Simply put, archaeology is one of the most amazing fields of study and career paths ever. And I am not at all biased here. Okay – well maybe a little bit. I am so happy that I made the decision to study it alongside ancient history, because I know that I’m definitely on the right track to the career that I want. Every time I read a book or watch a film that features archaeologists, I do a little cheer in my head for my fellow lovers of the ancient.
One thing I have noticed is that archaeology seems to crop up a lot in science fiction. Whether it is used as a form of exposition to explain the history of a planet or civilisation, or forms a major plot point such as the uncovering of an ancient terror, I love to read about it. Sometimes it makes me cringe and want to throw the book/TV/whatever across the room because UGH SO INCORRECT (one time I saw a series where they wanted to do dendrochronology on a bone, it’s used for TREE RINGS), and other times I wish I had access to all that crazy future archaeological technology. Within science fiction it is often referred to as ‘xenoarchaeology’.
So, where have I spotted archaeology in science fiction?
Archaeology in books
Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space opens with the excavation of a 900,000 year old civilisation on the planet Resurgam. The evidence discovered reveals a lot more than was previously known, and the archaeologist directing the excavation soon becomes involved in a rather complicated and dangerous plot. I haven’t read this particular Reynolds book so cannot comment on the archaeology, but since I loved House of Suns so much, it’s definitely on my radar.
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke is another prominent example of archaeology in science fiction. Set in 2130s, it follows a group of explorers who must intercept a spaceship (nicknamed ‘Rama’) hurtling through the solar system towards Earth. I actually managed to pick up a copy of this one at an archaeological book sale a few weeks ago.
Archaeology in film
Prometheus is one of my favourite films, despite being rather silly, because SPACE ARCHAEOLOGY AND AWESOME TECHNOLOGY (and Michael Fassbender doesn’t hurt either…). It follows two archaeologists who are following a pattern they have discovered: the same images, of what they believe to be extraterrestrial life, reoccurring in many ancient cultures, thousands of years and miles apart. Together with their crew, they follow the ‘star map’ and discover a planet – with obvious signs of civilisation.
Archaeology in Prometheus is mostly just used to get the plot rolling, and give the crew a reason to start their mission. Their treatment of artefacts is questionable (shoving extra-terrestrial remains into a bag without any care) and techniques lacking (no apparent planning), but the technology is pretty amazing. A tool that allows you to instantly date something, without having to wait an age for carbon 14 results to come back? Yes please.
Archaeology on TV
UGH RIVER I LOVE YOU. I think the most obvious example of an archaeologist in a science fiction TV show is River Song from Doctor Who. We never get to see her showing off her Professor of Archaeology skills, but she got into archaeology so she could track the Doctor through time and studied at Luna University. Unfortunately, the Doctor doesn’t care much for archaeologists, which makes me sad. I just love that she is such a badass: smart, witty, quick on her feet and also a pretty damn good shot. I’m going to put that all down to her being an archaeologist, and having nothing to do with her being a child of the TARDIS. Definitely.
Archaeology in video games
Oh would you look at that, my favourite video game series ever also features archaeology. Mass Effect centres around the discovery of ancient Prothean civilisation and artefacts, and Liara T’Soni is an Asari archaeologist with expert knowledge on the subject. She joins your crew in the first game, where you can speak to her in her super high tech laboratory aboard the Normandy. There is also a mission set on an archaeological excavation. AND THE GAME ADDRESSES THIS SUPER ANNOYING COMMON OCCURRENCE:
Garrus: So Liara, ever dug up – what do humans call it – a dinosaur?
Liara: No. Dinosaurs and other fossils would be paleontology. I’m an archaeologist. I study artifacts left by sapient species. The two fields are completely different. And… you were joking…?
Garrus: A bit. But at least you’re catching on these days.
Archaeology appears in so many more areas of science fiction, but I just wanted to discuss a few. Sometimes it’s accurate, sometimes the author/writer obviously has no idea how archaeology even BEGINS to work, and occasionally you find a future fictional archaeological development that you hope will become fact one day. It’s a field that can lend a lot to science fiction, allowing the history of past alien cultures to be set out easily.
What do I like most about archaeology in science fiction? The fact that it is still a thriving area of research and work in these future civilisations. There will always be more history for us to dig up, especially if we are able to do it on other planets – and that’s an exciting thought.