"That you may ruminate"

…On Future Archaeology.

Posted by Steve on November 30, 2008

When I was a kid, I read a picture book with an amusing conceit. I wish I could remember its title. The premise was that postal rates for junk-class mail had been lowered, so an overnight deluge buried America Pompeii-style under letters and catalogues and the like. The book chronicled some future archaeologist’s finds, and attempts at explanations, as they dug up this buried civilization. I remember being amused at the explanations for the parking lot full of T-Birds and of the TV.

It’s interesting to think what archaeologists of the future would make of our civilization. As I recall, the Discovery Channel had a special in the last year or two about the aging of a modern-day city with no people left to tend it, and I remember an unusually captivating passage from John Brunner’s Total Eclipse to the same effect.

Actually, it’s kind of a downer to think about what people five, ten, twenty centuries out will know or think of us. There were civilizations that built their structures to last, and the form and function of their structures is still well-visible. Roman works nearly two millenia old can be visited and seen in nearly-functional condition throughout Europe, from Rome to Mérida. The Anasazi cliff dwellings at Chaco, Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly are closing in on a millenium but are close enough to move-in condition as makes no difference. Meanwhile, we demolish our history before it can become historic. Heck, the IRS has set a guideline: non-residential buildings have a 39 year lifespan, residential rental buildings have a 27.5 year lifespan (that apartment I lived in in Minneapolis was apparently a zombie building. And yes, I realize that the depreciation lifespans aren’t quite the same as an engineering/construction physical lifespan, but that’s in part because they include an assumption that the building will be torn down – your cow goes to the slaughterhouse at 2 years old – rather than let last until deterioration – your cow dies of old age at 25 years old).

Add to that, the fact that more and more of our culture is in ephemeral technological media: hard drives and magnetic tape storage (cassettes, VHS, floppies) will all demagnetize as heat breaks down the hysteresis loops; vinyl will melt; CDs & DVDs will get scratched and scuffed… Yeah, stone tablets with carvings can break, but a file in .DOC format on an archival DVD, even if that DVD survives… that data is in code, in a specific format for that code, that’s then stored as reflections from plastic when a laser is shined at it it while it rotates at a specific speed. And contemporary archaeologists have trouble reading Linear A!

A brief paragraph from David Weber comes to mind, where several millenia from now the civilization on one planet is aware that their dueling style is based on something called a “movie” about someone named “The Seven Samurai”, but nobody has any idea what a movie is or who the Seven Samurai were.

Actually, an even better passage from a different book comes to mind. Joseph Heller’s misanthropic classic Catch-22:

The old man laughed indulgently, holding in check a deeper, more explosive delight. His goading remained gentle. “Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in twenty-five million years or so.”

Nately squiremed uncomfortably. “Well, forever is a long time, I guess.”

“A million years?” persisted the jeering old man with keen, sadistic zest. “A half million? The frog is almost five hundred million years old. Could you really say with much certainty that America, with all its strength and prosperity, with its fighting man that is second to none, and with its standard of living that is the highest in the world, will last as long as… the frog?”

I’d like to think that five, ten thousand years from now, our civilization will be discernible through more than just Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain, which are going to be exactly like the Easter Island heads (or, if you prefer, a statue of Ozymandias), and the ruins inside Cheyenne Mountain. I don’t know that it will, though, since culturally our mindset isn’t one of “built to last”.


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