Unstuck in Time – Science Fiction, Speculative Futures and Archaeological Imaginings

Posted on January 10, 2020


This is part of my series of posts on presentations I have filmed at conferences. This session comes from the TAG conference:

Session info

Science fiction and archaeology are a classic combination in popular culture – long before Indiana Jones’ Nazi foes unleashed the forces within the Ark of the Covenant there were dire consequences for investigating the Mountains of Madness, perils of unleashing demonic forces at the Devil’s Hump, and cautions on the limitations of anthro-centric interpretations in the classic novel Rogue Moon. Archaeology and science fiction make such comfortable bedfellows because of their common interest on constructing interpretations of human worlds – past, present, future, sideways – that are consciously and unconsciously mirrors of the present cultural and social mores, mired in the existing political and sociological constructs governing society. Both are mirrors for society’s ills and achievements, its hopes and dreams. Archaeologists construct pasts of human achievement, drive, ingenuity, warfare, cataclysm, and change; writers and artists create science fiction worlds out the same building blocks. Both the writer and the archaeologist, then, are unstuck in time. They take cues from the past, present, and speculative future to create something that belongs in none of those places and all of them at once – something that invokes a sense of belonging in the intended audience. They both weave models of the human condition, create snapshots of a human way of life that never did or will never exist, but that can be recognised, empathised and related to by the audience. This session is open to any interpretation on the theme of archaeology and science fiction. What is the future of the past? Whether that’s looking at depictions of archaeologists in popular culture, or how interpretations of the past are inspired by the way we hope the future will unfold, or how speculative advances in machine learning and automation move towards a science-fiction future where humans no longer need to act as archaeologists, we welcome creative approaches.

Organisers: Penelope Foreman (Bournemouth University) and Florence Smith Nicholls


The End of Eternity: The future of the past as a resource


Some science fiction has dated as technology catches up, but the final frontier (sorry!) is still time travel. Until we can directly observe the past, we will continue to interpret it from materials that persist in the present. Archaeological heritage management is based on the premise that we preserve the past for future generations, but what do we know of the future and their needs? The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov is first and foremost a love story between the main characters Andrew Harlan and Noys Lambent, but the backdrop to this romance is far more interesting! It is full of metaphors relating to how resource needs and tastes change between centuries, and the way the ‘reality’ of the past is constructed and manipulated. Andrew, like an archaeologist, observes different centuries as a ‘human being out of time’. In Eternity, the past is altered through ‘reality changes’ he makes, with documents held in Eternity’s library often being all that remains of redundant versions of the past. Contemporary archaeologists argue that archaeology is an important future resource, but with issues of storage in our own century and increasing need for disposal – will this resource make it into the future?

Sarah Howard (International Institute for Cultural Heritage, University of Birmingham)

‘A Veritable Collection of Erotomaniacs’: Archaeology, heritage and the post-apocalyptic museum


The museum has long provided an uncanny environment for sci-fi imaginaries. Objects come to life and wreak havoc on unsuspecting visitors, cursed artefacts lead to horrific murder, ancient horrors lie hidden in the dark recesses of the store room. The otherworldly atmosphere of the museum provides space for unsettling narratives that confront the ultimate unknowability of the world. Time and space are compressed in such settings, which seem to vibrate with an untapped potentiality. But what happens when the museum contains us, when the things dug up and put on display are from a world we claim to understand? This paper takes Chris Marker’s seminal short film La Jetée (1962) and Nicolas de Crecy’s graphic novel Glacial Period (2007) as starting points for a wider discussion of the post-apocalyptic rediscovery of the present. In these works, we are projected into futures where the natural, artistic, and archaeological collections of today act as powerful anchors for reawakening what have become long forgotten pasts. This has consequences horrifying and absurd: stuffed animals lead inadvertently to the saviour of humanity; sculptures debate their own worth; paintings devour arrogant archaeologists. Exploring themes of time travel, ruination, memory, and the terror of discovery, this paper will contribute to debates around the speculative nature of archaeology, and the implications of posthumanist thinking for the heritage field.

Colin Sterling (UCL)

Do Humans Dream of Analogue Sheep? The construction of memories in SF and archaeology


‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’ The past is a made thing, and those that make it can covertly or overtly create feelings of nostalgia, familiarity, fear, kinship; a range of powerful, and politically useful, emotional responses. Just as archaeological interpretations politicise the past, science fiction politicises the future. Then there is the nexus of these ideas – where science fiction presents the politicised past as a facet of our future. From Orwellian totalitarian parables to Philip K. Dick’s long-term grapple with the nature of consciousness, science fiction is used as a lens to explore the nature of how heritage and memory are used to generate an imagined time, of a toxic nostalgia that feeds into the base instincts of human behaviour. This paper will look at the constructed past, the imagined future, and the intricate construction of future-pasts, and how these are all used to manipulate the memory and generate emotive interaction with current, past, and future affairs.

Penelope Foreman (Bournemouth University)

The Power: Speculating on the female future of the past


Professor Naomi Alderman’s 2016 science fiction novel The Power details a ‘speculative dystopia’ in which women gain the power to electrocute at will, thus gaining physical dominance over men. The story itself is framed as a speculative account of that era written by a male researcher, including diagrams of both fictional and non-fictional archaeological artefacts. As archaeologists, we are worldbuilders. Using The Power as a primer, it will be argued that dismissing gender stereotypes and binary notions of gender identity allows for more nuanced and rigorous interpretations of the past. Furthermore, The Power invites us to speculate about the future of our own discipline which is becoming increasingly more dominated by women, and to interrogate the idea that such a future would inevitably be utopic or dystopic in nature.

Florence Smith Nicholls

Speculative Pasts: Archaeology, alternate history, and excavating trauma

When Xavier March, the detective in Robert Harris’s bestselling alternate history thriller Fatherland (1992) reaches the site of the Auschwitz extermination camp, he is forced to rummage in the undergrowth to find a few stray bricks as proof of the genocide that has been committed there. In this alternate history, the Nazis have been victorious in Europe and have hidden the evidence of their crimes. In this final scene March moves from the role of police officer to that of archaeologist, mirroring the dual-role of the reader as both detective and historian. Drawing predominantly on Harris’s Fatherland and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), this paper will examine the key prevalence of historical objects and archaeological imagery in alternate history, particularly examples centred on the Second World War, and will examine how alternate history, and its alternate archaeology, become a channel through which to uncover, examine, and communicate traumatic events such as the Holocaust.

Glyn Morgan (University of Liverpool

On Most Ancient Earth: The narrative role of stratigraphy and deep time in terrestrial science fiction


It is axiomatic that science fiction is about the present as much as the future, but this means it is also about the past: any fictional world needs a sense of history to make it a convincing setting. Just as the genre allows creators to experiment with future outcomes of present moments, it also makes use of the ways in which real past societies are understood to document that path to the future. These temporal permutations are particularly interesting in science fiction set on a distant future Earth, where ‘the archaeological’ is often a very powerful presence. This paper will explore how science fiction novels, comics, and games use archaeology, and particularly stratigraphy, to create tales of future pasts. I will triangulate some common themes and motifs from three case studies: the relatively near-future setting of 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd; the richly elaborated Terra of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, featured in the core game and numerous other media produced by Games Workshop; and the dying Urth of the Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe. These disparate creations across a range of media share ways of using ideas derived from archaeology to tell often-dark tales of our future Earth.

Andrew Gardner (UCL)

Archaeologies of a Future That Never Happened


The archaeological imagination shapes the public image of the past, but also ours. This happens in a context in which we look at the past thinking about the present (even from a traditional ethnoarchaeological approach), trying to understand our current selves better from the historical journey we have undertaken as species and societies. What if we could do that looking into the future? As well as we imagine the past, humanity has imagined the future in very different ways, but with a common basis and goal: how we want to be, or what will be of us if we do not change. Our imagination of the future portrays a dystopian image of our current selves that can go very well or, usually, very wrong. Most of them already belong to the past. Futures imagined decades ago for realities that we have already lived. Can an archaeological analysis of these futures that never happened help to understand who we are, what we want and, more interestingly for our professional development, how do we think of change and time? I will try to sketch out some lines on this issue with different examples from paper and screen.

Jaime Almansa Sanchez (JAS Arqueologia S.L.U)

Ballard in the Bronze Age? Writing otherness in past and future narratives


The tropes of literary science fiction and archaeology (particularly prehistory) are closely connected: as the session abstract has it, archaeologists and science fiction writers construct past and future worlds out of the same social and cultural building blocks. Science fiction authors have sometimes written about the prehistoric past (or analogous cultures) with more engaging results than archaeologists! But there are different modes of science fiction, just as there are different types of archaeological narrative. Perhaps we can equate processual and post-processual approaches in archaeology respectively with ‘hard’ science fiction, seeking to extrapolate and understand the consequences of particular technological developments, and the ‘new wave’, which aimed to unsettle human experience of the world and explore other viewpoints and states of mind. Just as the ‘material turn’ in archaeological theory has served to reconcile elements of processual and post-processual approaches, this paper will suggest that both types of science fiction offer lessons for writing narratives of prehistory that seek to convey both the materiality and otherness of the past. It will also attempt to be moderately entertaining.

Jonathan Last (Historic England)

Inverted Worlds: Where archaeology and science fiction meet


My title reflects that of a novel by Christopher Priest concerning a community transported to a universe where physics works differently: while our universe is infinite and contains finite objects, this universe is finite but contains in it objects of infinite size. The novel charts the process by which the community maintains its existence against forces which will destroy them. Of course it is not as simple as that and the resolution provides answers to all the questions raised. Archaeology and science fiction share key attributes. The products of both are written. Both explore difference and alterity. And at root both concern the present rather than the past. While dystopian tales of the future and utopian visions draw upon trends in the present to provide warnings or hope, archaeologists construct visions of the past out of present conceptions. But more than this: science fiction writers are committed to exploring other ways of living; and archaeologists in past and present have sought to use interpretations of the past to provide models for human society. This paper will draw upon some favourite examples of science fiction writing to develop their parallels with the project of archaeology.

John Carman (University of Birmingham)

‘Dream Not of Today’: Archaeology in Star Trek: The Next Generation


As the study of past cultures and the study/assumed stories of humanity’s future, archaeology and science fiction are far from being mutually exclusive. In fact one wonders what would an archaeologist of the future do? Would he excavate our own planet, Earth, or would human archaeologists travel to and work on other planets to study and help excavate alien cultures? The ‘What If’ train of thought (or should that be ‘starship of thought’?) is endless. True to Star Trek’s canon of future staff organisation, efficiency, research, and learning, every Starfleet vessel is allocated its own so-called ‘A&A Officer’ in the 23rd century (which would be, truth be told, my ideal job): this is a specialist researcher in the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and ancient civilizations. Galaxy-class starships, such as the Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) even have their own archaeology lab. However, just like in today’s world, there is also a darker side to archaeology: the exploitation of ancient sites, human and alien, and the illicit trade of antiquities, either for reverence or money. While in the Star Trek canon, the human ‘archaeologist’ and former member of the Federation Archaeology Council, Vash, portrays the ‘dark side’ of archaeology, i.e. the illicit trade and exploitation of sites without much conscience or care for present cultures and their right to ownership of their own past, Picard and his crew are bound to the Prime Directive which of course prohibits meddling with cultures and stealing artefacts for profit. However, even Picard, when helping at a dig on Marlonia during a holiday away-trip, was allowed to take away some cookware found at the site – one can’t help but wonder if he had to apply for an export license! This paper will explore how archaeology is looked at by TV series created to give us an idea of our future. The paper will discuss how archaeologists of both human and alien cultures might fare, hypothetically, using examples from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Dot Boughton (Tullie House Museum)

Chap with the Wings… Aldbourne, Science Fiction and Archaeology


In April 1971 the BBC blew up the church of St Michael in Aldbourne, Wiltshire. This formed the climax to the Dr Who story, The Daemons, still regarded as one of the Doctor’s best outings. Like many Science Fiction stories throughout the history of the genre, The Daemons also brings together Science Fiction and Archaeology. In the first episode, curmudgeonly archaeologist Professor Horner (Robin Wentworth) opens a chambered tomb, releasing an ancient alien being, Azal. The tomb was ‘played’ in the series by the second of four Bronze Age barrows in a group located just outside the village. In this paper I want to use The Daemons and Aldbourne as the starting point to explore the relationship between Archaeology and Science Fiction. Why have excavations and ancient monuments been attractive tropes for science fiction writers from Les Ruines de Paris en 4875 (Albert Franklin, 1871) to Revelation Space (Alistair Reynolds, 2000)? Drawing in part on H G Wells’ (1902) essay ‘The Discovery of the Future,’ I want to suggest that the two fields are, in a sense, mirror images of one another.

Paul Graves-Brown

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