Revisiting Society’s Genome: A Historical Look at the Progress and Significance of Archives

Portrait: John KranzBy John Kranz
Software Developer, Spectra Logic

In “Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants,” author James Vincent explores the link between measurement and human cognition and its foundation to modernity.

As a guy with too many years in storage, I was struck by an item in his first chapter. Did the Sumerians create the first archive? As far back as 7500BC, people used tokens to represent ownership of commonly traded goods and materials. By 3500BC, they are common enough that a clay receptacle called bullae is used to contain them. But, like the proverbial piggy bank, a bulla must be broken to retrieve tokens – or even inventory them.

This technology had its advantages and disadvantages. If you are, for example, a Sumerian priest recording tributes from farmers, you’d be happy that your clay spheres couldn’t be tampered with, but annoyed that you couldn’t check their contents without breaking them. So, one day, while making your latest bulla, before you put the tokens inside, you press them firmly on to the clay’s wet exterior as a reminder of the contents. It was the work of a moment but a crucial step, says archaeologist Denise Schmandt- Besserat, who first recognised the importance of these clay tokens as the precursors of modern writing. It was here, she says, that ‘three-dimensional tokens were reduced to two-dimensional markings’ constituting ‘the first signs of writing’. And it was a profound cognitive leap. ‘It is the beginning of a new communication system, and certainly had to have reflected something enormous in the brain,’ she says. ‘It was liberating.’1

Our Sumerian has crossed the Rubicon, passing to a point of no return 3400 years before the saying would make any sense. Storage on media now represents a corporeal item. In the next step within humankind’s evolutionary history, these tokens can then be imprinted on clay tablets. Cuneiform script expands the information which can be recorded. Yet the primary purpose of this heavy storage medium remains what we would call “data.”

Instead, the overwhelming majority of unearthed writing tablets– some tens of thousands– are administrative in purpose. These were composed by a class of professional scribes, who were ‘the cohesive force that helped preserve and enrich’ ancient Mesopotamia, fulfilling duties including ‘temple functionary, court secretary, royal counselor, civil bureaucrat, [and] commercial correspondent’. 13 The library they created is one of receipts, contracts, shopping lists, tax returns, deeds of sale, inventories, wage slips, and wills. Over time, narrative writing like royal announcements and records of wars were added to the mix, but even these retain something of the catalogue format, listing provinces conquered, offspring born, and temples consecrated and desecrated.2

While the read/write speed of bullae and clay tablets is significantly slower than NVMe, you cannot disparage a 5500-year life span. More importantly, the clay tablets used an awful lot of entropy for the information contained. Some of today’s media are pushing the limits of how few atoms can reliably store a single, digital bit – not grams of earth.

The advances have of course been driven by storage demand; but it’s not just recording more tokens. Spectra Logic has the privilege of participating in many amazing archive projects: human genome research, space telemetry data, historical digital asset preservation, and particle-acceleration results to name just a few. It’s an exciting and expansive list.

Five years ago, Spectra Logic’s CEO Nathan Thompson wrote a book on the importance of preserving this data. There is knowledge that humanity and modernity cannot afford to lose. I was able to work on that book with Nathan and my colleague, Bob Cone. That book, called “Society’s Genome,” got some things right – and a few things wrong – but the idea of placing data preservation in the context of human achievement and not just as a part of IT remains valid.

If the bullae in Vincent’s book are an archive success story, it’s worth considering some failures and their cost. Fast forward a couple thousand years to the world described in Eric Cline’s “1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed.” Cline documents the mysterious downfall of the sophisticated and cosmopolitan societies of the Levant, Mediterranean, and Aegean in The Late Bronze Age. The first surprise for the non-academic reader is the developed and deeply interconnected levels of communication, diplomacy, and commerce. Centuries before Thucydides, kingdoms corresponded, traded goods, intermarried to cement military alliances, and recorded mundane agricultural statistics.

Modern archeologists have used 3D imaging to access fragile artifacts, and AI to translate documents from unknown languages to paint a vivid portrait of a sophisticated society that populated three continents.

Together they allow us to piece together not only the history of the Hittite rulers and their interactions with other peoples and kingdoms, but also that of the ordinary people, including their daily life and society, belief systems, and law codes— one of which contains the rather intriguing ruling “If anyone bites off the nose of a free person, he shall pay 40 shekels of silver” (one wonders just how frequently that happened).

We will see, in the next chapter, a Hittite diplomatic treaty in which a deliberate economic embargo against the Mycenaeans is spelled out —“ no ship of the Ahhiyawa may go to him”— and it seems quite likely that we are looking here at one of the earliest examples in history of such an embargo.

Yet, the end of that civilization remains clouded. Climate and famine played a significant role. But a conquering “Sea Peoples” upended the long-tenured Hittite, Egyptian, and Mycenae regimes within a few years. Speculation is rampant, but the identity of the conquerors is lost to history. Somewhere, someone recorded who they were, where they came from, and how much of the world they conquered. But if that record is extant, we have not found it.

“Society’s Genome” tells the story of Ptolemy’s Map: lost in Alexandria in 150BC, the “World Map” documented sea and land routes “from the Fortunate Isles in the Atlantic Ocean to the middle of Serica (China).” Found again in 1407, its loss hindered navigation for 100 years. Data loss is real loss and preservation of information is important and interesting.

Keep an eye open for upcoming blogs, where a few of my better-spelling associates and I will highlight current events and technologies which relate to the premises of “Society’s Genome,” as well as highlight interesting and important archive projects that our customers are pursuing.

To learn more about how Spectra customers large and small are solving archiving and digital preservation challenges across research, high performance computing, education, and media and entertainment, check out our repository of customer case studies here.

1 Vincent, James “Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants” p.31

2 Ibid, p.33

3 Cline, E. H. (2021). 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed: Revised and Updated (Turning Points in Ancient History, 1 Book 6) [Kindle Android version] p.33

4 Ibid, p.67