[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]
There’s a great line in Tom Zoellner’s book Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World where he describes the after-effects of underground nuclear tests. Zoellner writes that, during these tests, “a nuclear bomb buried in a deep shaft underneath a mountain would vaporize the surrounding rock and make a huge cathedral-like space inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity.”
[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]
They suggest that these detonations produce spaces—such as collapse cones and debris fields—that have “no direct natural analogue,” although they do helpfully contrast weapon-test craters with meteor-impact sites. (The authors also break underground nuclear test sites down into “zones,” which include a “zone of irreversible strain,” which is an amazing phrase.)
The larger purpose of their paper, though, is to look at long-term “signatures” that humans might leave behind in our underground activity, from nuclear tests to mineralogical carbon-capture to deep boreholes to coal mines. Will these signatures still be legible or detectible for humans of the far future? On the whole, their conclusion is not optimistic, suggesting instead that even vast subterranean mines and sites of underground nuclear weapons tests will fade from the terrestrial archive.
“Many of the physical and chemical products of human subsurface intrusion either do not extend far from the source of intrusion, lack long-term persistence as a signal or are not sufficiently distinctive from the products of natural processes to make them uniquely recognisable as of anthropogenic origin,” they write. “But the scope and complexity of the signals have increased greatly over recent decades, both in areal extent and with increasing depths, and seem set to be a fundamental component of our technological expansion. There will be some clues to the geologist of the far-future, when historical knowledge records may not be preserved, that will help resolve the origin.”
Nevertheless, it is totally fascinating to imagine what future archaeologists might make of Zoellner’s “huge cathedral-like space[s] inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity,” long after they’ve collapsed, and where sand has been fused into unnatural glass and anomalous traces of radiation can still be found with no reasonable explanation for how they got there.
Could future archaeologists deduce the existence of nuclear weapons from such a landscape? And, if so, would such a suggestion—ancient weapons modeled on the physics of stars—sound rational or vaguely insane?
I posted these on social media the other day, but I thought I’d include them here simply because of how much I love the casually jaw-dropping caption used for these over at the Library of Congress. This eerie pile of bricks looming over the desert, photographed back in 1932?
It’s nothing other than “Possibly the Tower of Babel,” or the “So-called Tower of Babel.” No biggie.
As part of some early prep, just putting notes together for a workshop I’ll be leading in Moscow later this summer, I thought I’d link back to this 2014 post by Paul Gilster on Centauri Dreams about “SETI at the Particle Level”—that is, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence reimagined on radically different 必威客户端app
scales than what humans have previously looked for.
“To find the truly advanced civilizations, we would need to look on the level of the very small,” Gilster suggests. We perhaps even need to look at the scale of individual particles.
“If SETI is giving us no evidence of extraterrestrials,” Gilster writes, “maybe it’s because we’re looking on too large a scale.”
What if, in other words, truly advanced intelligence, having long ago taken to non-biological form, finds ways to maximize technology on the level of the very small? Thus [Australian artificial intelligence researcher Hugo de Garis]’s interest in femtotech, a technology at the level of 10-15 meters. The idea is to use the properties of quarks and gluons to compute at this scale, where in terms of sheer processing power the improvement in performance is a factor of a trillion trillion over what we can extrapolate for nanotech.
Material evidence of this speculative, femto-scale computation could perhaps be detected, in other words, if only we knew we should be looking for it. (Instead, of course, we’re stuck looking for evidence of a very particular technology that was big on Earth a few decades ago—radio waves.)
In any case, it’s interesting to put these thoughts in the context of a paper by Matt Edgeworth, published in Archaeologies back in 2010, called “Beyond Human Proportions: Archaeology of the Mega and the Nano.” Edgeworth’s paper was inspired by a deceptively simple insight: that human artifacts, in our era of chemical and material engineering, have departed radically from the 必威客户端app
scale traditionally associated with archaeology.
We are always making history, we might say, but much of it is too small to see.
Rather than studying architectural ruins or sites the size of villages, what about archaeological artifacts visible only through chemical assays or scanning electron microscopes, whether they be so-called forever chemicals or simply microplastics?
Edgeworth himself refers to nano-scale transistors, graphene sheets, and materials etched using electron beam lithography. What role should these engineered materials—altogether different kinds of remains or cultural “ruins”—play in archaeology?
[Image: An example of electron beam lithography, via Trevor Knapp/Eriksson Research Group/University of Wisconsin, used only for the purpose of illustration.]
“It used to be the case that archaeological features and artifacts were principally on a human scale,” Edgeworth writes. “But that familiar world is changing fast. As archaeology extends its range of focus further forward in time its subject matter is moving beyond human proportions. Developments in macro- and micro-engineering mean that artifacts are no longer limited in size by physical limitations of the body. As scale and impact of material culture extends outwards and inwards in both macroscopic and microscopic directions, the perspectives of contemporary archaeology must change in order to keep track.”
What’s so interesting about both the Centauri Dreams post and Matt Edgeworth’s paper is that signs of artificiality—whether they are human or not—might be discovered at radically different 必威客户端app
scales, either here on Earth in modern archaeological sites or in the depths of space, where, for example, the alien equivalent of electron beam lithography might already have etched legible patterns into materials now drifting as micrometeoroids through the void.
Of course, the idea of applying for a grant to look for signs of alien lithography on micrometeoroids sounds more like a Saturday Night Live sketch—or perhaps the plot of a Charles Stross novel—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it (or something similar). After all, even humans themselves now leave micro- and nano- scale material traces behind in the dyes, chemicals, coatings, and etched materials we use everyday without thinking of these things as archaeological.
If the fundamental assumption of SETI is that aliens have been communicating with each other through radio transmissions because humans used to heavily rely upon that same technology, then why not also assume that aliens are, say, manufacturing graphene sheets, 3D-printing on the nano-scale, or, for that matter, weaving computational textiles with synthetic-diamond nanowires?
(An unrelated post that is nevertheless interesting to think about in this context: Space Grain.)
Ten years ago, this would have been a speculative design project by SaschaPohflepp: “hyper-accumulating” plants are being used to concentrate, and thus “mine,” valuable metals from soil.
[Image: Nickel-rich sap; photo by Antony van der Ent, courtesy New York Times.]
“With roots that act practically like magnets, these organisms—about 700 are known—flourish in metal-rich soils that make hundreds of thousands of other plant species flee or die,” the New York Times reported last week. “Slicing open one of these trees or running the leaves of its bush cousin through a peanut press produces a sap that oozes a neon blue-green. This ‘juice’ is actually one-quarter nickel, far more concentrated than the ore feeding the world’s nickel smelters.”
A while back, I went on a road-trip with Edible Geography to visit some maple syrup farms north of where we lived at the time, in New York City. The woods all around us were tubed together in a huge, tree-spanning network—“forest hydraulics,” as Edible Geography phrased it at the time—as the trees’ valuable liquid slowly flowed toward a pumping station in the center of the forest.
It was part labyrinth, part spiderweb, a kind of semi-automated tree-machine at odds with the image of nature with which most maple syrup is sold.
[Images: Photos by betway必威
Imagining a similar landscape, but one designed as a kind of botanical mine—a forest accumulator, metallurgical druidry—is incredible.
And it’s not even a modern idea, as the New York Times points out. For all its apparent, 21st-century sci-fi, the idea of harvesting metal from plants is at least half a millennium old: “The father of modern mineral smelting, Georgius Agricola, saw this potential 500 years ago. He smelted plants in his free time. If you knew what to look for in a leaf, he wrote in the 16th century, you could deduce which metals lay in the ground below.”
This brings to mind an older post here about detection landscapes, or landscapes—yards, meadows, gardens, forests—deliberately planted with species that can indicate what is in the soil beneath them.
In the specific case of that post, this had archaeological value, allowing researchers to find abandoned Viking settlements in Greenland based on slight chemical changes that have affected which plants are able to thrive. Certain patches of flower, for example, act as archaeological indicator species, marking the locations of lost settlements.
In any case, my point is simply that vegetation can be read, or treated as a sign to be interpreted, whether by indicating the presence of archaeological ruins or by revealing the potential market-value of a site’s subterranean metal content.
Indeed, we read, “This vegetation could be the world’s most efficient, solar-powered mineral smelters,” with “the additional value of enabling areas with toxic soils to be made productive. Smallholding farmers could grow on metal-rich soils, and mining companies might use these plants to clean up their former mines and waste and even collect some revenue.” That is, you could filter and clean contaminated soils by drawing heavy-metal pollutants out of the ground, producing saps that are later harvested.
Fast-forward ten years: it’s 2030 and landscape architecture studios around the world are filled with speculative metal-harvesting plant designs—contaminated landscapes laced with gardens of hardy, sap-producing trees—even as industrial behemoths, like Rio Tinto and Barrick Gold, are breeding proprietary tree species in top-secret labs, genetically modifying them to maximize metal uptake.
Weird saps accumulate in iridescent lagoons. Autumn leaves glint, literally metallic, in the sun. Tiny metal capillaries weave up the trunks of black-wooded trees, in filigrees of gold and silver. The occasional forest fire smells not of smoke, but of copper and tin. Reclaimed timber, with knots and veins partially metallized, is used as luxury flooring in suburban homes.
[Image: “Minimal Republic nº3, Area: 100 m², Border: square, 10m side, defined with rope tied to pickaxes around a square of crushed rye, Population: 1 inhabitant, Location: 41.298691º, -3.400101º, Start: July 30, 2015, 19:15, End: July 31, 2015, 11:38,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]
Minimal Republics is an interesting and wonderfully titled project by artist Rubén Martín de Lucas. As Sophie Wright explains in a feature for LensCulture, each “republic” follows the same set of basic instructions: “appropriate 100 square metres of space, outline a border, and inhabit it for no more than 24 hours. From parking lots to empty agricultural crops, anonymous segments of land are transformed by these actions into what the artist describes as ‘ephemeral micro-states.’”
These minimal republics are exactly that, in other words, just geometric forms marked in some fashion on the surface of the Earth, temporarily patrolled and inhabited by a lone individual, a series of micronations that then disappear from history.
(This also raises the question of what an archaeology of performance art might look like—whether projects such as this leave permanent historical traces in the landscape. Will the location of a Martín de Lucas republic ever be archaeologically discernible in the future? If so, will whatever once happened there make any 必威客户端app
or political sense?)
[Image: “Minimal Republic nº2, Area: 100 m², Population: 1 inhabitant, Border: equilateral triangle, side 15.19 m made of wooden slats assembled, Location: 40.039637º, -5.1146942º, Start: July 23, 2015, 12:21, End: July 23, 2015, 21:48,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]
Minimal Republics falls somewhere between theatrical performance, video installation, landscape photography, and instructional art, suggesting a kind of pop-up sovereignty available to all, given sufficient fidelity to a set of artistic-political specifications.
Like a territorial algorithm or even like a magic spell, the project promises that, if only you can follow these three simple steps, remaining inside your sovereign sigil, new political worlds can be conjured into ephemeral life.
[Image: “Minimal Republic nº8, Area: 100 m2, Border: circle of 5.64 m radius of stacked stubble, Population: 1 inhabitant, Location: 41.4152292, -3.3632866, Start: September 8, 2017, 18:41, End: September 9, 2017, 18:40,” from Minimal Republics by Rubén Martín de Lucas, via LensCulture.]
Of course, Wright is also quick to emphasize that the project’s sense of the absurd is very deliberate: “Searching for locations with little appeal or resources, these ‘minimal republics’ are unlikely spots for a new nation, amping up the nonsensical gesture of Martín de Lucas’ temporary occupation.”
There are many more examples from the project over at LensCulture, as well as a longer write-up.
I’ve been enjoying looking at these photos of ancient dolmens in the French countryside, taken by Eugène Trutat, after reading about them as part of a forthcoming exhibition here in L.A. called Rude Forms Among Us.
“Over a span of several decades, the 19th-century photographer Eugène Trutat documented the Dolmen de Vaour,” the show’s curator, architect Anna Neimark, writes. “Three stones form the perimeter of a nearly rectangular interior; they are called orthostates. One orthostate is long, presenting a sort-of wall, while the other two are chunky and can be read as truncated columns. All three are set in from the perimeter, allowing a rather peculiar capstone to appear to float above them.”
Geology rearranged becomes architecture; the built environment is just the surface of the Earth, 必威客户端app
My friend, Wayne, sent me this link about an accidental archaeological discovery beneath a Pennsylvania prison in the 1960s that reads like the start of a Jordan Peele film.
“A hidden underground cell was found this week at the Bucks County prison here,” the New York Times reported back in 1964. “Warden John D. Case said that several inmates digging in the prison basement preparing to install new water pipes discovered an 8‐foot by 18‐foot room with a brick arched ceiling of about 5½‐foot clearance. Mr. Case said there might be a secret room under each of the original 51 cells in the prison, which dates to 1884.”
It’s easy to imagine the story of an occult 19th-century architect constructing prisons to contain both a person and their shadow self, or perhaps just a sadistic warden installing secret listening rooms beneath the cells of his prisoners to eavesdrop on the growing sounds of loneliness and remorse crying down through the ceiling.
Or, for that matter, imagine a horror novel about some strange and thoroughly debunked folk-magic architectural theory from the 1800s suggesting that all works of civil infrastructure—prisons, libraries, courts of law—had to have both a positive and a negative version constructed, an aboveground world and its subterranean reflection, and that, over the course of the novel, more and more of these underground spaces are discovered in the humid, history-rich soils of the American east coast. And that it ends well for no one involved.
“Archaeologists have long been baffled by the abrupt abandonment of northern Mesopotamian settlements roughly 4,200 years ago,” Eos reports. This otherwise mysterious abandonment might have been catalyzed by three centuries of dust—“dust for 300 years”—arising from extreme drought and aridity.
The dust was so bad, in fact, it left a geological record in regional stalactites.
Perhaps that’s how the end will come, as a slow but relentless accumulation of dust on windowsills—in California, Arizona, Nevada—a civilizational collapse that should have been signaled, in retrospect, by the rapid growth of the house-cleaning economy, but that, for at least a generation, will take the form of puzzled homeowners wiping wetted cloths along wood trim, wondering if there’s something going on outside.
[Image: Illustration depicting mammoth bone architecture; illustrator unknown].
[Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a series of blog posts as part of a Fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Those posts appear to be falling into an internet memory hole, so I thought I’d reproduce lightly edited versions of some of them here, simply for posterity.]
In Steven Mithen’s fantastic book After the Ice, a natural history of human culture from 20,000–5,000 BC, we find a brief introduction to the earliest architectural structures. “The world at 20,000 BC is inhospitable,” Mithen writes, “a cold, dry and windy planet with frequent storms and a dust-laden atmosphere… People survive wherever they can, struggling with freezing temperatures and persistent drought.”
Their survival is assisted by the construction of shelters—architecture at its very Ice Age origins.
For instance, “five dwellings form a rough circle on the tundra,” Mithen writes, referring to an archaeological site in what is now Ukraine (and using the present tense that his book maintains throughout).
The dwellings are igloo-like but built from mammoth bone and hide rather than blocks of ice. Each has an imposing entrance formed by two tusks, up-ended to form an arch. The walls use massive leg bones as vertical supports, between which jawbones have been stacked chin-down to create a thick barrier to the cold and wind. Further tusks are used on the roof to weigh down hides and sods of turf that are supported on a framework of bones and branches.
Skulls are used as furniture, and animal hides line the floor and walls, in a kind of corporeal grotesque that would make Ed Gein proud. These structures formed what the Field Museum in Chicago calls—in a now-defunct link—“small villages of bone huts,” adding that, when a bone didn’t work as architecture, it could be repurposed as a musical instrument—as if predating David Byrne’s Playing the Building installation by more than twenty millennia.
[Images: Excavation grids from Mezhirich, Ukraine; from O. Soffer, “The Upper Paleolithic of the Central Russian Plain,” courtesy of Don’s Maps].
In his book The Archaeology of Animals, Simon J. M. Davis refers to these structures as a type of “osteo-architecture,” or “bone ruins.”
He goes on to explain that an archaeologist named Ivan Pidoplichko “excavated some of the most spectacular bone ‘ruins’ so far found in the Ukraine. At Mezhirich, in the Cherkassy Region for example, he found a ‘ruin’ consisting of 385 mammoth bones covering a circular area 4-5m across. Beneath these bones Pidoplichko found 4600 artefacts and an ash-filled circular pit.” Davis’s ensuing description is worth quoting in full:
In Pidoplichko’s reconstruction the 必威手机版
was shaped like a beehive, similar to a Chukot Yaranga or ‘skin tent’ of today. The base of the structure consisted of a circle of some 25 mammoth skulls, each arranged so that its frontal bones faced inwards (this was how he found them). Other elements which made up the foundation were 20 mammoth pelvises and 10 long bones embedded vertically in the ground. On top of these and the skulls were 12 more skulls, 30 scapulae, 20 long bones, 15 pelvises and segments of seven vertebral columns. Still higher—and presumably for holding down skins over a wooden framework—there were 35 tusks. Ninety-five mammoth mandibles, piled up in columns around parts of the foundation, may have served as a peripheral retaining wall.
Mithen speculates that these anatomical Ice Age 必威手机版
supplies did not come only from coordinated acts of hunting (in which slaughtering large animals would also have meant obtaining spare parts for your house, as if wooly mammoths were a kind of living Home Depot).
[Images: (top) Excavation of Dwelling 4, Mezhirich, Ukraine (1979); photo by O. Soffer, from “The Upper Paleolithic of the Central Russian Plain”; (bottom) Excavation at Mezhirich, Ukraine; photo from J. Jelinek, “The Evolution of Man,” both courtesy of Don’s Maps].
Instead, he suggests, “the river supplies 必威手机版
materials: bones from animals that have died in the north and had their carcasses washed downstream.” These bones thus arrived by, and were harvested from, deltaic processes of the nearby watershed, just a particularly bulky form of sediment or debris for which it was easy to find a cultural use.
There are several architectural points to be made here. First, it seems substantially more interesting to me to locate the birth of architecture in actual paleolithic practices, not in the terminological vagaries of early Greek philosophy (which seems to the prevalent mode of searching for architecture’s theoretical origins today). But what if the knee-joints of extinct megafauna are more important for the origins of architecture than Daedalus or khôra? In other words, why not perform forensic studies of mammoth bones and animal skins, and—however momentarily—put down the Plato?
As a side note, I was intrigued to see that—as of June 2010 [when this post was originally published]—the Wikipedia page for the history of architecture does not even go beyond 10,000 BC, starting instead with the Neolithic. But what of Steven Mithen, Davis’s osteo-architecture, and our bone-encircled Ukrainian forebears? At what point is an inhabitable pile of skulls considered a 必威手机版
Second, what was architectural “style” 22,000 years ago? Were there eccentric or personalized methods for tying sinew bone-to-bone, or virtuoso tactics for assembling antlers into windproof screens on difficult hillside sites? Who were the path-breakers for the time—who was the Cedric Price of animal architecture, or the Archigram of mammoth bones? By extension, what palaces of mastodon ribs have been lost to archaeology altogether? Multi-floored labyrinths of cartilage and bearskin rugs. An Early Holocene Plug-In City made from the jaws of saber-toothed tigers. Perhaps it’s time for Pamphlet Architecture to take up the subject of paleolithic home design.
Third, surely a retrospective exhibition of late Pleistocene architecture is long overdue? Even a small gallery show exploring the state of architecture 22,000 years ago would be extraordinarily interesting. At the very least, imagine the weekend outreach programs for kids.
The border between natural history and architectural design deserves more exploration, beyond the odd science museum diorama. We have been living in 必威手机版
s for more than 20,000 years, if Mithen’s book is to be believed, but nearly half of that period has seemingly been thrown outside the pale of architectural history.
Buildings did not suddenly appear at 10,000 BC with the first stonemasons, woodcutters, or the advent of Greek philosophy; 必威手机版
s accumulated out of the corpse-filled debris of Ice Age rivers when neurologically modern humans began to interlock and assemble bones into structures of which we have almost no physical record.
So how do we bring these structures out of material anthropology and into architectural history, where they just as equally belong?
Last summer, I got obsessed with the idea of how future crimes will be investigated on Mars. If we accept the premise that humans will one day settle the Red Planet, then, it seems to me, we should be prepared to see the same old vices pop up all over again, from kidnapping and burglary to serial murder, even bank heists.
If there is a mining depot on Mars, in other words, then there will be someone plotting to rob it.
But who will have the jurisdictional power to investigate these crimes? What sorts of forensic tools will offworld police use to analyze Martian crime scenes contaminated by relentless solar exposure, where the planet’s low gravity will make blood spatter differently from stab wounds? Further, if there is a future Martian crime wave, what sort of prison architecture would be appropriate—if any—for detaining perpetrators on another world?
Over the long and often surreal process of researching these sorts of questions, I spoke with legendary sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, with Arctic archaeologist Christyann Darwent, with space law expert Elsbeth Magilton, with astrobiologist and political activist Lucianne Walkowicz, with political theorists Charles Cockell and Philip Steinberg, and with UCLA astrophysicist David Paige. All of them, through their own particular fields of expertise, helped chip away at various aspects of the question of what non-terrestrial law enforcement.
Incredibly, I also met a 4th-degree black belt in Aikido named Josh Gold who has been working with a team of advisors to develop a new martial art for space, rethinking the basics of human movement for a world with low—or even, on a space station, no—gravity. How do you pin someone to the ground, for example, when is no ground to pin them on?
In any case, will we need a Mars P.D.? If so, what exactly might a Martian police department look like?
A “huge granite sarcophagus” has been unearthed during construction work in Egypt. Physical evidence suggests that it has never been opened and that it has rested, undisturbed in the earth, for thousands of years. The lid alone apparently weighs fifteen metric tons.
In a sense, it feels oddly timely, the ultimate black box for our increasingly dark timeline in modern history, like some symbolic, mythic glimpse of that-which-should-not-be-opened but, of course, someone will inevitably open. Although, I suppose, I’m with Warren Ellis on this one.