Space Archaeology

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Space Archaeology: Definitions

I’m beginning the wonderful Handbook of Space Engineering, Archaeology and Heritage and thinking about the definition of space archaeology. In the introduction to the book, Ann Darrin and Beth O’Leary define it as:

…the archaeological study of material culture relevant to space exploration that is found on earth and in outer space (i.e., exoatmospheric material) and that is clearly the result of human behavior.

This is problematic in the use of the term ‘exoatmospheric’ to encompass the entirety of human material culture off-planet (I would have used extraterrestrial, or extra-terrestrial). The second concern is that it limits the purview of the field to human behaviours when in fact the book itself contains articles dedicated to nonhuman archaeology.

Edward Staski further explores various definitions of space archaeology in his paper:

  • the archaeology of space (i.e., three-dimensional patterns of material culture)
  • the archaeological technique of remote sensing from space
  • a term for archaeoastronomy
  • legitimate speculation on the archaeology of extraterrestrials
  • the spurious study of sites already claimed to be extraterrestrial in origin (e.g., the Face on Mars)
  • the study of material culture found in space (Staski’s own definition, which he allows could be expanded to include Earth-based ‘material culture in the aerospace and aeronautical realms that relates to the development and support of exoatmospheric activities’.

This last expanded definition is what I would call aerospace archaeology, and is conceptually similar to maritime archaeology except with space and spacecraft in place of the sea and ships. Beth O’Leary herself uses marine archaeology analogously in her first paper which describes it as ‘nonterrestrial’.

In passing, Staski describes ‘xenoarchaeology’ and ‘exoarchaeology’ as synonymous. The terms as used are a little slippery, but xenoarchaeology is always the study of nonhuman artefacts and exoarchaeology is generally the practice of archaeology off-Earth. Confusion arises because exoarchaeology so defined can refer to the study of nonhuman artefacts off-Earth.

Returning to the maritime archeology analogy, exoarchaeology is the equivalent of underwater archaeology: its definition is dependent on location rather than subject. Thus, aerospace archaeology is to exoarchaeology as maritime archaeology is to underwater archaeology.

Here’s a chart I created a few years ago to illustrate the conceptual space of space archaeology:

Basically, I see space archaeology as the intersection of three fields – aerospace archaeology, exoarchaeology and xenoarchaeology. From the intersection of these we get a number of possible sub-fields:

  • terrestrial xenoarchaeology: basically full of crank theories like Erich von Daniken
  • human aerospace archaeology: the study of human space sites on earth, like Woomera
  • human exoarchaeology: currently limited to fiction – non-aerospace activities
  • human aerospace exoarchaeology: e.g. Beth O’Leary’s work with Tranquility Base.
  • extraterrestrial exoarchaeology: currently mostly fringe theories about faces on mars, but also the astronomical search for Dyson Spheres
  • alien aerospace archaeology: the examination of alleged alien crash sites on earth, e.g. Roswell
  • alien aerospace exoarchaeology: probe SETI, or SETA … the search for extraterrestrial probes and vehicles in the solar system.

Yes, I stuck space heritage and exogarbology off to the side just to have them on the chart. Sorry, despite the inclusion of a paper on archaeoastronomy in the Handbook, it isn’t really space archaeology and so doesn’t appear above.

Finally, just a note – Beth O’Leary wonders if William Rathje coined the term exoarchaeology in 1999. In fact Arthur C. Clarke was using it in 1967 in a note from his story collection The Nine Billion Names of God.

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