Thursday, June 05, 2008

Digital Nineveh

I've just spent days immersed in ancient Assyrian history - initially thanks to another great podcast from Melvyn Bragg on the ancient Assyrian library at Nineveh. A related podcast on the Assyrians in general from Dan Carlin's "Hardcore History" followed, and then a trawl through wikipedia, the online edition on Encyclopedia Britannica (which is terrible by the way) etc etc.

Here's the synopsis:

The Assyrians were the first to harness the power of a professional "standing" army. They ruled by terror - an effective way to distribute your power over a vast empire. Carlin calls them "The Nazi's of the Ancient World".

They conquered the Babylonians - but the Babylonian culture conquered them. (cf Rome + Greece). In a lighthearted moment between head-impalings, they invented "floaties" made of inflated animal skins to help their soldiers cross rivers.

They deported the 10 northern tribes of Israel- the so called "lost tribes".

Asshurbarnipal assembled, at Nineveh, a massive library of cuneiform text (mainly on clay tablets) - before the Babylonians (allied with the Medes) finally got their chance for payback- and razed the library (and the rest of the Assyrian capital) to the ground.

As an afterthought, the Babylonian king Nebucadnezzar II destroyed the 1st temple in Jeruslaem, and took the remaining Judeans off to Babylon. It was only after the Persian king Cyrus conquered Babylon that the Judean diaspora were allowed to return to their homeland.

One of the interesting things about the library is that when the Babylonians set fire to it, the heat baked the clay tablets and hardened them. Not only that, but the whole lot was entombed for thousands of years before being rediscovered by a wandering Englishman. A great find for the modern science of Archaeology - but it might have been better for world history if that knowledge had been accessible!

I've often thought that the things that archaeologists are most likely to find are the things that have been earlier lost. Some cave-man goes for a walk and never comes back. His wife wonders what happened to him. Three thousand years later the thaws out in modern Austria next to a snowboarder.

Another thing - why do some empires last a thousand years, and others a mere few hundred? Obviously not genetics. Military technology? A culture of orderly succession of rulers? A violent, expansionist culture? A cohesive religion? An ability to adapt to new ideas and threats? Luck? Ecology (see Jared Diamond on Easter Island)? They way they dealt with conquered nations?

It's only been a few hundred years since the last "dark age". How long before our current civilization collapses? I'm sure eventually it will. Where is our library and how long will it last?

Converting all our stuff to 'digital' seems a good way to preserve it for the future. The data in an original Beatles "White Album" vinyl record degrades every time it is played - until it is nothing but static hiss. CD's are better.... until CD players become obsolete. No problem - convert the data using a lossless format and store it on your computer's hard drive. Unfortunately, this is liable to crash sooner or later- so store it in "the cloud" at Google- email it to your gmail account. Finally safe! Until the OGG VORBIS codec you picked becomes superseded by 12 generations of new and improved codec algorithms. In what format will that Beatles album be in 1000 years? 3,000? 100,000? You'll have to keep translating it again and again. The "Digital Nineveh" will always be at risk.

Even if the data stays safe for a thousand million years- it will ultimately need human ears to decode. At some point in the future, the "White Album" will be gone.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Whaddaya think?