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The eye of Justinian

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How to achieve (historical) immortality - on a budget

by Anthony Webb, 14 October 2022

What we do in life echoes in eternity...

Russell Crowe maximising his chances...

So said Maximus in the film Gladiator way back in the year 2000. The trouble is that for most of us these echoes are going to be pretty feeble, lasting (at best) a generation or two among our direct descendants.

This article is going to be about how you can amplify those echoes - your messages to the far future; your voice for posterity.

But crucially: on a budget.

As you might imagine for a serious history website such as this one, all my tips will be supported by evidence of what has actually already worked by examining how the messages from the past that we still have now have stood the test of time.

An unlimited vs limited budget

If you command the resources of a large country with interplanetary space-faring capability, preserving your message for an effectively unlimited amount of time would be trivial. All you would need to do is inscribe on some super hard material and drop it off on the moon. Or better, fire it off out of the solar system like the Pioneer space probes with their pictures of hydrogen atoms, maps of the solar system and nude drawings.

But for you and me the expense required is out of reach. In order to be practical then, all my suggestions will be achievable for an ordinary person.1

Preservation by copying

How can we read Cicero today?

Virtually all of the ancient texts that we can still read today have reached us through copies. When we read Cicero - a Roman who lived and died in the first century BCE - for example we are actually reading a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy... you get the idea.

When Cicero (or Tiro his secretary) originally wrote down his works they would have been written on parchment which in most climates doesn’t last very long. But because they were considered to be the pinnacle of learning they were copied across the ancient world. And because in turn Christians admired his style they copied his works extensively through time too.2

Even now when we see placeholder “Lorem ipsum” text, we are reading Cicero pontificating about the mistaken idea of denouncing pleasure and praising pain, albeit in latin scrambled up by a 15th century typesetter.3

So by writing something meaningful that other people value we can increase our chances of our work surviving. Other people will copy and disseminate it for us.

Writing great content - if we can...

The trouble is of course that most people won’t be able to write something that captures the imagination for generations - but there is no harm (and little direct monetary cost) in giving it a go.

The works that seem to survive best are captivating stories (for example the Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh) or collections of wise sayings (Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Lao Tzu’s (Lao Zi) Tao Te Ching). But even if you do decide to follow the wise sayings route, bear in mind it is helpful if you are already famous or at the very least have a small coterie of highly devoted followers.

Direct preservation

Stone tablets

If you can’t rely on creating a dedicated multi-generational fanbase, you should instead think about the direct preservation of your oeuvre.

The classic method is to inscribe on a stone tablet. Admittedly this isn’t all that cheap given you need a good quality piece of stone with a flat surface - but you could save money with a repurposed kitchen worktop or (at a pinch) a paving slab.

Where to put them

In theory this inscription can last for hundreds of years or even thousands of years. But you will need to be careful about where you put it to avoid weathering. Here in the UK most inscribed tombstones become difficult to read after a hundred years and almost impossible after two hundred. Ideally you would want to drop it off in a dryer climate such as Egypt, or more cost effectively pay for the inscription to be done in situ.

But the awkward fact is that over time there have been a lot of stone inscriptions and only a tiny fragment of them have survived today, and often by luck.

Parthenon inventories - a lucky stone inscription survival

For example: we know quite a lot about the loot the ancient Greeks stored in the Parthenon in Athens 2,500 years ago. This is because we still have the stone inscriptions on which the inventories of the loot (/ donations) were written. (Presumably these lists were written in stone to deter any pilfering by the guards.)

But the reason why we have these stone inscriptions today is because the stone blocks that they were written on were reused as makeshift door jambs (ie the side bits of a door frame) after a devastating fire in the 4th Century AD that caused massive damage to the Parthenon. Preserved by chance in the fabric of the building, they were discovered by archaeologists in modern times.4

The problem with stone

There are two key problems with using stone.

The first is that it not cheap or easy to write on. This means it is not practical to make many copies. So any chance event could destroy your only message. Even if it doesn't get destroyed will it ever resurface later: where are Moses stone carved commandments now? Who knows. Luckily someone had the presence of mind to write them down in the Bible too.

The second problem with stone is that it is a valuable and desirable material in its own right. This means that those inscriptions you do make could easily get smashed up and reused as attractive edgings for flower beds and whatnot.

What we need therefore is something hard, easy to work and cheap...

Clay tablets and Sumerian inscriptions

Clay is pretty cheap and it is soft and so easy to write on. But when you fire it it becomes extremely robust.5

Some of our oldest known inscriptions are written on clay tablets which became popular in the so called Sumerian civilization when they got the hang of writing, in the mid 4th Century BCE (i.e. from 3,500 to 3,000 BCE). We have an incredible number of records from these kingdoms because the use of clay was so widespread and even if you didn’t fire the clay on purpose, every now and then a big accidental conflagration would do the job for you.

From my (admittedly limited) knowledge of archaeology it seems that the one thing that you can be sure will survive from the past is all their broken pottery, which is why it is a brilliant material to figure out what was going on in a particular place and time, even when not much else remains.

A worthless material is a good material

And because it is so cheap pottery / clay tablets almost never get repurposed for other things which might erase an inscription - except perhaps a handy in-filling material for ditches and the like, which will only enhance the probability of preservation.

So if you want something that is still going to be legible thousands of years into the future, and will get safely left alone in the ground until an archaeologist takes an interest, fired clay is in my view your best bet.

Continuously readable or deliberately hidden?

One thing you will have to decide when planning your echo is whether you want it to be available to read by everyone at all times - in which case your message is probably going to be exposed to the air and weathering. Or whether you want it to be hidden for hundreds or thousands and only read after its chance discovery.

My recommendation is that you concentrate on a good hiding place and give up on the idea that it will be available to read for the passerby.

This is related to budget. It is hard to think of a prominent place where you could stick your clay tablet unless it is on your own property. And even if you were to chisel it into the wall of your house, your house is going to get demolished in less than a century anyway and your building rubble dumped in a hole somewhere - in which case it becomes hidden by default but in a place not of your choosing.

Hiding your message in a cave

A good compromise might be to put your clay tablet deep into an unexplored but not too inaccessible cave system. We know that cave paintings can last for tens of thousands of years - for example the incredible animal paintings in Lascaux cave which are reckoned to be about 17,000 years old.

But again thinking of what is achievable for the ordinary punter - deep cave exploration is probably not a good idea. And there is probably a spelunker’s code which frowns upon littering a pristine natural environment with our self indulgent scribbles.

Power centres as ideal hiding places

So where should you hide them?

When investigating the past today archaeologists will often hone in on the centre of power and population. This isn't exclusively the case, but if an archaeologist is excavating an ordinary dwelling they will have hundreds to choose from. But if they want to excavate the ruler's palace there can only be one.

Assuming future archaeologists are attracted to power and wealth in the same way, I would suggest you hide your tablets in soft ground as close as possible to key administrative or military buildings or notable landmarks. For example: Westminster Abbey in London, UK would make an excellent spot.

I would also choose multiple locations and bury multiple tablets per location: more on this below.

What about the internet?

Maybe you are wondering by now if I am over-complicating the issue and why not just stick the message on the internet? Then everyone in the world can read it whenever they want and there is no theoretical limit to how long it will last.

While this is an excellent low cost strategy I don’t think it will last for more than a few decades.

This is because in order for your magnum scribblus to be sent to a reader there is a cost, which is the cost of sending data to a screen, and the cost of a storage medium from which it can be retrieved. If you outsource this cost to someone like facebook or google or twitter, you are relying on them to be around forever when most big companies last less than a hundred years. And if they are around they could pull the plug on your blogger account whenever they feel like it.

For example my Yahoo Geocities chimpanzee website has I’m fairly sure been deleted by now, despite the content being as fresh today as it was twenty years ago.

The other problem with relying on the internet is that if it turns out that it does effectively store retrievable information for thousands of years, then it won’t just be your message that is ‘saved down’ it will be everyone else’s message too. The volume of the collected outpourings of mankind will be truly immense and the idea that your or my paltry addition will be read, or even findable, by anyone other than a cold-hearted robot for statistical analysis is delusional.

Quality and quantity

Maximising your chances of success

We have already referred to the fact that the more intrinsically interesting your message is, the more likely it is to be read and shared. On the other hand we don’t know what people will find interesting in a thousand years time. Maybe it is your favourite makeup tips? Or perhaps next week's shopping list?

But while quality may be hard to judge, you can’t go wrong by maximising quantity.

If you are intending to follow my instructions and inscribe on clay tablets which are then hidden in various places, it makes sense to produce a lot of clay tablets. Firstly: because although any one clay tablet has a small chance of being refound, if you have a hundred - or better a thousand - scattered around a number of locations you improve the odds. Secondly if more than one of your clay tablets is discovered the fact that it exists in identical copies will no doubt be intriguing all by itself.

Multiple languages

I would also recommend that you write down your message in multiple languages preferably using multiple scripts. Perhaps English, Chinese and Arabic would be a good bet. This might take a bit more work but consider whether the Rosetta stone would be as popular if it was only written in hieroglyphs?

This means after the nuclear winter has thawed out there is a possibility that your vanity project could be the key to reading the ancient texts of the First Age of Man.

Multiple channels

My final point is that while I think clay tablets (lots of them) are the way to go, I think the other less likely methods should also be tried, alongside the tablets. Here I am thinking primarily about sticking it on the internet because the costs are so low.

This is partly an extension of the ‘quantity is key’ argument but also because if there is a chance that your poem (or whatever) finds success as a great work of literature other people might then take it upon themselves to preserve your work for you.

Who knows they might even have a better idea than clay tablets?

Conclusion and final recommendation

So if you want your voice to echo for eternity - or at least a ten thousand years or so - here is my advice:

  • Find a message that is meaningful and if possible one that will become wildly popular. Historical example: The Iliad, Tao Te Ching.
  • Inscribe this on clay tablets. Historical example: Cuneiform tablets.
  • multiple languages. Historical examples: the Rosetta Stone.
  • Produce or commission as many of these tablets as you can: at least a hundred feels achievable but aim for a thousand. Historical example: Epic of Gilgamesh, found on multiple clay tablets.
  • Conceal them in many different locations close to physical centres of power. If you can manage it: in different countries. Because no-one else will value them today you don’t have to hide them too carefully - if anyone does come across them in the next few decades they will probably just tread them further into the mud. Historical examples: all old pottery.
  • Simultaneously put your message onto as many internet channels as possible just in case someone reads it and makes it popular. Historical examples: all twitter accounts.

And there you have it!

Of course it is possible that I have missed something imprtant or even crucial in my exploration of the subject. If so please email me and let me know at: The future may depend upon it.

Anthony Webb, London 2022

  1. Also therefore rejected are carving letters hundreds of metres in size directly on the bedrock of the planet, an idea by the science fiction writer Cixin Liu where due to problems with the speed of light the message needs to be readable millions of years later. Or any manipulation of the genome to encode a note, which anyway I am not convinced would work. ↩︎

  2. In my internet trawl to find the oldest surviving manuscript of Cicero’s writings I came across the Cicero page from the Bodleian Library in the University of Oxford which suggests that the oldest date from the 12th century with most being from the 15th Century. Even if this webpage is not comprehensive, presumably it is representative. ↩︎

  3. Assuming that this website explaining the origins of lorem ipsum is reliable. ↩︎

  4. The Parthenon by Mary Beard, chapter 5 ↩︎

  5. Metal coins could also be a good bet. But although they have lasted for thousands of years as well, the cost and difficulty of making them is greater - and there is at least the possibility that they will get recycled into something else. ↩︎


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