The ISSAP: Archaeology in Outer Space

Typically, an archaeologist’s job is to uncover the narratives of past civilizations through the items they left behind to gather a better glimpse of our past and how various cultures lived. Recently, however, humans have ventured beyond Earth to other places like the Moon and Mars, so how does this change the meaning of archaeology? To help answer this question, the term “space archaeology” was coined to describe human activity in space, or human activity with the goal of exploring space (Woodall, 2022). Furthermore, to investigate space archeology, archaeologists have looked to the International Space Station (ISS). This is one of the first experiments where archaeological research focused on a society that exists in the present, rather than the past.

Full image of the ISS, the largest satellite in orbit.

In particular, researchers led by archaeologists Alice Gorman (author of Dr. Space Junk vs the Universe) and Justin Walsh have begun to explore the “unique micro-society in a mini world” by examining the culture of living on the ISS (“Boldly Going”, 2022). These researchers studied a grid comprised of photographs taken by crew members, hoping to address several overarching questions that have not previously been inquired by other earthbound archaeologists. These questions include how crew members interact with one another as well as the equipment and limited space, how space artifacts reflect culture through hierarchical lenses, how crew members altered the station to suit their needs, and what is the effect of microgravity on this miniature society (Romo, 2022). The ISS is the next step in investigating the development of humanity living in space.

The dotted yellow line outlines a sample location of the analyzed artifacts.

An additional reason this research is occurring is because the ISS will intentionally fall to Earth in January 2031 (Strickland, 2022). Therefore, it is highly important to research this aspect of human culture before it is too late.

Moreover, Walsh remarks, “If this were a site on Earth, we would do everything we could to preserve it. But that isn’t technically feasible, so the next thing archaeologists do, like when sites are going to be [destroyed], is document everything we can about the site, and preserve that documentation and any samples” (Strickland, 2022).

The International Space Station Archaeological Project (ISSAP) is the first large-scale space archaeology project. The first phase of the experiment lasted 60 days from January to March 2022, and updates are currently posted on the ISSAP’s website (“Boldly Going”, 2022). These updates included photos of artifacts, explanations of technology used by the archaeologists, and analyses of assemblages of items. Now that Phase One is complete, what will Phase Two look like? Is this the future of archaeology?

Reference List:
“Boldly Going Where No Archaeologists Have Gone Before.” ISS Archaeology, April 12, 2022.

Romo, Vanessa. “Archaeologists Launch First-Ever ‘Dig’ into Life on the International Space Station.” NPR. NPR, January 20, 2022.

Strickland, Ashley. “Capturing the Heritage of the International Space Station before It Crashes into the Ocean.” CNN. Cable News Network, March 11, 2022.

Woodall, Tatyana. “What an Extraterrestrial Archaeological Dig Could Tell Us about Space Culture.” Popular Science, March 29, 2022.

Further Reading:
Ali, Rao Hamza, Amir Kanan Kashefi, Alice C. Gorman, Justin St. P. Walsh, and Erik J. Linstead. “Automated Identification of Astronauts on Board the International Space Station: A Case Study in Space Archaeology.” Acta Astronautica. Pergamon, August 12, 2022.

Metzger, Cerise Valenzuela, Cerise Valenzuela Metzger View all posts, and View all posts. “Chapman University’s Study Aboard the International Space Station Wins a Prestigious Digital Archaeology Award.” Chapman Newsroom, November 18, 2022.

Burials, Beads, and Ancient Baby Slings

Burial sites can reveal a lot about an individual’s identity and story. For instance, archaeologists excavated the site of Arma Veirana in Liguria and examined the opening of a trench found close to the Eastern cave wall. At this opening, a team of researchers at the University of Montreal discovered a burial of a female infant. DNA and tooth analyses indicate that she was most likely 50 days old when she was buried during the Early Mesolithic period (about 10,000 BCE) just after the last Ice Age. (Gravel-Miguel et al. 2022)

The leader of the team, Gravel-Miguel, remarked, “I was excavating in the adjacent square and remember looking over and thinking ‘that’s a weird bone.’ It quickly became clear that not only we were looking at a human cranium, but that it was also of a very young individual. It was an emotional day.” (Arizona State University, 2021)

These archaeologists not only unearthed the bones of the infant but ancient human ornaments as well. Typically, such ornaments are considered a means to express identity, including hierarchical status and gender, but they could also be utilized to protect one from evil spirits. The female infant was buried with numerous perforated shells and pendants, allowing researchers to uncover how early humans used these beads. Through various kinds of analyses, they concluded that the beads were in fact a part of the baby’s sling. (Gravel-Miguel et al. 2022)

An artistic representation of Neve’s burial, displaying the infant’s sling with the perforated beads attached.

Although there are no remains of the sling itself today, the surrounding shells in the burial site are perforated in such a way that suggests someone threaded the shells together and then sewed them on a type of textile or animal hide. Another result of the analyses is that the shells were heavily worn down, and therefore, they were likely worn by other community members before being attached to the sling (Heinrich, 2022). The purpose of the sling was likely in order to keep the infant near her parents while simultaneously allowing them to move around (Gravel-Miguel et al. 2022).

The anatomical parts of the shells that were sewn on the sling. The blue outline on the dorsal side describes the general area of most of the perforations.

Furthermore, the research team proposed that the infant’s community might have adorned her sling with beads primarily to defend her against evil. As her death indicated that those beads had failed their purpose of protecting her, however, the community thought it ideal to bury the sling instead of reusing it. (Heinrich, 2022)

Since the 2017 excavation, archaeologists named the buried infant “Neve”, and dental analysis of her teeth implies she is the “oldest female child buried in Europe” (Cassella, 2022). New research and future studies emphasize the means of childcare during prehistory and the possible use (and reuse) of beads for protecting community members and strengthening social connections within the tribes (Heinrich, 2022).

Reference Links:
Gravel-Miguel, C., Cristiani, E., Hodgkins, J. et al. The Ornaments of the Arma Veirana Early Mesolithic Infant Burial. J Archaeol Method Theory (2022).

Heinrich, J. (2022, September 26). Bringing up baby, 10,000 years ago. udemnouvelles. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from

Cassella, C. (2022, September 29). Ancient Burial of a Young Girl Shows How We Carried Our Babies 10,000 Years Ago. ScienceAlert. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from

Arizona State University. (2021, December 14). Earliest adorned female infant burial in Europe significant in understanding evolution of personhood. Retrieved October 2, 2022, from

Additional Content:
Hodgkins, J., Orr, C.M., Gravel-Miguel, C. et al. An infant burial from Arma Veirana in northwestern Italy provides insights into funerary practices and female personhood in early Mesolithic Europe. Sci Rep 11, 23735 (2021).

Martinón-Torres, M., d’Errico, F., Santos, E. et al. Earliest known human burial in Africa. Nature 593, 95–100 (2021).