Memory of Mankind

A saltmine of information

An artist in Upper Austria is seeking to preserve the knowledge and culture of the early 21th century on ceramic tiles – as a treasure trove for the archeologists of tomorrow.

Nestling on the mountainside and reflected in the lake: Hallstatt, Austria. Image: iStock / rusm

In a thousand years’ time, which artefacts will a future civilization unearth from our era? Empty soft-drink cans? Ruins made of reinforced concrete? Rusting drums of atomic waste? “Written records are sure to be a rarity,” says Martin Kunze from Gmunden in Upper Austria. “Perhaps the engraved lettering on the bases of stainless steel cookware – ‘Made in China.’” And maybe a few surviving inscriptions on weather-beaten gravestones.

Kunze – 52, bearded, deep blue eyes – could prove to be right. We may be producing and storing data nonstop – more than ever before – but the digital storage media we use won’t last. Even the best hard drives deteriorate after a few years. What’s more, the world’s server farms consume huge amounts of energy – which may soon be in short supply. And no one can guarantee that the Cloud in which global data is clustered will not simply dissipate someday. “The point is,” Kunze says, “our age could become a blind spot for posterity.”

The ceramic artist wants preservation to prevail. And his plan sounds like something straight from a fairy tale: a huge treasure trove of culture and knowledge, buried deep inside a mountain. But he is turning it into reality: in 2012 Kunze created the project Memory of Mankind (MoM). And ever since he has been tirelessly collecting documentary evidence of our current civilization: doctoral theses and works of literature – along with recipes, Facebook profiles and wedding pictures. They are all being offered the prospect of immortality in the world’s oldest salt mine in the Austrian Alps. Here, in Hallstatt, on Kunze’s storage medium for the millennia, his favorite material: clay – formed into 20 centimeter square tiles.

This may sound retro, but in reality it’s high-tech. Colored images are printed on the tiles using a modified laser printer and then baked on. Once rendered light-fast and chemical-resistant, the tiles will basically last forever. A further process – developed by Kunze in A saltmine of information collaboration with a technology company – allows incredible amounts of text to be printed on a single tile: the latest Harry Potter novel, for instance, or scientific treatises. Using a laser, texts and tables can be depicted in a miniscule font and engraved on the white tiles in a dark, wafer-thin layer of ceramic, as the MoM founder explains. “You just need a magnifying glass to read them.”

What is representative of our age? The Natural History Museum in Vienna has had a picture of the Atlantic blue crab archived. Climate scientists are collecting raw data to document global warming. Kunze is also negotiating with the publishers of major newspapers such as The Guardian and Süddeutsche Zeitung. Soon their leading stories will be added to the MoM archive on a daily basis. Captured on the tiles is everything from algorithms to biographies of David Hasselhoff and Edward Snowden, along with village chronicles. Kunze is keen to memorialize everyday minutiae: “Subjective narratives like diaries from the First World War – they are often more revealing than the things public archives define as relevant.”

More than 700 tiles have already been deposited in the part of the mine that, appropriately enough, is called a gallery. Soon they will be completely enveloped in salt. Kunze explains the process: “Salt rock is highly viscous. It moves at about the same speed as a fingernail grows.” In a few scant decades, the entrance to the archive will be closed. Some 2,000 meters deep inside the mountain, this font of contemporary history will lie dormant until one of our descendants or – if the human race is extinct – a new, intelligent civilization restores it to the daylight realm.

MoM creator Kunze couldn’t take his venture more seriously. As its motto, he has chosen an aphorism from the 19th century that is attributed to the philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt: “Only those who know a past have a future.” That may well be true. But why should future archeologists check out a salt mine in Upper Austria, of all places, to learn what was what in the early 21st century?

Analogue texts are being conserved on ceramic tiles for posterity. Image: Jennifer Morrison

Martin Kunze smiles. “Hundreds of treasure maps are already in circulation,” he says. Anyone contributing a tile receives a “token” in return: a six centimeter large clay coin showing the outline of continental Europe, with a symbol similar to rifle crosshairs marking the archive’s location. There is a sliding price scale: a tile and a token cost 350 euros for Central Europeans. People from poorer parts of the world pay less. “We want to make sure that we aren’t just painting a picture of the affluent West,” Kunze says. Which means that short texts from across the planet can even be preserved for free.

Some families travel great distances to personally deliver their tiles, Kunze says. For instance from the United States: “If you ever have grandchildren, come back here and make sure everything is still as it should be,” parents often tell their sons and daughters. And that is exactly what the inventor would want. Kunze admits that there may be better archiving methods available someday. For this reason, the token holders are expected to meet every 50 years to debate the archive’s future. The first meeting is scheduled for 2070.

Knowledge about the past is not only interesting; sometimes it can mean the difference between life and death. Representatives of the Swedish National Council for Nuclear Waste and the Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris have already scrutinized the MoM archive. They are seeking ways to secure information on atomic waste storage sites for future generations – and see great promise in Kunze’s archive. That said, the nuclear scientists have yet to pump any money into the project. For years now, the artist has been funding it with the charges for tiles and tokens, along with the occasional donation. “Somehow, we get by.” Yet he does still dream of a major sponsor for his growing cache in the mine: “If someone were to want a truly impressive memorial for themselves, the salt mine offers the perfect opportunity,” he says. A monument for eternity.

Nor does Kunze lose sleep over the improbable scenario that a meteorite might one day crash down on Hallstatt, devastate the mine and obliterate the MoM archive. “Archeologists have always been good at re-assembling things,” he says. And, in his view, archeologists from a future civilization will be even better.

Till Hein, born in 1969, studied history and works in Berlin as a freelance science journalist.

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