Space, the final archaeological frontier? Following NASA’s recent Golden Anniversary celebrations, David Miles looks to the skies for extra-terrestrial archaeology.
Archaeology, like the Universe, keeps expanding. In the late 1960s pessimists foretold archaeology’s total destruction: sites ripped apart, scattered and buried by humanity careless of its own past. In fact, the evidence of our past has increased enormously in recent decades. At the microscopic level lipids, genes and isotopes tell us where we came from and what we ate. Robots and sonar locate time capsules in the deep sea; landscapes, where once hunters pursued big game, are exposed beneath post-glacial flood-waters. Even in well-explored areas aerial photography, LIDAR and geophysics constantly reveal new discoveries. Archaeologists also increasingly poke their curious noses into the recent past. In the noughties, English Heritage has put more energy into recording the 20th century than any other period – the new archaeology of modern warfare, air travel, mining and manufacturing, petrol stations and seaside resorts. The Defence of Britain project, recording 20th century military remains was a massive volunteer effort. And my favourite recent English Heritage publication: The Archaeology of Rocketry.
The British learnt about modern rockets the hard way when they began falling on their heads in the late stages of World War II. The man who did more than anyone else to launch the V2 rocket, Wernher Von Braun, commented ‘A good flight but the payload landed on the wrong planet.’ Having changed masters, Von Braun subsequently targeted the Moon. So should archaeologists follow in his wake to seek signs of intelligent extra-terrestrial life? They have, of course, in fantasy. Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey portrayed astro-archaeologists excavating on the Moon to locate a black monolith - a kind of giant iPod left by benevolent extra-terrestrials to kick-start us humans into the next stage of civilisation. A similar close encounter, at the beginning of the film, boosted Australopithecines towards the weapons and wisdom of Homo Sapiens. The idea for 2001, of intelligent life directing us from beyond our galaxy, came from the imagination of the science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke. The physical look of the film’s spacecraft and astronauts was the work of Harry Lange, who previously worked with Von Braun at NASA. Harry, who died in 2008, was a frustrated archaeologist and like many who are committed to the exploration of space, was also entranced by the possibility of extra-terrestrial civilizations.
From aliens to archaeology
Celestial superiority is an old idea: the medieval church accepted Aristotle’s model of a finite, earth-centred, universe and the heavens populated by God, archangels, seraphim, cherubim and the serried ranks of spiritual beings. The Copernican revolution replaced theology with physics but nevertheless the belief persisted that superior beings inhabited the heavens. Scientists are not necessarily hard headed; they sometimes come hard-wired with ancestral beliefs. In the 1960s, the radio astronomer Frank Drake was the first person to attempt to pick up radio messages from aliens. Drake said, ‘A strong influence on me, and I think a lot of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) people was the extensive exposure to fundamentalist religion.’ Drake hoped to find celestial super- beings who might teach humans ‘how to live forever’.