Nothing else changes

There was an article I read in Smithsonian magazine years ago. I tried to find an online link to it, but Google failed me. This is my best recollection.

Many decades ago some fine British gentlemen were noodling around with shovels in the deserts of the Middle East. While there they found a tablet of obvious very ancient origin. The writing was completely illegible though, so they boxed it up and sent it back to the British Museum in London where it was promptly shelved and forgotten about.

Some time later radiocarbon dating (or one of its similar technologies) was discovered, so the British Museum started going through its collection to date things. This particular tablet stood out as incredibly ancient. If it wasn’t the very oldest piece of writing we had, it was up there. But the text was still illegible, so they shelved it again.

Then in the 1990s digital cameras started being a thing, and a fellow had this idea that if you took enough pictures of an object from different angles using high-contrast flash photography, perhaps a computer could analyze all the pictures tease out faded carvings and writings. This experiment was successful, so the tablet was brought out again and processed. The text was a very ancient dialect of cuneiform, and a copy of the text was sent up to the linguists for translation.

Some time later, however long the translation took, a report was released on what the tablet said. Many people were very interested, as this was the oldest writing example in the Museum’s collection by a large margin. What could we learn from the past so far removed from our current era?

As I recall the tone of the article, many scientists were disappointed by the content, but I am not. I am fascinated. The tablet was a receipt for the sale of 20 male slaves, with a money-back guarantee if the purchaser was not absolutely satisfied with the purchase.

This is the lesson I take from a writing from 10,000 years in the past – knowledge increases and technology improves, but nothing else changes.


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