University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The new “Lords of Time”?

July 30, 2012

A Photo by Rolfe Horn, Courtesy of Long Now

With the new MAYA 2012 exhibit up and running the concept of time and keeping track of time has been on my mind lately. A few years ago, on my way to a restaurant in San Francisco, my friend and I stumbled across a building with a sign that said “X Long Now”.  Intrigued, we went inside to investigate.  What we discovered was “The Long Now Foundation” a company set up to “creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years”.  As a museum person this made complete sense to me.  However, I was blown away by their most ambitious project, to construct a huge 200 ft. clock in a mountain that would keep track of time for the next 10,000 years.  I bought a few postcards, looked at some of the prototypes, and thought: they will never raise the money to make this, it’s just too “out there”.

Well, they’re building it. Thanks, in part, to Jeff Bezos and his love of long term thinking. This is really exciting and seems like a great project given today’s concerns about how to keep digital assets archived for future generations.  The Penn Museum has a collection of tablets that have survived for thousands of years.  They tell us all kinds of things about ancient cultures that would have disappeared had they not been recorded in a way that would let them survive for millennia.  That is, cuneiform pressed into clay or carved into stone, and then buried in sand.

So how do you record something that will stand the test of time?  The modern answer: micro etching. This brings us to the other Long Now project that is really exciting, the Rosetta Disk.    This disk records the worlds languages and 13,000 pages of  information on a small plate that can fit in the palm of your hand.  The only technology required to view it is magnification.  Basically they created a Rosetta stone for all the world’s languages so that future generations (and archaeologists) could decode text that may have fallen out of use over the years. What a smart idea! This is something that would have helped Mayanists decode Mayan glyphs much quicker. It would also help if we had a similar disk for something like the Indus Valley script which still eludes a definitive explanation and decipherment. They even sent a disk into space so it will always be out there as a repository for human culture in case something happens to the Earth.

The Long Now Foundation partnered with the Internet Archive to help bring this about. The Internet Archive has also helped the Penn Museum with our archival videos which have been made available for all kinds of cool projects.  The Foundation is working on a lot of other projects that are neat so check out the website if you are interested. Wired magazine did a write-up of them a while back that is also worth a read.  I can’t wait to see how this turns out!

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