5 mins read 14 Sep 2020

How to Do Archaeology in Space!

Australian space archaeologist Alice Gorman has co-authored a new paper as part of an international collaboration to study the International Space Station.

The International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

If you thought archaeology was down-to-Earth, then you would be wrong. An exciting new paper is looking into ways we can conduct archaeological studies of the International Space Station (ISS). Published by Alice Gorman and Justin Walsh, this article details the challenges of studying such an environment, and possible ways that we can adapt current archaeology methods to space. 

Associate Prof. Dr. Alice Gorman from Flinders University in Adelaide, also known as Dr. Space Junk on Twitter, said that conducting an archaeological study of the ISS can provide useful information for future space missions.

“The ISS is our only chance in the present to learn something about how space societies constitute and maintain themselves - and looking at the material culture is a big gap in all the research that has been done before. For longer term missions which can't get supplies from Earth, it's going to be really important to understand how people adapt objects to unintended uses when materials are scarce. A big concern is social dynamics in small, enclosed communities. There have been many, many psychological studies, but none so far on how objects can support or undermine social cohesion - anyone who's ever lived in a student share house will get this!” said Gorman. 

What is Space Archaeology?

Archaeology is conducted in order to learn more about the things that people do or have done through material culture and remains. When considering archaeology, you may immediately think of stone tools, ancient Egypt, or people generally digging in a pit of dirt. 

However, the relatively new field of space archaeology challenges these assumptions about the limits of archaeology. In studying the archaeology of outer space we can try to understand what kind of social and cultural phenomena are occurring, which may help us in planning future missions.

ISS Archaeological Project

This new project from Gorman and Walsh is the first of its kind in conducting an archaeological study of the ISS, which is representative of the current phase of the human exploration of space. The research conducted so far can be found on a dedicated Twitter account, a website (which also has merchandise), and in a new paper. 

When asked about the most interesting object on the ISS from an archaeologist’s perspective, Gorman said, “I find mundane, everyday objects to be the most interesting - even when I was a terrestrial archaeologist I wasn't very interested in palaces and opulent grave goods. If you look at almost any photo of the interior of the ISS, you'll soon spot my favourite space artefact: the humble ziplock bag. Probably millions of these have been used on the ISS over 20 years! I'm interested in how they are used, discarded, adapted to new uses by the crew”.

This latest paper outlines the difficulties in carrying out archaeology in space - namely the multi-million dollar price tag that would be involved to send an archaeologist into space - and how to counteract these obstacles.

A Methodology for Space Archaeology

In their paper, Gorman and Walsh have developed a methodology to conduct archaeological research of outer space. This builds upon the skills and practices utilised by archaeologists on Earth, but is adapted to be better applied to the unique environment of space, and specialised for the ISS. These methods include: 

  1. Analysing the many images taken by the crew to draw connections between the crew, spaces, and objects within the ISS 

  2. Interviews and questionnaires with crew members

  3. Developing procedures for crew members to conduct archaeological surveys on the ISS on-site themselves 

  4. Researching and investigating the cargo that has returned from the ISS

  5. Researching and investing sites on Earth that are related to the ISS, such as launch and development sites 

These methods are hoped to bring about a better understanding of the social and cultural patterns and practices aboard the ISS, and therefore provide useful information for planning future missions to outer space. 

Gorman said the biggest difference in space archaeology is the use of photography. “Photography is a core archaeological skill - we use photographs to document environments, stratigraphy, artefact characteristics, and spatial layouts. But usually this is to augment the data derived from measuring and recording in the field, whether that's an excavation or survey. For the ISS, photos are our main evidence. We are 'excavating' the images in a sense, looking for repeated associations and patterns over time,” she said.

Dr. Space Junk

This is far from the first time that Alice Gorman has contributed to the field of space archaeology. Last year, Alice released a book about space archaeology called “Dr Space Junk vs the Universe”, where she talks about her journey to space archaeology, zip-ties, and the sources of cultural material scattered throughout our solar system. Earlier this year, in the midst of the COVID lockdowns, Alice also produced a twitter course about space archaeology, its history, and its use.

To learn more, read the full article