Our Knowledge of History Decays Over Time
Despite modern approaches to archaeology and preservation, as history moves forward we will only lose knowledge of the past.
It seems that with every passing year, we know more about history than we ever did. Historians are always publishing new histories and commentaries on those histories, and archaeologists catalogue and store every artifact they unearth.
But returning Palladium writer Ben Landau-Taylor and Palladium correspondent Samo Burja argue that is not the case, even accounting for the historical awareness, professionalized archaeology, and meticulous record-keeping that characterizes our civilization. On one hand, there is the straightforward truth that after 100 years there are no longer any living “primary sources” that can give us a new lens to observe a historical event through. However:
In addition to people, books, and artifacts are also lost to entropy in a hundred different ways. The cumulative effect of this destruction is immense, as illustrated by the records of classical civilization. “[T]oday we possess written fragments from only 13% of the ~2,000 ancient Greek authors known to us by name. This does not account for the authors we do not know, and only a small portion of the 13% figure consists of complete works.”
Preserving the ever-growing mass of historical material is too expensive to be practical, so when budgets run thin, even major libraries and archives will discard books and records by the hundreds of thousands. For example, the Manchester Central Library’s recent culling destroyed 210,000 to 500,000 “literary, commercial, educational and political records going back 150 years” with “no subject specialists involved in the process.” This is a standard library practice.
Artifacts are also lost in accidents like the 2018 fire that destroyed 92.5 percent of the 20 million items stored in the National Museum of Brazil, including the only recordings of now-extinct languages. Another example is the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire that destroyed 20 percent of the collection and damaged much of the remainder.
In recent decades, digital information has fared no better than paper. Between link rot and changes in software standards, tremendous amounts of digital information become inaccessible over the course of a single decade. The long-term preservation of digital archives remains a hope rather than a guaranteed fact. Even in optimistic scenarios, it would require ongoing effort and maintenance on par with the curation of printed information. As the development of the printing press illustrates, much better ways of recording information can often have only modest effects on how much information gets preserved centuries later.
These are all examples of information getting destroyed, but knowledge can also simply be forgotten:
Around 500 BC, the Neo-Babylonian princess Ennigaldi-Nanna’ created a museum of then-ancient artifacts dating back as far as 2000 BC. When the city of Ur was abandoned, the museum and its contents were also forsaken. It was not until 1925 that modern scholars rediscovered the museum’s remains. Archeologists shouldn’t just delight in such finds, but reflect on the temporary nature of their own work.
Is Ennigaldi-Nanna’s lost museum a unique find that will not be repeated, or is it possible that the archives of other historically-conscious predecessors of ours are waiting to be discovered? It is likely that there are more—but this also reinforces the inevitability of their loss.
What does all this mean for the overall trajectory of our knowledge of history? Unfortunately, on average our understanding of any given period will slowly get worse over time. Our direct evidence will gradually decay, with some temporary reversals as lost material is rediscovered. But over the long term, it is impossible for rediscoveries to outpace losses. Meanwhile, the quality of historians’ arguments and interpretations will vary somewhat, sometimes getting better and sometimes getting worse. To take a grossly oversimplified mathematical analogy, imagine a sine wave of analytical quality fluctuating around an exponential decay curve of surviving evidence.
This is not to say attempting to understand the past isn’t useful. Historical literacy is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal for navigating the contemporary world. Even if complete knowledge of the past is just as impossible as complete knowledge of the present, we must accept this patchwork understanding as we try to chart the future.
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Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
Our Knowledge of History Decays Over Time by Ben-Landau Taylor and Samo Burja. Despite modern approaches to archaeology and preservation, as history moves forward we will only lose knowledge of the past.
Bill Gates Has Perfected Managerial Philanthropy by Brian Balkus. Bill Gates has used his foundation to win prestige and secure the goals of the elite consensus. But without strategic independence, he cannot act against its worst ideas.
What Genius Looks Like by Ginevra Davis. James Glimm may have just solved one of the most complex problems in mathematics—but his life’s work might be able to teach us the secret of living well.
The West Lives On in the Taliban’s Afghanistan by David Oks. The Taliban has succeeded in reconquering Afghanistan. But while the U.S. may be gone, the new regime faces increasing Westernization among its subjects—and its own fighters.
Germany Is Losing the Electric Vehicle Transition by Evan Zimmerman. Germany is renowned for its automotive engineering. But its historic car industry is getting left behind in the electric vehicle transition, calling the country’s entire economic model into question.
That’s all for now.