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.