Alien archeology – now a real science?

Concept sketch of Mars xenoarchaeological site from movie Total Recall. Credit: Steve Burg

Well, I’ve done it.  Making good on a promise I made to myself while presenting a poster at the Society of American Archaeology conference in 2008, I recently submitted an article to the journal Space Policy outlining a framework for a science that doesn’t quite exist yet: Xenoarchaeology.

“Xeno” is Greek/Latin for “foreign” or “stranger.”

Seriously.  I drew from SETI protocols, interplanetary geological sample return guidelines, archaeology fundamentals, and historical examples to make a call for a proactive set of xenoarchaeological guidelines.  My argument?  -The moment that we find something we think might be the real deal on another planet is the wrong moment to try and figure out how to study it correctly and credibly.  And we’ve got spacecraft and landers everywhere these days.  -It’s only a matter of time until we do cross over something that makes us double-take.

To paraphrase my general points in the paper, an archeological mindset is particularly well-suited to analyzing a site of truly unknown character, but there are planetary science landmines a regular archaeologist would be completely unprepared to dodge.  Gravity, temperature, chemistry, and electromagnetic environment can all be (and likely are) very different on another world, which will affect essentially every property of an object.  On Earth we can take all of those things for granted – the strength and effectiveness of friction, for example.  On Mars?  We had to completely redesign the drill bits used on our Mars rovers simply because the effectiveness of a cutting edge on Mars is only half what it is here on Earth because the atmospheric pressure is so low, which is in turn because the gravity is 1/3 weaker.  See what I mean?

If it walks like an arrowhead, and it talks like an arrowhead… it might not actually be an arrowhead on Mars.

So, that’s my stab at taking a scientific discipline out of the realm of science fiction and elevating it to reality.  -The paper made it favorably through editorial review, and I am waiting to hear back on comments from the peer referees.

My ulterior motive?  I really do believe it’s only a matter of time until we find something – and if I center myself in the burgeoning discipline, when we do find something (if I don’t happen to be the one who stumbles across it, myself)… they’ll have to call me.

Fingers crossed.

(NOTE, 10/2010:  The paper was accepted and published!  Find it here.)

(NOTE, 05/2011: See the follow-up post on article responses here!)

9 thoughts on “Alien archeology – now a real science?

    1. Steve,
      Let me know if you’d like a complimentary PDF – the paper takes a broad-strokes approach, but I’d be quite interested in any feedback you might have. If interested, message me at: mcgee at temporaldynamics dot org.


  1. Well I like the name, catchy. But we already have found “something” and many us us whom follow “alien archeology” have move well past “If” or “when” to what to do now. What are they saying? How can this change our perspectives of who we are and what our potential is. What our place is? Etc Etc.

    The proof is already here its just that the scientific community can seem to “believe” it. It is not in the form they are ready or willing to acknowledge.

    Take the Crop Circles for one example. Just saying those words to a scientist is enough to make them gag. They “know” they are hoaxes and so no matter how much science is complied on the subject, the scientific community still rejects it. So we (or at least the mainstream) stay in the dark.

    There are plenty of other examples with enough evidence both circumstantial and scientific as well. Evidence that would surly convict a murderer in a court of law, but still not enough to sway the belief system of the mainstream academics.

    With all due respect, we don’t need to travel to another world to find evidence of aliens. So when you are done rolling your eyes, take a moment and ask yourself what is it that I really know about the UFO sightings here on this earth? Take a closer look.


    1. Eric,

      You may not be giving me enough credit here. I was quite fascinated with UFOs and crop circles growing up, and did gain quite a bit of familiarity with the subject. So, on that note, I’d like to make two points.

      One: Let’s say for the moment that there is evidence on Earth of alien life. In that case, we still need a formalized means of studying it, and one that has the greatest chance of giving us good information. I’d say the principles I propose in my xenoarchaeology paper present a great way to do that. (e.g., using archaeological formalism to start making sense of any artifacts, taking extraterrestrial planetary chemical/gravity/electromagnetic environments into account when making assessments, etc.)

      Two: The paper is in review, so I know it isn’t available for reading yet. However, if you were able to read it, you would find that I identified three fundamental scenarios under which “xenoarchaeology” would be useful. Two of them take place off-world. The other, which I call “terrestrial interception,” includes things like sample return missions, asteroids, meteorites, and yes – by extension – any artifact that in some way comes to Earth. This would include scenarios that typify a “UFO encounter.”

      The trick with science is to not be fantastic. You (and the ideas you propose) have to be calm, collected, and controlled. Any grand statements you want to make are best made by constructing a foundation with small, verifiable and repeatable steps that make the larger statements practically foregone conclusions. Jumping straight to it only makes someone seem rash and excitable – and therefore someone prone to bad science.

      I would argue that UFO evidence would not convict a suspect “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” especially with such good crop circle teams (hoaxers?) out there that can make them in a single night with the rope-and-board method. Also, there have been so many hoaxes in the “UFO” field over the years that scientists stay away for fear of ruining their reputation (just like hunting for Bigfoot.) Things like that are what hold the academic community back. However, there are plenty of intriguing avenues of research that may be ripe for someone to come along and do something serious. (e.g., Alien astronaut theory, influence on historic/prehistoric human societies, etc.) I don’t know what your background is, but I encourage you to help be part of the solution to the problem you see. Think about putting together a small article on some of this stuff an submit it to a scientific journal (anyone can.) Think baby steps. If you can collect enough evidence to convince someone beyond the shadow of a doubt of something, as you say, and can organize it sensibly and thoughtfully, it’ll pass review and become part of the solution.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! – I’ll let everyone know if my xenoarchaeology paper is too “out there” to pass review muster (though I kept it really, really clinical/dry), and I look forward to hearing from you in there future should you want to discuss further!


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