Monday, December 03, 2007

Nostalgia for Infinity: exploring the archaeology of the final frontier

This is the abstract for our session on space archaeology at the World Archaeological Congress 6, in Dublin next year from June 29th to July 4th. If you are interested in giving a paper, please email me!

Nostalgia for Infinity: exploring the archaeology of the final frontier
Session Convenors:
Alice Gorman, Beth O'Leary,
15-20 minute papers each followed by discussion

Outer space has been called the final frontier: after the Earth's surface, the depths of the sea and the upper reaches of the atmosphere, it is the last environment that modern technology has enabled humans to explore. In the 21st century, humans stand physically upon the threshold of outer space; and yet it is a place that human cultures have always known. Since the Palaeolithic, the sun, moon and other celestial bodies have been included in the construction of cosmologies, creation stories and accounts of the moral and physical nature of the world.

The conquest of space required astronomical and engineering technologies: rockets, launch pads, tracking stations, electronics, energy sources, and life-sustaining environments. The material culture of the space age is present both on earth and in space. It is curated in museums, located in historic facilities, in orbit around numerous celestial bodies in the solar system, and on lunar and planetary surfaces. Its impacts are evident in the communities sustained by space industry and in the ubiquitous domestic satellite dishes, indicating participation in an increasingly globalised economy.

As space material culture begins to be accepted as heritage, the challenge for the archaeologist is to understand how people interact with the places and objects of space, not just as the province of a scientific elite, but as part of the fabric of every day life, permeating popular culture, politics and information exchange.

We invite papers addressing any aspect of the diverse material culture of space, such as terrestrial, orbital and planetary space sites, collection policies and procedures, military and civil space programmes, space tourism, and cultural heritage management and preservation.

The Nostalgia for Infinity is the spacecraft which plays a central role in Alastair Reynold's fiction. There's a strong connection between science fiction and archaeology; many of my colleagues follow the genre, and I guess science fiction writers and archaeologists are both in the business of imagining different worlds. I used it in the session title because (1) I think it sounds great, and (2) I wanted to invoke the paradox of the unknowable that is also familiar. And Reynolds has an archaeological theme running through his books (although if I was in the field with Dan Sylveste, the archaeologist in Revelation Space, I'd want to hit him a lot for being an arrogant bastard).

Oooh! I wonder if I could entice Reynolds to come to WAC-6? How fabulous would that be!


  1. You seem like a very cool lady, When I was in Germany; I did a wee bit of World War Two archaeology. I used to wonder if those old grenades, and land mines we used to handle so casually, were still dangerous? I know for sure, that some of the small arms munitions we recovered were still live.

  2. Hi Walt,
    I believe unexploded ordnance is a bit of a hazard for WW I and II archaeologists, never mind for those who live on the sites of former battlefields. Recently my colleague Dr Heather Burke and I excavated the entrance to a WW II air raid shelter in Adelaide - but as Adelaide was never bombed, we didn't have to think about the possibility of exploding ourselves.

  3. Or worse - exploding the students!