Friday, 15 April 2011

Extraterrestrial Archaeology: The 'Truth' is out there?

The possibility that there might be intelligent extraterrestrial life is probably one of the most potent concepts in modern popular culture. Large numbers of people want to believe, not only in the existence of aliens, but that those aliens have in some way shaped human development. This desire to ‘believe’ can be traced back to Giovanni Schiaperelli’s identification of canali (channels) on Mars in 1877. 

From that it was but a short step to H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds (1898) with its central theme of aggressive alien invasion. War of the Worlds has since become a global phenomenon, spawning a host of spin-off novels, films, television and radio series. In the western world, fear of the red planet became, during the 1950s and 60s, a metaphor for encroaching communism. With the phrase “watch the skies”, the word “Martian” became a synonym for everything that was alien, strange or to be feared.

The Martian invasions never came and throughout most of the 20th century the red planet remained curiously silent. The first probes sent by the inhabitants of earth were disappointing: Mars was empty and apparently sterile. If there were, or had ever been, life on the planet, it had not left a calling card.

This of course has not stopped people looking for extraterrestrials. The debate over the possible nature of fossil bacteria in samples of Martian meteorite rumbles on, as do discussions over the extent and nature of ancient river systems on the red planet. NASA photographs have been analysed, reanalysed, edited and distorted by a variety of different people and interest groups, some of whom claim evidence for monumental structures on the planet’s surface: pyramids, cities, road networks and, of course, the now infamous “face”.

Of course no one has yet been to Mars in person to collect soil samples and study the local topography. Despite the fact that NASA employs many geologists, biologists and palaeontologists, it does not as yet employ a single archaeologist. This may be because archaeology is the study of dead civilisations, and, to employ such a specialist would, by implication, suggest that there are indeed alien civilisations out there to be found. NASA has so far tried to distance itself from the various ufologists and alien theorists who regularly report evidence for so-called alien life. All the claims for extraterrestrial activity in our solar system have emanated from outside of the archaeological profession and, as a consequence, have been dismissed out of hand. No one, it seems, is yet prepared to examine off-world data, for fear of being labelled a “crackpot”.

As British archaeologist Keith Matthews has noted, there is a curious reluctance from within the scientific community to perform the necessary analysis required to support or refute the claims for alien life. In America, some archaeologists have suggested the creation of a new scientific discipline; namely off-world or exo-archaeology, arguing that professionals must be prepared, not only to respond to claims of extraterrestrial remains, but also to be actively involved in the search for them. Though research and training criteria for this new field of exploration have yet to be defined, there is clearly a need to apply rigorous archaeological methodologies to the study of distant worlds in order to objectively assess the many claims made for extraterrestrial intelligent life. 

In America, the 1996 annual Asimov seminar held in Hamilton, ran a mock training excavation designed to examine “artefacts from a hitherto unknown culture on Mars”. The project was only partly serious, but it raised many important questions concerning just how we humans would locate, investigate and interpret the remains of an alien intelligence.

These are the sort of training programmes and research projects that require serious consideration from within the scientific community. Finding alien life may look easy on Star Trek or Doctor Who, but the reality is that such exo-forms, should they exist, are unlikely to look much like human actors in rubber masks; they are unlikely to speak (or even understand) earth-based languages; they are unlikely to have left nice big monuments that show up clearly on remote satellite photography.

Archaeologists need to commit themselves to the debate, if only to refute the claims made by fringe scientists and seekers of the other. The “truth” may or may not be out there, but if attempts to search for or analyse extraterrestrial life are not set up by those scientists and field operatives working within the profession of archaeology and anthropology, then outlandish and wholly unsubstantiated theories concerning the existence of alien intelligences will continue to proliferate. 

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