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The Inevitable, Intergalactic Awkwardness of Time Capsules

NASA equipped the two Voyager probes with information about Earth in the form of Golden Records, analog discs that contained images, music, and the sounds of Earth. Forty years later, the probes are headed out of the solar system, possibly to be found someday by alien beings who will learn what Earth was like …in 1977, which we all know now was a particularly weird time. The records are more of a time capsule than an encyclopedia. They are just a couple of the many time capsules humans have constructed to be found by someone far in the future. William Jarvis, author of Time Capsules: A Cultural History, says the concept of time capsules goes back thousands of years, at least to Assyria in the 7th century BCE, when king Esarhaddon recorded his exploits and embedded it inside a wall.       

“One of the functions of time capsules is glorified advertisement or boasting,” says Jarvis. To ensure their brag sheets’ longevity, the Assyrian kings ended messages by asking future finders to hype up their accomplishments, like an old-school reblog request. Many courted populist cred: In what Jarvis describes as an early PR move, Mesopotamian time capsules found hidden in walls specifically mention the high wages of the wall-builders. Esharhaddon’s successor, Ashurbanipal, wrote in one of his missives that his subjects were so excited about the whole thing, they threw their amulets en masse into the capsule's burial site. (How he managed to include this information without time-traveling himself remains a mystery.)

In the 20th century, the Golden Records had to be crafted to please everyone, from those who objected to the depiction of human anatomy to powerful men who wanted their names included. An article at Atlas Obscura gives us the history of time capsules, the dos and don’ts of burying one, and a close look at the Voyager recordings and how they misrepresent Earth only forty years later.

(Image credit: NASA)

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