Preserving Ancient Writing

Whenever I have read quotes or writings from thousands of years ago, I have always assumed (without putting too much thought) that they were entirely accurate. I guess this stems from the fact that everything that has been said or written in my lifetime has gone straight to a computer, where the original message will never be changed or lost. After our discussion on Wednesday, however, I have come to realize how much more work was needed to maintain pieces of writings before mass printing and the digital age. If someone wrote an essay 5,000 years ago, then his copy was the only place where his work was stored. If his copy was lost or damaged for some reason, we would never again know exactly what was written in the original work. This has caused me to think about how much we can trust the authenticity of work from thousands of years ago. For example, Archimedes died over 2,000 years ago. That means that for the 1,000 years until widespread printing was introduced, we have to trust that society maintained every word of his writings exactly as they were. Seems pretty unlikely, doesn’t it?

After doing some research, I have discovered that historical works that are presented to us should be very accurate. This is mostly due to the fact that maintaining writings and literature was very important to most ancient civilizations. They realized that the ability to store the thoughts of its smartest citizens was crucial to the growth of society. This made me realize that my initial concern was the wrong one: what I should have been concerned with in the first place was not whether or not writings have changed, but how much writing has been lost.

Have you ever spent hours working on an essay, just to have your computer crash and delete all of your work? It’s a horrible feeling. Now imagine you’re a philosopher or a scientist in 1000 B.C. You’ve spent five years thinking and doing research and writing down everything on a piece of papyrus or a tablet. You have finally finished all of your hard work, and you store it in your local library. Then one day, a fire erupts at the library and all of your work is gone. No big deal, right? You can just log on to your iCloud account and get it all back, right? Nope. It’s all gone. Five years of your life, and you have nothing to show for it. It’s devastating to think about how often this must have happened throughout history. It also makes me wonder how much we’re missing. There must have been some brilliant ideas that have been lost and never been found again just because there wasn’t a safe way to store it. This is the type of thought that really makes me appreciate how easy it is to save data. It is so comforting to know that it is nearly impossible to lose anything I save on my computer. The ability to save digital copies of writing truly was an enormous advancement for society.


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