Sunday, September 24, 2023

Why do we need an archaeology of space?

Why do we need an archaeology of space? Haven’t we got an abundant documentary record to tell us all about spacecraft and their stories? Not, as it turns out. The documentary record is far from perfect, and even if it were, it doesn’t necessarily contain the answers to the questions we want to ask. Within a system of production, there are ideas and assumptions that are unquestioned and invisible: no-one writes about them, or records them, because they are the fabric of their worldview. It’s only later that we may look back and wonder why something was like that. So there may be no words or images that document a decision; there may only be the thing itself. And this is what makes it archaeology. 

For most people, archaeology is the study of what is old – from the emergence of humans a few million years ago, to perhaps a couple of thousand or a few hundred years ago. When I tell people I’m an archaeologist, the most common reactions are to express admiration for the great cultures of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, followed by confusion when I say that’s not what I do. (Whatever you do, don’t mention dinosaurs to an archaeologist! For the record, that’s palaeontology). 

It can be even more perplexing to say that you work in Australia. Surely, many people (mainly Australians it has to be said) respond, there’s no archaeology in Australia? This is generally the cue to say ‘but there is at least 65, 000 years of Aboriginal occupation…not to mention over 240 years of European occupation’. Usually that’s enough for a long conversation about archaeology, so often I don’t go on to mention that my field of research is space. It just seems too confusing when you’ve already bombarded an unsuspecting stranger with information.

(Once my esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis was asked what she did by a man in a nightclub. ‘I’m a nuclear physicist’ she replied. ‘Why on Earth did you say that?’ I asked her. ‘Isn’t it enough to be an archaeologist?’. ‘It just seemed more interesting’, she said). 

If we get to the point where I reveal I’m a space archaeologist, it’s often assumed that means stuff that has returned to Earth, such as old satellites or even meteorites. I’ll point to the sky and say ‘No, I mean the stuff that’s still up there’. ‘But how can you do that, when you can’t even go there?’. The quintessential archaeological activity is excavation, and that’s not even remotely possible. So how can it be archaeology? 

It seems a contradiction in terms to say that there can be an archaeology of space exploration. After all, this is recent human history, which living people have experienced and can remember. It’s more than that, too. Even though we’ve been living in the space age for over 60 years, space still has the ring of the future. The Jetsons lifestyle is always just about to happen, always waiting for that one technological breakthrough that will bring us personal jetpacks and holidays on Mars. 

But archaeology can be of the living, not just of the dead, and this means it's inextricably linked with the future. What future society can be is based on what we think it has the potential to be, and this is based on what we understand human nature to be, as demonstrated by the past. If the past is monolithic and one-dimensional, we don’t look to other futures, other possibilities. Space archaeology, I like to think, offers windows into the possibilities of the future by telling diverse stories of objects that fall outside the authorised narratives. 

It’s not just the age that makes something archaeology. Archaeology is a set of methods and theories about human interactions with the material world, whether that is the environment around us, or the multitude of objects we use to conduct our daily lives. Of course no archaeologist is going to complain about excavating a burial rich with grave goods, or a frescoed palace. But our real passion is the everyday stuff, the stone tools used to cut up a kangaroo, the earthenware pottery used to store apple cider. Counting, cataloguing, describing, and statistical analysis of artefacts allows archaeologists to discern patterns that reveal something about human actions, decisions, and sometimes even emotions. 

As historical archaeologist Dr Heather Burke says, archaeologists are really just nosy. The treasures we seek are not the golden masks of Agamemnon, but insights into what it means to be human. Beneath the surface, beneath even our consciousness, are the structures that shape what we do and the mark we leave upon the world. For every culture these are different. Usually archaeologists study cultures that are distant in time, and often distant geographically too, in ‘exotic’ field locations compared to the safe, comfortable industrial ‘west’. We are fascinated by the ‘other’. The novelist LP Hartley famously said ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. 

What makes the archaeology of the contemporary past different is that it’s an archaeology of us, right here, right now. It’s not the forgotten rubbish heap of an Ice Age forager with mammoth bones and stone tools, it’s the landfill created by a culture of mass consumption and mass disposal, in which we participate. And we don’t have to rely on just the material evidence. We can ask people what they did, what they thought they were doing. These voices and memories are a parallel strand of evidence to the documentary and archaeological records. People aren’t always right about this, of course, and memory is very fallible. This is one of the areas which archaeology is different to history.  

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