- ‘The Red One’ (1918), by Jack London
Set in the Solomon Islands, this astonishing tale is decades ahead of its time in its science fictional concepts, while simultaneously being appallingly of its time in its depiction of the indigenous Solomon Islanders.
- ‘Rescue Party’ (1946), by Arthur C. Clarke
Clarke’s story about an expedition of aliens exploring the doomed and deserted planet Earth is an early example of a tale in which humans are the vanished civilisation being studied.
- ‘The Sentinel’ (1951), by Arthur C. Clarke
The kernel around which the novel and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey were built. A classic conception of one version of the probe hypothesis (‘The Red One’ is another). Interestingly, the iconic black monolith of the movie is a shiny pyramid in the original story. Clarke’s predictive power goes awry here when a character fries sausages in the galley of the expedition’s lunar rover.
- ‘For Those Who Follow After’ (1951) by Dean McLaughlin
A fine story about the inevitability of extinction, in which an alien civilisation leaves behind a cache of artefacts for those who follow after.
- ‘Jupiter Five’ (1953), by Arthur C. Clarke
Another Clarke story! Archaeologists discover and explore a giant alien vessel orbiting Jupiter … seems like a precursor to Rendezvous with Rama in some ways. Interesting from an exopolitical viewpoint to note that in the story worlds cannot be claimed but salvage, even world-sized ships, arguably can.
- ‘The Star’ (1955), by Arthur C. Clarke
One of Clarke’s great stories. Archaeology is used here to powerfully illustrate the pitiless indifference of the cosmos to all that sentient beings hold dear.
- ‘Omnilingual‘ (1957), by H. Beam Piper
Almost certainly the best space archaeological story ever written. A deeply archaeological story about the first expedition to a city of the vanished Martian civilisation. The conceptual breakthrough around which the story is based is almost commonplace now but still powerful.
- ‘The Waiting Grounds’ (1959) by J. G. Ballard
From Ballard’s brief period of truly science fictional writing, a tale of deep time and transcendent vision, based on the discovery of mysterious alien megaliths on another world.
- ‘Lungfish‘ (1986), by David Brin
Brin’s story is a fascinating typology of interstellar probes, clearly the work of someone who has thought long and hard about the implications of the probe hypothesis.
- ‘Diamond Dogs’ (2001), by Alastair Reynolds
A cool and characteristically Reynoldsian take on the big dumb object story: the exploration of an enigmatic alien artefact. Pays homage to its antecedents (such as Algis Budry’s Rogue Moon) as it breaks new ground.
There are many more space archaeology stories out there, so feel free to make suggestions in the comments!