Alun Salt has written a thoughtful response to my previous post about space archaeology theory … so here’s my thoughts on his thoughts šŸ˜›

My prior post featured a Venn diagram illustrating the conceptual space of the field and the interrelationships of its subfields of aerospace, xeno- and exo- archaeology. Alun asks whether this definition adds anything, and whether it’s necessary to draw boundaries around the field.

Should a definition add anything or should it describe and clarify? I think the diagram adequately encapsulates the subject, even though I wasn’t sure how to visually convey the way that space heritage and exogarbology permeate the subfields (perhaps some kind of hatching?).

Is the definition limiting? Perhaps I’m wrong, but the diagram seems to encompass all possible fields that could be considered space archaeology, and I’m fairly confident that even unthought-of fields would fit into the diagram (xeno-maritime archaeology?).

Should mostly hypothetical fields such as xenoarchaeology and exoarchaeology be included? Iā€™dĀ argue for their inclusionĀ on the following grounds:

  1. a moderately optimistic view of the future will provide these fields with subjects to study; and
  2. legitimate work (both theoretical and practical) is already being done! e.g., William Dolemanā€™s surveyĀ of the alleged Roswell crash site, not to mention variousĀ SETA projects. A negative result is still a result.

At this point in time, Iā€™d consider xenoarchaeology and exoarchaeology to be protosciences, so to speak.Ā Consider this piece by Seth Shostak arguing for the legitimacy of astrobiology, another science without a subject.

Alun raises a great point that xenoarchaeological work can reveal a lot about the response of humans to perceived alien visitation. Compare it to the archaeologies of quarantine, tourism, say – evenĀ of religious sites (cargo cults?).

The study of human responses to contactĀ is a legitimate and interesting anthropological research program, that may have an archaeological component … but I think there’s more that can be done in xenoarchaeology even now. Particularly in ‘skeptical xenoarchaeology’ of purported alien sites.

Alun writes: ā€˜a serious study of how xenoarchaeology is practiced could give genuinely useful insights into the assumptions in SETI programmes.ā€™

Heā€™s right on the nail here: more attention lately is being directed at non-traditional SETI methods (i.e. non-radio) as assumptions are challenged andĀ SETA (search for extra-terrestrial artefacts) become more widely accepted. Iā€™ve just read Paul Daviesā€™ new book, The Eerie Silence, which gives a brief and telling history of the way that the cultural preoccupations of SETI scientists reflected on their visions of alien motivations.

Similarly thinking about exoarchaeology now highlights the issues and challenges that will be faced by future archaeologists, as Alun writes. Space junk is a great example here, with seemingly chaotic post-depositional factors needing to be taken into consideration.

In passing, Alun seems to think of SETI as an anthropological concern. Leaving aside the question of whether a discipline with a name derived from the GreekĀ anthropos can encompass nonhumans, I approach SETI from the opposite direction,Ā seeing almost all SETI as inherently archaeological.

Unless you’re very optimistic about the proximity and/or lifespan of extraterrestrial civilisations, any signal or artefact detected is likely come from a dead, or at least remotely historical culture. This isn’t only because of the tyranny of distance, but also because of what I see as a corollary of the Drake equation: that extinct civilisations will greatly outnumber extant ones.

It’s good to get feedback on these posts – thanks, Alun!