Using Time Travel for Archaeology

First off, why am I even talking about this? Time travel into the past isn’t real, so what’s the point?The point is that time travel and its application to archaeology/anthropology has not been proved to be impossible, so it is worth talking about the possible risks and the amazing benefits were such a technology to be invented. Being a huge physics nerd myself, I have seen a few proposed types of time travel that could affect the past to varying degrees. I will give an example of a few and talk about their pros and cons in investigating the past.

The first is Star Trek style warp-drive. There is actually a real physical model to achieve this called an Alcubierre drive that essentially shrinks space in front of your spaceship and expands space behind it. Using your warp drive spaceship, you could outrun the light-bubble of the period that you wish to study and use a powerful telescope to peer into the past. This “time travel” technique for observing the past is good because you don’t run into any causality problems–you wouldn’t be causing the past that you are trying to observe to change. However, not only would you have to build your warp-drive spaceship, but you would also need an enormous amount of engineering and resources to go into your telescope. Doing some quick calculations, I found that if you neglect glare from the sun and atmospheric effects that in order to have a resolution of 2 meters (~the height of a person) from 500 light-years away (i.e. looking 500 years into the past) you would need a telescope with a mirror that is about 4.33 million kilometers across.

If building a telescope that is 3x the diameter of the sun doesn’t sound like a good use of your time, another time travel technique that could be used to study the past is by use of wormholes. If you build a wormhole, keep one end near earth, and send the other one on a round-trip at near the speed of light, then you could send that end of the wormhole as far into the future as you want. Now, one of the downsides of this one is that it would only benefit archaeologists/anthropologists of the future. They could thank us for sending them this marvelous portal for them to traverse and study our primitive ways, but we would not be able to use it to visit our past. However, I recently found a paper that proposes a way that we could build a machine that could travel through time to a point prior to its construction, TARDIS style (not kidding…they actually named it the TARDIS! Find it at The major problem with both of these time travel techniques is that we do not know how causal paradoxes are resolved (the whole, what would happen to you if you killed your grandfather problem).  If we visited our past and tried to change it, then would it change the subject that we were studying or is there some mechanism in the universe that makes such changes impossible. One of the most popular answers for this is based on the many worlds hypothesis of quantum physics. It says that if you changed your past then you would find yourself in a new parallel universe where it acted as if that change was the way that it always had been. Either way, you would still have to be careful in testing an archaeological hypothesis because you actions in the past could affect its outcome and your results would no longer be objective.

I doubt time travel will ever happen in my lifetime, or many lifetimes to come. However, due to the scale of the projects that would make it possible and the academic and moral implications that come along with its application to the study of the human past, we should not dismiss thinking about it now so we can do the right thing if it ever does become possible.

2 thoughts on “Using Time Travel for Archaeology

  1. First, as a journalism major, your whole equation and physics approach to this was super impressive. Math and me don’t get along.

    Second, wow! Some people have given this a lot of thought. Are they preforming experiments are something? How do people even come to these conclusions?

    Third, if time travel were possible, I feel as though archaeologists would be out of a job. They are excavating and examining artifacts to understand the past. Well, with time travel, they could just pop over (under? behind? Not sure what the correct wordage would be here since I’m not an expert time traveler) and spend a day in Medieval Europe or 3000 B.C. Middle East. The job of an archaeologist would have to evolve into something else, something more like an enthoarchaeologist I do believe.

    And to bring up the paradoxes: what would have if archaeologists went traipsing all over the past? Today, they are so careful to preserve and keep intact for the future. If they began to travel to the past, surely things would be disrupted? Unless they could somehow document where they had been and what they had dug up, I feel like it would just become a mess for archaeologists every where.

    Also, aren’t archaeologists a type of time travelers already? Maybe it’s best if we leave the time traveling to the experts and the past to the past.

    Though, I’d love to meet Jane Austen. Just throwing that out there.

  2. This is a very interesting post! As a Whovian, I love that they called it the TARDIS!

    But while time travel would be a fascinating and exciting advancement, I don’t think it would be healthy for archaeology or humanity as a whole. There are always those evil and greedy people that would use such an advancement to benefit themselves with no regard to the rest of the world. And in this case, it could have huge impact on all of human history. Entire civilizations or eras could be erased or created if the past was tampered with.

    Even from an archaeological standpoint, the institution of time travel could be a travesty. As the previous comment pointed out, time travel would eliminate or drastically alter the state of archaeology. Would archaeologists become time travels to experience the past and future first hand? If this was the case, then the archaeologists would need special training in order to create as few paradoxes as possible and to avoid altering major historic happenings. But even the best of archaeologists would slip up sometime. Even accidentally leaving a tool, article, or belonging in the past could change the present in unpredictable ways.

    Also, if time travel had been invented at any point in time, wouldn’t all other times know of it already? Unless the future time travelers are impeccable with leaving timelines intact.

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