Sci-Fi Month 2014: Archaeology in Science Fiction

Posted 12 November, 2014 by Rinn in Sci-Fi Month / 19 Comments

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This post is part of Sci-Fi Month 2014, an event hosted by myself and Oh, the Books!. You can keep up to date by following @SciFiMonth on Twitter, or the official hashtag #RRSciFiMonth.

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.

I love you, Doctor, but I do not appreciate your tone.
I love you, Doctor, but I do not appreciate your tone.

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

Revelation Space Rendezvous with Rama

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

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

river song gif

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

Liara gif

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.

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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.


Have you ever encountered archaeology in science fiction? What did you think of how it was presented – did it seem plausible to you?

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19 responses to “Sci-Fi Month 2014: Archaeology in Science Fiction

  1. Fascinating topic! (even from a non-archaeologist p.o.v. πŸ˜€ )

    Past civilizations have always presented wonderful puzzles that just beg to be solved, be they from Earth’s own past (I remember a few short stories about people coming back to an abandoned Earth and discovering the remains of their past origins) or from a lost alien civilization.

    “Revelation Space” does indeed start with an archaeological mystery whose consequences reach into the story’s present: highly recommended! (and you can never go wrong with Reynolds). One of the most intriguing archaeological mysteries I encountered comes from Fredrick Pohl’s “Heechee Saga” (http://www.goodreads.com/series/49899-heechee-saga) in which humans discover abandoned alien gateways that can lead prospectors toward heaps of precious alien artifacts… or a horrible death. In short, *dangerous* archaeology! πŸ™‚
    Maddalena@spaceandsorcery recently posted…Farscape characters: Zhaan, D’Argo, Chiana

    • Thanks πŸ™‚ It really is something that goes well with science fiction.

      I will definitely be reading Revelation Space at some point, particularly seeing how much I enjoyed the last book of his that I read.

      Oooh I’d not heard of the Heechee Saga before – thanks πŸ™‚

  2. Anne

    I think archaeology is fascinating too! One series that I can think of that features archaeologists is Earth Girl. I’ve only read the first one, but it goes into a lot of details about the dig sites and is the most interesting part of the story.

    I too liked Prometheus, even though everyone else seems to hate it (Fassbender did help, you are right). There were some pretty dumb moves in that movie, but I still enjoyed the expedition to find the creators. And then find out that they kind of hate us. Whoops!

    Also, Mass Effect is on my list of games I want to start someday. It seems pretty awesome.

    • I’ve read Earth Girl, and yep I agree that’s the most interesting bit. Jarra, however, drove me INSANE. I hated her!

      Haha yay, another Prometheus fan! It’s silly and fun, right?

      DO IT MASS EFFECT IS AMAZING

  3. Way to go studying archaeology! I studied it in uni as well as part of my anthropological sciences specialist degree. Fascinating stuff, especially if you get to go on a few digs.

    So I guess I’m a bit biased as well, but I love it when I see archaeology in sci-fi, or in just about anything. A sci-fi YA series I can think of where archaeology plays a huge role is Janet Edwards’ Earth Girl series. You should check it out!
    Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum recently posted…Book Review: Daring by Elliott James

    • Oh really? I didn’t know that πŸ˜€

      I’ve read Earth Girl, I was so excited for it and actually met Janet Edwards last year – she even took part in Sci-Fi Month 2013. But oh my gosh, Jarra is one of the most annoying protagonists I’ve ever encountered. What a know-it-all, ugh…

  4. What a cool idea for a blog post! Somehow I’ve never noticed before just how often archaeology pops up in science fiction but you’re right, there’s an awful lot of it. It’s great to meet someone else who also didn’t hate Prometheus, too; I quite enjoyed it. πŸ™‚

    Mass Effect sounds like something I should check out.
    Jess Gofton recently posted…What’s Up Wednesday! | 12/11/14

    • Yep, I think it’s a great way to explore civilisations and build up some background πŸ™‚ Plus it’s just awesome.

      You should definitely check out Mass Effect. Everyone should. It’s my favourite game in the world EVER <3

    • I didn’t mind the archaeology in that. It was pretty cool (also why did I forget it for this list??). But the main character, as I’ve mentioned above, drove me insane πŸ™

    • Oh really? Well that one will be read soon, it’s one of the few physical copies of books I have here (although that is growing unintentionally…)

    • Yup, it’s pretty perfect for sci-fi! πŸ˜€ I actually went to a talk on archaeology in video games the other day, and Mass Effect was mentioned, yesss <3

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