This week we are taking a break from the ‘Dark Ages’ to focus on my latest craze. At the moment, I am absolutely obsessed with space. What can I say, I’m a project person. I flit from interest to interest. I’ve always been like this, and I don’t think that it is necessarily a bad thing to have multiple, temporary passions. Heck, in six months’ time I’ll probably take up fishing. But how can we apply my love of the past to my burgeoning love of space?
Dr Beth O’Leary, an archaeologist and anthropologist from New Mexico State University, has recently argued that the material left behind from the Apollo missions is material culture, and is therefore of archaeological significance. Whilst this might seem a bit extreme to some, it is certainly an interesting angle. The finding of a piece of satellite debris by a Brazilian fisherman this week is a similarly interesting case study. As far as I’m concerned, three questions arise from such a discussion.
1. What is archaeology and what isn’t?
Defining archaeology in itself is relatively simple. A ‘define: archaeology’ search on Google returns this: ‘the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artefacts and other physical remains’.
Renfrew and Bahn’s classic introductory text summarises it better, though: ‘Archaeology is partly the discovery of the treasures of the past, partly the meticulous work of the scientific analyst, partly the exercise of the creative imagination‘.1 Whilst definitions are always debatable to some extent, I think this is good enough for now. Simply put, archaeology is the study of the material past.
2. But when does archaeology become kleptomania?
If archaeology is the study of the material past then at what point does the present become the past? Technically speaking, the past is the totality of everything that is not the present or the future. This poses difficult questions about what should be curated and what should be thrown away. Is my grandfather’s coffee mug an artefact? Is a 1970s concrete building a piece of archaeology?
From a theoretical perspective, it can be easy to simply say that everything is an artefact, regardless of age. It is certainly true that recent material remains should be curated for future education. The National Museum of Computing is a pretty good example here. However, there has to be a degree of pragmatism because, quite frankly, not everything can be kept. From a pure perspective, I should curate everything I throw away. Whilst we tend to keep objects as memories, the vast majority of the material we come into contact with is thrown away. To avoid archaeologically-induced kleptomania, then, people make judgement calls. This leads us nicely to our next question.
3. Is there such a thing as space archaeology?
In short, yes. If we return to our theoretically pure perspective, everything that isn’t the present or the future is the past. This means that the unused material of yesterday is today’s archaeology. A line is often drawn for the mundane aspects of life, but is something as culturally and scientifically significant as space exploration different? I would argue that it is.
The Lunar Module landing site of Apollo 11, as photographed in 2012.
In many respects, space exploration has been at the forefront of scientific development and human progress. Since 1957 and the launching of Sputnik 1, we have been on a historical trajectory towards the stars. Earth is no longer enough; we have to understand the wider context. As the material remains of this achievement, I would agree with Dr O’Leary that these are significant cultural artefacts that should be conserved wherever possible. Defunct satellites that survived atmospheric re-entry, or even the remnants of the boosters that flew them, would make fine pieces in museums and would certainly help inspire the next generation of scientists. This isn’t a new idea, by the way. After writing most of this post I discovered a whole heap of people feel this same. This post is particularly awesome.
Am I saying we should launch missions to retrieve this stuff? Hell no. That is beyond stupid, especially with current budgetary restraints. It is possible, however, that in the future we may be in a stronger position to conserve and curate Space Age archaeology. In fact, I think it could even lead to some of the most popular exhibitions of all time. Who wouldn’t want to see NASA’s Mars rovers or the almost completely unobtainable Voyager spacecraft? Heck, I’d even pay a lot of money to see the mangled remains of the USSR’s Venusian probes.
So although tenuous, it can be beneficial to apply archaeological ideas to current issues. The fact that there are thousands of objects in orbit around our planet is becoming a problem. Although fully of Hollywood-isms, the recent and fantastic film Gravity is based on a real issue.
So what have we learnt?
1) The material remains of space exploration are technically archaeology.
2) It could be used to educate future generations.
3) I want to be a space archaeologist. Please mail me an application form.
EDIT: Space Archaeology is a real thing and these guys actually practise it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGwyhc4g3q4
1 Renfrew, C. and Bahn, P. 2004. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. 4th ed. London: Thames and Hudson. p.12.