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The Treasure Message: A Challenge September 18, 2010

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

Beachcombing has a long-standing interest in the reliability of oral legend. Over how many decades can a piece of information be passed from mouth to mouth – without recourse to writing – and yet survive intact?

So an example: a young Athenian fights in that city’s golden year, 490 BC, against the Persians. For how many generations will his family be able to recall accurately what happened to their forebear on the day of the Battle of Marathon? For how many generations, indeed, will they remember their grandsire’s name?

Families are good testing grounds for the efficiency of oral transmission because even today most family histories are not written down: or if they are, they are rarely written down according to the tenents of history.

Beachcombing has precious ‘living’ memories of the Second World War through still living relatives.

But his knowledge of the First World War is already second or third-hand and, though interesting, sounds hopelessly romanticised. Then as to the late nineteenth century there are rumours of rumours, echoes of conversations held in a laced parlour in Beach’s great-grandparents’ time.

The chances are that the Athenians were better than moderns at this game. But would anyone without reference to good written records describe with confidence an event in their family history prior to say 1910? Here a rootless modern middle-class family in say Birmingham will give a different answer to a traditional descent-conscious family in the rural Carolinas.

Beachcombing today, thinking of a planned rhetorical flourish in a forthcoming publication, wants to set a challenge by turning this whole question on its head. The competitor must devise a way to pass a one sentence message to his or her great-great-great-great grandson who will be born 1st January 2160. The sentence will reveal where to find a treasure that prior to 2160 will be contaminated by radiation.

For the purposes of the challenge the world will not be destroyed by asteroids or human agency – though there will certainly be lots of unpleasantness en route. Writing can be used. Fertility will not be a problem. Beachcombing is loath to write that money is no object, but he will grant that large quantities (a couple of million US dollars) can be spent to get the sentence through to the right person.

Beachcombing has played around with this problem a little. In the good old days he would have written a poem and engraved it on the front of the family mansion: see the Musgrave Ritual. But nowhere in the modern west is any single family likely to be in the same house in a century’s time. Likewise a sealed envelope with the local lawyer’s office doesn’t work. What lawyer’s office could possibly survive a hundred and fifty years? Beachcombing has thought about indoctrinating Little Miss B with the message before she brushes her teeth every night in the hope that she will pass the habit on to her children: but let’s be frank this will lead to teenage revolt and mid-life therapy.

One of the reason that we are different from the Athenians is that we have lost the easy continuity that could be taken for granted even in the nineteenth century. So how can it be done? Any suggestions: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Kudos, a prize and an immortality of sorts for the winner.

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1 Oct, 2010: Beachcombing has had about ten suggestions to date. However, the most interesting if necessarily eccentric entry comes from the leader of the pack KH. Beachcombing, for the purposes of ‘the prize’, is going to leave the competition open for another month: ‘The initial one sentence would be carved on a granite slab, much like a grave marker is today. Buried beneath this would be a stainless steel box, containing the information to be stored. The type of paper that would meet the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard for permanent paper. I suppose I could vacuum seal the box.   The box would be buried in peat, as this has the ability to keep things preserved, and I would surround the peat with silicon dirt.   A stable, mild climate location (I’m thinking somewhere on the great plains), would be selected. The idea being, since this location would not be near any potential strategic location, such as military installations of population centers, it should be safe from radiation caused by nuclear attack. This should get me to the 150 years. Now the sending the message part.  The way I see this working, is to make this a nation wide event. This location would be advertised in several forms of media; magazines, TV, radio, internet sites. People would have to pay X amount of money for the materials to create their site, and this money would also be used to pay for site maintenance as well. The entire site would be buried in 10 – 20 feet of dirt, with the grid coordinates, for each location, being recorded in a book. This would further protect the site.  A book of all the contributors with the  locations of their archive, would be created, containing the grid location, a brief description of the contents, and  and stored at the Library of  Congress, The National Archives, and perhaps, with selected partnered countries. The entire site coordinates would also be stored in this book. The biggest issue to me would be to have the descendants prove that the person who buried the contents were indeed the current petitioners ancestor. Assuming that all birth certificates still survive, this should be relatively easy to do. OK. Let’s make it not a national event, and keep it to the family level. The above materials, (granite marker, peat, stainless steel case, etc), would still be used. In this scenario, the family would buy a plot of land, and put it in trust, sort of like public land, that is privately owned. Of course, part of the trust would not allow the sale of the land. Building a summer home there, that passes from generation to generation should assure it stays in the family. At the appointed time, the moment could be open and the contents read. The major issue with this set up is keeping people from opening it before the appointed time.’ Thanks to KH!

1st Nov 2010: Beachcombing had about twelve ‘serious’ answers to the Treasure Message game. He gives the prize to KH, whose reply he put up last month, and Adam C. whose entry follows here: ‘So, you want to pass on a message to one of your descendents? Easy! By definition you’ve already given them a load of your own genetic information. Inserting a particular message into your child is not too far beyond current technology. Having them know it’s there and how to translate it is trickier but if  civilisation hasn’t collapsed, genome sequencing should be ubiquitous and it would therefore be very obvious. Knowing which descendents are going to end up with it is more of a problem. But if there is an unbroken line of males or females between me and this great-…. grandson then I could put the message on the y chromosome or mitochondrial dna, respectively. If we want a more foolproof system, I think I could devise a system whereby any descendents would die (or not be born) if they didn’t have a copy of my ‘watermark’. And it’s probably a good idea to put in multiple copies to guard against mutations.’  Beachcombing frankly didn’t understand what the hell Adam was on about, but a scientist friend took him out to dinner and confirmed that this is credible. Yikes! Well done, KH and Adam C. Books on their way.