The International Space Station Archaeological Project is the first archaeological study of a human habitat in space.
Because of the prohibitive cost of travelling to space, archaeologists have had to think of creative ways to investigate the material culture of the space station. One method is to analyze the thousands of photographs taken of the space station’s interior.

Authors Dr. Justin St. P. Walsh, Dr. Wendy Salmond, and Dr. Alice Gorman have been analyzing the photographs, and have presented their findings in the December 2021 issue of Current Anthropology in their article “Visual Displays in Space Station Culture: An Archaeological Analysis.”

Beginning in January 2022, for sixty days, the authors will also be performing the first archaeological experiment in space. The crew will be documenting the station’s in-situ material culture.

The International Space Station has now been continuously occupied for twenty years and forms a “natural laboratory” to study how a unique space culture has evolved. One example of this is how Russian cosmonauts have used a wall in the Zvezda module to display pictures. This cultural practice started on earlier Russian space stations in the Salyut series (1971 – 1991) and Mir (1986 – 2001).

Study of the photographs shows that the most common pictures are religious icons and the Soviet trinity of “space heroes”: cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and the Cold War leader of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev. The icons tend to be placed on the top section of the Zvezda wall, while the space heroes are in the recessed “niche” area below them. The wall recalls the icon corners which are a feature of Russian homes. The images also assert a national identity within the context of international collaboration.

Understanding how space station crew create identities and a unique society in space through material culture has application to future long duration missions, such as those to Mars.