By defi­n­i­tion, what we call “history” begins with the written record of the course of humanity. Before recorded language, there is only prehis­tory. We can still tell a lot about the story of our civi­liza­tion from this period by looking at the tools and arti­facts used by our fore­bears long, long ago. Stone hand axes, for example, or clay pottery. A bronze plow or a lime­stone figurine.

But what if—bear with me, what if—we were living in some kind of prehis­tory right now?

This is the thought exper­i­ment. Imagine a bleak future in which all written record of the human journey up to the present were wiped out. Or if it did remain in some form, it would be unin­tel­li­gible to some future culture, which had no knowl­edge of any of the world’s current languages.

Post-Apocalyptic Archeologist

You can easily imagine the movie script. In some post-apoc­a­lyptic world, civi­liza­tion as we know it has been oblit­er­ated, buried under millennia of sand and dust. And then, after humanity has reestab­lished itself and built a new, inde­pen­dent tradi­tion of science, art and philos­ophy, some arche­ol­o­gist stum­bles upon an arti­fact from the distant past.

From 2018, say. A USB charging cable, perhaps. An espresso machine. Or a pair of five-finder running shoes. Miraculously preserved under layers of rubble

What would such a future arche­ol­o­gist be able to tell about us—about our lives, our culture, our minds? Quite a lot, I imagine.

Three Avenues of Inquiry

First of all, they would be able to glean insights from the way in which the object was manu­fac­tured.

  • The copper wiring inside the smart­phone cable, for example, would be a hint that we knew some­thing about elec­tricity.
  • The complexity of the espresso machine might suggest that we had the capa­bility to make other such intri­cate machines.
  • And the manu­fac­turing evident in the shoes may hint at our capa­bil­i­ties of combining very different mate­rials in a single, unified end product.

Secondly, the design and styling would also provide clues as to the prove­nance and purpose of the item.

  • If the USB cable featured some kind of branding, it would hint that a larger orga­ni­za­tion was respon­sible for its creation, that the orga­ni­za­tion must have created many other similar prod­ucts, and that that orga­ni­za­tion wanted to be recog­nized as such.
  • The espresso maker’s ornate design and flashy details would suggest that this was more than simply a func­tional tool, that it conveyed a status of sorts, that it was as much an object of beauty as of perfor­mance.
  • And the running shoes’ flashy color scheme would like­wise suggest that these items were more than simply func­tional; they were clearly a way for someone to express their indi­vidual style or char­acter.

Finally, guessing at the reason whythe item was made in the first place would also yield insights into the larger soci­etal struc­ture that produced it.

  • The clearly mass-produced phone cable hints at a world where elec­tri­cally powered appli­ances were common­place, and in which a source of elec­tricity was easy to reach. Which, in turn, implies a society in which such a power source was protected and main­tained in a struc­tural way, possibly by a central­ized govern­ment.
  • Once the espresso machine had been iden­ti­fied as a way to produce a beverage (or possibly mix ingre­di­ents for some medi­c­inal purpose?), it may suggest that any culture that leaves such operations—which could, after all, be performed by hand as well—to an intri­cate and doubt­less expen­sive appa­ratus must enjoy a tremen­dous surplus of both wealth and labor.
  • And the five-finger running shoes would hint at a social struc­ture that valued health and phys­ical fitness. More specif­i­cally, it may also suggest that prior­i­tizing health was not just a private and sensible choice, but that it also served a social func­tion as a public plat­form for deco­ra­tive (and perhaps sexual?) display.

More to Come?

These are just some random exam­ples, but it’s mind game I like to play. It reminds me that the world we live in, the mate­rial everyday, is imbued with history and humanity.

I’m thinking of setting up a series of such explo­rations, step­ping into the shoes of an imag­i­nary far-future arche­ol­o­gist who encoun­ters a lost item from our own daily lives. It could be a fasci­nating way of making the invis­ible visible, and the quotidian extra­or­di­nary again.

What do you think—would this be an inter­esting avenue of explo­ration? Let me know which items you’d like our time-trav­eling scien­tist to look at!

• • •

Top image credit: Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Egyptian Chess Players (1879) (source)



Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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