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.
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My favourite Alex Smith memory

Total solar eclipse sol­aire 1999. Photo (cc) Luc Viatour.

Recently Alex and I were email­ing and dis­cuss­ing put­ting on another ses­sion on ancient astro­nomy at the 2010 Classical Association meet­ing. We’d agreed on someone to approach to give a talk and were dis­cuss­ing how to go about see­ing if oth­ers wanted to talk. Sadly that won’t be hap­pen­ing now.

Late last month Alex Smith col­lapsed and med­ics were unable to do any­thing for her. I atten­ded her funeral earlier this week. There was a good turn out and it was fit­ting send-off for her. As well as being a great per­son to talk to, she was also a very incis­ive thinker. It’s hard to say quite how big a loss to ancient his­tory her death is.

One example was a talk she gave at the AMPAH con­fer­ence in Oxford in 2007. AMPAH is a post-graduate con­fer­ence for ancient his­tor­i­ans. Typically most of the talks at AMPAH are ok, but this time around they weren’t so good. In fact after endur­ing a ses­sion I skipped into town to buy a book rather than sit through another ses­sion where the speak­ers sat down and talked into their papers.

The next ses­sion I went to was the one she was speak­ing in: “The Persian War and its Aftermath”. I was inter­ested in see­ing what she had to say as I had an idea about dat­ing the battle of Himera and I thought her work could have been rel­ev­ant. In fact her talk was bril­liant. There were the obvi­ous touches. She had clearly prac­ticed (it still amazes me how few people do). She had PowerPoint slides to illus­trate her talk and she talked to the audi­ence rather than the slides. By that alone she was clearly the best speaker there, but what really impressed me was the content.

Her talk was “The Solar Eclipse of the Persian War: Fact or Fiction?” In it she patiently explained to an audi­ence of his­tor­i­ans how eclipses happened and how it wasn’t pos­sible for one of the eclipses Herodotus had described had happened. She then went and showed how the text for one of the pro­posed eclipses need not have been describ­ing an eclipse. The other occurred around the same time as a don­key gave birth to a rab­bit and a frog (or some­thing sim­ilar) and she was pro­pos­ing that Herodotus was writ­ing for effect rather than accur­acy. Along the way she com­pre­hens­ively chopped down the basis for my dat­ing of the battle of Himera. Nonetheless, the way she did it — by con­stantly com­par­ing astro­nom­ical cal­cu­la­tions with the his­tor­ical texts – meant I was very happy about it. She was com­pletely com­fort­able mov­ing between the two meth­ods. Seeing someone talk with that degree of con­fid­ence, clar­ity and skill is a pleasure.

She also handled the ques­tions extremely well. Some of the audi­ence couldn’t grasp there was no eclipse. There were few ques­tions along the lines of “if it wasn’t this eclipse he saw, which one was it?” Her answer was to go through how an eclipse occurs more simplist­ic­ally. This was far more dip­lo­matic than my response would have been. After the second or third repeat I would have tried to say that the insist­ence on ask­ing ‘which eclipse’ made as much sense as ask­ing “If the don­key didn’t give birth to a rab­bit and a frog, what did it give birth to?”

I didn’t get to see her talk as much as I’d like. I had planned to see her give a sem­inar in February, but the day before I had been summoned into the hos­pital for an oper­a­tion. Still, I am glad I have seen her talk. That and email dis­cus­sions with her have improved my own work.

She had just com­pleted the first draft of her thesis. It’s hoped that she’ll be awar­ded a posthum­ous PhD and her work will be pub­lished. When someone dies unex­pec­tedly it’s hard to know what to say. I think her own words would make a ter­rific memorial.

Introducing Archaeopix Search


I’ve been quiet recently as I’ve been work­ing on vari­ous things. One of them is now pub­lic and may be help­ful to edu­cat­ors and blog­gers. Tom Goskar and I have put together the site Archaeopix. The front of the site is a clear rip-off homage to Astronomy Picture of the Day. I like that. It’s an excuse to say “Hey look at this thing!” and gen­er­ally be positive.

The clever bit is the search page.

Searching Flickr can be hit ‘n’ miss. Generally if you want to use a photo for a blog or edu­ca­tional handout and you need it quickly, it needs to be licensed under a cre­at­ive com­mons licence. You can search on Flickr for cc-licensed pho­tos, but a search for “Rome” will bring up everything with Rome in it. Groups are handy because they’re themed. So you could search the Archaeology group for Rome. The prob­lem then is that you’ll find a lot of ©opy­right pho­tos. You really need a group which is all cc-licensed. Chiron is a good example of that. However Chiron’s strength is that it focuses on the clas­sical world, which means you won’t find pre­his­toric Europe in it, or any­thing Mayan. This is where Archaeopix search comes in.

Using this you can define what you want to use the photo for. You can spe­cify if you want to use the photo on a com­mer­cial site or if you want to be able to mess around with the image for a poster. You can then spe­cify which group you want to search in. The default is Archaeology, but there’s oth­ers like Chiron, or Southwestern Archaeology. The search looks at the Flickr API, so that only pho­tos match­ing a suit­able licence turn up in the results.

It won’t turn all Flickr groups into Chiron clones, but it makes them more use­ful. If you’ve any sug­ges­tions on improv­ing the search leave me a com­ment below. Or you could just look at the Taj Mahal’s Evil Twin — which is today’s photo.

A busy week


I’ve finally worked out why I feel so rushed. Once reason is that I am rushed, but the other is I’m los­ing two days a week at the moment going in to vari­ous hos­pit­als. Apart from the lack of time I’m feel­ing fine. I’ve stopped bleed­ing and hope­fully should pass the assess­ment next week to take chemotherapy.

One thing I’d been plan­ning to record present­a­tions and put them on the web when I’d moved on to the next one, but I’d never got around to pro­du­cing a final ver­sion of the Delphinus present­a­tion. This week I was on the 365 Days of Astronomypod­cast for Apollo’s birth­day. I needed sup­port­ing mater­ial for the IScience web­site, so I finally got round to record­ing the presentation.

[vod­pod id=Groupvideo.2185678&w=425&h=350&fv=%26rel%3D0%26border%3D0%26]

Sadly that’s around four years out-of-date. There’s a follow-up paper I’m writ­ing which will have inform­a­tion a couple more fest­ivals. I’ve men­tioned a con­nec­tion between Spica and the Thesmophoria before briefly. I had a paper fin­ished, but while pol­ish­ing it I found it could be improved by look­ing at it from another per­spect­ive. The re-worked ver­sion should be fin­ished in June.

Next week I’ll put up another recor­ded present­a­tion which is about 2 years out-of-date but which is closer the other other paper I’m writ­ing which should be fin­ished at the end of April. At the end of April I hope I’ll be able to post some other news.

In the mean­time I can point you to another couple of sites. Andrea Lobel is work­ing on Cultural Astronomy in the ancient Middle East. There’s also LookUP on the Jodcast’s

Neanderthal Ethics


Here’s an oddity I star­ted think­ing about fol­low­ing a tweet by Dr Kiki who poin­ted to this art­icle Return of the Neanderthals: If we can resur­rect them through fossil DNA, should we?. The strange thing was my reac­tion to this. The answer seems obvi­ous. I thought I’d missed the boat on this when The Philosophers’ Magazine blog covered it. Again the author, Jean Kazez, missed the obvi­ous objec­tion, so I left it in a com­ment, and it was eas­ily dis­missed — or rather ignored. Seeing as two people see no prob­lem with what I see as an insur­mount­able prob­lem I have to be open to the idea I’m being dog­matic.
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Perfectly preserved or recklessly wrecked? Thoughts on space heritage.


I’ll admit I thought the idea of extra-terrestrial her­it­age sites was non­sense when I first heard it. A few people have changed my mind, espe­cially the work of Alice Gorman who has made the point that a lot of his­tory could be lost if we think of satel­lites purely as junk. Now she’s con­sid­er­ing what should be on a space her­it­age list. Greg Fewer has already sug­ges­ted that a Lunar and Martian sites and monu­ments record is needed. Alice Gorman is expand­ing that idea to any­where off-planet. How do you draw up a list of space her­it­age sites?

Alice is using a Facebook applic­a­tion and there’s a dis­cus­sion board to go with it. She men­tions two things about her list that are odd. One is that the list is sup­posed to be a coher­ent list. There could be gaps in her list which need to be filled. In con­trast some­thing like the New 7 Wonders list just needed seven top won­ders. There was no over­all aim.

The other is she’s very open about the import­ance of nation­al­ism in the list. Archaeologists can get very worked up about nation­al­ism. Just glan­cing over to my book shelf I can see a couple of books on the topic, and the dangers of nation­al­ism in inter­pret­ing archae­olo­gical sites and arte­facts. Alice Gorman’s very hon­est about tak­ing a dif­fer­ent tack, and I think she’s abso­lutely right. Space explor­a­tion doesn’t really make any sense without con­sid­er­ing nation­al­ism. I think if you’re going to make a mean­ing­ful list, one that’s actu­ally accep­ted and used, then you have to take that into account.

Why would you need such a list? Already plans are being drawn up to rev­ist Tranquility Base by private cor­por­a­tions. It’s not going to hap­pen next year, but if invest­ment fol­lows the reces­sion it’s not impossible we’ll see Richard Branson land­ing on vir­gin soil* on the Moon. Sooner or later someone will decide the world would be bet­ter off without a spe­cific piece of junk — or else declare it derel­ict and sal­vage it for its his­tor­ical value. While it’s not an imme­di­ate threat, I think Alice Gorman’s work would be import­ant in estab­lish­ing the prin­ciple that some of these satel­lites have her­it­age value. The altern­at­ive is real­ising that after they’ve been lost.

That’s why I’d respect­fully dis­agree with the Ghost Writer who says, in an oth­er­wise excel­lent post, that Exoarchaeology is a pseudos­cience. (Now if the word xenoar­chae­ology had been used I might have agreed. The only remotely good xenoar­chae­ology paper I can recall was one which pro­posed massive orbital struc­tures might cre­ate dif­frac­tion pat­terns vis­ible in starlight)

*It wouldn’t actu­ally be soil, it’d be rego­lith because there’s no organic component.

The persistence of landscape


John Peterson has a treas­ure trove of papers on his web­site if you’re inter­ested in Roman land­scapes. One of his papers which I’ve been read­ing is a ter­rific demon­stra­tion of why Landscape archae­ology mat­ters. Iron Age and Roman square enclos­ures near Venta Icenorum (PDF) looks at the lay­out of Roman land divi­sions. What Peterson shows is if you were to say, “I’m a Roman archae­olo­gist, I’ll just look at the Roman stuff,” then you’d be miss­ing out on a lot of what might explain a landscape.

The paper looks at eight Roman or Late Iron Age enclos­ures just north of Venta Icenorum. These seem to be funer­ary monu­ments. They’re aptly placed, because they’re among Neolithic and Bronze Age buri­als. Further, they’re also integ­rated with a Roman cadastre. This would be form of land divi­sion, laid out by a Roman sur­vey. Why would the Romans care about Neolithic use of the land? This was a period per­haps three thou­sand years before the Romans arrived.

Peterson thinks it makes sense in two ways. One is that these mounds would have been use­ful ref­er­ences for sur­vey. If your sys­tem for divid­ing the land breaks down it’s easy enough to go back and do it again. Another sug­ges­tion he makes is that it’s about power. If these mounds have mean­ing then put­ting them within a Roman frame­work tames them an Romanises them. They don’t need to have kept their Neolithic mean­ings into the Iron Age, but they do need to have a mean­ing for this to matter.

It’s a strong argu­ment against hav­ing rigid bound­ar­ies between the study of time peri­ods, but it’s rare to see someone link­ing Roman use of land back to the Neolithic. At the same time it’s not a totally wild idea. Roy Loveday (1998:14–31) has com­men­ted that the routes of Roman roads tend to share the same ori­ent­a­tions as route through nearby henges. Is that because local topo­graphy makes that the easi­est dir­ec­tion to move in, or are the Romans fol­low­ing the tracks of the Iron Age Britons, who fol­lowed the tracks of the Bronze Age Britons and so on…

It’s not enough to have pan­or­amic vis­ion though. You also need to tie it back in to some­thing mean­ing­ful. That’s what I like about this paper. The time scale may be epic, but Peterson brings it back to why that mat­ters to someone study­ing Roman Britain.

See also:
Loveday, R. 1998. ‘Double Entrance Henges — Routes to the Past’ in Prehistoric Ritual and Religion. eds. Alex Gibson and Derek Simpson. Gloucestershire:Sutton Publishing Ltd. 14–31