Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Digging the Star Trek way

I awoke from a marking-induced stupor (10 minutes break from looking at 302 identical stratigraphic matrices had somehow morphed into 35 minutes on the sofa) to find that I was slumped face down in front of the television.

On the rare occasion this happens (and it is rare, I assure you) I usually awake to be confronted by some educational wonder such as Location Location Location or Move to the Country or 60 minute makeover or House Swap or some other property-related programme designed to make the viewer feel less secure about their own personal surroundings. This time, however, it was different, for my slumber had been interrupted by the musings of an intergalactic archaeologist fresh from digging a deep hole through the floor of a subterranean cavern on an alien world in a galaxy far, far away....

...this time it was an episode of Star Trek: the next generation and it was Captain Jean Luc Picard (and not a wildly gurning estate agent) who had rudely awakened me.

OK, so I'm not really much of a 'trekkie' / 'trekker', as a Dr Who fan I suppose I'm a 'Who-er' (though to be honest that doesn't sound all that complimentary - perhaps 'Whovian' is better) and I've never really understood the need of perfectly respectable members of society to suddenly don figure-clinging jump suits and facial prosthetics in order to leap around a conference hall yelling "it's life Jim, but not as we know it" or "set phasers to stun" or "the engines canna take it" or "ahead warp factor three" or "my genitals appear rather shrivelled and unappealing", but I don't object to the odd episode of Star Trek (and I certainly don't turn it off when it's on).

So there I was, confronted by a Starfleet captain and part-time exoarchaeologist digging a wacking great big hole through the stratigraphy of an alien world. Apparently he was looking for a "Tox Uthat" a weapon of extraordinary power that fell through time and whose arrival was foretold by the Vorgons....

....or something. I think I may have slept through a crucial plot element.

Anyway, what struck me most about the search for this particular archaeological artefact was just how random it all seemed. I may well have missed the part of the story when the Captain and his colleague, Vash (sounding uncomfortably like something you could catch from a dirty toilet seat), undertook a detailed documentary search of the intergalactic Historic Environment Record or the interplanetary Sites and Monuments listing or utilised the latest advance in subplanetarysurface detection - but to my untutored eye it looked as if they'd just found a cave and hurriedly dug a hole through the floor.


This is, of course, something that is not just peculiar to Star Trek, for the archaeologist in  all forms of popular culture apparently suffers from a surprising lack of modern equipment and technology, let alone strategy and tactics. Most archaeo-related fiction (or at least fiction where archaeology and archaeologists play a central role) has the excavator attempting to work with the bare minimum of equipment in the most rudimentary of conditions (and with scant regard for an kind of health and safety - though perhaps future safety legislation is less stringent than that of today).

Rather bizarrely, considering that scifi / pop culture archaeologists such as the good Captain Picard, are conducting fieldwork work in the distant future, the world of the contemporary archaeologist has, in contrast, benefited greatly from the latest technological and scientific advances, from geophysical prospection to Global Positioning via Virtual Reality. Look at any archeo-related-documentary and you'll see techno geeks with expensive kit doing mind blowingly complex things with machines that go 'ping' (or, more usually, 'bleep').

Fictional, futuristic pop culture archaeologists do not appear to use satellite technology. They do not have geophysical plots in order to help them locate their site or design their sampling strategy. They do not possess robotic excavators equipped with laser samplers. They do not own transmat beams or transportation devices in order to instantly teleport sensitive artefacts direct to the conservation laboratory on Pluto 5. They do not, in most cases, appear to have a compass, notebook or even pencil.

The pop culture exoarchaeologist, as evidenced by Star Trek, Doctor Who and others, seems to prefer working alone, or with the minimum of support, in narrow, irregular sized (and often dangerously deep) trenches, with, I might add, not a straight-sided section edge in sight. What do they teach at Starfleet Academy? Certainly the work of Mortimer Wheeler and other archaeo-luminaries of the 20th century would appear to have long since been forgotten, or more likely lost in some catastrophic war (with mutant cockroaches). Futuristic trenches (perhaps 'trench' is too kind a term - 'hole' seems more appropriate) are excavated in classic, randomly placed 'Battleships' game-style (in the vain hope of hitting something) - to be fair, however, this non-scientific approach does appear to work (well, this is fiction) as the exoarchaeologist is surprisingly good at finding wonderful things.

As the episode of Star Trek: TNG (or at least what was left of it) developed, I couldn't help but notice that the archaeology of the future had apparently taken one giant leap backwards. There was, it would seem, to be no new way of investigating deeply buried alien civilisations in this version of things to come; in fact the traditional shovel, spade and pick axe would appear to be the very height of the sophisticated futuristic archaeological tool repertoire. No fancy gismos; no techno-flimflams. Not even a sonic trowel.

It was the absence of the trowel, or indeed of any hand held tool smaller than a shovel, that perplexed me the most. It is the trowel, a tool so ubiquitous and beloved by archaeologists today, that is almost always absent from the expedition kit of the pop culture fieldworker. No modern archaeologist would be without one; no future archaeologist would, it seems, dare be seen with one (perhaps they were banned under some pan galactic armistice?). Without trowels, I wondered, just how did my futuristic colleagues clean up buried surfaces or unearth delicate objects?

Aside from the lack of useful equipment, the Star Trek team of two had not, I observed, actually recorded anything as they indiscriminatingly hacked their way through the sealed layers of their site (although that's an accusation that could be levelled at a number of archaeologists today). Worse, there were no cameras, 3D geospatial recorders, planning frames or individual context sheets. There were no notebooks, day books or dig diaries. No one was looking at artefacts (there were no finds trays) nor were they noting changes in soil colour or texture.

As the end credits rolled and I rose to reconnect with my marking, I shook my head in sadness. I dread to think what the timeline for publication of the Tox Uthat Project (TUP) is, but I do hope it doesn't take too long to compile, for I really look forward to seeing the final results... should make for an interesting read.


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