British Archaeology, no 11, February 1996: Essay

In the first of an occasional new series of essays, Charles Thomas argues that archaeologists should be sent to apply their skills in outer space.

Diggers at the final frontier

Sci-fi enthusasts will remember AE Van Vogt, contemporary with Asimov, Hal Clement, John Campbell Jr, and other such giants. Van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1951) has an enormous starship manned by every sort of expert and specialist, on a five-year tour of distant galaxies and boldly going, etc. Where the book broke new ground was that the experts included an archaeologist, a `tall Japanese historian' called Korita. If and when fresh civilizations were found, or ruins, or technological debris, it was Korita's task to identify what stage in `cyclic history' such remains might represent and thus to suggest appropriate reactions (or even to make predictions).

I thought of this for two reasons. I came across some essays that I'd written, when a student under VG Childe and FE Zeuner at the old Institute of Archaeology. One essay, and I'm sure it was for VGC (who to his circle of privileged students was not always austere), was to argue that if and when space travel became possible, there were very good reasons why an archaeologist should be included in any crew. The other and more sombre reason was the series of horrible events in the last few years involving the police and the digging-up of murdered corpses. We've all seen this on TV - hoards of constables in green wellies with brand-new spades, even JCBs, bashing through the ground in a way that must recall Sir Mortimer Wheeler's famous photo captioned `Chaos: excavation in the East, 1935'. The message from forensic archaeology, still being sent out by John Hunter of Bradford University and others, is that almost any trained field unit could locate such burials, assemble convincing evidence and finish the job in half the time at a fraction of the cost. Unlike policemen, archaeologists don't trample all over the data, either.

My point is that most of the techniques of archaeology, basic and scientific, have a much wider potential than we realise; perhaps we can spare a moment from theoretical navel-gazing to consider this. Man the Tool-Maker (better, `Person the Tool-Maker') is a dead concept. It's not `tool' now, but `artefact'; and an artefact can be defined as anything inanimate, shaped, altered, or just as it is, used by any sentient being to accomplish any purpose. Three intrepid women - Dian Fossey, Jane van Lawick-Goodall, Birute Galdikas - have shown that our primate relatives (gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans) habitually use, even adapt, artefacts, and they may not be the only animals to do so.

If the long-term idea of SETI, Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, continues, and if one day we find a planet that once supported `life' (sentient beings), it won't be folk bouncing up and down in space-suits, planting little flags and bagging up dust, who can beam back meaningful news. We need the Sherlock Holmes angle; that highly-trained ability to infer past activity from present objects, which comes into play when we look at flint flakes, ruined buildings, agrarian landscapes, and increasingly, like Van Vogt's Dr Korita, little rusty bits of dismembered machinery. It's a great pity that the poor old Moon seems to boast nothing in the way of artefacts beyond the rubbish we've left there ourselves now, but that was just a starting-point. As for forensic archaeology, there must be out there at least one Chief Constable who can be persuaded of something we all know: short of slapping a yard of concrete over everything, any hole dug in any field during the last half-century, however cunningly filled back, can be pin-pointed in half-a-dozen ways.

Do archaeologists perhaps tend to sell themselves short? Do we let non-archaeologists hear those cringe-making expressions `Not my period, really' or `Can't say until we get a specialist report'? What counts is the ability, the confidence born of long experience, to hypothesize inferences from visible, tangible evidence. That's why I thought, in 1952, that our `Space Beagles' of the future should include archaeologists in their crews; and that's why I still think so.

Prof Charles Thomas is a former Professor of Cornish Studies at Exeter University, and was CBA President 1970-73

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