Denning - Sample Abstracts and Papers





Ten Thousand Revolutions: Conjectures about Civilizations


Kathryn Denning, 2006


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Abstract: Ten thousand years ago, no-one on Earth was living a ‘civilized’ life. What has happened since is remarkable and impossible to fully comprehend; yet, everyone has ideas about civilization, and how the world came to be as it is. Such understandings of civilizations on Earth inevitably influence speculation about extraterrestrial civilizations, in two ways. First, sometimes a specific Earth civilization or historical experience is explicitly used as a basis for inferences about extraterrestrial civilizations. Second, more general assumptions about the development and functioning of Earth’s societies shape conjectures about alien societies. This paper focuses on the latter, general assumptions, with the aim of considering how we can use multidisciplinary approaches, and our knowledge of Earth’s civilizations, to our best advantage in SETI. 


* Paper for session “SETI II: Interdisciplinary Aspects”, International Astronautical Congress, Valencia, Spain, October 2006.*





“L” on Earth


Kathryn Denning, 2005


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Abstract:   The Drake factor L (average lifetime of a communicative civilization) has such a strong effect on estimates of N (number of communicative civilizations in our galaxy) that frequent reassessment of our understanding of civilizations' lifespans is warranted.

   Earth analogues have often been used as the basis for estimates of L, but what can we really hope to learn from the history of Earth's civilizations that might pertain to civilizations elsewhere? Are Earth analogues fit only to be used as rhetorical exemplars to shore up a priori beliefs about the probability of SETI's success or failure? Or can we actually use historical data to make meaningful generalizations about the paths that civilizations take, and how long they last? Recent archaeological work around the world is increasingly pointing to some recurring patterns of emergence and collapse, which may have some value here.

   However, we can conceive of communicating civilizations so different from any on Earth that terrestrial analogues could be irrelevant. In particular, as our own computing achievements mount, there is increasing speculation that any extraterrestrial intelligence we might encounter will reside in machines, rather than organisms; this has tended to increase estimates of L. But there are assumptions embedded there too, which may derive partly from our understandings of why exactly it is that human civilizations fail. These understandings also warrant close examination, and checking against historical data.


* Paper for session “SETI II: Interdisciplinary Aspects”, International Astronautical Congress, Fukuoka, Japan, October 2005. Abstract accepted; abbreviated version of paper read by chair in my absence.  [A reworked version of this paper will appear in a book.]*





Becoming EveryHuman


 Kathryn Denning, 2006



Abstract: Once upon a time, when living and dead Others were displayed in museums and exhibitions, they were represented as less human than the audience. In contrast, display of dead human bodies today – whether bog bodies, mummies, or plastinates – is often predicated on a different assumption: we may stare not because we are superior to them, but because they are our equals. More than that, the displayed dead are now considered to represent us all. They distill for us our heritage, mortality, and physicality; in their bodies, our humanity is concentrated. Thus, they are characterized not as subhuman, but as EveryHuman. Officially, we now go to museums not to see Others’ ancestors, but to see those who prefigured us all in global history – EveryAncestor. We go to science centres not to see Others’ bodies, but our own – EveryBody. And we go to both these places not to reflect on Others’ mortality, but ours – to see EveryCorpse. Clearly, rhetoric and reasoning concerning the displayed dead have become somewhat more respectful in tone, but what are the consequences of this synecdoche? Has a more egalitarian rationale actually improved the real practices of showing and viewing the dead? And who becomes EveryHuman?


* Paper for panel, “Unbecoming: Dehumanizing Projects”, organized by David A.B. Murray, York University, for CASCA 2006, Montreal.*




Archaeology, SETI, and the Inalienable


Kathryn Denning, 2004



Abstract: Archaeology and SETI have many things in common, as this paper will outline. One is particularly pertinent to our theme of “Magic, Science, and Religion”, because of the putative disjunction in worldviews that triad implies.

Much archaeology deals with ontology, epistemology, and agency; that is, archaeologists assume and wonder how the Other conceived of the world, knew the world, and acted in the world. These are, arguably, also core issues in SETI – central to the interpretation of hypothetical interstellar communications, and to the composition of maximally intelligible messages.

Archaeological studies of ancient Others sometimes suggest that despite commonalities among civilizations past and present, differences are so deep that without (impossible) conversation, we cannot understand ancient Others’ minds at all. This is a concern for SETI, as some traditional SETI scenarios involve a delay between transmission and receipt that would similarly preclude true conversation. SETI ‘contact’ could thus differ substantially from anthropologically and historically known contacts between peoples. Both the archaeologist’s Other and SETI’s Other could thus be much more different from us than anthropology’s Other – simply because ‘real’ contact, which instantly changes both parties into dialogists, has not occurred.

A chief implication for archaeology and for SETI is this: without the Other’s dialogic input, their responses to our misunderstandings, and answers to our questions, then the burden of self-correction falls to us. Perhaps then the challenge for both SETI and archaeology is that of recognizing and shedding enough of our own assumptions. Can we make ourselves unassumed, unfamiliar… indeed, alien?



* Paper for session "Anthropology, Archaeology, and Interstellar Communication: Science and the Knowledge of Distant Worlds", at  American Anthropological Association meetings, Atlanta, Georgia. December 2004. Session organizer:  Douglas Vakoch, SETI Institute. Paper read in absentia. [A reworked version of this is to appear in a book edited by Vakoch and published by NASA.]*






Historical Consciousness and Sustainable Futures

 Kathryn E. Denning and Christopher B. Jones, 2005

Abstract:  We explore the relationship between historical consciousness and futures literacy in childhood and early adult education. The Club of Rome’s “global problematique” identified many threats facing civilization in this century.  More recently, increasing scientific knowledge has added to the litany of terrestrial and cosmic calamities that our species and planet may face in the long-term future. Unfortunately, emphasizing these legitimate concerns can induce hopelessness and despair, which impair the capacity of children and youth to envision sustainable futures. Encouraging historical consciousness education may help counteract this trend, through focus on successful past societies as examples of sustainability. Marrying historical consciousness to the emerging futures curriculum has great potential to both expand past and future time horizons, and to instill optimism for the future.



* Conference: World Futures Studies Federation conference, Futures Generations for/by Future Generations. Corvinus University, Budapest, Hungary, 23 August 2005. Paper presented by C.B. Jones.*



Drawing the Dark: The Evolution of Captivity


Kathryn Denning, 2003



Abstract: Once upon a time at the zoo, one’s vision of ferocious animals was half-obscured by heavy bars.  Designed partly for the purpose of physical containment, and partly for the purpose of symbolic subjugation, the cage had a fearsome presence of its own. In contrast, recent zoo design has focused upon minimizing the visual presence of the cage as much as possible. Now, we are increasingly meant to ignore the cage – to pretend, in fact, that it is not there at all. But however transparent, a cage is still a cage; there is a fundamental problem in captivity that defies aesthetic transformation.  Not surprisingly, given the many striking parallels between zoos and museums, there is a fundamental problem in cultural heritage preservation and curation that is not so different.


It is an artist’s axiom that when one draws the dark, the light emerges. As we seek the light – humane and responsible ways to care for and preserve heritage, both natural and cultural – I propose a renewed focus on the dark lines of the cage. As cages grow harder and harder to see, it is more and more important to see them clearly for what they are. A closer examination may allow us a more nuanced understanding of the traditional role of archaeologists and curators as captors and keepers of the past.


* Paper for the World Archaeological Congress, Washington D.C., 25 June 2003.  Part of the WAC theme: Landscapes, Gardens, and Dreamscapes, organized by Mark Leone and Felipe Criado Boado. Session: The Archaeology of Zoos, organized by Kathryn Denning and Cornelius Holtorf.*


Author’s affiliation at time: Department of Anthropology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, L8S 4L9






Local Pasts in a Global Present


Kathryn E. Denning, 2002


 Abstract: As truly global communities of indigenous peoples, archaeologists, heritage professionals, and legislators emerge, conversations about archaeological heritage and what to do with it are becoming considerably more complex.  Some things haven’t changed in principle: for example, the accommodation of multiple voices about the past is still challenging, and uses of the archaeological record are frequently contestable. But there are new developments worthy of note, and of vigilance, because they amplify the challenges to multivocality and fairness in heritage matters. Two angles will be discussed. First: generally speaking, heritage management and archaeological practice are increasingly affected by economic and political processes of globalization.  Second, and more specifically: as the concept of the “common heritage of humankind” gains greater influence, its uses in practice and in argument are diversifying. In both cases, even when intentions are benevolent, results may not be positive for everyone. Care is required to ensure that global ideologies do not take precedence over local needs. 


* Paper given at Archaeology and Communities (International Committee for Archaeological Heritage Management session). Canadian Archaeological Association meetings, Ottawa, Ontario. 16-18 May 2002. Chair: Ellen Lee. Organizer: Christophe Rivet.* 


Author’s affiliation at time: Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Fellow, Department of Anthropology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, L8S 4L9





PhD Dissertation Abstract:  On Archaeology and Alterity


Kathryn Denning, 1999


 Abstract: Responding effectively to alternative ideas about humanity’s past is a growing concern for many archaeologists, as popular television programs, the Internet, and best-selling books increasingly promote theories which dramatically oppose accepted academic archaeological interpretations. However, this problem has traditionally been undertheorised, or considered primarily within scientistic formulations which simplistically contrast good, logical, ‘orthodox’ archaeology with bad, illogical, ‘lunatic fringe’ archaeology. As an analysis of some current ideas about the archaeological past demonstrates, this can be a false dichotomy that impedes constructive thinking. Neither dowsing nor psychic archaeology, for example, are clearly illogical or marginalised practices; designating them as such, however, reveals much about a priori convictions. Earth Mysteries in the U.K. has features in common with British academic archaeology. Apocalyptic threads running through some alternative archaeology books are ancient in their structure, not strange and new, and can also emerge in academic archaeological writings. This does not mean that there are no grounds for distinguishing between different accounts of the past, but it does mean that some standard intolerances within archaeology, based upon notions of demarcation which do not work, must be questioned. Outside the discipline but exerting their influence within it, the Skeptics’ movement and the ‘anti-anti-Science’ contingent of the Science Wars are increasing polarisation around issues of rationality, and responding to divergent ideas inside and outside academia with open hostility. However, there are well-established philosophies that permit the avoidance of such divisive and all-encompassing conflict. A hermeneutic rather than foundationalist approach to the dilemmas of alterity provides more robust and responsible possibilities.



* Dissertation submitted May 1999. Degree conferred September 1999. University of Sheffield, Dept. of Archaeology and Prehistory*



Apocalypse Past/Future: Archaeology and Folklore, Writ Large


Kathryn Denning, 1999


click to download pdf of text as published



Abstract: During several years of researching prehistory’s importance to people in Britain, and the many forms which its interpretation takes, multiple lines of connection between archaeology and folklore quickly became evident to me.  There are, for example, frequent links between archaeological sites and local traditions or legends in Britain, as well as the strong tendency for avocational researchers there to be interested in both, rather than either subject in isolation. This is intriguing territory indeed. But if one adopts a broader definition of folklore, moving outwards from “the traditional beliefs and stories of a people” (Concise Oxford Dictionary) to include all stories, including religious narratives, which play an important role in societies today, there emerge many more lines of connection with archaeology. One example is that of Western apocalyptic writings, both secular and religious, for these versions of history can easily be seen in parallel to modern archaeologically based narratives. Followed far enough, these lines intertwine in surprising ways, and put fairly ordinary observations about the popularity of archaeology, or the importance of history, into larger contexts – contexts which archaeologists may find worthwhile to consider as they read and write upon their subject, for the archaeologist’s role in modern society can be more substantial than is sometimes assumed.


Archaeology is important socio-politically, and not only in explosive situations like India’s Ayodhya (Ascherson 1998), but also in the way that archaeologically based narratives are woven, just as folklore is, into the very fabric of our lives. This has increasingly been the subject of study for scholars, especially those concerned with national and ethnic identities and their representation and construction through archaeological material (e.g. Ronayne 1997; Piccini 1997; Kohl and Fawcett 1995).  But there is another dimension in which archaeology is socially consequential, which is becoming ever more obvious now, in a time when idle conversation often turns to the fast-approaching year 2000 AD. Archaeology is also important because of the role it plays in generating narratives about the way our world will end.  These narratives in turn are important socially (not just to academics and ideologues) because human beings understand and describe their world through stories, and more than that, because stories help us to situate ourselves, as individuals and as groups, in time. More significantly still, stories – whether born of history, religion, science, or myth – tell us how to live. And sometimes, they tell us how to die.


* Chapter published as  Denning, Kathryn.  1999. “Apocalypse past/future: Archaeology and folklore, writ large.”  In Archaeology and Folklore, A. Gazin-Schwartz and C. Holtorf, eds. London: Routledge. pp 90-105.*




  ‘The Storm of Progress’ and Archaeology for an online public


2004  “ ‘The Storm of Progress’ and Archaeology for an online public.” In Internet Archaeology 15, a special issue entitled Archaeological Informatics: Beyond Technology. Jeremy Huggett and Seamus Ross, eds.  [ Click here to download the text of the published version  N.b. it was published online in hypertext, not in the form here.]