ZEITGEIST: Dawid Kobialka

Star Trek into Archaeology: Captain James T. Kirk and Heritage from the Future

Dawid Kobialka, PhD Student, Adam Mickiewicz University

Definitely, it was not a good day for Theodor Adorno (2005: 25), otherwise great German philosopher, when he honestly admitted in Minima Moralia: ‘Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse’. What Adorno despised was not only Hollywood movies, but generally, popular culture per se that was part of culture industry. However, it can be said that today there are many interesting things taking place in cinema that can inspire archaeologists. One of them concerns heritage; the subject that is very close to our hearts.

For many decades cultural heritage was seen through the lens of great monuments/buildings from the past (e.g. Stonehenge). Nonetheless, some new trends have been recently observed within the heritage sector. That is to say, more and more ordinary, day-to-day things are recognized as cultural heritage. This is one of the faces of spirit of our time (Zeitgeist): even an ordinary object has its own historical and cultural value (figure 1). By the same token, cultural heritage seems to be everything what we inherit from the past. Popular culture gives conceptual tools to slightly correct this point of view. To put it paradoxically, cultural heritage is also everything what we inherit from the future.

Figure 1 (1)
Figure 1: Heritage from the recent past: a bottle of vodka (author Dawid Kobiałka).

Star Trek is, without any doubt, one of the greatest cultural goods created in the US. It is a series of novels, comic books, TV series and movies, about the crew of the starship Enterprise and its different stories that happen during the exploration of the universe. The Captain of the starship is my beloved hero from childhood: Captain James T. Kirk. And he might be the key to understanding archaeological Zeitgeist, so to speak.

In Riverside, Iowa is a small plaque (figure 2). It commemorates the fact that captain Kirk will be born in this town on March 22, 2228. The plaque is very ambiguous. It does not concern with some true event from the past as it is usually in the case of such monuments. On the contrary, it says about a fictional, future event. The usual logic is turned around here. The plague might embody some trends of crucial significance for today’s archaeology. In other words, instead of focusing on hard data and heritage from the past, archaeologists need to focus also on the role of fiction (popular culture) and heritage from the future for contemporary society.

Figure 2 (1)
Figure 2: Heritage from the future(1).

The Captain Kirk plaque is not the only example that indicates the increasing role of popular culture heritage from the future. Another one that was also extremely popular on the Internet is Rä di Martimo’s pictures took in the desert of Tunisia and Morocco (e.g Gorence 2013). What made the pictures so intriguing is the fact that they present buildings and other facilities from George Lucas’ Star Wars. One is seeing in them ‘real’, ‘material’ buildings from the planet Tatooine. It is as if reality and fiction became one. The point to be made here is very simple: these buildings, although belonging to a different universe (as it is known to every devotee of Star Wars, Taooine is located in Outer Rim Territories), are our common heritage. But this heritage comes from the future….

Archaeology is a social and cultural practice. In accordance with that, to be important for contemporary society, archaeology needs to address topics of general interest. One way of doing it goes, in my opinion, through the links between popular culture and heritage (from the future). The heritage of popular culture is the one that we as archaeologists should more carefully reflect upon. Who knows?: perhaps contemporary archaeologies and the heritage sector should be more about the future than the past (see also Holtorf & Högberg 2013).


[1] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Future_Birthplace_of_Captain_James_T_Kirk.jpg [accessed October 1, 2013].


Adorno, T. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. by E. F. N. Jephcott. London & New York, Verso.

Gorence, A. 2013. Remnants of abandoned Star Wars Sets in Morocco and Tunisia reminiscent of ancient ruins. Feature shoot, February 1, 2013. Available at: http://www.featureshoot.com/2013/02/remnants-of-abandoned-star-wars-sets-in-morocco-and-tunisia-reminiscent-of-ancient-ruins/ [accessed October 1, 2013].

Holtorf, C. &  Högberg, A. 2013. Heritage futures and the future of heritage. In: S. Bergerbrant & S. Sabatini (eds.), Counterpoint: Essays in Archaeology and Heritage Studies in Honour of Professor Kritisian Kristiansen, BAR International Series 2508. Archaeopress: Oxford, pp. 739-46.


John Roby, Assistant Professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania

As a lifelong science fiction fan, I was fascinated to read Dawid Kobiałka’s thoughts on a sort of “future heritage” pinned to the delightfully anachronistic, extant material culture of Star Trek and Star Wars. I would like to briefly raise one concern and one point of expansion.

Leaving aside the vision of Theodor Adorno sitting in on the latest Star Trek film, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of the culture industry runs deeper than mere dislike. To Adorno and others, the troubling thing about a cultural production like a film was its ability to create a false sense of choice and freedom in the viewer, while reproducing the structural conditions within which that viewer was enmeshed (Horkheimer and Adorno 1982). A material object, of course, has a use-value, while a cultural production has value only in the way it instills prestige and knowledge in its consumer. The culture industry manipulates those created needs, thus appearing to provide what consumers want, while actually training them to want more things that are of less value. Just as “the diner must be satisfied with the menu,” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1982: 139), the viewer must be satisfied with the film. So goes the criticism.

Yet I have trouble accepting that as the end of the discussion. To me, the best science fiction articulates a hopeful vision of human possibility. This is particularly true for Star Trek, with its celebration of unity in diversity and its future history in which we have moved beyond superstition and want and war. To that end, I find the memorialization of Captain Kirk’s future birthplace to be, as Kobiałka notes, quite compelling. I agree that the concept of heritage can, and perhaps should be, extended to a vision of the future, and I suggest that memory offers a way out of the “hard data” bind to which Kobiałka makes reference.

The immateriality of fiction appears to be a hurdle to using a certain vision of the future to organize praxis in the present. But this hurdle is itself illusory: Archaeology is in the business of presencing the absent, “enfranchising it as an object of social discourse” (Buchli and Lucas 2001: 174). Fiction’s locations are by definition absent, but monumental buildings and memorials can concretize that absence, serving as foci for remembrance. Moreover, as Joan W. Scott (2001) makes clear, history (and, I would add, heritage work) constructs its object, it does not discover it. In light of this, there is no particular reason an object or locus inspired by a work of fiction cannot serve as a site of cultural memory (Connerton 1989, 2009).

My concern is with what memories and memorial practices would be foregrounded at such a site. Kobiałka suggests greater attention to the heritage of popular culture. The term itself is too vague to suit me; I tend to lean toward the Frankfurt School’s critique of popular culture and the capitalism-serving consumption that it engenders. Star Trek, though, is different. A monument that serves to recall the values it lauds and suggests concrete practices to achieve them is a small step to making that future less fictional and more possible.


Buchli, Victor, and Gavin Lucas. 2001. “Presencing Absence.” In Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, edited by Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas, 171-174. London: Routledge.

Connerton, Paul. 1989. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Connerton, Paul. 2009. How Modernity Forgets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. 1982. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum.

Scott, Joan W. 2001. “After History?” In Schools of Thought: Twenty-Five Years of Interpretive Social Science, edited by Joan W. Scott and Debra Keates, 85-103.

Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Memories of haunted places: An Andean village after the violence

In the small Andean village of Pomatambo, ruined adobe houses stand next to new brick ones. Decay and renewal dot the landscape just as people are struggling to balance painful memories of war and loss with new optimism for community unity. Landscape and place activate certain memories of the past and aspirations for the future in Pomatambo.

Villagers and visitors celebrate the annual patron festival of Pomatambo by dancing through and around the borders of Pomatambo.
Villagers and visitors celebrate the annual patron festival of Pomatambo by dancing through and around the borders of Pomatambo, August 2006. In the valley is the burnt ruin of the hacienda of Ayzarca, where Sendero Luminoso assassinated the administrator on Christmas Eve of 1980.

Pomatambo, a village of about two hundred people, is nestled high in the Andes in the province of Vilcashuamán. The Vilcashuamán area was at the epicenter of a civil war in the 1980s and 1990s. During the violence, over a third of the villagers abandoned Pomatambo. Every family in Pomatambo lost at least a member during these years, and abandoned houses and memorials mark where people lost their lives. In Pomatambo, people are generally reluctant to talk about those painful years and for good reason. During the violence, not only were the villagers caught between the army and the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas, the conflict also entered their families, dividing loyalties and increasing mistrust in the community.

A small, subterranean cave atop 'Aya Orqo' or the 'Hill of the Dead.'
A small, subterranean cave atop “Aya Orqo” or the “Hill of the Dead.” This cave was filled in by the villagers during the 1980s to prevent the Peruvian army from “disappearing” people into it.

When they walk or dance over the landscape, however, the villagers open up about the past unprompted. A cave: filled in by the villagers so that no one would be “disappeared” into it. A ruined adobe house: the place where two children became orphans. A cross amongst the stones of a wall and thicket: where a local had lost his life while walking away from the army, not understanding he needed to stop. Through the stories that accompany such places, a fractured, but mending, social landscape is revealed.

An abandoned adobe house facing the 'Hill of the Dead.'
An abandoned adobe house facing the 'Hill of the Dead.' This house was where Sendero Luminoso had executed a couple for allegedly being informants for the state, leaving orphans who refuse to return to the village.

How can we as archaeologists make sense of the material remains of memory and landscape? More specifically, how do we reconcile abstract distance, both temporal and spatial, with the ways people experience distance on the ground? And what social significance do such differing views of distance hold?

In Pomatambo and elsewhere in the rural Andes, temporal depth and spatial distance are highly variable depending on how certain memories are practiced. The daily circuits going to the fields, maintaining the roads, herding, and visiting relatives activate non-chronological recounting of different histories. Hundreds of years may be compressed into the same story. For example, while atop Aya Orqo, or hill of the dead, someone may tell you that the cave on top of the hill was covered by the community in the 1980s to prevent soldiers from disappearing people into it. Then he may tell you that, before it was covered, his son explored it to discover it was like an ancient temple with stone figurines. Then he may point in the direction of a rocky feature that is said to cry blood. Someone else may chime in that Aya Orqo was the base of an Inka bridge that was kilometers long, and that the Inka had an iron staff with which to command the huge stones into place. Looking in the same general direction, he may notice the burned hacienda of Ayzarca and recount how the Shining Path had assassinated the hacendado as one of their earlier actions. Then looking in the opposite direction, he may point out the abandoned adobe house where the Shining Path had executed a couple for allegedly being informants to the state, leaving behind orphans who refuse to come back. Then turning to the right, he may point out the church that the community was currently building, emphasizing how everyone is working together again. All of the stories were unprompted. Though the details and chronological order of any history may change depending on location and the individual recounting, the process is similar: the long history of suffering and fracture is also a long history of constant renewal. History is a cycle situated in the present.

Women sing the <em>harawi</em> to a community <em>minka</em>, or house-raising.
Women sing the harawi to a community minka, or house-raising. The house is made of brick and financed by one of the sons of the community who left the village permanently during the violence.

Something similar happens with spatial distance. I have been visiting the area since 2004, and no matter which village I am in, I always find myself exhausted getting to my next destination. When I ask, “How far is so and so?” The answer depends not on absolute distance, but on how familiar the person is with that location. Because most people in the area do not make a habit of using watches, they have a compressed sense of distance. You may be told half an hour, when in reality, it is two hours (or an hour and half for someone more athletic than I). If where you are trying to get to is on their daily circuit, then the time will be even more severely underestimated. During festivals, villagers will dance with their extended families around the limits and through the important landmarks of the community, further strengthening such familiarity with the geography. Therefore, from an abstract point of view, space and time around familiar or personally historically relevant places are compressed, making those places seem present. One can imagine a density map showing “hot spots” of such places. They are the nodes and pieces with which people make sense of their daily lives and social obligations.

While we generally interpret the invention of historical depth as a means to legitimize political claims, we could view the same phenomena not as the invention of historical depth but of historical nearness. Through daily circuits in the village, the villagers are reminded of their personal understandings of history, and through the seasonal and annual festivals, they are reminded of their cohesion and nearness.

How could we as archaeologists begin to infer the sense of nearness or farness in the archaeological record? Perhaps by understanding how well trodden certain places and paths were and any drastic changes to such movement, we could begin to cross-check this with other material changes, for example, the standardization of iconography. Such ruptures may mean changes in how people perceive historical nearness on the landscape and therefore imply drastic social change. Furthermore, such ruptures may point to different education regimes about the past. It was always the older generation who told such stories. As the young were taught in school about people like Simon Bolivar and Manco Capac, the legendary first Inka emperor, they forgot about the  little places in the community and the haunted histories they hold.

The cross memorializes the place where a villager had lost his life as he was walking away from the army.
The cross memorializes the place where a villager had lost his life as he was walking away from the army. Photo courtesy Adam Webb.