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Archaeologies of the Near Future

Jim Leary

Cover art via Craiyon AI with the prompt, ‘future archaeology on mars’. ‘Perfect Edition’ epub template by Robin Sloan.

Future Archaeologies

In the following essays I imagine the role of archaeology in the year 2223 of the Common Era, and I invite you to do the same. To project yourselves, not into the past, as archaeologists are wont to do, but into the near future – a future still two centuries away. To think about a future world in which we are the past. A future none of us will ever know, but one not so distant, I think, to be completely unimaginable.

Having said that, however, we shouldn’t underestimate quite how much can happen in two hundred years. Perhaps it will help us get a sense of the sort of timescale involved, as well as the jumps in technology and understanding we might expect, if we begin by looking back. In 1823 Britain was an economic powerhouse with an Empire that extended across the globe. A world still in the midst of the shuddering transformations of the Industrial Revolution. The world’s first public steam railway, Stephenson’s Locomotion No.1, was built in 1825, and over the following two centuries the railway spread and sped, and changed the face of society, as it evolved from steam to electric to diesel to, in places, high-speed magnetic levitation. The centuries have also seen the introduction of the steamship, and the development of air travel, from hot air balloons, to bi-planes, to jet planes, to space travel that meant humans could walk on the surface of the moon. We have seen the invention and widespread use of the telegraph, home telephones, mobile phones, and smart phones. The development of photography, of moving pictures, of full immersion virtual reality. While computers, nanotechnology and the development of artificial intelligence are fields currently in an explosive phase of development, and, well, who knows where these will lead us.

In 1823, the first use of the word ‘archaeology’ in the modern sense, (i.e. to mean the scientific study of the material remains of past human life and activities) didn’t exist. Its first use was still 14 years away (coined in 1837). While the first reference to the use of a trowel on an archaeological site was only 15 years earlier (made in a letter from the antiquarian William Cunnington to Richard ‘Colt’ Hoare in 1808). Since then, we have seen changes and advances in techniques, methodologies and theory unimaginable to Cunnington and Colt Hoare. Only in their wildest dreams could they have ever guessed at scientific dating, or ancient DNA analysis. Life over the last two hundred years has changed beyond all recognition, and in unimaginable ways.

So perhaps two hundred years is beyond our imagination. Perhaps trying to predict the future is a fool’s game. A futile task that will produce an endless line of false predictions and unwarranted speculation. In which case, what is the point in thinking about this at all?

Well, I think it is an interesting thought exercise. We can take some clues from existing technology, and almost existing technology, and use informed guesswork to take it to its logical extreme. Or perhaps its illogical extreme. An extreme anyway. We can extrapolate what we know to be likely, and project it way into the future, right to the furthest horizon, so that this thought exercise of ours is a form of ‘extreme horizon scanning’. In fact, we will project it beyond the horizon, so there isn’t even a horizon to scan, and then this exercise is actually a form of ‘horizon creation’, which we can then begin to scan.

And horizon scanning is important, right? It allows us to have foresight; to predict developments, and anticipate risks. To spot emerging issues or technologies, and plan for scenarios. Many companies, especially technology and energy companies have horizon scanning teams. The British government even has a Horizon Scanning Programme team, although you might not think it.

If you don’t buy into the horizon scanning reason for thinking about the future, however, then there is another one. These essays will highlight what we, as a body of archaeologists in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, feel is important about our discipline now. And where we sense it is, or should be, going. It provides a sort of state of play of our collective interests. And by setting it in the more neutral territory of the near future (i.e. away from today’s concerns and politics) it gives people the chance to be honest, and to play around with ideas more creatively. Perhaps most importantly, however, these papers serve to show that archaeologists are forward-looking in their study of the past.

So, what will the next two hundred years hold for us, and specifically for archaeology? Where will science have taken us? Will technology have made excavation redundant? Will there even be a recognisable discipline of archaeology, or will it have fragmented into multiple disciplines? Will archaeology still be taught in universities? Will there be universities? Will there be a development-led archaeology? Perhaps our future world has no place for archaeology, no interest in the past – the hive-mind focused only on the present or future. Archaeology a forgotten word for a vanished discipline. Afterall, if the word ‘archaeology’ did not exist for our discipline two hundred years ago, who’s to say it will exist in two hundred years’ time.

There are many ways to think about the future, and most standard models come directly from, or are inspired by, the world of science fiction; from writers such as Jules Verne and HG Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, Philip K Dick and JG Ballard. Although futuristic, the past never seems to be too far away in any of these worlds. As Isaac Asimov, another great science fiction writer, put it in a poem about how to write science fiction:

So success is not a mystery, just brush up on your history, and borrow day by day.

Take an Empire that was Roman and you’ll find it is home in all the starry Milky Way.

With a drive that’s hyperspatial, through the parsecs you will race, you’ll find that plotting is a breeze,

With a tiny bit of cribbin’ from the works of Edward Gibbon and that Greek Thucydides.

Ursula Le Guin stands out as being a female writer in a heavily male-dominated sphere, but also as a science fiction writer with something of an archaeological background (both her parents were archaeologists and anthropologists). Of the more recent crop there is Ben Smith’s excellent Doggerland; a bleak near future world in which a nameless young man endlessly repairs turbines on a vast wind farm in the North Sea while collecting Mesolithic artefacts dredged from the seabed. Even if archaeology no longer exists as a discipline, there will still be artefacts of the past and these will surely be seen and understood in particular and distinctive ways.

The future in science fiction stories is depicted in a variety of ways. Some involve a Utopian city or society, fuelled by optimism and emphasising aesthetics, beauty, spiritualism and perfection. The image of a perfect society or even the blueprint of a better one, in which problems are resolved with ingenious technology, or revolutionary ideology. A positive future in which technology will always take us out of darkness and danger. The past is frequently used as inspiration since many of these are set in versions of classical Greece, medieval monasteries, or a sort of Utopian prehistory.

But as archaeologists know, any sort of elite will always create inequality and injustice somewhere else. And not all science fiction stories are rosy. Some indeed are ruthlessly unsentimental – full of suspicion, deception, assassination, and mercenaries. Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, for example, offers an elegant, futuristic melancholy. While Isaac Asimov’s novella Nightfall has a population returning to the Stone Age every two and a half thousand years, before rebuilding themselves through science, technology and enlightenment in time for the next cyclical catastrophe. Desolation is a common refrain in these dystopic futures. Worlds destroyed by war, population increase, misused technology and environmental disaster. Resource depleted, flooded, burnt-out and barren, the world is left crumbling or heavily controlled and monitored by a greedy, autocratic leadership. Or perhaps set in cities that have become feral; massive versions of Dickensian London with bad people and wild landscapes. Or in feudal, medieval worlds where warlords proliferate.

Perhaps it is a mistake to approach the near future with totally positive expectations.

There will of course always be people wanting to exist off the grid, who refuse to merge with technology, in whatever type of world we create. And my guess is that these people will include a good number of archaeologists, however they might be termed. Along with naturalists and conservationists, they will rail against the growing number of people who have completely withdrawn from society and the ‘real world’.

Whether or not you see the future as bright or dark, I guess, depends on your own personal outlook. We often put our faith in the future – that technology will progress, making things better, faster, smaller, bigger. But we also know that there are economic crises, environmental catastrophes, world wars, and global pandemics. The future is not guaranteed. And as archaeologists we also know that societies do collapse. In fact, it seems to me that, at a time when we are being pushed from every quarter to research sustainability – a buzzword that exists in almost all research agendas and strategies – we archaeologists generally study the unsustainability of things and societies. Nevertheless, new societies have always emerged out of collapse. As a species, we endure.

What follows, then, is a collection of stories, none of which may be true, but some may be close. In that sense it is not so very different to what we do in archaeology, especially prehistory, where we build stories around often the scantiest of evidence, knowing that the chances of hitting upon the ‘right’ story is remote. Knowing, even, that the thought that there is a single ‘right’ story is probably wrong. To some extent – to some quite large extent – archaeology is therefore a thought exercise too, and so turning our archaeological view in the opposite direction, to face toward the future, really is a form of archaeology. It could be called ‘archaeo-futurology’, or, as I have called it here, ‘archaeologies of the near future’.


Before we begin with the stories other people will tell, we will start with my story, which I am calling Brushstrokes. Facing the future now, we are going to leap forward in time; zoom past the current pandemic and the subsequent economic collapse. Over the energy revolution of the 2050s, and the development of quantum computing machines in the 2080s. We will race past the Smart Bacteria battles of the 2090s, and the row over transhumanism and the controversy around equal rights for sentient androids. We will fly over the first half of the twenty-second century and the development of hypersonic travel, and the ensuing internationally contested issue of asteroid mining rights, which radically shifted economies. Without stopping, we will continue our journey through the second half of that century, which was dominated by its race to terraform and colonise moons and planets, starting with Mars, and the resulting ‘Earth identity crisis’. We will keep going until we arrive in the twenty-third century – the year 2223 to be precise. Exactly 200 hundred years from now.

Here we find a rag-tag group of researchers, data-architects, smart materials technicians and AI earth-sifters huddled around the recently exposed clay wall of an ancient Minoan building in Knossos, on the island of Crete, in Sector 5 of the Mediterranean. They have been carefully excavating here for a few weeks, or at least the drones and droids who make up part of the workforce have, with the aim of discovering and exposing as many wall paintings as time allows. These vivid frescoes, which had been painted directly onto wet plaster, depict lilies and irises, dolphins and fish, and swooping swallows, as well as the curving lines of dancers and boxers. They seem as full of vitality and life as the day they were created four thousand years previously.

The team are well aware of those who had excavated at Knossos before them; the so-called ‘archaeologists’ – a term that hasn’t been used for over seventy years; not since the discipline had fragmented into multiple specialist technical and scientific pursuits. It was once taught in the old universities before these also broke up into specialist technical centres. The absurd ancient rituals of academia that lasted well into the twenty-first century are now long gone.

“What even is a professor?” said Tonyi, a small, flame-haired researcher and the youngest in the group. She clutched an oversized monograph of excavations that had taken place nearby in 2025 and written by a long-dead professor. “And why the hell are we lugging this thing around?”

“For old times’ sake” replied the group leader “I thought it might evoke the spirit of the old days of archaeology and discovery. You know, ancient wisdom and all that”.

“Ancient wisdom? Silly plundering professors with their faked-up palaces.” Retorted Tonyi under her breath.

Alongside the wall is a large midden of animal bones; a reminder of a time when food was often scarce and humans depended on animals for protein. Finding such evidence is abhorrent to a society that hadn’t eaten meat for over a century.

“Barbarians!” muttered Tonyi, her haptic tattoo recoiling in disgust. Before reminding herself that the scandal of the mutated genimals and the interstellar uproar of part-animal children of the twenty-second century had been far more barbaric than anything she had ever come across from the ancient world.

By fluke rather than judgement, since it wasn’t picked up by the ground scan, one trench produced a small fragment of a gold brooch. Finding old gold buried in the ground still holds some excitement to those digging it up, but not to the wider public. Not since the invention of synthgold, which is indistinguishable from old gold and is easily made (ironically using lead, although not in the way you are probably now thinking). For a while, it seemed like everyone in the western skies had a gold-making kit and the bottom fell out of the jewellery market, and changed the definition of treasure. Sales of the once-popular metal detectors collapsed as a result. Now everyone is after plastic – a rare resource that was once so abundant that people often discarded it after a single use. Although no-one admitted it out loud, it was for this reason that a trench had been carefully located over one of the twenty-first century visitor centres.

One of the more interesting discoveries in recent times, however, is the discovery of ‘painting-audios’. The first discovery was towards the end of the last century when researchers realised that vibrations from sound waves could travel down artists’ paintbrushes, and into the fine strands of hair at the end. With each brushstroke, these vibrations left their distinctive marks in the wet paint that when dried trace out the sounds that made them. By placing tiny hair-like needles in these grooves and following them along, the sound waves could be reproduced – much like the needle of a nineteenth century gramophone, or twentieth century record player. In this way, art historians have been reproducing the sounds of the old masters for years. The clear, focused breathing of Leonardo DaVinci has been reproduced across the interstellar domain, so that it is as familiar to people in the twenty-third century as the opening strands of Beethoven’s fifth symphony were to those in the nineteenth and twentieth. In fact, his breathing is still frequently used in advertising, in music, and even to help people to get to sleep – played over their cerebral-inserts, often in combination with an auto-dose of Melatonin.

This nanotechnology has developed lately though, and now it is possible to roll this technique out over a variety of ancient artworks. This is the principal reason behind our team’s engagement at Knossos in 2223. Funded by a major, interstellar advertising corporation, they were there to expose new walls and record painting-audios.

They had realised that the frescoes painted on public buildings in the Cretan Early Bronze Age recorded the sounds of the streets around them. In one recently uploaded recording, a bull and cart roll noisily past, while a street vendor shouts to be heard above the din. In others we can hear people chatting nearby – snatches of drifting conversations caught mid-sentence and picked up by the paintbrush:

“… and all he wanted …”

“… never in my life have I heard such nonsense …”

“How can you take up with that coward?”

“He is only walking by himself. He has no wife.”

“Dorian! Come here child”

“By the Gods! Have you seen the crop this year?”.

Sometimes longer conversations are captured that give genuine insight into Bronze Age life – conversations of trade and tradition, of beliefs and concerns. A Bronze Age civilisation at its peak and frozen in the frescoes. The contribution to our understanding of the past is inestimable and utterly unimaginable two centuries ago.

There is one voice in amongst the chatter, however, that stands out. One voice Tonyi has managed to track across quite large areas of the complex, using voice-signature mapping. It is the voice of a woman who must have lived nearby as she can be heard in many of the audio-paintings. And she remained in the same area throughout her life, for in some paintings she was young – a girl full of the exuberance of life, but in others was older – a married woman with children of her own; the matriarch of the family. And then in others she is widowed and elderly; elderly for Minoan Crete that is – still young in Tonyi’s twenty-third century. Although only fragments of her are captured, her wilful personality and her dark sense of humour is clear. She reminds Tonyi of her own relatives; her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother – all three still alive. As well as her childhood memories of her great-great grandmother and the stories she had been told of all those before her; lines of mothers stretching back at least two centuries to the birth of her four-times-great grandmother, born on Christmas Day in the year 2023.

We will leave our group here though, recording their ancient streetscapes in the twenty-third century. Already researchers back at their home-tech are developing new advances that are unthinkable to them. Technology so different as to be beyond their ken. Technology that by the 2290s will see the genetic modification and gene therapy of humans, alongside AI integration and the commonplace use of nanocom implants. This will be taken up particularly by those ‘off-Earth’, creating distinctions between those living on and off our home planet and lead to suggestions of two distinct human species – biological humans and carbon cortex people.

The group could not conceive of life in the twenty-fourth century, which will be dominated by the first interplanetary war, declared by Mars on Earth. Or that this will lead to the abolishment of all country borders and the unification of Earth under a single government. They will miss the quantum revolution of the twenty-fifth century that would eventually allow travel beyond light speed, allowing old light emanating off Earth to be observed like moving pictures; the whole of human history unfolding in front of them. And they will not see, in the year 2423, the first people beginning to tinker with the fabric of space-time.

Some may say it’s a fool’s game trying to predict the future, but in the age of time travel who’s to say I’m predicting?

The site diary of an Interplanetary Heritage Officer

Sol 1

Well, I’m here now. I’ve arrived on Mars. It took 31 Earth days1 to get here all in. This included the obligatory short stay on Space Station Astraeus, while waiting for my transfer. Astraeus gets bigger each time I visit – it’s a heaving mass of one thousand bodies now; a huge orbiting city above Earth. Some people work permanently on it, but most are simply awaiting transfer to their destination planet. It has also become ludicrously expensive to stay – talk about taking advantage of a captive audience. But the facilities are amazing – if I can afford it, I’m tempted to just come here for my next holiday – who needs to go anywhere else? That’s probably what the marketing division are aiming for.

My transfer came in the form of the supply ship Boreas, which was pleasant if a little cramped by comparison. The trip was uneventful and the Descent Vehicle took us direct to the main port in the Northern Plains. And from there a ground shuttle scooted us straight to Schiaparelli; a city that, like Astraeus, has grown beyond recognition. Schiaparelli is in Chryse Planitia; the golden plain, on the western side of the planet. It now has a population of over four thousand people; most living here permanently, but many are tourists or are here on business.

The main attraction for tourists in this area is the volcanoes, which is a maglev train ride away and are the largest in the solar system. The greatest of all is the Olympus Mons, which you can travel up via a magnipod.

The city is made up of fifty vast airlocked spheres, half buried underground and connected by a network of tunnels and monorails. Two large nuclear reactors power the city. It’s easy to get lost here and I’m grateful for the rail network.

Each sphere has its own distinctive feel – some are clearly high-end where the millionaires live, while others are poorer and seem to be for the workers. Industry is quite distinctly zoned here too. I’m staying in the area designed for visitors, and there are many hotels, restaurants, shops and tourist boutiques. Someone should probably do a landscape characterisation survey of this city. I’ll add a note to the file to get someone out here for next time. Anyway, for now I need a good night’s sleep.

Sol 2

I’m on a 5-month-round trip to check on the Martian heritage sites that make up the Interplanetary Heritage Site (IHS). I will report on their preservation status and where necessary do a little conservation, as well as update the Martian Historic Environment Record with new sites. There aren’t many new ones, but I can add a few more. I also plan to do a small surface survey of my own too, and if this is successful, I may also undertake a small excavation. I’m excited – I’m not normally allowed to do fieldwork, but my line manager is decent and this is compensation for the long trip away from home.

Sol 3

Mars has a huge number of probes, landers and rovers dotted around it and all of them, including their debris, are designated Sites of Interplanetary Importance and protected from being removed or touched in any way under the Outer Space Treaty of 2190. The original treaty goes right back to 1967, which states that space is the common heritage of humanity. Mariner, Viking, Opportunity, Curiosity, Perseverance, and Rosalind Franklin – they’re all here somewhere. Some of them are buried deep in sand drifts, and not all locations have been found yet. With expansions planned at pretty much all of the Martian cities, finding them remains our number one priority. Expanding quarries threaten these sites too. Although the early Martian quarries are actually heritage sites in their own right.

This is important stuff. Heritage is not an optional extra, but a necessity. It provides meaning and value to the residents here; to all of us in fact. We also need to understand these early explorations – the motivations behind them as much as the technology, especially at the moment as we explore further into outer space and colonise more planets. If we want to make good decisions in the future, we need to know everything we can about past ones.

Sol 4

I started today with a visit to the main Heritage Visitor Centre. I wanted to experience the site as a proper tourist; as everyone else does. I was really very impressed – the site has a sphere all of its own, accessed via a ‘heritage train’, which looks just like the old electric trains of twentieth century Earth, complete with crazy design upholstery.

Chryse Planitia is the birthplace of Mars exploration – the location of Viking 1; the first successful spacecraft to soft-land on Mars in 1976, and which managed to transmit images of the surrounding landscape for 2,245 sols. Also, on this site is Sojourner; the rover of the Mars probe Pathfinder, which lost contact with Earth in 1997. Pathfinder itself lies further afield, scattered across the landscape it landed in, but Sojourner was brought here to form part of the Heritage Centre.

The main attraction, however, is the landing site of the Hawking spacepod lander, which touched down in Chryse Planitia in 2040. Remarkably, everything from the astronaut’s footprints to discarded life support packs, scientific equipment, and tools were preserved and are visible.

The Viewing Hall in the Visitor Centre directly overlooks the Hawking site and the plethora of footprints and equipment. To one side of it is Viking 1 and to the other Sojourner – complete with track marks. The vast window has room enough for everyone to get a good, close look at the old technology. One of the curators reels off some spiel about these early days, which was actually very atmospheric. And children and parents alike pressed their noses up against the darkened glass imagining the Sojourner gently tracking over the red sand of an empty planet and what the early Mars astronauts must have thought.

Afterwards, people were able to pass through a corridor with a timeline of Mars exploration on its wall, into a shop that sold replica landers and rovers carved out of the planet’s red stone. The children especially seemed happy with this part of the day.

All in all, a very good day. Tomorrow I begin my work in earnest inspecting each of the artefacts and making sure that they are not corroding.

Sol 35

I’ve completed my work on the various sites in the Heritage Centre and have written the report. Generally, it seems fine – a little work was required here and there to prevent further wear from solar radiation, but nothing to worry about.

Now for the good bit. I get to go out and do some research of my own. I have all the relevant permissions and have hired an explorer rover to get me and my equipment around. I just need to do a final check of my spacesuit and sort through my equipment to make sure they’re all working – things like my medipack, solar cells, and the all-important oxygenator, which extracts oxygen out of the CO2 in the atmosphere. I also need to bring extra lighting as Mars doesn’t get as much light as Earth. And, of course, I have all my surveying and digging equipment.

Sol 36

Checked out of my hotel and I’m off!

I’m just on the southern edge of the Northern Plains, which are the flattest part of Mars, but I’ll be heading across Arabia Terra, which is densely cratered and laced with winding canyons and channels. To be frank, it’s a nasty, rugged, crater-pocked hell, and the next few sols will be tough going. But it’s also one of the oldest areas of Mars and consequently of much more scientific interest, so there are some outposts out this way and a fairly good road network.

Sol 37

The reason I’m heading out is to recce an area that I think I can see from satellite images contains debris. By my reckoning it is the historic crash site of the Mars 6 probe, which was launched in 1973 and lost contact on impact in 1974.

Mars has no defence against harsh solar radiation and so it is important to find these artefacts from previous centuries and protect them.

I did my PhD on the archaeology of starships, but I love the early space exploration stuff too.

If I’m right, I will undertake a level 2 robotic survey and then write a report recommending that the area is designated. Actually, if there’s enough evidence it might even become an Interplanetary Heritage Site. That would be amazing. And probably make my name.

Sol 49

The going has been fine. I am enjoying the Martian landscape. In fact, I’ve developed a real appreciation for it. It’s true that Mars is a barren wasteland – nothing but dust, rocks, and endless empty desert. The soil is also dry and with no bacteria nothing grows. And it’s really cold, so I have the heaters constantly running. But it also has a beauty that you just can’t get on Earth, or any other planet. Iron oxide coating the rocks and sand give everything a striking red hue, and the wide, open expanses give incredible clear views. This morning I stood on the rim of a crater and saw such a stunning panorama – like nothing I’ve seen on Earth. It’s a wildly uneven landscape – rugged and strewn with boulders one minute and then desert-like with sand dunes the next.

And I’ve become rather attached to the strange shape of the two moons, Phobos and Deimos. Phobos zips around Mars so fast it actually rises and sets twice a day. Going back to seeing just one natural moon when I get home will be something of a struggle.

Sol 50

According to my helmet display navigation I should be at the location now. With the Eye of Faith, I can see lines in the sand dunes. I think I’ll stop here for the night and start surveying in earnest tomorrow.

Sol 51

Today I set up the site hut, which is essentially a glorified inflatable tent. Like the rover, it has pressure seals, meaning I don’t need my spacesuit while I’m in it.

I walked out to the dunes in my spacesuit and the early indication is that I’m right on the money. Lots of pieces of debris strewn across this area. This is clearly the crash site – the soft, powder-like sand dunes have developed over it obscuring much of the remains, but it’s definitely there.

Sol 52

I put up a pop-up tent over the site yesterday, so as not to be exposed to the Martian atmosphere while digging. I’m still wearing my spacesuit though – no chance of taking that off until I’m safely back in the site hut, or in the rover. Bending over in my suit is torture. And why did I put the site hut so far away? I keep forgetting things and have to walk back to it. Walking 200m is the sort of thing you can do without thinking about it on Earth, but in a spacesuit, it is an ordeal. Mind you, things are easier to carry in Mars gravity, so that’s a bonus.

I’ve been moving Martian soil all morning. The top layer of sand is like talcum powder. I have to move slowly so as not to create clouds of it that obscure my view.

Sol 53

Another brilliant and intensely bright day.

I am lying full length on my belly trying to tease out a soil sample from the clasps of the red soil. I keep finding small pieces of rock that look like aluminium. I found a piece this morning that had me confused for a while. In the end I decided to snap it – that’s how we archaeologists check to see what an artefact is made from. That and biting it – but that’s not possible with my helmet on. Or advisable, given the levels of radiation here.

Afterwards, I stumble back to the site hut and, in my full spacesuit and heavy boots, trip and fall headlong into the red dust.

Sol 54

This is good. I’ve now exposed some pretty sizable pieces – heat-shields, retrorockets and fragments of the parachute that was deployed to slow the probe’s descent.

I should be done in a couple of sols, assuming no hold ups.

Sol 55

We are always trying to peel away layers to reveal something hidden beneath. Sedimented actions – human and natural; single and repeated. Fossilised time. Millennia, centuries, years, hours, minutes, even, can be captured – preserved beneath the ground. We might even find a second’s worth of action – a footprint or track, say, preserved in layers.

Sol 56

Mars has weather, and wind and dust, and it’s not uncommon for there to be a haze in the air. But today it looked worse than I’d seen it before. I also have news reports of a minor dust storm moving across this sector. This probably means I’ll be holed up inside the site hut for a little while. I’m working as quickly as I can to complete the survey. The robotic is taking ages to load though. Perhaps the dust storm is already beginning to impact its connection to the dreamcloud.

Sol 57

The wind outside has picked up. It’s still very slow, but is fast enough to pick up small particles on the surface and whip them into thick clouds. These are relatively common, and the Martian residents are used to them, but they can last for months and cover huge sections of the planet. The big problem is that the thick dust in the atmosphere means that the total sunlight reaching the surface is very low, so solar panels struggle to power anything.

But dust storms move eventually, so for now it’s a case of waiting it out.

There’s a geological outpost not far from here where a small team of geologists are working away collecting rock and soil samples. If necessary, I’ll get in touch with them for support.

Sol 71

Ok, that lasted longer than I had planned. But I’m alright. Time to run a diagnostic on the oxygenator and then get outside to clean off the solar panels. I’ll then check on the site.

Site checked and the pop-up tent is broken but has remained in place. I’ll take the remaining samples and complete the survey today, and then I have to go. A shame because I would have liked to do some more digging, but the storm has caused quite a delay, and I need to get back for my return trip home. I really (really) don’t want to miss that!

Sol 72

Archaeological work completed yesterday and I’ve taken the site hut down now. So, time to leave this frigid desert. This has been a good project. More to be done on another trip. And possibly by someone else.

Sol 79

I miss the fresh air of Earth and I crave the feel of proper wind. I found the intense redness of this planet once beautiful, but now all I want is green – green grass, green trees, leaves, moss, lichen. I miss Earth. I miss home.

Sol 86

Back in Schiaparelli. Cleaning equipment, off-hiring vehicles and then reporting back my findings to the Heritage Visitor Centre. The Ascent Vehicle leaves in 4 sols. I can’t wait. Now for a little down-time Schiaparelli-style.

Sol 90

Time to leave my last footprints in the dusty red sand.

Future Forests

A long and wet winter had kept us housebound. After a series of heart-breaking delays, we had eventually moved into our house on the edge of the North York Moors the previous autumn and we were eager to explore the somewhat rambling garden. It is an unusual set-up, which is what had attracted us to it in the first place, but the house had originally been two cottages built almost two centuries ago at the bottom of an older limestone quarry. The quarry itself is mid-eighteenth century in date and once fed the boom in lime burning that brought unimproved moorland into productive pastureland. Now the quarry forms the garden, sunken below ground level by a good ten feet, and the house has been much changed and extended by previous owners, one of whom has literally raised the roof. Now with the days longer and the soil warmer, a dry day meant that I could get out and do some exploring and, what’s more, some proper gardening. First on a long list of tasks written over the dark winter months, was to dig a meandering path at one end and plant wildflowers along it.

I had been digging for an hour or two, caught up in my own world, when my eyes rested on a remarkable little object lying half-hidden in the soil. A small triangular sherd of glazed pottery. Next to it lay two more pieces, and some tile. The discarded remains of life two hundred years ago. Archaeologically-speaking they weren’t very interesting – a small selection of common post-medieval slipware – but to me, right then, they were profoundly exciting. They were in my garden, in my soil, and they spoke of people, families, living their lives in this same spot as I was, as we were. I was connected to it by my place more suddenly, more immediately, than I had ever been connected with anything before.

The immense force of these discarded objects, momentarily at least, changed my perspective and looking up at the house from the bottom of the garden I watched it grow younger. I saw it at a time before the modern changes and extensions that make it comfortable to live in. I saw it in the nineteenth century when it was two cottages joined side-by-side. I saw the lovingly tended flowerbeds at the front and vegetable patches to the side. And through the small front window I saw slipware plates on a sideboard and a kettle whistling on a stove. And I smelt the smoke of tobacco pipe drifting past. By the side of the road in front of the house I saw an artist set up his easel and paint the houses in watercolours – a painting that has remained framed on the wall of the house since.

Still my view kept going back. Now in the eighteenth century, I saw the land before the houses had been built, when it was a working quarry. I saw the quarrymen, wearing jackets and wide-brimmed hats, using picks and rods and sledgehammers to prise free blocks of Jurassic limestone that makes up the bedrock of this area, and break them up for burning. A field kiln of stone, brick and tile formed a rotund construction in the middle of the quarry, roughly where the pond is now. Men, stripped to the waist and with handkerchiefs tied around their mouths, tended the fiery kiln that turned the stone into quicklime. Packhorses and donkeys carried it off in piled-high carts to lime the fields for landowners cashing in on Parliamentary Enclosure.

I saw all of this unfold in front of me in an instant – space and time compressed into a single moment and the weight of the past pressed down like a collapsing star.


And then it changed again, exploding outwards. My mind raced forwards in time, which flowed out in front of me like an endless river. Back past the quarry, which had become disused and occupied by a young woodland. I saw the two houses constructed and the woodland felled and replaced with flowerbeds. Two houses became one and then grew in size to become a familiar shape to me. I saw us arrive, excitedly moving in like many families had done before us, and I watched as I announced, with little thought to what it actually meant, that the only way I was leaving this place was in a coffin.

On into the future my mind’s eye raced, to a time when I was gone; my flesh decomposed and my bones bare. As impossible and absurd as it seems to me, my family were gone too. Forward my mind raced to a future devoid of the people I know and love; our shared memories evaporated into nothingness, never to be retrieved or known. The world I saw was empty of anyone so that the house and garden was left untouched by humans and returned to the realm of only wildlife. A nameless patch of ground; for without anyone to name it, a house is no longer a ‘house’, nor a tree a ‘tree’, nor a garden a ‘garden’. All these chauvinistically human words are just chaff in the breeze.

In this future I saw that within a few years the meandering path I am currently labouring over was all but invisible; the pottery sherds that so excited me were once again folded back into the sediment. Time rolled on and I watched as the ivy reached up and covered the stone walls of the abandoned house; its searching tendrils pulling at the mortar and opening up cracks that let water in. I saw the drystone walls around what was once our garden crumble and fall, and the pantiles slide off the roof. Grass and weeds had grown up through the slabs and swamped the now unrecognisable flowerbeds and colonised the long-since dried pond. The glass in the windows had shattered through many frosty mornings, opening up the inside of the house so that birds nested in the light fittings. The wooden window frames were now covered in the mould of decay, and mildew had pulled away the paint and plasterwork from the walls to reveal the stone behind. A thick layer of dust had settled on shelves and tables, and on stacks of paper on the sideboard. It had settled on the radio in the kitchen and on unopened tins of food. The dust blanketed the mantlepiece and coated the stopped clock in the centre of it.

As my gaze rolled on more than a century into the future, I saw the broken glass form an archaeological layer, mixed and mingled with other durable things like stone, concrete and tile, as well as crushed plastic bottles and toys, coins and kitchen foil; the things that speak of life many years ago. Slowly but surely, these things became buried by generations of earthworms. My own life becoming archaeology.

There were now just gaps where the windows and doors should be, and birds flitted in and out during the day, and papery-winged bats did the same when the sun went down. The living room was now shoulder high with bracken, and ferns sprouted from the window openings. Mud slurry had swept in through the doorway and there was the splattering evidence of wandering cattle using the downstairs as shelter. Wildflowers had taken root along the gutter and in clefts in the walls – blown as seed rain or spread by birds. Vetch and toadflax, yellow rattle and speedwell, ragwort and dandelion.

In the garden, lichens crusted a plastic chair that lay broken on its side, while mosses carpeted the surface of a table and covered broken flower pots. A crack in the oil tank had led to a leak of kerosene that, like a cankering disease, caused a severe but localised ecosystem collapse for a while, before becoming recolonised. The listing chimneys had toppled at some point past and had crashed through the roof leaving it looking like it had been bitten by a giant caterpillar. The floorboards of the upstairs bedrooms were in disarray and spongey with weather and rot, and crowds of starlings balanced on bookshelves. Here generations of mice were born and lived and died.

Leaves lay in thick litter on the road beyond, and whip-thin saplings pushed up through the cracks in the tarmac, rumpling and crumpling it. The surrounding fields, having gone through successive phases of overgrown grass and wildflowers, to tangled shrubs, were now more or less established forests. And cattle wandered, without herdsmen, through the abandoned village. They had formed a large herd by now, led by a single bull, the violent beating of whose hooves had scarred the ground in many places.

The house had no roof now and tall ash trees grew out of the space. For a while deer made their home up there, while pigs lived downstairs in what had been the sitting room. But with its innards exposed to the sky, and with over a century of rain and leaking pipes, the rafters had rotted. The weight was too much, and the floors of the house had collapsed; concertinaed, so that what was once the bedrooms and bathrooms, the kitchen and living rooms were now a series of layers no more than six feet thick. Crushed stacks of ceramic plates and bowls, as well as a corroded clump of steel cutlery, were sealed by layers of wood, metal, plastic and gunk. This was occasionally dotted with tiny treasures – an earring here, part of a bracelet there. In one area a fallen library of books, built up over a lifetime, overlain by a collapsed wardrobe of clothes, formed an organic layer of peaty compost interwoven with the rhizomes of assorted fungi. All mildewed papers and decayed cloths. This had been burrowed into at some point by rabbits and scratched at by chickens – the latter descendants from what was once a nearby farm.

In places, pockets of space existed – the tall steel fridge, crumpled and fallen at an angle, protected enough space beneath it for generations of foxes to create their den and raise their cubs, while the rusted carcasses of two cars were home to lively families of feral dogs. The edges of the sunken quarry garden had eroded outwards and partly infilled with the soil and stone from what had been a neighbouring paddock, as well as the tarmac and hardcore from a collapsed road. Somewhere in this area a stone bird table lay on its side, the top having come away from the base, now turned green and buried beneath a thick tangle of creeping ivy.

Two hundred years into the future and the house was a crumbled ruin; a series of stone walls a few metres high, and the garden returned to a woodland understoried by thickets of bushes and shrubs. Seventy-three thousand times the sun had moved from east to west and the moon risen and set. Roaming shaggy-coated sheep occasionally wondered into the area and got caught in the grasping brambles; thorned limbs grown dense and tangled. Scrubland and woodland reclaiming their land.

Indication of the earlier human design was provided by the fruit trees – the apple and pear, medlar, cherry and plum growing in one area; although the originals had since died, new generations had grown from the fallen fruit. The presence of raspberries and strawberries as well as introduced species such as Spanish bluebells and Mediterranean herbs provided similar clues, while tall nettles indicated the location of the old septic tank. Ecological memory traces of the old world. Clumps of snowdrops and daffodils, now completely naturalised, linger on as further garden ghosts. Past gardens becoming future forests.

Two hundred years ago the house was only just coming into existence; two hundred years into the future the process was undone.


And then, suddenly, my children come barrelling out of the house with a small dog in tow and break me out of my reverie. They too have spotted that it is a sunny day and want to explore the garden. In a flash my view comes back to the now, to the laughter and happiness heading towards me, to the soil under me, the birdsong above and the wind gently rustling the trees. And to the path in front of me, with the few sherds of slipware pottery lying next to it. Not far away flowerbeds eagerly await the coming spring so that they can once again burst with colour and hum with bees and insects.

Already the house and garden have wrapped themselves around us so that we cannot imagine living anywhere else or at any other time. The ground beneath our feet is provisional; we’re only borrowing it. And like ghosts we will continue to haunt the future however you envisage it.

  1. A sol is a Mars day and slightly longer than an Earth day by about 40 minutes.