The word revolution has several meanings. Nowadays it has a devalued connotation, referring to relatively substantial but not necessarily radical changes in social, economic, technological or cultural behavior. However, there are in fact real revolutions that are (or have been) extremely important in different areas. Some – political and economic – revolutions have a direct impact, sometimes at a huge human cost. Other – cultural and technological – revolutions are more subtle with long-term effects. The media and associated technology used to transmit the strange phenomenon that we call ‘culture’ also influence what is preserved and for how long.
Culture, the transmission of information through learning, is not exclusive to humans. Chimpanzees and bonobos, among other anthropoids, show very sophisticated examples that vary according to each group. They transmit knowledge by emulation. As an example, younger members are shown how to use a thin branch to capture hidden ants in their nest. But culture is only fully mature among humans, as knowledge is not limited to survival techniques: it also meets purely intellectual needs.
More primitive human societies use oral techniques. They narrate facts and lessons, describe dayly life processes or expectations in afterlife. Words and exemplification are the predominant media. Naturally, they are not exclusive to these societies. The tales still found in more developed societies play a similar role. Additionally, since at least the Cro-Magnon man we have used pictorial representations, sculptures and similar artifacts.
Excluding cave paintings and related remains, the first known permanent cultural records are probably the Sumerian tablets, from the late third millennium BCE. Written in cuneiform script, most of these tablets as well as others from later societies are economic records: commercial transactions, tax payments, censuses, warehouse stock, etc. Fortunately, they also contain the first literary works, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is probably the first one to reach our hands. Or astronomic records of phenomena such as eclipses that are extremely important in order to date historical events.
Despite the hardness of its medium, a significant part of the written material from the Sumerian culture and its heirs in Babylonia and Assyria did not survive subsequent invasions by Persians and Hellenes, the change in civilization. Nevertheless, there is a large number of tablets stored in the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers, in present-day Iraq. Unfortunately, this region has had a difficult past. Current conflicts and the devastating destructive ability of modern weapons have caused irreparable damage to the settlements or tell, artificial mounds marking ancient non-excavated urban centers. Even now, we are losing our cultural heritage, there and elsewhere.
On the banks of the mythical Nile, the ancient Egyptians created the papyrus. Rolls of this extremely fragile material were widely used in Ancient times, especially by Hellenic cultures and the Roman world. The great libraries from the Hellenic period and the Roman Empire, from Pergamum to Alexandria, contained thousands of rolls including most of the Mediterranean culture, from Greek tragedies to the philosophical reflections of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Unfortunately, again and again, a big part of our cultural heritage has disappeared due to accidents, natural disasters, arson, sacking or the passage of time.
Around the 3rd century, the codex (parchment or cured-skin sheets uniformly cut, sewn on one side and protected by binding) was first used. This invention may have originated in the territory of present-day Iran. However, it was only several centuries later that its use became widespread among Greco-Roman society and its heirs (Byzantium in the East and the Germanic kingdoms in the West). Under appropriate conditions, a codex shows moderate resistance to the passage of time. In fact, it can be reused by apparently erasing previous content. In reality, if thus handled, a parchment retains traces of prior writing and, using appropriate techniques, the original content can be recovered. This is known as palimpsest. Some codices are more than a thousand years old, in some case including two, three and even four overlaid texts. These are small cultural and historical universes, amazing jewels of an almost lost past.
The codex’s main enemies are dampness, where bacteria and fungi develop and eat away this organic material, fire and, naturally, humankind itself. Throughout this millennium great Middle Age libraries or irreplaceable manuscripts have been destroyed. By the Crusaders -the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 is a prime example; by influence of ideological powers and their enforcement structures such as the Inquisition -an institution born in 12th-century France and ‘perfected’ in Spain and Italy; by the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries; by the neglect of owners and librarians when the manuscript lost applicability; and, above all, by a disastrous 20th century with revolutions, exodus, genocide and plundering. Indeed, most of humanity’s heritage was destroyed during that unfortunate century. It cannot be said that the beginning of the 21st century has been any better.
The invention of paper and, in the 15th century, of movable type printing led to a new revolution, enabling a greater number of cultural phenomena to be created and to survive: science, literature, philosophy, national and economic records, etc.
Finally, over the last decades we have seen a truly exponential explosion. New digital formats and the Internet give almost unlimited capacity to any person, at least those who have access to these new techniques. We can retrieve and store information, create our own material and distribute it. Mass file digitization, cataloguing and remote online use will probably greatly help to preserve and disseminate content once thought to be lost.
Among these changes in cultural media (some of them a product or a cause of true revolutions), some material is lost. Not all tablet records were transferred to papyrus as there was no reason to do so; they made sense in a specific time, within a given political and cultural context. Unfortunately, not all papyrus content was transferred to codices, because of culture bias among other reasons, and not all codices were then transferred to the printed media before disappearing.
There are important ideological and historical elements in a change of media, in what is preserved and what is discarded and it is left to disappear. Again, an example of this is the invention and use of the codex. When its use became widespread, the surrounding civilization and its religious values and cultural references had completely changed. Respect was not given to Olympian gods and the reflections by Plato or Epicurus were not regarded in awe. Jesus of Nazareth was the dominant force within the framework of both the Roman Christian hierarchy and its orthodox version in the East. A scribe copying texts from a decaying parchment to a new codex, either at a monastery or in the palace of Constantinople, was driven by specific reasons: to preserve works by Plato due to its use by St. Augustine of Hippo; minutes from ecumenical councils; or Imperial histories that lent legitimacy to the government by tracing a continuous line between Republican Rome and that specific period in history.
Indeed, there is a selection process. In general, this has meant that literary and historical works from the classical period (but only a small part) have reached us via Byzantium, while philosophy and science have come from Arabic translations, and a significant portion via the two Toledo School of Translators in the XII and XIII centuries. This stems from the fact that both the Christian and Muslim civilizations used classical culture for their own purposes and both chose what to preserve and transmit. Of course, these processes, in general, were not designed. Members of the intelligentsia, step by step, selected what fitted best their interest and any moment.
Today we are once again at, perhaps, an even more important crossroad due to the vast volume of cultural material created and the real possibility of being buried underneath what could be called “cultural noise”, an excessive number of products with little value, no originality, similar to the Sumerian tablets containing warehouse stock (note, however, that current specialists can extract very interesting information for boring of items coming from ancients cities; the “cultural noise” can be analyzed in similar fashion).
We astronomers have faced this problem for some time, and initiatives such as the Virtual Observatory are trying to handle the problem of storing, accessing and analyzing huge volumes of data. But the issue of culture is much wider and more general. Also, the vast number of works and information of any type produced every year raises an additional problem: accessibility of all and only all relevant information. In other words, how to access the required data or work since they are literally buried underneath numerous layers of similar texts that, in fact, add no value and do not answer the question. It is enough to give a simple example: typing a simple question on a web browser may return hundreds or even thousands of pages in an order of priority based on criteria that are not always appropriate or are even completely incorrect. Note that someone has written a code to select the “relevant” information, and these algorithms are, naturally, biased. Thus, specific answers to concrete questions are not always accessible.
How can we preserve our culture? How can we transfer it to new formats while ensuring that nothing of interest is lost? Should we create cultural databases, new libraries of Alexandria, as encouraged by the United Nations? And, most importantly, who should carry out this selection and using which criteria? I do not feel able to do so. I would not dare to it, as I would not want to risk accidentally sacrificing a new Iliad.
David Barrado Navascués
CAB, INTA-CSIC European Space Astronomy Center (ESAC, Madrid)
PS: This article was published in “OpenMind”, the on-line magazine by the BBVA foundation, both in English and Spanish («La transmisión de la cultura: revoluciones, sesgos culturales y soportes físicos«). The current version corresponds to an update.