What shows us the most about ancient civilizations?
We learn the most from mundane records. Bills of sale. Tax receipts. Water charges. Land registries. Most of these things would go unremarked in our civilization—we always imagine that people in the future will know of us through high literature, or the bible, or something. But the boring records of land taxes and the like, which are piling up in all the offices of governments everywhere, will give the most vivid picture of our society.
It may seem disappointing that one day archaeologists will be studying Hansard and interpreting the ins and outs of Canadian fuddle-duddling from the words therein. As opposed to reading Robertson Davies or Atwood, or maybe Mowat. Of course, it could be worse. Perhaps the only documents you might find would be the minutes of the meeting in which the Reform Party was founded.
One fairly recent discovery of this type is on display at the Bamboo Slips Museum in Changsha. The bamboo slips are thins rods of bamboo, on which were written the detailed administrative records of an ancient city in China. Tax records, land transfers, sales—all recorded on more than 100,000 wooden strips, some of which are seen below.
The museum itself is a modern-looking building, festooned with bamboo trees. Unfortunately, like many Chinese museums, there is a lot of wasted space inside.
Different forms of slips include narrow bamboo slips, and wider tiles. Don’t ask me to interpret what is on them.
Given today's preference for digital records, it is entirely possible that we will leave nothing readable behind. That is a slightly different problem than not leaving behind anything worth reading, which is another distinct possibility.
Treestump peacock sculpture.