Flash Drive vs. Sumerian Clay Tablet

I was just at Costco this weekend,  wheeling one of those immense, T-Rex  shopping carts past the ever-so shiny electronics section, when my eye  fell on a row of flash drives.  I currently back up all my research and stories on a battered 8 Gigabyte Kingston flash drive that I bought in Cuzco last summer and that I strongly suspect is a knockoff.   But Costco’s new line of drives,  the LaCies , are 32 GB and look  like house keys.   I immediately wanted one.

Now you might reasonably think that a brand-new flash drive would win hand’s down every time as a back-up system when pitted against,  let’s say,  a 5000-year-old  Sumerian clay tablet.   But you’d be very,  very wrong.   According to a fascinating study I recently came across  by Paul Conway,  who teaches in the School of Information at University of Michigan,  there is one critical way in which the Sumerian clay tablet,  the world’s earliest data storage system,  beats the hell out of the flash drive jingling on your key chain.   Longevity.

Here’s Conway’s main point.   Someone who knows how to read Sumeria’s cuneiform script (which gets its name from the Latin word cuneus, meaning “wedge”–an apt description of the little wedge-shaped marks that Sumerian scribes made with their styluses in moist clay) can still read the message on a clay tablet  5000 years later.   Now what about a LaCie flash drive?  All the computers we use to read it today will be obsolete in 20 years,  and we will have no way of accessing what’s on it.  It might as well be a big lump of metal.  You scoff?   Just think about the stacks of floppy disks that littered our desks back in the 1980s.

Conway calls this “our central dilemma”:   the capacity for storing information is soaring exponentially just as the longevity of  storage media is plummeting.   In other words,  the more ancient the storage system, the longer it tends to live.  A 4500-year-old Egyptian papyrus can still be read,  so can the Dead Sea Scrolls. But a book published in 1851 on acidic paper only has an average life expectancy of 100 years.  And the pace of obsolence has greatly accelerated over the past 40 years:  if I handed you a computer punch card or a magnetic tape could you read it?

I am not Luddite.  I love new technology  (bring on the iPad!),   but it’s clear to me that Apple, Microsoft and Google don’t have all the answers.  Maybe the guys in Silicon Valley and Redmond, Washington ought to give a little more thought to cuneiform tablets and a little less to flash-in-the-pan data.


  1. Hi Heather, really interesting post. This reminds me of the Rosetta disk and other projects of the “Long Now” foundation. The Rosetta disk encapsulates texts from thousands of languages, micro-etched onto an inert disk. These are readable by a microscope, not by some fragile combination of hardware and software. They have a number of other cool projects attempting to understand and plan for the very longue duree. It’s like a spooky inverse archaeology.



    1. I was really fascinated by The Rosetta Project, so fascinated that I blogged on it today at:


      Thanks, Quentin!

  2. Great post, Heather! Your blog is consistently interesting and original and this is a good example.

    1. Thanks, Michael. I’m honored! And for readers who don’t know Michael and his wonderful work as a science writer and political pundit, please check out his blog at http://michael-balter.blogspot.com/

  3. Tim

    Some friends and I were talking about this recently. We live in such a strange time. I have papers on 5 1/4″ floppy discs from the 1990s that are for all practical purposes irretrievable, but the newspapers that someone insulated their walls with in the 1930s are still clear as a bell. This digital age is going to bite us all in the butt.

  4. Yes, absolutely! I think we all need to take a step back for a moment, and think about the obsolesence problem.

  5. As a librarian, I can tell you that preservation is an issue for the profession. Libraries and archives are having a hard-enough struggle with preservation of print (like books printed on acid paper), much less digital, archives. The Library of Congress just announced that it will be archiving Twitter posts (Lisnews.org), but what about everything else on the Internet?

    One of the theoretical points garners lots of discussion in the profession is whether or not libraries should be cataloging and preserving the *entire* Internet.

    On the one hand, this seems ridiculous, but on the other, the internet and web sites like Twitter *are* the collectors for our cultural legacy, so maybe someone should preserve the entire web.

    The LOC/Twitter announcement is sparking lots of librarian-blog discussions, usually centered on whether it’s a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars; but I don’t know. The archaeologist in me says “Yes!,” preserve everything! The practical librarian in me says, “we can’t.” But it would be nice if people in 5000 years could still access this post. Right now I doubt if people in 50 years could read it.

  6. Hi Lisa:

    I was amazed when I read that LOC will now be preserving all our Tweets. What I love about Twitter is it’s immediacy, the way it captures the moment–or rather a million moments around the world. But how beneficial, I ask myself, will all of that–years upon years of those moments– be to a cultural historian in 1000 years? I think the vast mass of tweets would be truly overwhelming, and I say this as someone who spent four years going through the maniacally well-documented government correspondence of one research institute in Nazi Germany.

  7. How can we preserve, and make accessible, archaeological data for the very long term? Flash drives, no matter how much storage capacity they have, are not the answer. Neither are clay tablets, despite their proven durability and longevity.

    We certainly need begin working on the problem because there mountains of archaeological data already on paper, and increasingly much more in digital formats. One approach developing in the US is through a new initiative and organization called Digital Antiquity.

    This organization is establishing a digital repository that will serve as a means for providing wide access to the data from archaeological documents and other kinds of data, as well as ensuring, through such practices as data duplication and file format migration, to ensure their long-term preservation.

    Digital Antiquity is seeking partners, who might include public agencies, at the national, state, tribal and local levels, CRM firms, museums, research organizations, or individual scholars, to collaborate in this endeavor. In a nutshell, what we are trying to do is:

    1. Establish a financially and socially sustainable, national/international, on-line digital repository that is able to provide access, discovery, integration, and preservation for archaeological data and documents;

    2. Encompass in our digital repository, known as tDAR (the Digital Archaeological Record), digital documents and data derived from archaeological investigations and research (more than 50,000 archaeological field projects are reported in the US each year) as well as legacy data collected through more than 100 years of archaeological research in the Americas; and,

    3. With the collaboration, participation, and support of public agencies, CRM firms, and other parts of the discipline transform the practice of archaeology revolutionizing our knowledge of the past and our ability to care for the material archaeological record through new synthetic and comparative research on a scale that has heretofore been impossible.

    We hope that the discipline of archaeology and the individuals that comprise it take this opportunity to make progress on sharing and preserving archaeological data.

    Thanks to Heather Pringle for highlighting the issue with a memorable example and thoughtful assessment of the challenge.

  8. Francis McManamon:

    Thanks very much for filling us in here on this really important new project. Readers who would like to learn more about Digital Antiquity should check out the site below:


    I plan to write on this subject further very soon.

    Thanks, Francis.

  9. Hello Heather,

    You have addressed two subjects that I find fascinating, Sumeria and technology! I read through all of the posts and could not find that any had mentioned “EMP” electromagnetic pulse which results from a nuclear detonation.

    Most of our digital systems will be rendered useless in the event of an EMP unless it is properly hardened or several feet underground.

    One more reason to go back to wedges!

    Thanks for the post.


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