Science Fiction and Archaeology: Part 2 – Grave-robbers, explorers and dilettantes

See Part 1 for why I think archaeology and science fiction share certain approaches and why they ought to go well together. This post will explore how they’ve tried and often failed.

Two Prometheuses (Prometheis?) bookend the relationship so far, and between them exemplify many of the recurring tropes which have characterised archaeological SF: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, seen by many as the first true SF novel; and Ridley Scott’s 2012 cinematic Prometheus. They take us from Gothic grave-robbers, through von Dänikenesque Chariots of the Gods to Big Dumb Objects and the Ozymandian relics of long-dead alien civilisations.


Frankenstein, illustrated by Bernie Wrightson

Now obviously, archaeology’s far from central to Frankenstein. As a discipline it was still in its infancy in 1815; anatomy and the fledgling science of galvanism were Shelley’s immediate inspirations, not the work of those adventuring plunderers who kept western aristocrats and museums in Greek vases and Aegyptiaca. Nevertheless, many of Frankenstein’s themes resonate strongly with those of archaeology. As the work’s very subtitle makes clear, it’s a work which understands the present with reference to antiquity. The link it draws between ancient myth and modern science is one that SF would revisit again and again over the next two centuries: the seeds of Chariots of the Gods? were sown there in Shelley’s masterwork. What’s more, Gothic literature’s obsession with the dead revived, the buried uncovered and the forgotten past restored blends naturally into the concerns of archaeologists. After all, what do archaeologists try to do every day if not raise the dead, give them some manner of life again with their arts?


M R James, illustrated by Rich Johnson

This is why the figure of the antiquary becomes so important to later Gothic literature. The late 1800s saw the increasing academicisation of archaeology as a discipline, with the development of systematic excavation techniques and the establishment of the first university chair in archaeology at University College London. In characters such as the succession of hapless scholars in the works of M. R. James (himself a Cambridge don and director of the Fitzwilliam Museum), literature dramatized the tension between this scholarly urge to uncover the past  and the nagging concern that some things are best left undisturbed. It’s not hard to spot archaeological resonances in almost any piece of Gothic literature – just look at Dracula, for instance, with its shipping of ancient remains back to the imperial metropolis, its recognition of the importance of soil samples – but these aren’t really stories about archaeology. With the exception of Frankenstein, they’re not truly science fiction, either. While for Shelley novelty and fear was to be found in scientific excesses upsetting the established order of nature, by the time James or Stoker were writing, the balance had tipped: Victorian science and reason was the default order of things. Horror lies in the incursion of the unscientific and the inexplicable, the thing the antiquary’s studies never prepared him for.

These themes find their most quintessential example – and reintegration with the science-fictional – in the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Jamesian antiquaries and other scholars feature prominently in his stories: the academics, occult collections and research expeditions of Miskatonic University are a familiar touchstone throughout his work. But where James’ interest in history was focused on the manuscript, the written narrative, Lovecraft brings a heightened concern with the material remains of the distant past. He often sites his horrific encounters in forgotten ruins at the distant corners of the world (see, for example, ‘The Nameless City’, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ and especially ‘At the Mountains of Madness’). Despite the unearthly, unthinkable strangeness of these places, Lovecraft explicitly evokes comparisons with ancient and archaeological sites:

eh03-cityofelderthingsThe whole arrangement looked like the ruins of Machu Picchu in the Andes, or the primal foundation walls of Kish as dug up by the Oxford Field Museum Expedition in 1929; and both Danforth and I obtained that occasional impression of separate Cyclopean blocks which Lake had attributed to his flight-companion Carroll.

‘At the Mountains of Madness’, H. P. Lovecraft


Cyclopean masonry at Mycenae

Beyond the straightforward mentions of Machu Picchu or Kish, even epithets like ‘Cyclopean’ (one of Lovecraft’s favourites) have archaeological connotations. Its ultimate source in Classical mythology is thematically apposite – the Greek belief that the already-ancient Bronze Age ruins around them had been constructed by gigantic, inhuman Cyclopes – but it also recalls the specific ‘Cyclopean Masonry’ of Mycenae, which was undergoing a major second campaign of excavation under A. J. B. Wace at the time the novella was written.

The abandoned ruins of Lovecraft’s stories owe much to older ‘Lost World’ stories of explorers and forgotten cities, such as Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) or Merritt’s ‘The People of the Pit’ (1918), but the nature of his creatures takes his work beyond simply blending these with earlier Gothic horrors and instead represents a genuine step closer to true archaeological science fiction. Unlike earlier writers, his monsters are frequently neither supernatural revenants nor ‘primitive’ natives. Instead, the ancient horrors of ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ and other stories in the Cthulhu Mythos are firmly extraterrestrial. They’re perhaps too uncanny to be called unambiguously science-fictional, since the whole point is the unknowability of these beings, their resistance to and negation of human science; but even so, they bring aliens to the ruins for the first time, synthesising the Gothic, the lost civilisation story and the emerging genre of SF.

Lovecraft’s ancient aliens provide a template for one of the persistent strands of science-fictional engagement with archaeology, the notion that Earth was visited in the distant past by aliens, that ancient structures and myths are the result of extraterrestrial interference in the development of mankind. This really captured public imagination in the late 60s and early 70s with the peak of the New Age movement, the publication of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? in 1968, and, in SF, the same year’s release of Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose lengthy opening sequence in particular tapped into similar themes, with an uncanny alien monolith inspiring human ancestors to make the leap to tool- and weapon- use.


The alien Scaroth, from Doctor Who: City of Death (1979)

But it was the pulpier, more mass-market end of the SF spectrum that truly made ancient astronaut stories its own. On British television, for example, such stories had appeared before – most notably in 1958-9’s Quatermass and the Pit – but the 70s brought a dramatic upswing. In that decade Doctor Who alone offered up so many aliens guiding humanity’s early development that one might struggle to find anything we did actually manage for ourselves. Highlights include 1971’s ‘The Daemons’, in which archaeologists unearth a hornèd beast in a spaceship under a burial mound in Wiltshire; 1977’s ‘Image of the Fendahl’, a Lovecraftian romp in which a 12-million-year-old pentagram-inscribed skull from space is revealed to have shaped human evolution (and possesses Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum along the way), and Douglas Adams’ 1979 delight ‘City of Death’, in which a single stranded alien kick-starts the creation of life on Earth, helps build the pyramids, commissions the Mona Lisa and subsequently steals it from the Louvre.

Ancient astronauts no longer have the zeitgeist appeal they did in the late 60s and 70s and have become ever more confined to SF’s most mass-market output, but they have never gone away. They’re still a semi-regular fixture in cinema and on low-budget TV drama and documentary (Stargate [1994] and its various TV spin-off series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Prometheus, and for ‘non-fiction’ see the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, if you can bear it). With the advent of the internet, ancient astronauts have found their natural home (witness, for example, the online brouhaha over the alleged Mayan apocalypse of December 2012).

If mass-market SF, especially in the visual media, has been colonised by the ancient astronauts, writers of more considered prose SF have engaged with archaeology in a different way. One prominent strand of archaeological SF recalls the other Shelley and the Romantic ruins of Ozymandias by fixating on the enigmatic and abandoned relics of seemingly vanished alien civilisations. These ‘Big Dumb Object’ stories are particularly beloved of ‘hard SF’ writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven (that is, those working in a style of SF that privileges plausibily exploring scientific concepts over things like characterisation or prose style) and offers them a way to explore the alien in a universe where extraterrestrials themselves seem conspicuous by their absence. These stories are fundamentally archaeological: their heroes (often researchers and scientists) seek to learn about unknown, often ancient and extinct, civilisations by exploring and studying their material remains and ruins.

Generally these stories fall short of exploring the future of archaeological and xenoarchaeological research with the same rigour and enthusiasm they devote to physics, engineering or space travel. They often gesture towards the importance of archaeologists in studying their megastructures, but they’re frequently marginal characters and the understanding of how they work can seem rather naïve. In Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, for instance, Commander Norton is said to have taken an ‘a course of industrial archaeology’ as a young man, but the description given doesn’t sound much like archaeology so much as sightseeing, and any archaeological expertise he has is never mentioned again.


Exploring the alien megastructure in Rendezvous with Rama, illustrated by Jim Burns.

It had happened thirty years ago, during a summer vacation in England. Largely because of another student (he could remember her face – but he had forgotten her name) he had taken a course of industrial archaeology, then very popular among science and engineering graduates. They had explored abandoned coal-mines and cotton mills, climbed over ruined blast-furnaces and steam-engines, goggled unbelievingly at primitive (and still dangerous) nuclear reactors, and driven priceless turbine-powered antiques along restored motor roads.

Not everything that they saw was genuine; much had been lost during the centuries, for men seldom bother to preserve the commonplace articles of everyday life. But where it was necessary to make copies, they had been reconstructed with loving care.

Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke

Greg Bear’s Eon (1985) includes archaeologists and anthropologists as part of a much larger exploration team on its megastructure, but they remain peripheral to the story. Richard Morgan’s 2002 Broken Angels features an ‘archaeologue’ among its main characters, brought in to make sense of alien relics and eventually the megastructure that forms the plot’s central mcguffin. But she’s a mere sideshow to the author’s main interest – the mercenary squad escorting her. By contrast, Alastair Reynolds seems rather fond of archaeologists. Like alien megastructures, they appear fairly frequently throughout his works, and the two appear together most notably at the outset of his 2000 novel Revelation Space and in his novella ‘Diamond Dogs’.

Whether in hard or ‘soft’ SF, when archaeologists do appear, they’re often stereotypical, already old-fashioned figures. Some are dilettante authority-figures indulging their interest as a sideline to their main job (Norton in Rama, Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dan Sylveste in Revelation Space), recalling 19th– and early 20th-century European aristocrats, soldiers and businessmen in the mould of Augustus Pitt Rivers or Heinrich Schliemann. A few more recent parallels can be found, such as the military and political élite of the newly-independent Israel of the 1950s and 60s (Yigael Yadin being just the most famous of many), but for the most part this is an outdated cliché with little relevance to the highly-trained, professional and commercial world of modern archaeology (except, perhaps, that the perception of archaeologists as well-off hobbyists rather than struggling professionals may contribute to the ongoing problem of their wages being among the lowest of any graduate profession). It would be as if hard SF writers continued to offer a diet of Victorian-style gentleman scientists, amateurs expert in all disciplines who can knock up a time-machine in their potting sheds (cf. Charles Yu’s 2010 How to Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe).

Where they’re not posh dilettantes, SF’s archaeologists tend to be hyper-competent khaki-clad men and women of action who find time not only to stay knowledgeable about the fine details and mythology of every ancient culture they happen across (however obscure),  fluent – without having to resort to a painful afternoon in the library with a grammar and a lexicon – in the runes, glyphs or carvings of a hundred worlds’ ancient histories, but also to stay in prime physical shape and remain proficient with whatever weaponry may come to hand. Which brings us to the elephant in the room – an elephant sporting a battered brown fedora and carrying a bullwhip. Because nothing is more central to contemporary perceptions of archaeologists than Indiana Jones.


Indiana Jones witnesses an ancient alien flying saucer – The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Despite a wealth of documentaries and other factual series, including some which have become mainstream touchstones for archaeology themselves (Time Team, I’m looking at you), Indy remains the default image many have of the archaeologist: a rugged, desirable, all-action treasure-hunter whose life is a blur of exotic locations, dangerous traps and magnificent golden booty. His influence pervades everywhere from video games’ Lara Croft to the Doctor Who novels’ long-running archaeologist companion, Bernice Summerfield. The ingenious traps filling alien ruins in Big Dumb Object stories such as Alastair Reynolds’ ‘Diamond Dogs’ also owe more to Indy than to the realities of studying ancient structures.

At the start of this potted history I mentioned Prometheus as the second bookend of archaeological SF; not because I think it ends what Frankenstein began or because it’s anything like comparable in quality or influence; but because this recent example manages to incorporate pretty much every major aspect of archaeology’s interaction with SF. It’s a gothic horror; a retelling of Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’;  an ancient astronaut story; a Big Dumb Object story. Its clichéd archaeologists bear even less resemblance to their real-life counterparts than its scientists do to theirs. That it’s not very good speaks to the exhaustion of these clichés.


I love this portrait of Evans because it really seems to capture the wistful longing to believe in his peaceful, nature-loving Minoans. Truly a man who wants to believe.

The reasons why much of SF’s engagement with archaeology has been unsatisfying are, I think, bound up in what the two disciplines have in common: their complex blend of skills and disciplines. Balancing between science and art, imagination and evidence can be difficult to pull off. I’ve already alluded to the many SF authors who are fantastic at the world-building or science, but come a cropper in the more artistic realms of style, characterisation or story. Similarly, archaeology’s history is full of cautionary tales of diggers who found what they wanted to find and whose imaginative flights of fancy continue to colour our understandings of entire civilisations. Even today, over a century after excavations began at the ‘Palace of Minos’ at Knossos (and what a laden choice of name that was!), scholars are still trying to disentangle the reality of Minoan Crete from Sir Arthur Evans’ wish-fulfilment fantasy of a peaceful, nature-loving society of priest-kings and mother goddesses. The standing ruins of the palace visitable today are very largely Evans’ creation, cast in Edwardian concrete and obliterating many of the genuine remains.

Getting good at either archaeology or science fiction is no easy matter, and that difficulty extends to representation. Archaeology and its practitioners are often badly represented for the same reasons SF and its writers and fans are: unpicking the complexities of imagination and rigour, what’s good from what’s trash, is a process that requires care, experience and hard work. It’s not always easy for those without a solid grounding in the discipline to understand what should be taken seriously and what should not (see Kim Stanley Robinson’s scientifically very rigorous Red Mars for a surprise appearance by Evans-style Minoans). Often it’s easier for outsiders (and despite the overlap, SF-writers are generally not archaeologists) to go for easy cliché and stereotype.

Despite these shortcomings, science fiction tends to be popular among archaeologists. That’s partly down to the fact that field archaeologists tend to be young (it’s a punishing job to be doing every day into middle age and beyond…)but also, I hope I’ve shown, because they share certain skills, concerns and ways of looking at the world.

That was a long post – hopefully most of the others will be shorter – but it should tell you where I’m coming from and where this blog lives. If it sounds rather critical of how SF has depicted archaeology, it’s intended as loving criticism. Because the truth is, I love Indiana Jones as much as anyone else; I’m a sucker for 70s Doctor Who and I find the idea of Lovecraft (if not quite the prickly, problematic reality) fascinating. There’s a lot of very entertaining stuff out there, even if it’s silly and intellectually nonsense. Ancient Worlds is not averse to the silly, but from time to time, I hope it will also offer something a little bit more wholesome and satisfying in the space where science fiction and archaeology overlap.

5 thoughts on “Science Fiction and Archaeology: Part 2 – Grave-robbers, explorers and dilettantes

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