scottish pre­his­tory, whilst Graeme Warren’s 1997 art­icle is still rel­ev­ant in its exper­i­ment with how we write archae­olo­gical narratives.

    The main prob­lem is with ask­ing archae­olo­gists to write for dif­fer­ent audi­ences. Having moved into web design I imme­di­ately noticed the dif­fer­ence between writ­ing for the web and writ­ing for archae­ology (the former involves say­ing as little as you can about as much as pos­sible, the lat­ter the oppos­ite). But per­haps this is just because it is some­thing so few aca­demic archae­olo­gists actu­ally do. That is why I found myself sup­port­ing these two points of Dan’s ori­ginal art­icle: that “Graduate stu­dents should take classes…that teach them to talk to the pub­lic” and “Professors need to con­sume pop­u­lar media and write art­icles for pop­u­lar magazines.”

    And so say all of us!

    Sorry — more a series of ram­bling thoughts than a coher­ent argument 😉


  3. Duane says:

    I’m wor­ried that Syrio-Palestinian arche­ology has already sci­ence fic­tion. At least the inter­pret­a­tion of nearly every find is.

  4. Dan Shoup says:

    Hi Alun,
    Thanks for the com­ments! I don’t dis­agree with you at all. But I will throw in a couple thoughts.

    I don’t mean to say archae­olo­gists should be the only ones to pro­duce archae­olo­gical fic­tions — far from it! It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.
    The issue for me is that the voices of archae­olo­gists them­selves are not heard as loudly as they should be.

    I come at this with a polit­ical agenda. If archae­olo­gists can influ­ence pop­u­lar dis­course about the past, then we have a bet­ter chance of unlock­ing more fund­ing for research, edu­cat­ing people about the loot­ing prob­lem, and gen­er­ally being more rel­ev­ant. Good archae­olo­gical research is import­ant and we need more of it.

    But if you actu­ally want to get things done in the world, you have to pro­mote your agenda with the most effect­ive tools you can find. The aca­demic model — mak­ing books and art­icles and put­ting them in lib­rar­ies for people who feel like read­ing them — isn’t going to cap­ture anyone’s ima­gin­a­tion who isn’t a total his­tory dork already. The pop­u­lar cul­ture incarn­a­tion of archae­ology, on the other hand, is extremely luc­rat­ive and influ­en­tial. There’s power to be had there.

    That said, I’m also ter­ri­fied of what would hap­pen if most pro­fess­ors star­ted writ­ing nov­els. But we do need to make the academy a more hos­pit­able place for popularizers.

    @Cole — you’re right, this train of thought is noth­ing new. But it’s always been a train of thought and only rarely a course of action!

    @Duane — I think the real ques­tion is, whose fic­tion? And pro­mot­ing what agendas?