Science Fiction and Archaeology: Part 1 – Building worlds in the past and future

screen-shot-2012-08-22-at-11-47-57-amScience fiction and archaeology are two sides of the same coin. No, really. For all that one’s a literary genre and the other an academic discipline, they share a great deal in terms of goals, preoccupations and techniques. There also seems to be a good deal of overlap in the interests of practitioners: archaeologists – especially those who work actively in the field – often tend to be young, highly-educated and, in a word, geeky. With that kind of demographic, it’s no surprise that many have at least a passing interest in SF. For its part, SF has had a long-standing – if not necessarily productive – interest in the themes and motifs of archaeology.

It’s notoriously hard to define science fiction but we might pick out a few key concerns – the creation of imagined worlds, especially those set in the future; an interest in technology and the material and how it defines and shapes these worlds; the use of these to explore questions and issues from our own world in new contexts. In my introductory post, I talked about how I see this as essentially what archaeology does too: both are disciplines of world-building; one for the past, one for the future.

But wait, you might say, archaeology doesn’t imagine its worlds; it reconstructs them. It’s not fiction; the past actually happened. But did it? Any archaeologist worth their salt will tell you that there’s a hell of a lot of guesswork in the pasts we reconstruct; there’s a lot of disagreement and there’s a lot of fashion too. Pasts come and go with the tides of intellectual movements. ‘History’ is just a general consensus on what most people think is plausible or would like to believe. But shouldn’t archaeologists be above all that, approaching the material record in an objective and ideologically neutral way? That was the thinking behind archaeology’s scientistic turn in the mid-20th century. The problem is that, whatever we might aspire to, archaeology is not a science. The root of all archaeology is fieldwork, and fieldwork – whether excavation- or survey-based – is far from an objective process. It’s interpretative, imaginative, creative and destructive. Especially in an excavation, no archaeologist can hope to uncover the totality of what lies buried. Choices are made, and those are led by research questions, agendas, ideology and interpretation. Some things are kept, others are discarded. Once disturbed, the all-important context is gone for good. Archaeological excavation is a non-repeatable experiment and the subjectivities of how it is conducted are encoded into the material record for all those who will come to look at it in future. A good archaeologist, then, is not one who approaches their task aspiring to unattainable scientific objectivity, but one who acknowledges their creative and interpretative responsibility and explains what they are doing and why; who balances the creative and subjective with a rigorous respect for the evidence.

This is why archaeology will always straddle the divide between science and art, and why I see the creation of the archaeological past as an act of extrapolation and evidence-guided imaginative creativity. It is, I’d argue, very similar to what science fiction does with the future, an act of disciplined world-building and in a massive shared universe. Both are sophisticated blends of the humanities and sciences with different sub-strands that position themselves in various places along the art-science continuum. Materiality is at the heart of both: an overwhelming concern for objects, physical structures and hardware, and how these relate to, shape and are shaped by, cultural and philosophical ideas. In both, world-building is the stock-in-trade. Imagined worlds are constructed, but for something to be a useful contribution, imagination must be guided and constrained by rigorous extrapolation from known facts and objects. What archaeology does for the past, SF does for the future. It’s natural that each should resonate with the other.

But this resonance is complex and has often been problematic and, I would suggest, unsatisfying. Part 2 of this essay will be a  quick historical survey of how the two disciplines have intertwined, and why I think SF so often gets archaeology wrong.

5 thoughts on “Science Fiction and Archaeology: Part 1 – Building worlds in the past and future

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