View Full Version : Ancient Artifacts
06-21-2001, 03:59 AM
Amuse your friends and baffle future Archaeologists! (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=60231)
Back in February, there was this fun little thread about what artifacts from our civilization might baffle Archaeologists in a couple thousand years.
There were some interesting answers in the thread, but many of them were offered in a ďjokingĒ manner (someone picking on twinkies, for example.)
I would like some hard facts about what will and will not still be kicking around on the planet 2000 years from now. Will our books last that long, if properly stored?
Will CD Roms? Floppies? Would these still be readable with the right equipment, as someone in the thread suggested? Or would the information stored on them be corrupt and long since lost?
Will people be unearthing Styrofoam packing peanuts and Marlboro filters from the ground?Will plastic 6-pack rings still be all over the place? Yougurt containers? Will the Word Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty still stand? Will the Sphinx and the Pyramids?
06-21-2001, 07:04 AM
Originally posted by Chrome Toaster
Will . . . the Statue of Liberty still stand?
06-21-2001, 07:22 AM
"What's that coming out of her nose?"
"Oh, sh*t! There goes the planet!"
06-21-2001, 07:48 AM
CD's have relatively short lifespans--50 years was the number I was quoted. I assume that's under normal usage conditions, might be longer if they're stored correctly. Floppies are much, much less.
Books depend on whether or not the pulp used had a high acid content. If they're acidic, less than a hundred years. If not, depends on the environment.
06-21-2001, 07:56 AM
Well, maybe a serious answer is due now.
It's a very hard question to answer in some respects. Many things depend not so much on the actual time, as on the state of society over the next 2000 years. One good war could wipe a lot of artifacts out. Another thing is the repair of certain objects. You've heard about the old farmer that had a favorite axe - he'd replaced the handle 4 times, and the blade twice, but by golly it was the same old axe? Things that are continuously repaired and taken care of don't really count in some ways.
It is safe to assume that many plastics, aluminum, and some other products will still be in recognizable form in our large, top-covered garbage dumps. And there is some precedent for this - after all, digging through garbage pits is how we find a lot of artifacts of past cultures.
As to your specific questions - many books today are printed on very cheap, acidic paper with poor ink, and will likely not last 200 years. Some books will last 2000 years, especially if well protected.
The lifespan of CDs is a source of constant debate. I still remember the TV News (which never lies) telling me back in the 1980's that CDs would only last "12 to 15 years". Yet all of my CDs from the mid 80s work just fine...IIRC, a more reasonable figure for CD life is said to be bout 120 years. But who really knows?
Things that could last a while include titanium, aluminum, and many other exotic metals. Stainless steel items will last a long time, but will still corrode. Many plastics will likely last only a couple hundred years. Concrete and steel structures will be subject to corrosion of the steel and crumbling of the concrete.
The Sphinx and pyramids should still be around, barring thermonuclear hits. They would likely be incredibly corroded and worn if not taken care of. The exposed marbles of Rome and Greece would be highly corroded as well - they already suffer greatly from the pollution of the last 200 years.
06-21-2001, 09:01 AM
What about thousands of containers of radioactive waste stored in huge concrete pits buried in the middle of the desert? (Anyone living in South Australia?)
Seriously, I think two things will be important to what people will find in a few thousand years, how we store them and how many we make.
The objects that we stick in sealed bunkers deep underground will most surely last at least a few thousand years.
Turning to more everyday things, if we make billions upon billions of items of certain products (ie cigarettes) then the odds of some of them being around years in the future must be pretty high.
As for CD's, considering the number that have been produced, they will probably find a few here and there in readable condition but I donít hold much hope of them finding a CD Player. However, Iím sure they will work out how to read them.
06-21-2001, 09:46 AM
I have seriously thought about what I want done with my earthly remains when I die. I want to have my body mummified, that would be able to best preserve me. I will have various photos and documents (including a personal history) laminated and placed with me in the coffin. Based on past archaeological finds, some luxury items, gold and jewlery etc., need to be included.
Not that any of these things are likely to baffle archaeologists. But they will, if I do get dug up, provide me with a level of immortality not seen since Tut.
Also, in keeping with the theme of the thread, I would recommend Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay. It will show you that archaeologists are making it all up anyways.
06-21-2001, 09:59 AM
I agree with Anthracite that how long certain landmarks will last depends in large part on how those things are maintained.
As another example, I heard on the radio yesterday that suspension cables on the George Washington Bridge need to be replaced. With proper maintenance, the Bridge will last forever, although eventually, virtually all of the original components will be gone.
06-21-2001, 10:19 AM
Certainly one common item that will withstand the ravages of time is the porcelain toilet bowl. With one found in every home in a special small room, the future archaeologists might believe they were some sort of religious shrine.
06-21-2001, 10:43 AM
Very cute, Diver. However, at the risk of being a killjoy, I should point out that whatever remains of the plumbing pipes and septic system attached to the toilet bowl ought to tell future archaeologists just what those mysterious white things were for.
06-23-2001, 07:27 AM
cmkeller said: "I should point out that whatever remains of the plumbing pipes and septic system attached to the toilet bowl ought to tell future archaeologists just what those mysterious white things were for"
Uh... drain for the blood from the sacrificial virgins?
06-23-2001, 12:26 PM
Diver, toilets just might baffle future archaeologists... If they're not human, never saw a live human, don't excrete, and don't have some sort of toilet equivalent. If they are human, then they'll know that we needed some sort of provisions for excretion, and it's not too difficult to figure it out, given a toilet.
06-23-2001, 02:39 PM
Obviously, anything made out of stone or glass is likely to survive many thousands of years. Many metal objects could survive that long easily, especially aluminum, gold, titanium, etc. Steel objects would depend on their conditions. If they are in a dry location they could last thousands of years easily, or they could rust away in decades if they are exposed to moisture. I can easily imagine archeologists uncovering cans and jars of food that are still recognizable.
Just look at what has survived from previous civilizations to get some ideas. Many metal objects, lots of crumbled stone, almost no fabric or wood or paper. I'm sure that many plastics will be able to last that long, but I imagine that plastic eating bacteria and fungi might degrade many kinds of polymers. Probably many plastic items will still be intact, but incredibly brittle.
And of course, scavanging for materials will be a serious problem. Many ancient buildings have been taken apart and used to build new buildings, metal is almost always recycled, wood is used in the fireplace, etc.
Landfills probably won't be as common as future archeologists might hope, since I imagine they'll be mined for plastic, metals, and biomass.
Another big problem is that most construction today is made from a combination of concrete and steel reinforcement. Many of these things are going to crumble if the steel gets damaged. No real way to tell how many freeway overpasses will survive for thousands of years. I imagine some will, but many will be rubble. But even the rubble will be recogizable as rubble, not natural.
06-23-2001, 11:37 PM
Maybe I am being a little hopeful here, but I think it future civilisations will have much more knowledge of human society in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than we have of the ancient world. Admittedly, our steel and concrete structures may not be as enduring as the stone buildings of the ancients, but the sheer number of objects in existence now will provide future archaeologists with a wealth of information.
Imagine yourself living in the sparsely populated world of two thousand years ago. How many objects would you own? Unless you were nobility, then maybe a few pieces of fabric, a pot or two, a poorly constructed house or shelter, and some animals if you were lucky. And yet we know a remarkle amount about these people. In comparison, how many objects do you, one of our six billion modern people, actually own? A few hundred? A few thousand? Your home, which may crumble, will no doubt leave a footprint for those willing to dig. A car comprised of thousands of components of various materials? Dozens of items of clothing, CDs, tapes, disks, books, crockery, cutlery, appliances, lighting, clocks, computers, furniture? Much of this stuff is non-biodegradable. Even our nuclear and atomic technologies alone would leave incredible amounts of clues behind. There are countless millions of square metres of our planet's surface under tarmac. Railway cuttings and tunnels blasted through solid rock have such gentle gradients and curves that it will be obvious they were some sort of transport path for relatively high speed vehicles. Airport runways are solidly built on very strong and thick concrete to cope with the weight of modern aeroplanes, and these too will surely survive.
And all of the above is based on the premise of a worst case scenario in which war, disease, or other catastrophe has destroyed our civilisation, and has left our descendants to piece together the clues from scratch. In a better outcome, our society may indeed survive such that the future one is merely an evolved version of our own. In this case, the knowledge of our time would have been preserved by conscious effort. I'd wager that much of the digital data of our time would be readable in the future, albeit by specialised hardware and software used by historians. I find it hard to believe that some incedibly advanced future computer would not be able to read a floppy disk (even if this means it has to think of a way to do it, and come up with a design for a disk drive). Needless to say, any surviving phonograph records will be fairly straightforward to those discovering them - this was the idea behind Carl Sagan's "gold record" project on the Voyager spacecraft of the Seventies.
I think we're going to leave our mark.
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