Sunday, May 22, 2016

Artefacts are the skeletons of people's minds

The words above popped into my mind recently as I was thinking about the archaeological stuff I wanted to teach the first years. I wrote them on a piece of paper and drew a box around them, to distinguish it from other fragments of thoughts, scribbled in passing on the same piece of paper, which go something like this:

Huxley - Heaven and Hell
World of Chickens

I will figure out what I was thinking about them another time. For now, I'll just try to excavate my thoughts around the bony artefacts. I was thinking about them as physical skeletons, fleshed out by wishes, dreams, meanings, social interactions, the accumulation of touches, the passing of time, the clothing of use.

The brain, of course, already has a bone in the form of the skull. When I'm thinking about the skeletons of mind, I mean the artefacts are the hard bits of the soft brain tissue. They just happen to be outside the cranium and sometimes vastly larger than it.

While living, in its systemic context, the artefact can be visible or invisible depending on where or when it is interacted with. It can be in the foreground or the background. It might appear in dreams as something half-registered, barely impinging on the dream-consciousness. It might be perceived only from its shadow. 

(And indeed this begs the question of virtual worlds and how humans interact with objects which cross different registers of existence).

The artefact moves in and out of our perception in a pattern much like a dynamical system. Then people for whom the artefact was meaningful pass on, or discard it. Eventually, it ends up at the point of lowest energy - it's archaeological context.

Dynamical system. Image courtesy of Henry Harrison

The layers of organs, muscles, skin, slowly decay as it falls out of memory. The forces of taphonomy start to strip it down and pare it back from corpse to skeleton.

Let's take the metaphor further and think about the mineralisation of the once dynamic and malleable artefact. It takes on the character of stone and sinks like one to the bottom of the pool where only the rare worm tunnels through the silt to touch its surface in a polychaete kiss.

And then we dig it up.......and hope to apprehend its place within the brain as a calcreted thought.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Culture on the Moon: bodies in time and space

This is an excerpt from my just-published paper Culture on the Moon: Bodies in Time and Space (Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 12(1):110-128

This was very much an arena where masculinity was defined for the future of space. Automation and lack of control were equated with femininity. US experts cited Valentina Tereshkova’s successful orbit in 1963 to mean that the heavily automated Vostok vehicle did not require a skilled operator. Margaret Weitekamp argues that ‘‘Demonstrating that a woman could perform those tasks would diminish their prestige’’ (2004:3). So strong was this ideology that the USA did not send a female astronaut into space until Sally Ride became a crew member of the space shuttle Challenger for STS-7 in 1983. 

By contrast, cosmonauts were the epitome of the ‘‘new Soviet man’’ (Gerovitch 2007), the ‘cog in the machine’ celebrated in Bolshevik political and poetic imagination. Sergei Korolev, the leader of the Soviet space program, was opposed to any active role for the cosmonauts, but as they, like the astronauts, were drawn from a test pilot background, the battle to preserve the aviation role of pilot was similarly played out. The unknowns and technological constraints of creating a successful lunar mission led to the development of similar human–machine interfaces and similar levels of autonomy in both programs (Gerovitch 2007). At this level, at least, evidence suggests that a hypothetical USSR lunar landing site might reflect many similarities to the US series. 

The Apollo 11 surface mission was highly choreographed and scripted (NASA 1969), but at that point no person of Earth knew exactly what the experience of being on the lunar surface would be like. In the gaps between the script and the actual actions of the astronauts, there is a window where minds and bodies express their individual and cultural differences. Where there was choice, what did the astronauts choose to do? What determined those choices?
(Gorman 2016:122)

Gerovitch, S. 2007. ‘New Soviet Man’ Inside the Machine: Human Engineering, Spacecraft, Design, and the Construction of Communism. Osiris 22:135–157.

NASA Lunar Surface Operations Office Mission Operations Branch Flight Crew Support Division 1969. Apollo 11 Lunar Surface Operations Plan. Houston: Manned Spaceflight Centre June 27, FINAL version of document.

Weitekamp, M. 2004. Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Dr Space Junk wears the Orbiting Solar Observatory

In this picture I'm wearing one of my favourite pieces of jewellery, a pendant made from a NASA Goddard commemorative plate with spacecraft around the circumference. One of them is an Orbiting Solar Observatory, a satellite series I am quite interested in as it was tracked by Orroral Valley.

I'm actually standing on the balcony at the Camperdown cinema (Vic), a beautiful old heritage-listed building, where I was about to give a talk to introduce a screening of In the Shadow of the Moon. This was in 2008, I think. I had a fabulous time with the Corangamite Film Society and RiAus.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

He said, she said, and what the dictionary said

Friend! When a woman answers your question, don't believe her; but if she keeps silence, believe her even less.
(Polish proverb from Women in Proverbs Worldwide )

He said, she said

There's an aphorism frequently applied to rape cases. In the absence of witnesses, detectable physical injury or, these days, DNA evidence, people say it comes down to a matter of "he said, she said". At which point they throw up their hands and exclaim it's too hard: what are we to do?

But think about it. Although the words are symmetrical, this is not a balanced equation. The problem is not what he said. It's what she said. Because she is likely to lie or exaggerate. And if you believe her, a man's life will be ruined. 

Only, in reality, she is more likely to be disbelieved, and his life is rarely ruined. Her life, clearly, is of lesser consequence. This is because women's speech, how it sounds, what they say, and its relation to "truth", is suspect and problematic. There is no similar expectation that men will lie about committing rape or sexual harassment. Everyone, on the contrary, is in a hurry to believe them. They're a "good man",  they wouldn't hurt a fly, and so it goes on.

Nothing demonstrates the hidden foundations of this discourse better than the so-called provocation defence, still accepted in a few Australian states and in other countries. It allows men to literally get away with murdering their female partners. The principle is that if provoked, it is understandable that a normal person may "snap" and lose control of their actions, so that they don't realise what they are doing. It is most frequently used as a defence by men who kill women (but also for what has been called "gay panic").

In one case, which happened in the last decade, a man murdered his wife because she had told him she was leaving him for someone else. As he reported it in court, she had taunted him and said her new boyfriend was a better lover. At this point, he killed her.

There were no witnesses. No-one can corroborate that she said those words to him. She was not there to tell her side of the story. But what "he said she said" was enough for the judge to rule that he had been provoked. He was convicted of manslaughter, and given a light sentence. She stayed dead.

There's been too many of these over the years, including the high profile case of Vicky Cleary, that turned her heartbroken brother Phil Cleary into a campaigner against male violence and the complicity of the law.

When he speaks, it's credible. When she speaks, it's not.

The twittering of birds

The very sound of women's voices is questionable. Many people (including some women) can't stand hearing women's voices on the radio. They're too high. They sound like children. They don't have enough gravitas to read the news. The number of comments online which run along the lines of "I'm not sexist, but I can't listen to a female sports commentator" are legion. 

Women's speech has been compared to the twittering of birds. (Perhaps this is partially why Twitter has been such a huge factor in invigorating new feminist activism). There's even evidence to suggest that as women progress into higher positions, they lower their voice in order to fend off these sorts of reactions.

Over the last couple of weeks the language used to describe women's speech has been in the spotlight. In July 2014, Nordette Adams pointed out that the online Oxford Dictionaries used "a rabid feminist" as an example of usage in the definition for "rabid". You can read her post about it here. In January 2016 Michael Oman-Reagan also noticed this and began tweeting about a number of other examples of usage that were .....dodgy, to say the least.  His account is here.

It turned out that there were many negative words that were associated with women's speech. The included rabid, shrill, grating, nagging, bossy, shrew, gossip. As a theme, they all add up to support this very, very old idea that there's something wrong with what "she said". 

What's in a name? Or an adjective?

What a feminist says is like a slavering, diseased dog: full of violence, unable to discriminate between friend and foe, taken by madness, unintelligible, not obeying orders to sit, stay. She is a bitch, after all.

Women's voices are shrill, high-pitched, grating, piercing, unpleasant to listen to. It's even worse when there's a group of them. You can't distinguish between one woman and the next, they all sound alike.

When women speak, they are nagging men, harassing them "to do something". Isn't this rich territory for comedians and those dreadful cartoons that appear in the sort of magazines you used to read in the doctor's waiting room? Like Readers Digest and, oh yes, the New Yorker? They are being unreasonable, asking the man to do something that's not important, or he'll do when he's ready. And they've asked him more than once! Wives, if you nag, you'll annoy your husband, he'll leave you for a younger woman.

This trope is accepted without considering the power dynamics behind it - the man annoyed that he is expected to pull his weight in the house instead of having everything done for him, the woman trying to manage house, children and frequently a job in which she is not supported or treated as an equal. Women think they are sharing family responsibilities equally but as their labour is not recognised as such, their partners think they are being unfairly asked to do additional work. The use of the term "nagging" to describe requests to share work makes it the woman's problem. I could go on.

She's not the boss, she's just bossy. Her authority is not accepted. You don't have to do what she says. 

She gossips. With other women. It's idle, frivolous, malicious. She might be talking about men, about YOU! with the other women. You can't believe anything she says, it's just gossip. It's not true. Those women, when they get together.....

I grew up learning that men talk, women gossip. One day, I think I was at high school, as I waited for my father to stop talking to someone so we could leave, I realised that it wasn't true. He was not talking about serious matters. HE WAS GOSSIPING. It was one of those baby steps on my way to becoming a RABID FEMINIST.


Or perhaps I became a shrew. Girls start out nice and docile, but they become shrews and harridans, with opinions, nagging, always wanting their own way. The other women got to them, you see. Don't listen to what the other women say.

Don't listen when they say it happened to them too. It's rumour, speculation, hearsay. It's not evidence. It's just what "she said".

Women. Don't talk. Your words are dangerous. Your words can get you in trouble. Your words are the reason you die.

Image courtesy of

Acknowledgements: many thanks to Michael Oman-Reagan for his fearlessness and strong support of women's voices.
Note: screenshots are taken from Oxford Dictionaries ( on 30 January 2016. As a result of the discussion, they are undertaking a review of the examples used.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Anthropocene, the nonhuman and the solar system are grand challenges for archaeology

What are the grand challenges for archaeology? Last year, a group of mostly US researchers (Kintigh et al 2014) published the results of a survey conducted in order to find out. The result was a series of general research areas and specific questions, most of which are core issues in what we do, but with some inevitable blind spots and holes.

Here's a few that resonate with me in terms of my own research in space archaeology (thanks to Publishing Archaeology for extracting them from the paper in a nice list):

  •  Why and how do social inequalities emerge, grow, persist, and diminish, and with what consequences?
  • How do humans occupy extreme environments, and what cultural and biological adaptations emerged as a result?
  • How have human activities shaped Earth’s biological and physical systems, and when did humans become dominant drivers of these systems?
  • How do spatial and material reconfigurations of landscapes and experiential fields affect societal development?

Archaeology blogger Doug Rocks-Macqueen thinks there's quite a bit more to be said on these grand challenges. He's asked his fellow bloggers to respond in what ever way they choose, and that's a challenge I can't refuse (bursts into song a la Gilbert and Sullivan).

Challenges are often something that we let others define for us. Something I've gradually learnt over the last decade of being an academic (I was a heritage consultant before, and actually during, this time as well), is to trust my voice.  Part of this is allowing deeply buried or incoherent thoughts to rise to the surface and be given shape. Another part of it is turning things you think you're stupid for not understanding properly upside down and making them into questions or problems to be investigated. So I've delved into my brain to work out what I really think, and this is what emerged.

Put actual people back into the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is a challenge, because despite the brilliant Matt Edgeworth being on the Anthropocene Working Group, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of awareness among that community that there is already a discipline devoted to human-environment interactions in the past. Kintigh et al (2014:15-16) say:
Despite producing key data, archaeologists have largely been left out of this discussion. This is a major limitation, since archaeology, drawing on cross-disciplinary tools capable of tracking the increasingly dominant role of humans in Earth systems, brings a deep-time perspective that stands to make significant contributions to understanding how humans have shaped the Earth.
I even read one paper in which the author coined the term "technofossil" for objects made of contemporary materials. Dude, they're just artefacts, and not always the most durable ones in human history at that. And in my observation there's little understanding of taphonomy in terms of how archaeological data is derived ....

We can't leave this one to the geologists and earth systems scientists. We need to make ourselves visible and relevant to this debate. What I think this means is synthesising archaeological data at a planetary scale in a way we've rarely done before. Imagine if we calculated the total weight of stone removed from original contexts and moved into others after being knapped, quarried, sculpted, built, used, discarded, from the Pleistocene to the present! In effect, we need to act as planetary archaeologists visiting from elsewhere.

And in this, the fine-grained detail you only get from intensive analysis of a site or an artefact type is still absolutely critical. It is the cumulative effect of living people carrying out individual actions in accordance with their worldview which creates the Anthropocene. As archaeologists, this is at the core of what we do everyday: meshing individual agency with broad scale patterns through time and space.

In some ways I kind of resent being drawn in to the debate on the Anthropocene. Part of me wants to resist trends and buzzwords, as hard as that is to do sometimes. But there is no doubt that this is shaping up to be the big theme of the next decade across all the sciences and humanities, and we need to be leading it, not following.

Last year Matt Edgeworth edited a forum section in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology on The Archaeology of the Anthropocene. I recommend it to you.

Make humans the environment for other objects and things

Another big challenge is almost the polar opposite of the Anthropocene, which makes human actions central. As archaeologists, we're pretty focused on humans, because that is what differentiates us from geologists and palaeontologists, after all. But everyone else, it seems, is leaving humans behind. Animals, plants, microbes, and the inanimate are all being drawn out of the background into the foreground. The very definition of what it is to be human is being reshaped by looking at the human body as a microbial biome and considering its continuity with what we previously considered external to it. Then there are cyborgs, robots, AIs, artilects, hyperobjects, superobjects, posthumanism and transhumanism. It's just not fashionable to look at the human body as a coherent entity or unit of analysis any more.

So where does that leave archaeology? We've done more than our fair share of theorising about the interaction between humans and material stuff, with perspectives ranging from environmental determinism to phenomenology and taking in actor-network theory, social theory and a myriad more along the way. (Some argue that archaeologists have always been bower birds and have never formulated truly original theories about the world of objects. In some ways, I tend to agree). We've questioned the meanings of the human body and the boundaries between the 'cultural' and the 'natural'. But will we be stranded in an intellectual backwater as the human is completely bypassed?

Maybe not. I think our contribution to these frameworks lies in inverting our lens and looking at the experience of a mountain, a microbe, a mammoth, a melaleuca as human bodies, actions and technologies interact with it. Let's swap subject and object, or situate both in a flat or object-oriented ontology. How did the life of a flea change when hominins lost most of their body hair? How does the daily or annual life of a flowering plant change when Neanderthal people move into Shanidar Cave?  I'm not talking about use, or impact, or adaptation.  Perhaps the human body is still the unit of analysis, just from the perspective of something else.

Matrioshka Brain, by Steve Bowers
Orion's Arm Universe Project
My own engagement with this challenge at present is looking at materials and structures like degenerate matter and Matrioshka Brains, both far beyond the human scale of existence. I'm interested in what the future holds if we start from the premise that we have always been adapted to large scale networks mediated by material culture - in the words of Andy Clark, "natural born cyborgs". Despite dire warnings about AIs who are going to destroy humanity, I don't see why we have to be gloomy all the time. This is just a deficit in imagination. Sometimes it's nice to focus on creativity and transformation. Perhaps that's one reason why we're archaeologists.

Take the solar system perspective

There's no mention of space in Kintigh et al's survey, which is a little disappointing. I'd like to think we'd made a bigger impact than that. But how can space not be a grand challenge?

This is not about going to the Moon or Mars in order to do space archaeology. But archaeologists know all about colonisation, contact, impacts on the environment, adaptation, social life and things. We've seen how population growth and technology change have played out on Earth. Whether your vision of space is dystopian or utopian, we can't go blindly onto other planets without considering the deep history of sentient life on our own. This is archaeology's greatest strength in my view: different futures can't be imagined without understanding the diversity of the past.

I think archaeologists have an important role to play in shaping the discourses around space exploration. The usual rationales trotted out are riddled with 19th century ideas about progress and curiosity and exploration and growth, some drawing very explicitly on assumed human imperatives to colonise and explore. In other words, there's a particular (masculine) version of behavioural modernity that is co-opted to justify the current models of space occupation. Needless to say, I hate that stuff almost as much as I hate evolutionary psychology, which is quite a bit actually.

At this point, however, the two challenges outlined above come to be part of the same question. Really, we should be taking the perspective that Earth is just one of the planets colonised by life at this point in time, and contextualise ourselves within a whole solar system. If there is anything living on other planets, then perhaps they will have their own "cene". We can't judge the scale of the Anthropocene in isolation after all. So we need to develop concepts to frame humans a part of a much bigger system than just one planet. Continuities and discontinuities are important here, and we need to be wary of drawing the lines in all the wrong places.

Elsewhere I've argued that a constant gravity is assumed for terrestrial archaeology, and for space archaeology we have to stop considering it as "normal" and recognise that it's just one gravitational regime to which culture is adapted. This is not an entirely new idea: the seeds of it were present in the 19th century (think Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Otis Mason Tufton). I think one of the challenges of space archaeology is how it makes us look back on Earth, and I don't mean as a pale blue dot, a blue marble, a spaceship, Gaia or the so-called "overview effect".  Call me unromantic but I want a more robust and nuanced philosophy of existence in the cosmos.


When I started writing, I didn't know this would be where I'd end up. To be honest, parts of it come as a surprise to me, but in a good way. So it seems I've set some challenges for myself here; I hope this discussion may provide some inspiration for others too.

See you in orbit.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Space Age Archaeology: A Retro-blog-spective

Just because it's the New Year, I've decided to make a list of my most-read posts from each year since 2004, when I started this blog.

2004: Flying Saucers at Woomera 

 In September, I was researching Australian space history at the National Archives office in Adelaide. This was in the days when you sat there for hours furiously scribbling notes in pencil until your fingers bled. One of the files I looked at was the (formerly) secret UFO file from Woomera. What I discovered in this file gave me pause for thought....

2005:  The Little Lemon

Racehorses and space. You wouldn't think there was a connection, would you? However....this is what happened when my father tried to name a racehorse after Laika the dog during the Cold War.

2006:  Space biscuits and recognition for space archaeology

Once upon a time in the dim past of internet history there was a lovely man called Nicey who ran a website devoted to tea, biscuits, and sit downs. It was called, appropriately, Nice Cup of Tea and A Sit Down. It was charming and funny and full of biscuits (proper Commonwealth biscuits, not the American version of the scone), and they loved space archaeology! I wonder what happened to him?

2007: Nostalgia for Infinity: exploring the archaeology of the final frontier

This was the abstract for a session on space archaeology at the World Archaeological Congress in Dublin, which I was convening with Beth Laura O'Leary.  The title incorporated the name of a spaceship that will be familiar to anyone who has read the works of Alistair Reynolds.

2008: A rocket cake to be proud of!

No-one doesn't love a rocket cake, and for some reason anything I post about space-related food and drink goes down a treat. Kudos to my friend Kaylene Manderson, who made this masterpiece!

2009: Quirky, yet methodologically sound: a review of Space Travel and Culture: from Apollo to Space Tourism.

Michael Allen wrote a review of this book, in which I had a chapter, and more-or-less called my contribution "quirky, yet methodologically sound".  I was enchanted.

2010: Space food: recreating an authentic space experience on Earth. A review of The Astronaut's Cookbook. 

I wasn't joking about the food-and-drink bit. Another book review, but this time by me, and I have a little digression into the history of Australia's monopoly on the manufacture of Space Food Sticks. Snap them up if you find them gathering dust on a supermarket shelf, because they went out of production last year. But whatever you do, do not attempt to actually eat one. They're not very nice.

2011: Consuming the Space Age: The Cuisine of Sputnik

Nicola Twilley of Good Magazine ran a week-long distributed online conversation about food-writing. I decided to write something about space food, and this was the result.  A little bit of history, a little bit of politics, a cocktail recipe, and the Sputnik Burger!

2012: Space-craft: rockets, jetpacks, and other DIY space paraphernalia

They don't love me for my unique insights into space history or brain-splintering forays into theory. What the readers of my blog really want is recipes and spacey things for kids. I'm cool with that, though. Here's some excellent things you can make, collected together from all over the internet, and yes, there is another cake.

2013: The Anthropocene in the Solar System

I didn't post much in 2013. I had left the university for a break to return to my first profession, heritage consulting. In April, I went to the Society for American Archaeology conference in Hawai'i, and managed to injure myself rather badly, necessitating a long 18 month rehabilitation. In May, I gave a TEDxSydney talk, and shortly afterwards, life took an even more unexpected turn which I'll tell you about one day over a beer. BUT there were other good things. The lovely brain-the-size-of-planet Matt Edgeworth invited me to give a paper at the Chicago Theoretical Archaeology Group conference on the Anthropocene (so sometimes someone does actually want me for my theories), and this was later published in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. You can read the abstract in this blog post, and the article here.

2014: How to avoid sexist language in space - Dr Space Junk wields the red pen

They asked for it, and I delivered. Not cakes this time, but what I hope is a practical guide to eliminating locutions like "manned mission" that reinforce the idea that women like/are like fluffy kittens and aren't really suited to the man's business of space. Which, incidentally, was exactly what a Russian cosmonaut trainer said in a public talk in Adelaide last year, so don't even try to tell me it's not an issue.

2015: How would lunar mining affect the cultural significance of the Moon?

Terrestrial mining is something I know a fair bit about. In my former career as a heritage consultant, I spent a LOT of time on mining sites, and in remote areas where mining exploration was taking place. My job was the make mining companies comply with legislation that was supposed to protect Aboriginal heritage places. In this excerpt from a forthcoming paper, I consider how these principles might play out in space.

I raise a glass of dry Australian sherry to you, dear readers! I feel that 2016 is going to be an exciting year in space.....

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bus stop taphonomy: an experiment in contemporary archaeology

Most mornings I wait at a certain bus stop to catch the 300 up to Flinders University. There's a large tree, and a strip of scraggly grass on clayey soil. When it's really wet, I have to watch my steps as it gets quite slippery. Along the streets are houses and one business, a mower shop cheerfully painted in bright yellow and green - very useful as in the dark as a landmark.

Often when I'm standing there waiting, I notice small items of rubbish. Sometimes I even collect them, thinking of my Modern Material Culture class. One time it was a small pink plastic flower with a flat back, that looked like it had fallen off a toy. Once it was a battered piece of orange plastic bunting, still attached to a section of rope, and a crushed texta lid. A couple of mornings ago, there was a broken glass bottle in the street, and I collected a fragment which, in a different context, might be mistaken for deliberately flaked glass. This one was for my Archaeology of Australian Stone Artefacts class.

It's best to collect objects quickly, as they often don't last long. Since Monday, the broken glass pile has diminished. There's none of it still to be seen on the grass verge where I'm standing, only on the asphalt where it was smashed. I don't know where the stuff goes. Blown or washed away, or does a council employee come along at night and pick the grass clean? Perhaps the movement of humans, dogs, birds and bicycles shuffles the artefacts along until they're just out of my sight.

With a pocketful of snap-lock bags and a will, I could make this into an interesting experiment. I could, each day, collect whatever I could see in my 5 m radius. Some days it might be nothing at all. I'd have to take note of weather, visibility, any local events that might be relevant.  For example, I'm pretty sure the orange bunting derives from the installation of the controversial NBN cables in the street. 

How long have these objects been in the street before they pass my bus stop? I assume they're recent, but perhaps they have been circulating for a while. I could tag one and see how far it travels. Perhaps the crushed texta lid originated out Salisbury way, and has traveled through the streets and gutters of Adelaide town to my bus stop, only to be captured and objectified.

What is their life span? How long does it take before UV exposure, and chemical and mechanical weathering cause these objects to disintegrate? What is their size range? Do they fly under the radar because they are generally small, less then 10 cm or so? What makes them so invisible?

What would I find out if I collected them for a year?