Cosmic Archaeology For the first time in history, scientists unearth extraterrestrial culture on the international space station, led by Chapman University Professor Justin Walsh.


For the first time in history, scientists unearth extraterrestrial culture on the international space station, led by Chapman University Professor Justin Walsh.

R esearchers from five international space agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), live and work on the station in what is one of the world’s most ambitious multinational collaborative projects. Their research is well documented on NASA’s ISS blog and includes such wide-ranging topics as the effects of space travel on the human body, materials science, dark matter, spacecraft systems and countless other topics over the station’s over 21-year history.But an additional source of endless fascination is the astronauts’ daily life in a vessel about the size of a football field, floating in microgravity with an international crew of seven people.

How do the astronauts wash their hair? (rinseless shampoo); sleep? (in a bag and attached to the wall); spend their free time? (mostly looking out the window, according to NASA). The ISS has been fastidiously designed to maximize the health, productivity and comfort of the crew while optimizing the efficient use of space and supplies.

But even as the mundane aspects of daily life are accounted for, questions remain about the more elusive but nonetheless riveting topic of culture. How do crewmembers on the ISS interact with each other and with equipment and spaces? How do the spaces, interactions and objects inform conflict or cooperation among the crew? Do the same geopolitical tensions that plague Earth replicate in extraterrestrial spaces?

“It’s a microsociety in a mini world,” says Chapman University’s Justin Walsh, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Art. Walsh, an archaeologist by training, is using archaeology’s methods of inquiry and analysis – in which the objects and spaces of a culture are analyzed to provide insight into how humans adapt to their environment – to reveal new understanding of human activity in space.

Archaeologist and Chapman Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Art Justin Walsh conducted the first archaeological study aboard a spacecraft with co-principal investigator Alice Gorman of Flinders University in Australia.
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NASA astronaut Kayla Barron places the first pieces of tape to mark a sample location for the SQuARE experiment in the Japanese Experiment Module (Kibo) on January 15, 2022. Credit: NASA.

“The Past Is Right Now”

Along with co-principal investigator Alice Gorman of Flinders University in Australia, Walsh just completed Sampling Quadrangle Assemblages Research Experiment (SQuARE), the first archaeological study ever performed outside the Earth.

People tend to understand archaeology as dealing with the distant past. But at its core, the discipline is primarily concerned with a type of evidence – material culture – regardless of when that culture existed.

“The past is right now – what happened 10 seconds ago is the past and is equally available for archaeological research as something a millennia ago,” explains Walsh.

In his view, archaeological techniques can be used to understand what happened at a distinct time – including the present – and what humans did in that location to adapt to it. “So, the question of when and where is irrelevant,” he says. “What we are showing with this project is the potentially practical side of archaeology as a science. We are revealing aspects of a habitat that people have lived in for over 20 years, and that the very people inhabiting it 24/7 have not been aware of.”

The Big “Bing”

For Walsh, the galvanizing moment came in 2008.

Throughout his scholarly career, Walsh has conducted the type of research that most people associate with archaeology, complete with all the trappings expected from the discipline: trowels and brushes, pottery sherds and grids that divide ancient sites for excavation.

He is currently principal investigator on a Chapman excavation in Cástulo, Spain, and doing ceramics analysis at the Morgantina site in Sicily, Italy – a site with a notorious history of looting, with artifacts turning up in famous museums and private collections around the world.

Back in 2008, when the extent of that looting was just coming to light, Walsh was teaching “Cultural Heritage in the Art World,” an ethics course for graduate students who might eventually work in the culture industry. Responding to what was happening at Morgantina, the class focused on cultural heritages that need to be protected. “One day a student said, ‘What about stuff in space?’ Bing. Lightbulb. As soon as she asked the question, I thought, of course, stuff in space is heritage too,” Walsh recalls.

Consider Tranquility Base, the site where the crew of Apollo 11 first set foot on the moon. For more than 52 years, it has remained undisturbed – no wind, no return visitors, no water, no erosion. What protections are in place to preserve the integrity of the site – to protect it from the fate that befell Morgantina?

“It’s hard to think of a site that might be more significant in the history of humanity – it was the first time any human had set foot on something that wasn’t the Earth,” says Walsh. “Space is international territory, like the high seas or Antarctica. No country has sovereignty. So, the implication is that, unlike Earth, no one government can say it’s protected. What happens to that site when we have tourists on the moon?”

New Tools for an Old Trade

The most basic archaeological technique for sampling a site is the test pit. Archaeologists divide a site into a grid of squares, usually one meterby one meter, then select individual squares to dig in so that they can get a better sense of what the site is like and plan their future excavation strategy.

For the SQuARE project, the researchers had the astronauts aboard the ISS create 1-meter squares on walls using tape throughout the space station – six in total. Instead of digging them to reveal new layers of soil representing different moments in the site’s history, the crew photographed each of the squares once per day to identify how those spaces were being used and how they changed over time. In a traditional test pit, each stratum of soil reveals a new layer of geographical insight and glimpse into cultural history – depth tells the story. On the ISS, it is not depth that reveals the vicissitudes of history and culture, but time.

Walsh at the Cástulo site in 2014 holding a fragment of a fourth-century CE glass paten (a bowl for serving the Eucharist in a Christian Mass).

“When you’re doing a terrestrial dig, you are present in the landscape, you are constantly assessing what is being found, and it is an unrepeatable experiment – the work is destructive by necessity. The very act of uncovering an object is a threat to its continued survival,” explains Walsh.


The work is destructive by necessity. The very act of uncovering an object is a threat to its continued survival
Justin Walsh

Not so with photography.

In 2009, Jason De León, Ph.D., an archaeologist from UCLA, gave migrants from Central America to the U.S. disposable cameras to document their journeys, in what may be the first archaeological research done with photographs. It was also the first time researchers could look at a cultural phenomenon from an archaeological – vs. historical – perspective that they couldn’t directly observe.

“Jason’s work was the impetus for us to look at photography as a viable method for space archaeology. We’ve also been using archive photos. The sole data is the photograph. But we can go back to those photographs over and over again—it’s a repeatable experiment,” explains Walsh.

Excavating Space

In his 2013 book “Consumerism in the Ancient World,” Walsh explores the acquisition of Greek pottery by ancient peoples who were not Greek, even though the shapes of the earthenware were specific to Greek practices and behavior and were decorated with images from Greek mythology. He found that many of these pieces ended up buried intact in tombs, which typically identifies them as prized possessions, likely only used in a funerary context. Zooming out, that research provides a framework for identifying the ways in which objects take on different meanings in new contexts; the linkages between the consumption of goods and identity construction; and how people use objects to signal social status and other information to others in their community. In many ways, the SQUaRE team’s early analysis of the ISS also conforms to this framework.

Take the galley, in the ISS Node 1 (Unity), where the crew’s dining table attaches to the wall and condiments are held tight into mesh bags attached to the wall. A bar of dark chocolate seems to shrink over the course of days; a tin of Altoids moves around; and one day, most curiously, several tubes of different colored frosting appeared.

A sample location, the galley area in the NASA Node 1 module (Harmony) on the International Space Station, for the Sampling Quadrangle Assemblages Research Experiment (SQuARE), photographed between during the experiment. The area to be sampled is marked at the corners by yellow tape.

Photo credit: NASA

A later Instagram reel by U.S. astronaut Kayla Barron revealed that she and fellow astronaut Thomas Marshburn had made a birthday cake for a Russian crewmember Pyotr Dubrov using muffin tops glued together with honey, which was then decorated with the frosting.

“And that’s an interesting phenomenon, because that’s cooking, and cooking has a lot of social implications, especially a birthday cake,” says Walsh. “It shows that you care about somebody else and that they’re special to you. Cooking is something that you really cannot do in microgravity – they usually just eat bags or cans of food. This shows us that exercising a sense of control and curating the experience of fresh ingredients is part of the culture of the American crew on the International Space Station.”

Another inference Walsh made was the adaptation of U.S. Node 2 (Harmony), a maintenance workstation, into an ad hoc laboratory space. An experimental bag takes up residence in the frame for a few days, which Walsh later learned was for experimenting with concrete production in microgravity.

“From an archaeological perspective, I wouldn’t have known that they are making concrete there, but I can determine that science is happening there, and it speaks to the flexibility of the location,” Walsh says.

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