My guess would be Egyptian hieroglyphics.
That’s fair, and an acceptable answer. Other acceptable answers: The Epic of Gilgamesh which was written on clay tablets, any number of cuneiform tablets representing any number of languages, The Rosetta Stone, Maya glyphs, and Hammurabi’s Code. There are others, of course.
What do all of these ancient texts have in common? They are written on relatively durable material like rock and fired clay. We have tons and tons of cuneiform tablets. What we’re missing is any writing on perishable materials: papyrus, animal skins, wood. We know it was done, and we find fragments here and there, but we have incredibly few preserved examples.
This puts us, as a human race, in an interesting position. Provided this species (or perhaps some awesome super-evolved version of it) survives for another 2,000-3,000 years, what will be our written legacy? What will be our Code of Hammurabi, our Gilgamesh? What will future archaeologists be digging up, and trying to decipher?
Where is most of our writing concentrated? On paper, the internet and external drives.
1. Paper, as we have established, is highly perishable. It burns. It decomposes. It rips and tears. Now that we are moving more towards sustainability and writing on paper which is not only recycled but also highly compostable, it will disintegrate to nothing even faster. Harry Potter probably wouldn’t survive – depressing as that thought might be.
2. Who is to say what happens in the span of 3,000 years? What if the internet crashes? The internet, and what we save on the cloud, is only good as long as we have access to it. If it fails us, it’s all lost. I presume the technology of 5013 CE would be more advanced than our current version – will they know how to access our primitive internet, any more than we currently know what to do with any number of clay and metal trinkets that we find from 1,000 BCE? Culture Shock would never be found.
3. On a related note, what about what we save on USBs, CDs, hard drives, and floppy disks (teehee floppy disks)? Imagine being an archaeologist in 5013 CE. Would you know what to do with a USB if you found one covered in dirt completely out of context? Do you even know right now how a USB drive works? I don’t. So that’s out of the question as well.
So what will survive? What do we have carved in stone?
Well, we do have monuments. The Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial might survive. If that is all that survives of our era of humanity, I’d be pretty content with that. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial has quite a bit of writing as well. The Statue of Liberty, perhaps, with its “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”*
But I think of some of the other artifacts that may survive. Like billboards. Depending on the type they could decompose (wood and ink would, for example), but some could survive. Can you imagine our current civilization being encapsulated by “Were You Injured At Work? Call 1-800-AWESOME-LAWYER”? Or Times Square. Think of all the billboards there that might survive. Our civilization will be represented by a gigantic Cup O’ Noodles. Or an ad for Rihanna’s new perfume. Or Brad Pitt for Chanel No. 5.
Certainly the written artifacts that we have from the ancient past do not represent the entirety of the society at the time. Not even close. It most definitely does not represent the society of your average illiterate citizen. Hammurabi’s Code wasn’t even used in court cases at the time. So I’m not expecting our civilization to be depicted completely accurately. But there was a sense, back then, that writing was important: it was holy; writing something made it real; it was important simply because so few people were able to use it. Now, writing is a given for most of the Western World. There is nothing holy, or particularly important, about a Brad Pitt ad. Which is not to say that we should regress in our literacy, or that we should put writing on a pedestal – it’s a tool.
But just try to think about it. Try to think of how little evidence we have on which to base our interpretation of the past. Think about what kind of reality the people of the future will construct about us, based on limited evidence.
* The excerpt comes from Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus” which is incredible, and you should read it.