#citylis Student Perspectives: Data left by ancient civilizations by Alvaro De Vasconcelos

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.

This post is by current #citylis student, Alvaro De Vasconcelos, and is about Data passed down to us from Ancient Civilizations.


Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg); CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg); CC BY-SA 4.0)

How amazing is the transmission of information through time, connecting the distant past to the present moment?

Ancient civilizations experimented with diverse types of material such as baked clay tablets, papyrus, stones and so forth, as data. Some part of those data would survive through time and space, but a massive part would be lost forever. The access to all that  information would be impossible without the work of some people- those people who would be able to interpret those data and access the information, in a remote future.

The Epic of Gilgamesh and Princess Enheduanna’s poems are examples of data registered in baked clay; and The Rosetta Stone, an example of data registered in black granite stone.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, considered the oldest registered data of human history was written in backed clay tablets, it is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, each tablet containing the story of a single adventure of Gilgamesh.
Princess Enheduanna from the City of Ur, left a corpus of literary works and many personal devotions to the goddess Inanna and a collection of hymns known as the “Sumerian Temple Hymns”, in backed clay tablets. She is considered as one of the earliest authors and poets known by name in world history. She composed 42 hymns addressed to temples across Sumer and Akkad and the texts are reconstructed from 37 tablets from Ur and Nippur.
The Rosetta Stone, perhaps initially seen as simply a weird black granite stone with some curious signals written in it, actually turned out to be an essential data holding information about the ancient Egyptian civilization, and in 1822, through Jean-Francois Champollion, a brilliant young Frenchman, who was a scholar, a philologist, an orientalist and a professor in Egyptology, the secrets of ancient Egyptians begun to be revealed.

He showed that the Egyptian writing system was a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs. The Rosetta Stone has a message in three inscriptions: 1) Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs; 2) Egyptian demotic script; 3) Ancient Greek. The message is a decree issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC on behalf of king Ptolemy V. The translation was the essential key to modern understanding of Ancient Egyptian literature and civilization.
The secrets of those mysterious civilizations were uncovered through space and time. It shows that the power of information is an essential tool used by scholars to scrutinize the data available. Ancient civilizations were interested in transmitting informations about their glory to the future generations. But how many secrets are still hidden from us because they were lost? How many civilizations have existed and suddenly perished without leaving at least a trace as a key to open the door to their mysteries? How many undeciphered symbols have we encountered and yet we cannot reveal them because we have limited understanding of how access them?
In a time where the access of information resources were very limited, times completely different from our modern time where we have the net and computers, people like Champollion would interpret the data left by the ancient Egyptians. Without the internet, without computers. How, such an amazing mind! The capability to understand the meaning of a message written a long time ago and transmitted through space and time, is really amazing.

I think that everything that exists, for instance, human beings, planets, stars, black holes and so forth, can be seen as types of data holding information. Some of those data are much more complex than others. The world is an infinite metadata, holding the data about data of everything.


You can follow Alvaro on Twitter.

This post is an edited version of the original which was published on the author’s blog, alohaworld, on 13th November 2016.

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About James

Information Assistant (Academic Services) in the Library at City, University of London.
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