Thursday, June 30, 2011

How I became a space archaeologist

It's getting on for 2 am and I have no business being awake. At least, if I had any business being awake, it should be finishing my end-of-semester marking, commenting on thesis drafts, and working on my talk for Friday night ....

So all of that is obviously not happening. Instead, I have been reflecting on how I became a space archaeologist. Previously, I had specialised in Aboriginal archaeology, particularly flaked stone tools, contact-era flaked bottle glass, and usewear and residue analysis. (I still do some of those things).  I was also a professional cultural heritage manager, working outside the university sector as a consultant.

Space archaeology came about in a particular moment, back in 2002. This was the setting:  my lovely old Queenslander house in the central Queensland town of Gladstone, where I was employed as the project archaeologist on the raising of the Awoonga Dam. The house had the characteristic broad verandahs of that architectural style and a back garden with guavas, mangos, poincianas, and other marvellous semi-tropical trees. It also had an excellent bath, fabulous for soaking off the dirt after a hard day in the field.

I was frequently in the field with my team, all of them young women from the three Native Title claim groups in the area. Surveying, monitoring earthworks, excavating, a whole bunch of stuff.  In the height of summer it could be very hot and sweaty work indeed. On one such day I came home, exhausted, clumped up the stairs in my steel-capped, acid-resistant boots, flung off my fluoro vest and hard hat as I entered the door, and went straight to the fridge for a delicious cold beer.

Now I have to confess I am slightly on the old-fashioned side in adhering to the principle of changing for dinner, whether one is by oneself at home, or in the field with only a flimsy dress suffering from the effects of being rolled into a ball and squeezed into some corner of the suitcase not occupied by explorer socks. But sometimes it is just all too much of an effort, and this was one of those days. I think I may have paused briefly to pull my heavy boots off, but the next stop after the fridge was the verandah where I collapsed into a chair with my beer and sat, thinking of nothing much, looking up at the stars.

Now Queensland, you recollect, doesn't have daylight saving, so it gets dark far more quickly on summer evenings that the rest of us are used to.  So the stars were already out, even though I wasn't long home. I was contemplating them idly, perhaps thinking about my childhood ambition to be an astrophysicist, the little telescope my parents gave me for Christmas one year, the circular constellation charts that were stored in the bottom shelf of the glass-fronted cabinet in the sitting room. I thought to myself:  I think I'm looking at the stars, but actually, the sky is full of satellites and space junk too.

It was the second part of the thought that was critical, very much related to my then-task of managing the heritage values of the more than 300 recorded Aboriginal and European sites within the inundation area of the Awoonga Dam. If there is human material culture in space, does it have heritage value?  Does the Burra Charter apply to things that aren't even on the Earth?

I thought about this for a while.  And then I decided I was going to find out.

The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance (1999)


  1. Anonymous3:19 pm

    That's quite inspiring. Although I had a wee bit of trouble parsing this sentence and had a very painful image of Dr Space Junk as a contortionist, for at least several seconds. The image was possibly more startling than stars, but much less profound:

    "...or in the field with only a flimsy dress suffering from the effects of being rolled into a ball and squeezed into some corner of the suitcase..."

  2. Ah. I see what you mean.