Archaeology in the Final Frontier

Remodeling and construction at MSU Archives has meant that we have very limited access to archives for several months. Since my research plans have changed due to this limited access, I started thinking about other kinds of archaeology. A recent announcement from NASA got me thinking about the archaeology of outer space.

NASA and the Library of Congress recently held an astrobiology symposium in which scholars were invited to explore the implications of discovering life elsewhere in the universe. The guest speakers, coming from a wide variety of disciplines, discussed how humanity might prepare itself for the discovery of extraterrestrial life, whether it is simple microbial life or more complex forms that could exhibit intelligence. Participants of the symposium included biologists, theologians, philosophers, and even an anthropologist who discussed how our understanding of extraterrestrial intelligence is limited by our own imaginations. I was not surprised by the absence of archaeology at this symposium; the topics were largely theoretical and philosophical in nature (without direct evidence of ET, obviously discussions of this type are rather limited).

Currently, the archaeology of alien societies exists only in science fiction (Captain Picard was indeed a trained “xenoarchaeologist”—let’s call it “astroarchaeology” for consistency). Between the absence of data and the level of sensationalism associated with extraterrestrials, it is easy to understand why archaeologists have largely avoided astroarchaeology; we are all aware of the plethora of conspiracy theories involving the “remains” left behind by ancient aliens, from the Face on Mars or the planet’s apparent canals that were OBVIOUSLY formed by an alien intelligence, to a supposed alien base on the Moon. The potential revelation that the Borg may be plotting our inevitable assimilation as I write this will arguably be the single most profound discovery in human history (and a good time to call Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, and Bill Pullman; they’ll figure it out).

Joking aside, why should we not join the discussion in preparing for such a discovery? What would astroarchaeology even look like? Without available data this is admittedly difficult to conceptualize. Obviously we have to address our biases. Even IF Mars supported life in its past, unfortunately they did not leave behind enormous monuments that have survived billions of years and can be observed from orbital satellites. But is it not worth collaborating with scientists to adapt techniques for distinguishing artificial structures from natural formations on other planets? The better we can prepare ourselves for the possibility (or probability) that we are not alone, the easier it might be to accept and embrace it. In the meantime, I will continue hoping for the day we are able to go ice fishing on Europa (link below).

Here is the link for NASA’s Astrobiology Symposium:

And for more on Europa:

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