What are some fictional examples of archaeology/ruins set in the future?
July 4, 2016 2:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of archaeology of the present day, and/or of the ruins of the modern world, from the perspective of the future, as expressed in fiction or film. These could be major plot points, recurrent themes, or merely passing references.

Canonical examples of the sort of thing I'm looking for include: Jean-Luc Picard's archaeological hobby; Star Trek (original) episode Galileo 7 with Clovis points and ?sasquatches; the shopping list and lunchbox from A Canticle for Liebowitz; the Statue of Liberty emerging from the sand at the end of the original Planet of the Apes.
posted by Rumple to Society & Culture (42 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Not fiction at all, but the World Without Us.
posted by moiraine at 2:12 PM on July 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's one that my dad gave to me when I was a youngster: Motel of the Mysteries, by David Macaulay. The synopsis:
It is the year 4022; all of the ancient country of Usa has been buried under many feet of detritus from a catastrophe that occurred back in 1985. Imagine, then, the excitement that Howard Carson, an amateur archeologist at best, experienced when in crossing the perimeter of an abandoned excavation site he felt the ground give way beneath him and found himself at the bottom of a shaft, which, judging from the DO NOT DISTURB sign hanging from an archaic doorknob, was clearly the entrance to a still-sealed burial chamber. Carson's incredible discoveries, including the remains of two bodies, one of then on a ceremonial bed facing an altar that appeared to be a means of communicating with the Gods and the other lying in a porcelain sarcophagus in the Inner Chamber, permitted him to piece together the whole fabric of that extraordinary civilization.
Here are pics from the book that give you a sense of it. The humor is that it is a hotel room that they are excavating (which apparently isn't a known thing by 4022), and the things that seem ceremonial and full of meaning are every day items like a toilet or bathtub. It's very clever and well done.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:21 PM on July 4, 2016 [12 favorites]

No real plot, but you might like Motel of the Mysteries.

Argh SpacemanStix beat me to it!
posted by mskyle at 2:22 PM on July 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Shannara Chronicles tv adaptation features the current time as a distance past leaving behind ruins of overpasses, helicopters, huge astronomical dishes and such.
posted by srboisvert at 2:23 PM on July 4, 2016

The film "Logan's Run", dialog like this:

"They say this thing used to be called a road...had to give bits of metal to use it."

making reference to a collapsed and overgrown highway. Of course that's just one example from that film.
posted by forthright at 2:23 PM on July 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: By the Waters of Babylon is pretty famous.
posted by LionIndex at 2:33 PM on July 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Sand by Hugh Howey
posted by KateViolet at 2:41 PM on July 4, 2016

In terms of near future, the appeal of many of the games from the Fallout series is having the player rediscover a lost present-day civilization within a post-apocalyptic setting, where you start having grown up or separated from that previous world in an underground vault. As the player, it is always a new discovery to learn what this pre-war civilization was like. As a twist on this genre, the "present day" isn't exactly like our present day, though, as everyone was living in an idealized retro-futuristic society, as if the futurism of the 50s was realized right before everything collapsed.

Also near future, The Road (both the book and the movie) deal with a bit with post-apocalyptic discovery, but not as a major plot point (it's more about survival). For the child, there is one memorable moment where they discover an abandoned Coke machine, and there is one can left. The scene is about the child experiencing drinking Coke out of a can for the first time as if it is now a type of ancient artifact.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:44 PM on July 4, 2016

Best answer: The Alex Benedict novels by Jack McDevitt.
posted by Bruce H. at 2:47 PM on July 4, 2016

McDevitt's Alex Benedict novels might qualify -- Benedict is, IIRC, an antiquities dealer/archaeologist -- but I think the vast majority of the things he finds or encounters are not from Earth, but from human-settled worlds elsewhere in the galaxy. (I think that series is set 10,000 years or more from now.) McDevitt's Eternity Road might be a closer match.
posted by Janta at 3:10 PM on July 4, 2016

The Tripod Trilogy, by John Christopher. A few hints in Banks's Feersum End Jinn.
posted by migurski at 3:41 PM on July 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: "By the Waters of Babylon" looks fantastic thanks, as do the others. More suggestions along the lines of the "World Without Us" also welcome even though not specified in the question. I plan to use images from Motel of the Mysteries - this is for a course I am planning.
posted by Rumple at 3:43 PM on July 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going to assume you left Waterworld out of your list of canonical examples in a bid to hurt me personally.
posted by ftm at 3:49 PM on July 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

Robert Charles Wilson's novel Julian Comstock is set in a 22nd century where America has largely regressed to 19th-century culture and technology after fossil fuels ran out. The loss of knowledge is a major subject, and the start of the novel spends some time in "the Tip," a dump where scroungers dig for useful artifacts from the current era. Julian goes there searching for books and attempts to convince Adam, the narrator, that humans once went to the moon.
posted by skymt at 3:49 PM on July 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A.I.(artificial intelligence) by steven Spielberg features an ending where the decedents of tomorrow's robots are excavating the ruins of new York from under a glacier in the distant future.
posted by sexyrobot at 3:51 PM on July 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: 12 Monkeys has this a bit, from a not-very-distant future time

Futurama has a ton of this - exploring the subterranean ruins of Old New York, museums of old technology like cars, etc.

Demolition Man makes some jokes about this - in their PC future, all the guns are in disapproving museums, etc
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:54 PM on July 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The animated film 9 and its short-film predecessor are set in the ruined Europe of a dieselpunk alternate universe where an early-20th-century war wiped out all of humanity, which the main character sort of reconstructs as the plot progresses.
posted by XMLicious at 4:03 PM on July 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Divergent series is largely set in and around the future ruins of modern day Chicago.
posted by telegraph at 4:21 PM on July 4, 2016

The epilogue of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale mentions the original form in which the manuscript was discovered.
posted by gnomeloaf at 4:24 PM on July 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The 2002 movie version of The Time Machine includes ruined bits of New York City. The TV series Defiance is set in a future St. Louis, Missouri and there are regular views of a ruined Gateway Arch.
posted by gudrun at 5:03 PM on July 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't recall there being any archaeological study going on, but Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou is a manga series set in "a peaceful, post-cataclysmic" future Japan. (There's also some animation available.) You can find some of the artwork online: 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.
posted by wintersweet at 5:22 PM on July 4, 2016

Best answer: Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. This whole (great, difficult) book is a kind of future archaeology of our present--our language, technology, borders, buildings, technology, & customs.

You can watch the process of forgetting & rediscovery happen within a few generations in George R. Stewart's The Earth Abides. (Example: coins go from being monetarily useless to making pretty good arrowheads.)

Samuel R. Delany's Einstein Intersection (among many other things, Beatles records!)

Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death is set in a kind of ambiguous future, with caves full of dead computer parts.

Since the Statue of Liberty in the sand is in the initial question, it seems like spoilers -- the sort of ruins that appear as a Big Reveal--are all right. So, a few more:

V'ger in the 1st Star Trek movie.

A certain shovel in Neal Stephenson's Seveneves...
posted by miles per flower at 5:38 PM on July 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

Here's an odd idea that might not fit your question if it's just about time, but might be interesting if you think about modern objects as seen by other "cultures":

The Little Mermaid (Disney movie) where Ariel is singing about the fork and the comb, trying to figure out how humans would use these amazing objects.
posted by CathyG at 6:10 PM on July 4, 2016

On those lines (not archeology but naive discovery): Wall-E's beginning scenes set in the great trash heaps of Earth.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:17 PM on July 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

One of the characters in Emily St. John Mandel's post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven becomes the curator of a "Museum of Civilization". It's slightly more than a passing reference, but a lot less than a major plot point. This link to the Wikipedia article explains more (and spoils all). The book won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2015.
posted by trotzdem_kunst at 11:16 PM on July 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Mortal Engines! The series is 80-90% people in the steampunk distant future digging up ancient artifacts.

After London might count. I think the ruins of London make an appearance.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:44 PM on July 4, 2016

Best answer: Glacial Period is a comic about future explorers discovering the remains of the Louvre under ice and hypothesising about the civilisation that created the art.
posted by terretu at 11:58 PM on July 4, 2016

Arthur C. Clarke's "History Lesson"?
posted by russm at 1:04 AM on July 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh! Just remembered Cecelia Holland's Floating Worlds. From memory, it opens with the central character, Paula Mendoza, on a bad date, visiting Earth's ruins with a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend mansplaining them to her.
posted by trotzdem_kunst at 1:05 AM on July 5, 2016

Best answer: Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. Le Guin, is set in a far-future California where the protagonists encounter ruins of the past; it even has sort of an anthropological section.

It's not immediately obvious if you watch it from the beginning, but the animated series Adventure Time is set on a postapocalyptic Earth; some of the episodes deal with it directly ("I Remember You" is the most well-known), but more often the protagonists will just pass a buried police car or something like that.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 6:16 AM on July 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Janet Edward's Earth Girl and its sequels are about a futuristic archaeology student.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:27 AM on July 5, 2016

This is an example that doesn't feature a far off set of ruins. The show's title sequence for Dark Angel featured the main character sitting atop the abandoned and disused Seattle Space Needle.
posted by mmascolino at 7:09 AM on July 5, 2016

The collapse of Western civilization: a view from the future, by Oreskes and Conway. Though the retrospective is more about geography and climate than buildings or artifacts.
posted by Weftage at 7:09 AM on July 5, 2016

Best answer: The TV show "The 100" on the CW network takes place 100 years after nuclear destruction. It is set in the area around Washington DC. One of the settlements is named "TONDC" because that is all that was left of the roadsign when they built it. There are images of the Lincoln Memorial, Mount Weather in VA, and the Six Flags of America amusement park.
posted by CathyG at 8:49 AM on July 5, 2016

If musical examples will work, the opening track on Princess Superstar's Last of the Great 20th Century Composers frames the album as an artifact discovered by some kind of archaeologists/explorers after music itself has been destroyed by the mainstream record industry. The album doesn't thematize it much after this, but the opening track is spot on.
posted by dizziest at 12:16 PM on July 5, 2016

Best answer: Jasper fforde's Shades of Grey is an unusual take on this trope. Misinterpreted artifacts of the past are a big part of the novel (for example, the game board from Diplomacy is the only surviving map).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:31 PM on July 5, 2016

Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space series leads off with an archaeological dig - it's not Earth but is on a fictional timeline that includes future earth. Since you included alternative-futures such as Planet of the Apes I'm hoping that other (fictional) planets are OK.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 5:57 PM on July 5, 2016

Gene Wolfe's novella Seven American Nights features a middle-eastern tourist travelling through the future ruins of Washington D.C. It's great!
posted by gold-in-green at 11:03 PM on July 5, 2016

Oh yeah, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_of_the_New_Sun
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:24 PM on July 6, 2016

I came to recommend Earth Girl, but someone beat me to it. I did really like the archaeology scenes, though (even if the methods were far removed from what we think of as good excavation methods - the reasoning was compelling).
posted by timepiece at 11:13 AM on July 7, 2016

Response by poster: Thank you all for these great suggestions. I marked the ones which at the moment appear most likely to be useful but I will be referring back to this list many times.
posted by Rumple at 3:22 PM on July 16, 2016

Oh, another interesting one I just thought of: MeFi's own cstross's 2006 novel Glasshouse; to quote Wikipedia on its interstellar 27th-century civilization:
For a variety of reasons, posthumanity has forgotten the history of events preceding, during, and just after the singularity (the "acceleration") as it occurred back in the Solar System, from around 1950 to 2040. They refer to this period as the Dark Ages. Data-storage methods changed so rapidly that proper backups weren't made; much data was encrypted, or stored on perishable media; many individuals hailing from the period excised their memories too many times, creating a historical "bias"; and many "censorship wars" were fought, with computer viruses and worms changing or erasing what was left.
The story follows a distant-future posthuman individual who is recruited along with many others to act out roles within an immersive facsimile of a 1950s-U.S. town, supposedly as a research project aiming to figure out historical details. In the end it's revealed to be a military project to analyze how aspects of that culture could be used for psychological warfare and social control.
posted by XMLicious at 9:34 PM on July 16, 2016

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