DATING OBJECTS OF THE ANTHROPOCENE
(Written in 52023 CE, two years after the “Universal Agreement on Time of 52021 CE” has been signed.)
In this document we describe recent research that was performed to give meaning to the objects of the Anthropocene. This research was a collaborative effort by archeologists around the world, in which the Museum was also involved. Giving meaning to objects turns them into things that can possibly tell something about the story of the Anthropocene.
The meaning of something is expressed by its relationships with everything else; these relationships can be chronological (one thing is older than the other and therefore it is …), spatial (on thing is larger than the other and therefore …), and they can reside in other dimensions still: ethical, aesthetical, … (one thing is more just or more beautiful and therefore it is …). For the moment, though, the research described here considered the temporal dimension only. Dating - not in the sense of going out with your loved one, but in the sense of establishing the age of something - is already difficult enough.
To help to understand this article, we start with some of its conclusions.
We now know that objects of the Anthropocene, hence most objects in the collection of the Museum collection, were produced in a period around 2000 of the Common Era (CE) - a period that was called “the Anthropcene” already then. We also know that that period was about 50.000 years ago. Archeological excavations that started about 500 years ago unearth a myriad of objects of the Anthropocene in a distinct layer of 20 to 50 cm thick, which is topped by a thin layer of humus and soil. The latter layer contains hardly any man-made objects, which indicates that at a certain moment all production of human artefacts stopped rather abruptly; we call that moment the End of the Anthropocene. We do not know when the Anthropocene came to an end, neither why, which is even more disturbing. Humanity did not come to an end of course, as we are still around, but the civilization of the Anthropocene apparently did. The Anthropocene was followed by a period of which we hardly know anything, because, as we just said, little was produced in this period. We call the period following the Anthropocene the Grand Hiatus: a gap in the history of humanity, a gap in the counting of time, which archeologists started to address only recently.
Objects of the Anthropocene are found in that distinct layer of 20 to 50 cm thick, just beneath the surface of the Earth. These objects are studied worldwide with the ultimate goal to give answers to the following questions: how did humans and non-humans thrive during the Anthropocene ? when and why did the Anthropocene come to an end? and what happened during the Grand Hiatus, if anything happened at all?
Let’s now go into some more detail.
Determining the age of the objects
Determining how long ago the objects in e.g. the collection of the Museum were produced or came into existence, i.e. determining their age, is not simple. Let’s take, as a not arbitrary example, the 1971 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, of which the Museum holds a copy (Cat. Nr. 113). A first complete set of the 24 volumes of the 1971 edition has been unearthed 350 years ago, and deciphering was completed only 15 years ago. In one of its first pages, it is written that it was printed and copy-righted in 1971; that is 52023 - 1971 = 50052 years ago; hence the age of the Encyclopedia is 50052 years. That is easy, but only with hindsight! The difficulty is obviously not the 1971, which is mentioned in the Encyclopedia itself, but the 52023. In fact, during the Grand Hiatus any trace of counting the years disappeared (*), so how do we know that, when writing this article, we are in the year 52023, the year 50023 CE, to be precise?
(* 60 years ago a document was found that created quite some stir among the experts; it described a mechanical clock designed in 2009 CE that would run for thousands of years. It was installed in a cave in a remote dry area in Arizona so that it could not rust and would not be disturbed. For its functioning it depended on the occasional passage of an explorer, every hundred years or so, who would turn a handle and make the clock continue working for another couple of hundred years. If that clock would have been running throughout the Big Hiatus, it would tell us exactly in which year of the Common Era we now are and it would link us up – time wise - with the Anthropocene. Several expeditions were organized, and the clock, with its shiny levers and wheels was eventually found, but it came to stand still in 11302 CE.)
So, what then allows us to say we are in the year 52023 CE? Two events: the rediscovery of the Carbon-14 dating technique, and an agreement that was arrived at between all people on Planet Earth two years ago: The Universal Agreement on Time of 52021 CE.
Applying the Carbon-14 dating technique
The rediscovery of the Carbon-14 dating technique can be ascribed to a group of people in Central Africa. Based on written documents - among which the 1971 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, see Fig. 1 - they have been able to make the Carbon-14 technique working again. This allowed them to assign an age to organic artefacts, i.e. objects made of plant or animal derived materials, that are not older than about 60.000 yrs. Applying the Carbon-14 technique to artefacts of the Anthropocene led to the important discovery that most of them, including the Encyclopedia, are all roughly 50.000 years old. “Roughly 50.000 years” means that it could be 52.000 or 48.000 or any age in between; the Carbon-14 dating technique can indeed not be more precise.
But anyway: what a luck! Imagine for a moment that our objects would have been older than 60.000 years, in this case the Carbon-14 technique would not have been able to determine their age and we would still not know by how much time we are separated from the Anthropocene, how long the Big Hiatus had lasted; 100.000 years, 100 million years? But we now know it is roughly 50.000 year, and thanks to this discovery we can now connect our current history to that of the Anthropocene - and all of the history before! - and we are no longer drifting along the axis of time, alone and detached from our ancestors and their workings.
Due to the lack of precision of the Carbon-14 dating technique most objects of the Anthropocene are “roughly 50.000 years old”. Not only the 1971 edition of the Encyclopedia but all other editions, including the first that was printed in 1768, are “roughly 50.000 years old”. All of the Anthropocene probably happened within that uncertainty range of 4000 years of the C-14 dating technique, and the technique is not able to say which object is older than another, or which event occurred earlier than another. What we need is a chronology of the objects.
Making a chronology of objects
Making a chronology of objects, i.e. ordering them according to the year in which they were produced - can be done rather easily. Often objects mention the year of their production: books, for instance - for many reasons some of the most important objects that made it from the Anthropocene to our time - mention when they were printed; tools or machinery have often the date of their production engraved. Other products, however, lack such straightforward indication, but research in which various types of information are overlayed can often lead to a very precise determination of when they came into existence (a point in case is Cat. Nr. 53, the polyethylene glove). A such, we have been able to put most objects in the Museum in a coherent chronology: their year of production or coming into existence are expressed as year in the Common Era, as was already the case in the Antropocene. (The Common Era started with the birth of a charismatic leader with global influence, who was born, by definition, in the year 1 CE. As mentioned at the beginning, most objects of the Anthropocene came into existence around 2000 CE.)
The Universal Agreement on Time of 52021 CE
If only we could give a precise age to one object of our collection, thanks to the chronology that we now have available, a precise age could be given to all other objects of the collection. Since the C-14 dating technique is not able to give a precise age, it was proposed (**) to agree on the age of at least one object, within the range of the uncertainty of several thousands of years given by the C-14 technique.
(** the proposal came from an institution in Amazonia dedicated to the archeology of the Anthropocene. It was quickly taken up by other institutions, like ours, and it was agreed to take the 1971 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica as primary reference in this whole dating story. The reasons for this choice are two: firstly, copies of that edition have been unearthed in various places on Earth and are now available for study in many institutions and museums. Secondly, the Encyclopedia turned out to be a detailed description of everything that was known by 1971 CE: objects, events, persons, instruments, countries, … As such many of the objects that had been and are still being unearthed can immediately be dated and explained, because related to things described in the Encyclopedia. A limitation of the Encyclopedia is that after the 15th edition of 2010, no other editions have been printed. Apparently, all human knowledge was transferred from Carbon based information technologies (books) to Silicon based technologies (chips). Whereas most books became deciphered already hundred years ago, chips have eluded all attempts of deciphering them so far. (More on this in Cat. Nr. 126 and 127))
Having an agreement between archeological institutions is one thing, having their agreement agreed by all people on Planet Earth took several more years, not the least because of the problems of reaching out to as many people on the Earth as possible. People’s representatives were brought together in various committees that had to agree on several side issues, before they could come to the main conclusions. Eventually, the Universal Agreement on Time was signed in 52021 CE. It was decided to use one single calendar that stretches from the Anthropocene (and before), over the Grand Hiatus, to current times. That calendar was choosen to be the one referring to the Common Era (CE), as many objects of the Anthropocene have their year of production already expressed according to this calendar.
In addition and most importantly, the agreement stipulates that the agreement itself was reached and signed by all parties 50050 (***) years after the 1971 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was printed. Hence, by agreement and definition but still respecting the results of the C-14 dating method, the year of the Universal Agreement of Time became the year 52021 CE (1971 + 50050 = 52021), and as we write (in 52023 CE) the 1971 Encyclopedia is 50052 years old. From now onwards every other object or event that can be related to something that is described in the Encyclopedia has its precise age.
(*** The attentive reader will still have one question: why did the Universal Agreement on Time of 52021 CE choose 50050 years for the time between the printing of the 1971 edition of the Encyclopedia and the signing of the Agreement. It could have taken any time between 48000 and 52000, so why not taking the round number of 50000? After a long debate, fueled by the subcommittee on potential reference objects, 50 years was added to the round number of 50000 so that in 51.971 CE the Encyclopedia would have been 50000 years old; as such they gave pride of place to the Encyclopedia rather than to the Agreement.)
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