Boldly taking archaeology into space

Finding ways to ways to preserve historic space sites has resulted in Flinders University’s “Dr Space Junk” Associate Professor Alice Gorman and Associate Professor Justin Walsh of Chapman University in California winning the Archaeological Institute of America’s (AIA) 2023 Award for Outstanding Work in Digital Archaeology.

Taking archaeology techniques into space, the duo designed a digital archaeology project on the International Space Station (ISS) to study the material culture of a place through images. This not only involved objects and built spaces but also the human relationship to those items—meaning the relationship between people and objects, objects and spaces, and people in space.

Associate Professor Alice Gorman

Associate Professors Gorman and Walsh developed a project sponsored by the ISS National Laboratory in which astronauts photographed certain areas on the International Space Station at specific intervals. The researchers then used the photographs to see how the astronauts use the tools and spaces.

They also used the photos to train software that could help them identify objects in photographs more easily. This software can also be used in archaeological studies in other remote areas, such as Antarctic research stations or submarines, to help researchers learn about those environments.

This investigation was recognised as the first archaeological study ever performed off planet. Through understanding how astronauts use tools and work on the ISS, the researchers hope that data collected could help design future spacecraft and habitats to explore the Moon, Mars and beyond.

To do the study, the research team had the crew mark off a 1-meter-square space at five different sites in the ISS and photograph each “test site” at the same time each day, to study how things changed over time. These types of test site spaces are also used on Earth to help archaeologists in the field to study excavation sites.

The Archaeological Institute of America’s (AIA)  is the oldest and largest archaeological organisation in North America, and its 2023 awards were presented at a ceremony held in New Orleans during January.

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