Alien Ruins

We haven’t found any, but that would be pretty cool. It’s a common trope in media though, that alien cultures leave their ruins abandoned. In Star Trek, Stargate, Star Wars, and even the Mass Effect series, characters explore ruins on planets where the native culture still lives, and even thrives. But the ruins are abandoned. No one has been there in years, they all say. Can it truly be that humans are the only species in the galaxy who enjoy an incessant curiosity about their past?

Photo by Laura Thurston

It seems pretty unlikely, but we don’t find the idea that hard to swallow, and maybe we should. To us, ruins are a source of excitement, a mystery waiting to be solved, and not merely by those of us demented enough to become archaeologists. They’re points of interest for our entire culture. When you get back from Rome, people ask if you saw the Coliseum. In Greece, it’s the Parthenon. In China, the Great Wall. All over the world, we find pieces of our history and visit them, whether they celebrate our greatness, as the pyramids do, or our failures, like the Alamo. Our cities stretch around and often atop of the legacy of our past, and entire industries are devoted to capitalizing on their popularity.

Now, you might argue that this is crass commercialism. That the reason we know so much about these ruins is so cities can sell tickets to them. And there’s probably some truth to that. But there also has to be a demand for them for the industry to exist, and not all of that demand can be manufactured. People want to see the churches of St. Petersburg and the Taj Mahal. Those aren’t ruins, you say? No, they’re not, because we’ve spent a considerable amount of effort over the years keeping them in working order, not because they serve some kind of industrial function, but because they serve an historical and aesthetic one. Organizations like UNESCO mark heritage sites for restoration and preservation, and there are more of them every year, pieces of our past or marvels of nature that deserve recognition.

Photo by Laura Thurston

So why are alien ruins usually abandoned in tv, movies, or games? Sure, there’s the occasional presence of things that will eat you, and the essential legend of haunted ruins, but our ruins have those too. If a bear lived in the Temple of Janus in Rome, we wouldn’t abandon the temple, we’d shoot the bloody bear. As for legends, we have plenty of those, and they’re duly ignored in order to discover the significance of the site. We’re too curious to be stopped by fear, and we recognize the importance of understanding our past. Arguably, so would any other culture, regardless of what planet they happen to be on.

Yes, this has been an installment of things that bug me about tv and games. But it also speaks to how important the study of the past is in our cultural consciousness, because we just can’t let a ruin go unexplored, in real life, or in games and movies. While I don’t like that aliens seem to be able to not care about that stuff, I do think they get the humans right.


Jim Tigwell longs to explore ruins in real life, but is too afraid of being eaten by a grue. Instead, he writes about exploring ruins in games at TPK. Admonish him for his cowardice on Twitter.

Laura Thurston is a Classics alumna who loves exploring exotic locales and personifies the curiosity in this post. Read more about her adventures on her website, or follow @LCThurston on Twitter






One response to “Alien Ruins”

  1. Dan Avatar

    I would argue that we do in fact have areas in modern time that are abandoned. There are a large number, in North America alone, of ghost towns. Places that because of economic down turn, are just abandoned. Now they might not be as interesting as an alien ruin but lets not sell them too short either.

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