How Will Future Archaeologists Judge the Tech We Leave Behind?

By Alan Martin on at

If you’re still packing an iPhone 4S, a Windows Phone or a potentially explosive Galaxy Note 7, your next phone upgrade is going to feel transformational. But thousands of years in the future when archeologists pull what remains of your cold dead hands, one phone will look a lot like any other – assuming there’s anything left to look at. To add insult to injury, it may even get mistaken for a WalkMan or – God forbid – a Microsoft Zune.

This hits me pretty hard during a talk by Doctor Chloe Duckworth at the annual New Scientist Live festival in London. Duckworth is an experimental archaeologist which means that as well as digging and lecturing, some of her time is spent trying to rebuild ancient technology to figure out what we might miss if we just look at old fragments of things.

“Twenty years ago, most music was being listened to on CDs,” Duckworth said during her talk. “They were the definition of new technology, but now they’ve been almost completely superseded. For an archeologist several hundreds of years in the future, CDs would be the blink of an eye: an example of failed technology, or a blip on the path to somewhere else.”

As a child of the 90s, that stung a bit. But computers or smartphones may not fare that much better – it really is too early to tell.

Textiles on the other hand: they’ve passed the test of time. If you didn’t even consider that option, you’re not alone. As Duckworth tells me later: “People are quite anachronistic: we think metal is important because it was important to the industrial revolution. So we tend to omit other technologies that may be highly relevant in the longer term, but might be quieter maybe.”

Photo by VanveenJF/Unsplash

We can rebuild them, we have the technology

The potential to miss things is pretty high when you’re looking at civilisations from thousands of years ago, especially when they were often better at dealing with their waste than we thought. The Romans, for example, used glass way more than once assumed, with windows for privacy and temperature control: we just didn’t know it, because it turns out they were also big on recycling. “Say you’re in Rome – a massive city – and a building needs to come down,” Duckworth explains. “It’s actually more efficient and easier to recycle the building materials than it is to dispose of them. Because to dispose of them you have to get them out, and it’s a packed dense city.”

Okay, but how do we know it’s recycled if, by the nature of recycling, it’s gone? “I’ve done chemical analysis on glass, and there are chemical markers,” Duckworth explains. “You’ll have a colourless glass that has elevated quantities of colourants in it. People have got a load of colourless glass, chucked it into the furnace and maybe a blue handle has gone in with it.” Invisible to the eye, but chemically significant.

More surprises emerge in what sounds like the most fun part of Duckworth and her colleagues’ days. After reconstructing bronze-age swords using the same techniques and tools used by our ancestors, the academics fight with them to see if they can replicate the nicks and cuts on the blades of uncovered remains, thus revealing insights into how people battled thousands of years ago.

Turns out our expectations were wrong there too – initial test bouts made dents far more severe than anything on the surviving relics, which could only mean one thing: bronze-age sword fights were a lot more cautious than you would imagine. And yes, that unbelievably means more cautious than a bunch of academics play fighting in a lab.

“They started conserving the swords, and then they discovered that they were able to replicate the same marks they’d found on the archeological weapons,” Duckworth explains. “This is the first period of close combat in metals – there must have been really strict rules of engagement, or they’d end up dead.”

Eventually, of course, bronze blades were replaced with iron swords, but that won’t necessarily have been a happy change. Old habits die hard – figuratively, and probably literally when face to face with an iron-clad army. Duckworth compares this to our usage to this day of the QWERTY keyboard – a madcap keyboard design intended to prevent typewriters from jamming.

“Nowadays it's not the most efficient way to type, but we're never going to change it because that's what we're used to,” she explains. “That's how things were in the past as well: you carried on making bronze swords because it wasn't just how to make a sword: it was your whole style of fighting. Switch that for iron and it suddenly doesn't make sense any more. People get stuck on a path: path dependency is a huge thing now and then.”

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A love of the shiney

So why do things change? “There's an assumption that you create a new technology because you realise how to do it, as if its been waiting to be invented,” Duckworth says – something that players of Civilization will recognise – but that’s clearly ridiculous.  So what does drive innovation? “Never underestimate the extent to which human invention is driven by a love of shiny," as she says in her talk, which may explain why phone manufacturers go gaga over reducing bezels and pop-up cameras.

In the past, this meant things like glass: a brilliant innovation (if you’ve ever drunk anything from a metal cup, you’ll know why), and yet Duckworth speculates it may have been more about showing off – at least to begin with.

“I think there’s evidence that it’s because people wanted to showcase their power,” she explains. “They've deliberately shown in the object that it's manmade but it's just as valuable as the precious stones which they're getting all the way from Afghanistan, even though it's just made from sand they can pick up.”

Which brings me to her favourite piece: the Lycurgus Cup, which is still on display in the British Museum. “The thing that's really amazing about it is that its dichroic glass which changes colour depending on whether light is transmitted through it or reflected off it.” she explains. “That’s essentially produced by nanotechnology: nano-sized particles within the glass that gives it that property. They clearly knew what they were doing and were trying to achieve this, even if they couldn’t do it very often.

“It's the high-point of technological invention for a luxury item for drinking wine and partying.” It was so advanced that people didn’t understand how it came about until the late 20th century.  “People in the past weren't stupid, they just didn't have the technological web we have now," Duckworth adds.

Photo by Alexander Andrews/Unsplash

What survives us?

It’s hard to visualise what will happen with our technology when it’s gone beyond retro, past being ewaste and become ancient history. “There's so much of it, any archaeologist of the future would have to be taking such a huge large-scale approach,” Duckworth says. “You wouldn't be able to look at small-scale remains.”

But even if they could, much of what we have now won’t be here for the long, long haul. “Plastics won't survive hundreds of years, so actually the stuff we tend to think about in our everyday lives is the stuff that'll disintegrate and disappear. What'll be left are the frames of buildings, which we put in the background mentally, I think.”

But what about data? Surely with the internet, cloud servers and millions of hard drives in use, our accumulated knowledge will live on as long as there are humans to find it? “If you look at the past, the things that survive are the things that are repeated,” Duckworth replies. “With online content, something that's copied and repeated on many servers - that might survive.”

But even then, there are warnings from history. “There's never a period in time when all technological knowledge is lost, but there are periods when networks are lost,” she says.” When the Romans left Britain, the next few hundreds of years saw a deterioration of building quality. “You’ll find a floor where they have the materials, but not the skills, or you’ll find another where they have the skills but not the materials. So the knowledge is there for the next few generations, but if you don’t have the network or the trade you can’t share it.” That’s possibly something to bear in mind, given the rate at which we’re using precious earth minerals for phones that get replaced every 24 months.

“We're quite arrogant now and we assume that's not going to happen to us, but if one part of the interlocking puzzle fails, then the rest could change dramatically. We won’t lose all our knowledge – that’s never going to happen – but it’s not necessarily going in the direction we think it’s going in.”

What will archeologists think of what we leave behind then? Well ultimately it depends what ends up being significant from this era – and it might just not be what you expect.

Featured image by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash