Theorising Space Archaeology


The future archae­olo­gical site of Spaceport America. Photo (cc) Jared Tarbell

There’s a thought-provoking post on Space Archaeology about how you define the term Space Archaeology. I’ve gen­er­ally just thought of it as the archae­ology of remains asso­ci­ated with space­flight, but I’ve never seen the need to give the defin­i­tion any ser­i­ous thought. It’s a small enough field as it is without draw­ing up bound­ar­ies. Steve Wilson (I assume, the blog is uncred­ited) has given it more thought, and he’s come up with a much more inter­est­ing way of look­ing at it. He sees Space Archaeology as being made up from Aerospace Archaeology (the bit I was think­ing about), Xenoarchaeology (the mater­ial remains of alien civil­isa­tions) and Exoarchaeology (any mater­ial remains that are offworld).

My first reac­tion was does this add any­thing? Adding in Xenoarchaeology is awk­ward as there are no known alien arte­facts. There’s crank mater­ial of ancient astro­nauts and vari­ous forms of SETI which are anthro­po­lo­gical con­cerns and not spe­cific­ally archae­olo­gical. Adding Exoarchaeology only adds fic­tional mater­ial. Things like the archae­ology of ter­ra­form­ing would fit in this cat­egory. As it stands it only adds an archae­ology of things that don’t exist. The dia­gram also excludes Space Heritage and Space Junk, which do exist. As a defin­i­tion, I’m don’t think it helps. However as an ana­lyt­ical tool, I think it could be very clever.

I’ll start with Xenoarchaeology, because that’s the field that’s easi­est to dis­miss as barmy. What’s the evid­ence of palaeo­con­tact? There isn’t any really. But think­ing about how people do Xenoarchaeology, and what would be neces­sary to show the pres­ence of alien mater­ial on earth could be use­ful. Tools developed in this area can then be applied to ‘crash sites’ like Roswell in the dia­gram where Xenoarchaeology and Aerospace Archaeology inter­sect. You won’t learn any­thing about alien civil­isa­tions by study­ing Roswell, but you could learn about how humans react to per­ceived alien vis­it­a­tion. Such research could have helped at Carancas. Likewise a ser­i­ous study of how xenoar­chae­ology is prac­ticed could give genu­inely use­ful insights into the assump­tions in SETI programmes.

Similarly Exoarchaeology poses its own prob­lems when look­ing at inac­cess­ib­il­ity. Thinking about these issues could high­light how the archae­ology of space­flight in orbital space makes demands and chal­lenges that we simply don’t have on the ground. Thinking about it this way Space Heritage and Space Junk could straddle every zone between Exoarchaeology and Space Archaeology. It depends on whether you class the human waste mat­ter on the Moon as part of Aerospace Archaeology or not. I’d include Space Junk / Exogarbology too, because a lot of ter­restrial archae­ology is the study of junk.

While Space Archaeologists might not need bound­ar­ies, draw­ing up defin­i­tions can high­light what makes a field inter­est­ing and also throw some basic assump­tions that need ques­tion­ing. The one that both­ers me is the idea of Xenoarchaeology.

Oddly, it’s not the Xeno bit. I could be pedantic and say archae­ology is the study of the human past through mater­ial remains. Still, the stick­ing with human is a throw­back to the early nine­teenth cen­tury when Man (prefer­ably with a mous­tache and stovepipe hat) was a cre­ation apart from the anim­als. Early palaeo­lithic archae­ology, palae­on­to­logy and prim­ato­logy are sim­ilar enough that it’s look­ing more and more like an arbit­rary dis­tinc­tion about where human ends. It’s the archae­ology bit that troubles me. The study through mater­ial remains when, so far as is known, there are no known mater­ial remains of extra-terrestrial activ­ity near Earth. I think study­ing the human reac­tion to pro­posed alien inter­ven­tions is an inter­est­ing research prob­lem. We study ancient faiths, so why not study mod­ern faiths too? It’s just that archae­ology isn’t always the best way of doing it. Sometimes a bet­ter approach is anthropology.

Thinking about Space Anthropology could have two advant­ages. One is that it recog­nises the inter­est­ing work done by eth­no­graph­ers. Alice Gorman has poin­ted out that indi­gen­ous peoples have a rough enough time as it is get­ting any recog­ni­tion in their sac­ri­fices for space explor­a­tion. Taking American-style four-field anthro­po­logy as a model also points to some other inter­est­ing research top­ics. For example is there any­thing bio­anthro­po­logy could con­trib­ute, and how do bio­anthro­po­lo­gical con­cerns integ­rate with research that is already being done?

I real­ise that by now my response is a bit longer than the ori­ginal post, which was flag­ging up an idea and not inten­ded as a fully formed model of Space Archaeology. Even so I think it’s an inter­est­ing way of think­ing about what archae­olo­gists of space explor­a­tion do. I’d love to see it developed further.

Re-thinking the archaeology of Mars


I’ve been rum­ma­ging through the depths of my hard-drive and found a few things I’d for­got­ten about. Here’s one of them, from 2006 I see, a present­a­tion on the con­tem­por­ary archae­ology of Mars.

The reason I’ve pulled it up is I might want to go back and think this over again. I’m not happy with it, which is why it was left on the drive, but it might have potential.

The slide on the 1980s probes is inten­tion­ally blank, because there were hardly any probes sent in the 1980s to Mars. The reason is that the com­pet­i­tion between the major powers has moved to Earth Orbit, with the USA build­ing the Shuttle and the USSR build­ing long-term space sta­tions. Recent events have high­lighted a couple of reas­ons why it’s worth look­ing at this again. One is the regis­tra­tion of lunar her­it­age by California, which is grabbing head­lines for some­thing that Alice Gorman and Beth O’Leary have been say­ing for a while. The other is Obama’s can­cel­la­tion of the return to the Moon.

It could be a sci­entific re-prioritisation, but like the Mars gap in the 1980s, it could also be due to polit­ics. The Nobel laur­eate already has wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to man­age, and he wants to keep his options open for a war with Iran. That could turn very nasty as Iran is next door to his two other prob­lems. It’s pos­sible that there simply isn’t a threat on the Moon, but there is in the Middle East. Unless China devel­ops lunar ambi­tions, the dis­cov­ery of water on the Moon could be a sci­entific curi­os­ity rather than a step­ping stone to colonisation.

There’s a few reas­ons why I don’t like this present­a­tion as it stands. I think the biggest prob­lem is that one of the big factors for mak­ing it was that I needed a present­a­tion. It wasn’t an idea that was ready, and to some extent the prob­lem was “there’s some­thing archae­ology could say about this, but what?” Now I’m think­ing about the social, polit­ical and eco­nomic effects of Mars explor­a­tion. This time around I see archae­ology as a tool to find­ing out about these factors, rather than ‘being archae­olo­gical’ as the pur­pose of project.

Happy Birthday Ariane


I missed this, the ESA put out the video on their YouTube chan­nel before Christmas, but if I keep quiet about that maybe no one will notice. Ariane is now 30 years old.

ESA cel­eb­rates 30 years of Ariane.

The first Ariane launched from Kourou in French Guiana on Christmas Eve 1979. The Kourou site sounds like a con­veni­ent a trop­ical jungle remote from ESA headquar­ters. However, as Alice Gorman has found, not every­one finds it exot­ic­ally dis­tant.

Ariane could also be con­sidered an American suc­cess story too. The reason the French and Germans needed to build it was that Richard Nixon pre­ven­ted the com­mer­cial use of European satel­lites launched on US Delta rock­ets. That forced Europe into build­ing its own inde­pend­ent rocket which now it one of the most com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful launch­ers. You can read more about Ariane on Jonathan Amos’s blog Spaceman, which I’ve just dis­covered, or more about Kourou on Alice Gorman’s blog Space Age Archaeology.

Local Archaeology at the river Trent


A couple of years ago Martin Rundkvist pulled together a series of blog posts from around the world under the head­ing The Ever-Present Past: Your Nearest Site. My nearest site is prob­ably an air-raid shel­ter from the Second World War, but des­pite three trips I couldn’t find any vis­ible remains. If you live in the UK there’s a very good chance the closest archae­olo­gical remains will be some form of civil defence from the 1940s but — until large num­bers of the British are will­ing to accept the war is over — it’s going to be hard to per­suade people they’re heritage.

There were two sites I could find and I was equidistant from both of them, so I chose Derby Silk Mill. Not every­one has a World Heritage Site on their door­step. If I’d gone a couple of miles in the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion this would have been the site posted.

Swarkestone Bridge

Swarkestone Bridge

This is Swarkestone Bridge, the longest stone bridge in England. It crosses the river Trent and its flood­plain. There’s been a cross­ing here since at least the fourteenth-century, but the cur­rent bridge mainly dates from the Georgian period with most of it built at the end of the eighteenth-century. It’s about a kilo­metre long and someone has kindly put up a video about it on YouTube.

I say mainly because often there’s dam­age from acci­dents; being a Grade I sched­uled ancient monu­ment isn’t giv­ing the bridge that much pro­tec­tion and it’s com­mon to see rebuild­ing going on. The bridge needs to be used as it’s still the main route from the city of Derby to Melbourne and the south of the county. A sens­ible solu­tion might be to build a second bridge along­side the old bridge and have each one take traffic in one dir­ec­tion obly. However, it’s prob­ably more cost-effective over the life of an indi­vidual admin­is­tra­tion to leave it to be dam­aged and replace it bit by bit, so in some ways it’s also a mod­ern recon­struc­tion of what a Georgian bridge might look like if it wasn’t rebuilt on a reg­u­lar basis.

The remains of a night of soup joy.

The remains of a night of soup joy.

It’s easy to over­look that ancient monu­ments have a life which changes in dif­fer­ent eras. If the bridge were purely Georgian, then it wouldn’t be around in the 21st cen­tury. The idea of sec­tion­ing of areas of the mod­ern world and declar­ing them to be the past gives them quite a bit of pri­vacy. It’s com­mon to find evid­ence of social activ­it­ies that you wouldn’t want to share with the wider pub­lic at ancient sites. For instance the tombs I vis­ited in Tunisia were quite deep in beer cans, which wouldn’t be some­thing you’d want out in the open in an Islamic coun­try. Visiting this morn­ing I found foil, a spoon and evid­ence of a small fire by the side of the bridge. It was hid­den amongst the under­growth and out of sight of the local houses and pub. Clearly this is evid­ence of a soup party. Obviously see­ing as the pub, a short dis­tance away, serves food people wouldn’t want to be seen pub­licly con­sum­ing home-made soup there. The land­lord would get tetchy. So instead, after a few drinks, they go the the pri­vacy of the bridge away from the mod­ern world and heat up small quant­it­ies of soup in a metal spoon over an open fire.

I don’t know of any archae­olo­gical stud­ies of mod­ern soup con­sump­tion at ancient sites, nor of extreme icing. Extreme icing is where you get the icing sugar and ice through a syr­inge and hypo­dermic needle so you can do the really fiddly bits on wed­ding cakes. Why someone would take a wed­ding cake to an ancient site is a mys­tery to me, but clearly they do because it’s not unusual to see the syr­inges and needles. I don’t know if you could get fund­ing for that kind of archae­olo­gical research though as it’s ver­ging on the socially useful.

A bridge too far.

A bridge too far.

If you’re a sym­path­iser of Bonnie Prince Charlie then Swarkestone marks the end of the road south. It was here where Jacobite forces, invad­ing from Scotland, came to a halt. Charles Stuart had invaded prom­ising his allies that had assur­ances that the English would rally to his cause. At Swarkestone he was forced to admit he’d received no such prom­ises. His coun­cil of war voted to return to Scotland.

Derby might also mark one of the few examples of Englishness as a form of self-defence. The Scottish army camped by Kedleston Hall one its way back. Supplies are import­ant, so someone from the army approached the hall to secure food for the 5000 sol­diers. Seeing the size of the army and the poten­tial ruin of his house­hold it is said the lord of the manor insisted every­one turn off the lights and pre­tend they were out. This surely has to be a mod­ern inven­tion, but I do like the idea of the lord pick­ing up a reproach­ful card slipped under the front door: “We called this AM/PM to pil­lage your hall for victu­als but there was no reply. Please con­tact us to arrange a more con­veni­ent time. Regards, the Jacobite Rebellion.”

Junk or Heritage?


Vanguard. Photo:Nasa

Following a tip by Dr Space Junk, I bought a copy of this month’s National Geographic US. In the Space sec­tion there’s a page on the prob­lem of space junk. Currently there’s around 13,000 pieces of man-made debris being tracked in orbit. A col­li­sion can have ser­i­ous con­sequences, because even a fleck of paint causes dam­age when it hist you in excess of 17,000 mph. Therefore it’s not sur­pris­ing that sci­ent­ists are try­ing to think of ways to clean up our orbital neigh­bour­hood. The ques­tion is should everything obsol­ete be brought down?

Vanguard was launched in 1958, and has out­las­ted its more fam­ous rival Sputnik. Now it might just be junk, but it’s also a land­mark of a new era. When space tour­ism really becomes viable, will this be a tour­ist des­tin­a­tion? I think so, per­haps not as much as Disneymoon, but I think its her­it­age value will increase with time.

The reason I think so is down to the work of people like Alice Gorman, men­tioned in the art­icle. You can take a rigid view of what archae­ology is, and insist that if you’re not get­ting mucky it’s not proper archae­ology. I think it’s often more inter­est­ing when you have a thought-provoking topic and you use dis­cip­lines like archae­ology to see what you can do with them. Space tech­no­logy is drenched in the kind of polit­ical sym­bol­ism that would nor­mally make archae­olo­gists go giddy. The act of get­ting some­thing into space is a trip into a world of imper­ial power that we like to think has disappeared.

And if you’re inter­ested in read­ing more then Alice Gorman has her own blog, Space Age Archaeology, which is well worth read­ing through — for she is Dr Space Junk.

Space Tourism: Reality versus Imagination


Aliens! Photo by Inkynobaka.

Now the race for the X-Prize is over the race to built the first pas­sen­ger spa­ce­port is one. One com­pany has ana­lysed where it expects most of its cus­tom­ers to come from and is plan­ning to build their first spa­ce­port in the Emirates. As far as I know that’s the first example of the USA sup­port­ing the capa­city for long-range rock­etry by a Middle Eastern state.

More inter­est­ing are two other pro­posed loc­a­tions. Richard Branson has searched for a site which he thinks will pro­ject the image of pion­eer­ing space travel. He’s chosen Roswell. I’m not sure that this is a good idea. If you board a Virgin Galactic flight in Roswell how do you know you’re fly­ing to space? Might it not all be a sim­u­lator cre­ated with alien tech­no­logy to ensure human­ity remains rooted to Earth? Richard Branson also has a head­ache with his vehicles. The space­craft of other com­pan­ies are resu­able, but obvi­ously you can only board a Virgin Galactic space­craft once.

The most inter­est­ing spa­ce­port might be Woomera. Astronaut Dr Andy Thomas has sug­ges­ted that a redevel­op­ment of Woomera could make it a prime site for a spa­ce­port. As Alice Gorman points out for a while Woomera was the second busiest spa­ce­port in the world, after Cape Canaveral. Since then it has fallen into dis­use. It’s there­fore prob­ably the only his­toric spa­ce­port which flight oper­at­ors can use, unless NASA is ser­i­ous about installing a taxi rank at Cape Canaveral. Woomera there­fore could be some­where unique which con­nects the past and the future.

If the people pay­ing a hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars to fly are UFOlogists, Branson looks to have cornered the mar­ket. If the pas­sen­gers are mil­lion­aires look­ing to cap­ture a spirit of adven­ture then the Australian option looks competitive.

You can read the press release Spaceport good for Woomera’s her­it­age on Space Age Archaeology.

The Adjacent World: Archaeology Version


I’m in a School of Archaeology and Ancient History, which means for the forth­com­ing present­a­tion I could be giv­ing a talk to people with no back­ground in ancient his­tory. Indeed, it is pos­sible that if there’s a mem­ber of the ancient his­tory staff off sick, that there’ll be no clas­si­cists at the talk. On the other hand there’s very likely going to be some indus­trial and his­tor­ical archae­olo­gists. Another idea I have sit­ting on the hard-drive ties in with this. I was think­ing about work­ing on it prop­erly and tak­ing it to CHAT last year for the neo-colonialism ses­sion, but decided I didn’t have the time to fin­ish it prop­erly. Like yesterday’s present­a­tion it’s still unfin­ished, but I could use the sem­inar to see what other people engage with in the talk. I assume there’ll be some things that I raise that have been done to death in recent years, so I could spend my time flesh­ing out the inter­est­ing parts of the talk.

I first became aware of the archae­olo­gical rela­tion­ship with space her­it­age when a poster I’d worked on was assigned to the ‘Heavens Above’ ses­sion at the World Archaeological Congress. Half of Heavens Above was archae­oastro­nomy, the other half was space her­it­age and my first reac­tion was that the space her­it­age crowd were a bunch of nut­ters (yes I know pot / kettle / black). It wasn’t an unin­ter­est­ing topic, but I wasn’t sure what archae­ology could bring to the topic that space his­tor­i­ans weren’t already provid­ing. I thought it’d be rather like try­ing to recon­struct Elvis records from shards found in build­ings simply because they qual­ify as his­toric arte­facts under 50 year rolling her­it­age acts.

My opin­ion changed rad­ic­ally when I actu­ally heard what they were say­ing and thought about what they were doing. I’ve men­tioned earlier that I find Alice Gorman’s work thought pro­vok­ing paper The cul­tural land­scape of inter­plan­et­ary space, which tackles things like the effect of the spa­ce­ports on local pop­u­la­tions, like the abori­gin­als who were affected by Woomera. I also thought that John Campbell was elo­quent when he com­pared the foot­prints of the Apollo XI team to the foot­prints at Laetoli. Tranquillity Base sat­is­fies more or less every require­ment of being a World Heritage site bar the fact it’s not on this world. Greg Fewer has made an ana­logy between nearly inac­cess­ible explor­a­tion sites of the 19th cen­tury and their mod­ern use as tour­ist sites. A cen­tury ago Mount Everest was inac­cess­ible, these days people go there for a pic­nic, well almost. If Richard Branson gets his way there’ll be a moon­base in a couple of dec­ades. If some­thing of value is found to be eas­ily access­ible it may be sooner. For instance how much money do you think De Beers would pump into a space pro­gramme if a rich and access­ible seam of dia­monds were located?

I’m tack­ling the archae­ology of Mars because there’s far too much inform­a­tion about the moon for me to pro­duce a quick present­a­tion. This is work-in-progress and the work at the moment isn’t about find­ing answers, it’s work­ing out what the inter­est­ing ques­tions are. And they’re not all ques­tions for the future. Some are about how we con­struct the idea of her­it­age in the present. However, after put­ting this up, I think the topic is simply too big so you could just scroll down to the first com­ment to get the highlights.

Slides 01-07

When does some­thing become her­it­age? I men­tioned earlier that if we rigidly stick to the prin­ciple that everything over 50 years old is her­it­age then next year archae­olo­gists will be painstak­ingly fit­ting sherds of vinyl back together to try and dis­cover what exactly Elvis thought the hound dog was doing. Cryin’ all the time is the favoured explan­a­tion though some experts like Clapton (1989:6) argue that it has in fact been snoopin’ round my door. I think that would hor­rify con­tem­por­ary archae­olo­gists if I thought they’d con­sider that a ser­i­ous aim.

I think there are many mod­ern con­struc­tions that are of his­tor­ical import­ance and polit­ical import­ance that should be stud­ied and that raise ques­tions that his­tor­ical records alone can­not answer. An example would be the Berlin Wall which has a huge emo­tional and social res­on­ance which should not be ignored. Does that extend to pro­tect­ing what remains of it? It’s easy for me to say yes, but I never lived on the wrong side of it. Space her­it­age, like the Berlin Wall is a product of the Cold war. It occu­pies a his­tor­ical limbo; too recent to be her­it­age yet nev­er­the­less part of an era which is now over.

As an example of the loss of her­it­age, New Zealand is appeal­ing for help in pre­serving Scott’s cabin. On the other hand the build­ing where Britain’s only cos­mo­naut con­duc­ted her exper­i­ments was demol­ished because no-one was will­ing to pay to lift Mir into a higher orbit. Rather than have the sta­tion crash at ran­dom, it was delib­er­ately brought down into the Pacific. There are dif­fer­ences. In a higher orbit Mir would have required much less con­ser­va­tion than Scott’s hut. It was the site of much more than one his­toric event, many of them suc­cesses, which I real­ise isn’t some­thing British. We seem to be put­ting a lot of faith in pre­ser­va­tion by record.

There’s so much more that could be said of orbital her­it­age, so I’m going to look some­where where there’s a lot less data but, being at Leicester University, is close to home. Mars.
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