Dr. David G. Anderson of the University of Tennessee Knoxville joins us to day to share his expert knowledge on science fiction and archaeology.
I’m very excited to be here today with Dr. David Anderson. He’s a professor of archaeology at the University of Tennessee. And a long time ago we used to work at the same company and we did one little project together where we both learned a lot of stuff. And, David is a noted archaeologist and a prolific publisher and an expert on science fiction. I consider myself somewhat of an expert and he showed me a bunch of books and sci-fi that I’ve never seen and I wanted to talk to him about his knowledge of archaeology, books, and movies. Welcome, David.
Glad to be here, John. Great to be participating in this great series.
Yeah. And, I’m excited to have you in it because I think you’ll bring a lot to it. David, can you first give us a little bit of your archaeological background so we can just, so the audience can know what you’ve, where you’ve come from?
Sure. Well, I’ve been a professor at the University of Tennessee for the last 15 years in Knoxville, Tennessee. And, but before that, I worked for 15 years with the National Park Service in the regional office and at the Southeast Archeological Center in Tallahassee with you in fact with John Cornelison. And, the little project John’s referring to, were five fields seasons, four field seasons plus a shorter one of a week or two at the Shiloh Indian Mound group in western Tennessee. So, John and I spent 14, 14 or 15 months in the field together on Shiloh over several field seasons. and I enjoyed working for the park service. Before that, I went to high school in Baldwin County, Georgia, Milledgeville, Georgia. And then went to school [Case Western Reserve and] got a bachelor’s degree in archaeology. In 1972, I worked in the southwest, then went back to the southeast and started doing archaeology in the southeast and South Carolina.
Got a master’s at the University of Arkansas later in the 70s and did CRM for a quite a number of years until 1988 when I went to work for the [National] Park Service. In between and
Thank you. Well, David, what was I gonna say? Oh, could you tell us a little bit about a couple of the books you’ve written and your expertise on that?
Well, with my colleague Ken Sassaman and I’ve put together an edited volumes on Paleoindian and Early Archaic archaeology in the southeast and on the mid-Holocene archaeology of the southeast. I’ve done another edited volume with Bob Mainford on the Woodland southeast. And then Ken Sassaman, and I about five, six years ago, wrote an overview of southeastern archaeology Recent Developments in Southeastern Archaeology. I’ve also written about 45 or so other books. And monographs on archaeology, most of the southeast, and then a couple of hundred papers that appear in technical journals, state archaeological society journals, regional societies, all the way up to the national journals.
But you lift up the muses book.
Oh, Ancient Muses: Archaeology and the Arts. Yes. I had a chapter in there on archaeology in science fiction and mysteries,
A prolific writer and an expert on science fiction. Fantastic. Well, David, I’m going to ask you the hardest question first and then I’m going to let you think about it a little bit and maybe we can come back to it, but I kind of have an idea in my mind that archaeologists look at the cultural, look at the human remains, the remains of human activity and try to predict the past. Science fiction looks at what we have now and tries to predict the future. And I wanted to kind of get into the parallels of these two opposites, but I want to come back to the that, I want to ask you a few easier things before we get going.
Okay, Oh, I’m happy to explore that question. If you want, I’ll give you a quick start on it right now.
Okay. That would be great.
Science fiction, actually, there’s a lot of science fiction with archaeological themes associated with it. Think Stargate  for example, so that’s a movie of course or Indiana Jones. So, science fiction looks back to the past as well as to the future and [in] archaeology we’re understanding the past, we’re learning about the past, but we also are very interested in the present and the future. Understanding why societies, did very well, lasted a long time, is very important to us. How climate change affected societies in the past is very important for us in the present and moving forward.
We’re living in a period of dramatic global climate change. So, knowing how our ancestors reacted, dealt with those situations is tremendously important. So to me, science fiction and movies about archaeology is a great form of entertainment, but it’s also, you know, a good, good way to, to provide alternate ways of thinking about things. Some people say that some archaeology as closely related to science fiction or fiction. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’ll leave that up to my colleagues.
Okay. Well, that’s a pretty good answer. Let me just jump back in time. Can you go back to when they were going to cancel “Star Trek “ the first time and talk about that, that little episode in your life?
Well, basically, I was a fan of “Star Trek “ in the 1960s. I graduated from high school in 1967, which was the year of the first season of “Star Trek “. And I actually wrote the show, you could back then and before they even became commercial and started selling things, they would send their fans little packets of appreciation and I got a first season script, “Balance of Terror,” The first time the federation meets the Romulans and I have that script and I still show it every now and then to colleagues. So, I love “Star Trek.“ There was an effort to cancel it after the second season. They had a lot of people from my time we’re involved in writing petitions, to try to save the show and it was saved but only for one more season. But it’s still going strong. There are new shows all the time. I love the new movies that have appeared and, I suspect “Star Trek” to be going for a lot longer than, most of us will.
yeah. Well, I got two things to say about that. First. You’ve never shown me that script. Okay. Second off, “Star Trek” has a real kind of an archaeology bent to it, with the, you know, Picard being an amateur archaeologist and exploring cultures. And so, I know that kind of plays into what we’re talking about here. I don’t know, I guess it really wasn’t a question that was more like a statement. What do you think is probably the, most important science fiction movie because this is a movie podcast. So what do you think of all the movies that have made been made, do you think it’s 2001 [A Space Odyssey] or is it something else?
Well in terms of science fiction movies or SF movies that have had an impact on society, you could go all the way back to Metropolis  Fritz Lang. Of course. 2001 is the critic’s choice; it had breathtaking views. It was very realistic for the time that was 1968 when it came out. Arthur C. Clarke ideas of, going into space might lead to transcendent experiences, changes in human evolution. A lot of science fiction in the movies is just great fun and entertainment. that, for example, Star Wars, of course, I, in terms of archaeology and in science fiction, there’s always, of course, Indiana Jones. That’s the movies that all archaeologists know about and while none of us would ever get tenure at a university if we behaved like that, Indiana Jones did a climbing out of windows to avoid students and never showing up for class.
Plus we wouldn’t live very long given the kind of episodes, the adventures he had. Those movies did a lot for archaeology, 40 years ago when they first started coming out. Oh, there’s a lot of quotes that people like to use from those movies. Like “If you want to be an archaeologist, you’ve got to get out of the library.” I think that was from the recent movie. So, that’s a great movie. And then, of course, there are other movies and TV spinoffs from them, like Stargate , which is not the way ancient Egyptian, history or archaeology has [documented] the past. But it’s still great entertainment. And if people watching those shows say I wonder how they know those things. Well, then that can be a good thing as well.
Kinda plays into a popular opinion that they, that nobody, in the past could make something as complex as a pyramid. So we have to find some other kind of elaborate excuse for why it’s there, like ancient aliens.
Right. Space Aliens are the explanation now for things we don’t understand. And that’s, that’s kind of demeaning to humanity because, when we study monumental architecture, we find that there are, we find that there are ways that the people at the time could have, could have built pyramids, created the line drawings in the plains of Peru, the Nazca line drawings, [and] could have erected the statues at Easter Island. And that these, required a tremendous ingenuity, but certainly not beyond the capability of people like ourselves.
Right. If we just didn’t have cable television, we could go out and build a hinge or two. Right.
Well, I, I say that the reason we love television and movies so much is we’ve spent a half million years staring into fires, so we’re programmed to stare at bright moving lights when there’s darkness around us. So, I think the fascination we have with TV is in part, you know, it’s because it was
Okay. Well, you mentioned a, a Metropolis and Fritz Lang, well, that’s a deep reference. I wanted to go back to Forbidden Planet and get
Well, a Forbidden Planet, of course, you know, [produced] about 1957, it is an incredibly good movie for its’ time. The special effects are remarkable. The plot is based on one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays “The Tempest.” But you don’t need to know that to really enjoy the movie. It also has very impressive plot characteristics… That the inhabitants of this world, Altair IV, I believe it was, that the spaceship Bellerophon if I’m remembering this correctly, lands on basically, they had created a machine 20 miles on a side that would allow their thoughts to be transformed into action. And, they were a civilization far beyond anything that we can conceive of ourselves, now, but that perhaps we might be someday. And what happened was, is that, their primordial instincts. The monsters from Id as the way they phrased it in the movie, were unleashed by this machine and in a single night destroyed the civilization.
No doubt about it. I’m going to jump, I’m going to jump way forward. Michael Creighton movie time
Timeline, I believe, Yes, Timeline.
The book and a movie and actually featured archaeologist then when they got back about half the stuff they figured was wrong. And, what do you think about that, that portrayal of, you know, not knowing how the armor worked and not knowing how many keeps were on the drawbridge and,
Well, actually I think that’s quite true. I think we [as archaeologists] do a remarkable job with very small samples, limited information, but we use multiple lines of evidence, lots of different scientific disciplines to understand the past. But I jokingly tell my students, we don’t do dinosaurs. We don’t do space aliens. We don’t have time travel. And if we did, I suspect a lot of our interpretations would have to be changed, but not tremendously. I think we get things right in the big picture, but, you know, the details, yeah, I mean you really need to live those experiences. And what we’re trying to do is reconstruct past lives, to understand who the people of the past were, how they live, why they, the way they live, why they did the things they did. And that’s tough when we’re dealing with, you know, the tiny, minuscule remains the small fragment of a past that survives to the present in many cases. Well, I think we do a pretty good job, in spite of that.
Okay. Well, I’m too, I’m going to throw it open to you a little bit right now to let you bring up any movies or books you want to talk about it about,
Okay. well, Icehenge is one of my favorite science fiction novels. It’s by Kim Stanley Robinson, and it’s about, how archaeology is done. In part, the protagonists are archaeologists, at least in the latter two parts of the book. It’s a three-part book. The first is an accounting of; basically, it’s the journal of somebody who was involved in the, in the Martian war for independence from the 23rd century. Mars was trying to free itself from Earth. They succeed, but not the way they had hoped. And a relatively, a dictatorship type of society takes over. So the past is then being reinterpreted in the second part of the book by an archaeologist in the 26th century who’s excavating the site of New Houston where the last battle of the war for independence was fought.
And he’s determining that, well, the past isn’t exactly the way it was written by the victors. So it’s interesting about how archaeology can help us better understand the past. And then the third part of the book is a couple of generations later, a young archaeologist is proving this person who made the great discoveries a century earlier is wrong. And a lot of ways. So it’s a younger generation showing how the old-timers, you know, I got some of it right, but we can do it better now. And, the story, Icehenge, just kind of a peripheral part of it because, in the journal, written by one of the participants in the Martian war for independence, they realize they’re losing, they’re going to be, they’re going to lose, so they build a starship and launch it.
And, on Pluto by the 25th century, a henge of ice has been found with the year 2248 [on it], which is the year of the Martian revolution. So, the younger archaeologist is trying to determine was this henge put up by the starship crew before they left the system? And like all great archaeological adventures or stories or work, they don’t, they don’t ultimately know the answer. They don’t find the answer. But what they do is they learn a lot in the process about what might’ve happened in the past. And, there’s a very memorable line. Like, two of the archaeologists are talking, and they’re saying, what, what do you think happened here where this ice henge was built? And [one] says, I think more things happened here than we can imagine. And the other one says, well, are you comfortable with that?
You know, not knowing everything? And the other, the first archaeologist says, well, yes. We have to accept that we may not know everything about the past, but we’re learning a lot as we move along. And that to me is very satisfying. I mean, just seeing the changes, what we’ve learned, the new discoveries that are happening all the time in our field is, makes it very exciting. I mean, almost every day there are new articles coming out, that just talk about, for example, hybrids between Neanderthals and Denisovans in Asia, different, different members of our human lineage that have appeared that we didn’t even know existed 10, 15 years ago. So that’s pretty exciting. But getting back to movies, a little bit. One thing I did want to, put in a plug for was that a lot of the movies like Indiana Jones that we see, or Laura Croft Tomb Raider, they’re great entertainment, but there are about finding things and treasure.
It’s typically treasure. They portray archaeology not as archaeology really is to my mind–yes, we’d like to find things, but we’d like to find things out more. And those movies are about finding treasure with the archaeologist as the hero. But what archaeology is really about is about understanding the past, providing voices to people who lived in the past, making their story known. And those are the people who are the heroes of our stories or should be, not the archaeologists themselves. Yes, we have a great life doing what we do, but our role is to be a voice for the literally millions or billions of people that have lived before us because we’re the only ones, that have the resources, the ability, the tools to bring their lives back in many ways, their stories back to life. Well, I think what we do is tremendously important. but it’s hard to convey that in, a movie. But it is what we try to do as well. Yes, we like to find things, but we’re interested in finding out what shaped our world, how those people lived their lives. So, sorry to go on about that. I want it to make that message clear.
No, that’s great. I think I’m going to clip that out and put that on YouTube later. Give that its’ own special thing. Okay. So, we’re getting up around thirty minutes, and so I just want to ask you a couple more questions, and the one is, okay, I don’t have it on the list, but I’m just a free forming here. If you had one science fiction movie that you could introduce your class too, you know, to try and help them understand archaeology, what movie would you show them? Just not an Indiana Jones, but a real sci-fi movie.
Well, this isn’t science fiction, but it’s historical fiction, and it’s Finding Altamira (2016). That came out about three years ago [starring] Antonio Banderas. It’s about the discovery of the Altamira cave paintings, in the last third of the last century, about 1860s, 1870s. It’s a remarkable movie because it shows that when cave paintings were first found, it wasn’t conceived possible that people could have made such remarkable [art] objects. And indeed, this is a movie that we show to our classes. Just in the last two months, it’s been shown to two different classes at my university, because it talks about how archaeologists do science, how we understand the world, how we try to come up with evidence and support of conclusions. And Altamira is, of course, the very famous story of an antiquarian and archaeologist of the time, [Marcelino Sanz de ] Sautuola who was exploring in a cave and his daughter, [who] walked deeper into the cave with a lantern.
And she got through a little narrow passageway. And she came back crying “Toros, Toros,” [bulls, bulls!]. And her father went back with her and were remarkable polychrome cave paintings on the ceiling, and rich, vibrant colors. And, the environment had preserved them to the point where you could touch them in the paint would come off! So, it took many years for the professional archaeological community to accept that those were real of, hadn’t been forged by this person, faked by him. And it wasn’t until other discoveries like that were made, in the decades after, in places like France, of course, that, that it came to be accepted. So that’s a wonderful movie for how it takes time for unusual ideas to be accepted, how science works, and it’s a great story. You know, in terms of science fiction movies that deal with archaeology, I view a lot of them as entertainment.
There are a lot of great books about archaeology with science fiction themes. I think I advise anyone to read just about anything Vernor Vinge, has written, or Jack McDevitt in particular, Jack McDevitt has written close to 20 books on how archaeology is practiced in the future. Because when people go out into space, they find that in a universe, 13 billion years old, most of the civilizations have long gone and it requires archaeologists to understand them. So those books are wonderful, and I recommend them very highly. That’s Jack McDevitt, and then, Vernor Vinge [that’s V.i.n.g.e.] has written “A Fire Upon the Deep,” which is about archaeologists unlocking a computer virus in a data archive that’s billions of years old. And it basically is how to unleash a program that I call it the computer virus, that ate the galaxy, I mean, it causes havoc before it’s stopped.
So those are good books. And you know, I love Stargate . I
It’s a different kind of place. Well, you know, I’m, I’m listening to the NASA Houston. We have a podcast that NASA series. They haven’t recruited any archaeologist yet. So, at one time, I thought I may be an archaeologist who would go out into space and do this, but that person is maybe not born yet because we are way down the list.
That’s true. I was a little jealous of all one of our colleagues did
Well, David, that’s great. Do you have anything that you’re working on right now that you’d like to plug a book or anything that, do you want to get out to the public and, let them know about?
Well, one of the things that I and my colleagues are doing, if
So that’s something that we’re using archaeology to help people plan for the future. We need to be thinking about not just moving houses, or the Cape Hatteras lighthouse or eventually, things like the Washington Monument and so on. I mean, those are things that’ll come down the line, perhaps. They’re at about 50 feet, the White House and the Washington Monument, and are okay there for a while. But we need to be thinking about our history and our past when we plan for moving forward. So that’s one of the things I’m working on. And of course, I’m working on books and papers all the time about southeastern archaeology. And climate change is, it’s a big issue, I’ve been interested in it for a very long time. And, I think it’s important moving forward. I think archaeology has tremendous reference or relevance for people. It may seem hard to believe, but , it’s great entertainment, you can tell that from the movies.
Oh right. Well
Thank you. And to quote from The Right Stuff, a line [from a movie] that you really liked, you are one of the best archaeologists I know. You know that Gordo says “who’s the best pilot you ever saw?” Well, I know that you’re one of the best archaeologists I’ve ever seen. You know, when there are a few others out there too, but it’s a pleasure to, work with you on this.
Well, you too. Well, thank you very much.