Memento Vitae

“Almost every sentient being who ever lived belonged to a society that doesn’t exist any more. Why should we be any different?”
                                Alastair Reynolds.

The one thing history tells us about civilisations is that they fall. The bronze age collapse left centuries-old Egyptian, Babylonian, Hittite and Mycanean civilisations with their cities in ruins and their peoples scattered. The glory that was Rome was snuffed out by barbarian swords and even the original British Celtic culture was extinguished by those Johnny-come-lately Angle and Saxon immigrants.

Babylon’s Ishtar Gate (Pergamon Museum, Berlin) was constructed 2,500 years ago. It’s builders probably believed – much as we do – that such a rich and powerful civilisation could never vanish.

Whether you call it archaeology or grave robbing, one of the few ways we have of discovering how those ancient peoples lived is from their dead. From decorative basalt beads in Paleolithic graves through swords and trinkets in Iron Age barrow graves to the finery of Tutankhamen, humans have interred grave goods with their deceased but it’s a custom we seem to have grown out of. What message are we sending to future archeologist with the spartan resting places of our dead? A better question is; what message would we like to send? Perhaps its time to reinstitute the practice of burying grave goods with our lost loved ones.

Memories Are Made of This

We don’t want strong-stomached thieves Burke-and-Hareing it all over graveyards, so valuables, sacrifices for the gods or coins for the ferryman are out but there may be a place for a more modern form of grave goods.

Memories – historical data worthless to contemporary thieves but priceless to future historians – may prove to be the currency de jour. Paper writing or photographs won’t last and any form of electronic recording will be worthless. You don’t have anything to play your 20 year old VHS tapes now never mind in 200 or 2000 years.

Material scientists may have some suggestions for long term preservation of information but the only real test to see what lasts is to stick it in the dirt for a thousand years. Fortunately this is an experiment that has already been done. We know which materials keep down the ages because archeologists regularly dig them out of the ground today. Clay tables preserve writing for millennia, amber can preserve DNA for thousands of years, glass, for all it’s brittleness, is chemically inert and lead sealed coffins preserve remains for centuries.

These tried and tested materials can be used again. Line drawings or text could be impressed in clay and fired. High-resolution bubblegrams – those 3D, glass cube sketches of the Eiffel tower or other attractions that line the shelves of tourist shops – could equally preserve text and images. Clay tables or glass cubes are pretty low-fi recordings but there will be enough room for a potted biography of your life and accomplishments, your facebook profile or even just your favourite joke. A somewhat higher information density could be given with a biological sample. Amber could preserve suitably dried and vacuum packed DNA samples – a drop of blood or hair follicles – that could tell future scientists a lot about where we came from, our appearance and diseases.

Imagine then, a sealed lead or stone box maybe a bit bigger than a Rubik’s Cube. Something small enough to fit inside a coffin, ossuary or urn. Inside is a sheaf of baked clay tablets or a glass cube. The tablets or glass contain a portrait, name, dates of birth & death plus maybe one or two hundred words of text. Also included is a slice of amber containing carefully prepared samples of blood or hair follicles.

We’d want to choose not just our words but our language carefully. English is popular now but in a few thousand years when London and New York have gone the way of Troy or Thebes it may be as undecipherable to our descendants as Olmec or Linear A are today. You’d need to include a translation in at least one other language. We don’t know what present roots future civilisations will grow from so you’d want your alternative language not only widely spoken and written but geographically widespread as well. Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, Swahili – choose one at random. Numbers will be on our side with a million little Rosetta Stones waiting for future linguists to reconstruct our forgotten tongues.

Buried Treasures

Undertakers would probably be happy to incorporate a memory box making option into their existing service and it’s easy to imagine a whole new DIY or cottage industry springing up. Potters could make up clay tablets, metalworkers or sculptors provide the containers, writers could help you compose an elegantly concise biography and even the bubblegram machines aren’t prohibitively expensive.

For some, the thought of their remains being disturbed – however far in the future – is unsettling. Many though, might be happy at the chance of even an ersatz immortality.

For archaeologists, paleontologists and historians it would really just be a professional courtesy to their future colleagues (a post-mortem ‘pay-it-forward’). Scientists or engineers might like to include Maxwell’s equations, the laws of motion, possibly a simple diagram of a battery or steam engine. After all, we can’t know what sort of civilisation will find our grave goods. Maybe they will be just re-starting the long climb up the technological ladder where this sort of information would be a real boon. Altruists might want to preserve some of our art and culture while those with strong political views might want to set the record straight or make sure history isn’t just written by the victors.

The Afterlife Lottery

There is a tiny chance that the immortality wouldn’t be entirely ersatz. If future civilisations are only a little bit more advanced than we are, those blood or hair DNA samples could provide more than just a snapshot of our biological environment.

It is extraordinarily difficult to reliably preserve and copy old DNA (just listing the problems would make another article), however… If your memory box survives, if it’s found, if you ask nicely, if your biological sample is sufficiently well preserved, if the civilisation that finds your remains is sufficiently advanced and so inclined, we cannot say it would be entirely impossible that your DNA might be cloned. Somewhere in the far future someone who looks and thinks and feels much as you do could live again – your twin in time.

That might be a long shot on top of a long shot but what is certain is that we won’t live forever. Our words, our deeds and eventually even our society will follow us down to oblivion but maybe we can send a beacon into the future. A message that puts a face to the bones, that says who we are, how we live, what is important to us. Susan Sontag once referred to the art of photography as ‘memento mori’, a reminder of our mortality. I’d like to think of memory boxes, these modern grave goods, as ‘memento vitae’. Bottles cast into the sea of time, hopefully to wash up on some far future shore. Reminders to our distant descendants that, here and now, we were.

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