Via @spacearcheology on Twitter I found this interesting link:
How stupid can you get? The Sci-Fi Channel paid real archaeologists to dig for debris of the — mythical — Roswell UFO: http://is.gd/gMhZs.
@cosmos4u — Daniel Fischer
I’m going to disagree with Daniel Fischer, but to be fair Twitter has just 140 characters, so I’m sure there’s a lot more to his opinion than that tweet. The other thing to note is that this is an old story. I think it happened in 2002, but again that’s no reflection on Daniel, because it’s only just been covered by krqe.com.
So the story is the SciFi channel paid archaeologists to conduct a professional dig at a site in Roswell. The site was purportedly the scene of a crashed UFO or a balloon used to spy on the USSR. Is this a stupid idea? Yes and no. It depends what you’re digging for.
To take an example from ancient Greece, it’s said that Apollo slew Python at Delphi and made it the site of his Oracle. Now if you want to dig at Delphi for evidence of a fight between Apollo and Python you’re wasting your time. Likewise, you’re not going to find any discarded clothes proving Artemis bathed in specific pools or streams. However, these sites have cultural meanings despite the lack of physical evidence. Sites came to have meaning and you can archaeologically examine evidence of human use of site to study beliefs and interactions with the landscape.
For this reason I don’t find the idea of an archaeological investigation of a UFO site inherently stupid. I don’t believe for one moment a UFO crashed at Roswell, but I know plenty of people do. Examining this kind of site is a way to study the process of mythmaking.
The problem is that the site you’re studying has to have some meaning. I don’t believe Apollo spoke to people at Delphi, but that doesn’t matter because I know where the Greeks thought Apollo spoke to Delphi. So a dig at Roswell would make sense if there’s a site that is commonly agreed to be the crash site. Unfortunately that might not be the case. What the SciFi channel did was bring in archaeologists from UNM and told them where to dig. The site was chosen by two UFO enthusiasts who aren’t considered completely reliable even among ardent believers in extra-terrestrial visits.
Without an obvious shared site this has to be a major issue. You could start with landscape survey to see which places were richer in artefacts. Such sites could be places that are attracting people in search of UFOs (if so why?) or artefacts from activity unrelated to the supposed UFO. Even if you believe there is a genuine crash site to be found, it would make more sense to start with an archaeological survey than play ‘pin the tale on the donkey’ and hope you hit the right spot.
Despite that, I don’t see a problem with in principle with archaeologically excavating reported UFO crash sites. There is a matter of who is going to pay for the excavations. I’d be concerned about using public money, because the excavation isn’t likely to reveal anything of interest, but if a TV channel wants to spend their money that way, it’s their money. However a good excavation is only partly about digging
This came as news to Channel 4 in the UK when they originally commissioned Time Team. The original plan was an archaeological game show. You drop archaeologists onto a site in three days and then you see how close they get to experts’ answers. One of the sticking points, I’m told, is that the company making the show insisted that post-excavation work should be funded. Channel 4 didn’t see why this had to happen, they were only filming the excavation, what happened afterwards was someone else’s problem. It was explained they were making a problem and that conservation would need to be done. If they wanted coöperation from archaeologists they had to fund post-excavation work. The result is that Time Team publishes archaeological reports in recognised archaeological journals.
For the Roswell excavation, post-excavation work is essential. It’s not enough to say “I’ve given it a quick dekko, and it looks weird.” That’s why a section from the report by Bill Doleman (the principal investigator) is a bit of a worry. You can download the full report from Michael Heiser’s website, but the key lines are:
Post-field analyses of artifacts and soils samples from the site remain largely unpublished and incomplete to this day, however, largely because funding ran out. The SCI FI Channel funded X-Ray diffraction analysis of soil samples from key locations on the site, ICPMS analysis (inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometry) of soil samples from on– and off-site, as well as preliminary laboratory identification of six of the apparently non– natural artifacts recovered during the excavation project.
It’s hard to tell what this means. There’s no date on this report and the Office of Contact Archaeology has announced a published report on their site. In addition there’s a chapter on Roswell by Doleman in the Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology, and Heritage.* I haven’t had chance to read either of these, but it looks like post-excavation work has been lacking. This is a very odd thing to happen if you’re serious about finding out an answer. But does the SciFi channel really want an answer?
Not everyone would want an answer. There’s going to be a lot rich people coming to New Mexico thanks to Spaceport America, and if your business plan is built on the proverb “A fool and his money are soon parted,” then these tourists will be at least 50% qualified, unless they were foolish enough to bankrupt themselves buying tickets for the VSS Enterprise. Archaeological digs with the funds to find new artefacts, but without the funds to examine them and confirm they’re terrestrial are effectively creating mysteries. It could be great for selling mysteries. Yet not all mysteries are equal.
Is there intelligent alien life elsewhere in the universe? That’s a mystery because the answer is unknown and so far no-one can say with any authority what the answer is. Is there an intelligent alien lifeform in my kitchen? That’s equally unknowable, because I can’t be bothered to check, but it’s a second-rate mystery because, if I wanted, I could solve it easily. If the artefacts found are simply mysteries for want of a couple of thousand dollars from a company that spent over $100k making a programme, then the excavation has simply produced counterfeit mysteries. The premise would be that there is a genuine mystery that the SciFi channel wants answered, but the reason it’s not been answered is that they couldn’t be bothered to look. If that is the case, then you’d have to ask why did they bother going to Roswell?
It many ways it’s a shame as there are interesting questions to answer. What is it about Roswell that makes it more famous than Gulf Breeze or any other sites where UFOs are said to have been seen? Is it purely about one grainy black and white film? If there is more, and adding things like an archaeological excavation looks like adding to the myth to me, then what does it say about science literacy? A popular fallback is pseudoscience thrives when people don’t know better, the deficit model of science communication. The conclusion from this kind of approach is that all problems can be solved if only the public were better educated. This can drive science communications people wappy as it’s outdated. This case is an example there’s evidence that science literacy is being used, but not in a way that mainstream scientists would use it. You couldn’t use a scientific archaeological excavation as evidence if your audience was too thick to understand it. So is going on?
If it is all about the film, then does it have a long-term future as a tourist site? If that’s what makes Roswell special, then it’s just a matter of time before someone makes a more convincing film.
If you’re interested in Roswell as a potential alien crash site then New Mexicans for Science and Reason has a useful page. If you’re interested in the idea of UFO sites as cultural heritage, then this is a good starting point on the Space Archaeology blog about how interests in space and archaeological methods overlap. There’s a follow up post that’s well worth reading too.
*I’ve heard it’s a good book and it’s on my ‘to buy’ list, but at the moment the price has been climbing from £70 towards £100, so it’s also on my ‘but I’m only going to buy a 2nd hand version when it’s affordable because that’s an insanely high price for a book’ list.