Wonderful things can come from death. Some of the most glorious and enduring architectural marvels of our time were born out of a very human desire to be remembered even after death. The Pyramids at Giza, the Taj Mahal, the Terracotta Army, and countless catacombs, ossuaries and mausoleums—they all were created in remembrance of someone. And, in a twist of fate, they stand as instantly recognizable legacies of the culture they came from, even if the memory of the person they commemorated is lost.
At Amphipolis in Greece, a splendid tomb was recently unearthed, with delicate mosaics, and sphinx guardians. It’s a marvel of the ancient world, tucked in a remote and inaccessible area of Greece, forgotten by society at large. Just this week, researchers working at the tomb announced that they had uncovered five skeletons, but they still aren’t sure of their identities.
Nowadays, people don’t really build tombs any more. It’s expensive, time consuming, and seen as a fairly ostentatious and ridiculous bid at immortality in an age where people are easily distracted by the next big thing. After all, if building a ruinously expensive monument isn’t enough to ensure your name is remembered, why bother? Building something on the scale of the Pyramids would cost an estimated $5 billion. Why not just build and fund an entire college with your name on it and settle for hoping your ashes get scattered somewhere picturesque (maybe space) while your heirs fight over the will?
That’s a sensible option for the modern uber-wealthy person, but what would happen if someone decided to buck the trend and really go for a throwback monumental tomb—a tomb for the future, with all the pizzazz of the past? The thing about tombs is, for all their expense and labor, they’re really cool.
Ok, if just being awesome isn’t enough, they also often act as informal time capsules, giving people from the future a look at what was important in the past. One of the huge reasons we know so much about Egyptian culture is because of the stunning array of hieroglyphics and grave goods found in their tombs. So why not embark on a project that will give the people of the future the same kind of look back into our society that the tombs of the ancient world gave us?
Like Pieces of Styrofoam
So what’s the best location for our owner’s (let’s call her Popbot) tomb? Matthew Jull, an assistant professor of Architecture at University of Virginia, has a background in both architecture and geophysics. He says that one of the things to look for would be “Areas that are not going to be disrupted by tectonic forces volcanoes or earthquakes.” Those are places towards the middle of continents, like the center of Australia or North America where there aren’t as many interactions between the tectonic plates. “Basically the continents are the legacy of billions of years of melting and refraction of the earth’s material.” Jull says. “[The continents] float like pieces of styrofoam on the dynamic interior,”
Just like the safest place on a floating raft would be the middle, the areas towards the center of the continents are the safest, away from the edges where the dynamic forces of the earth’s interior are still very active (think the Ring of Fire around the Pacific, or the eruptions in Iceland). What good would be putting up a beautiful monument, only to have it leveled by an earthquake or buried under a lava flow a few centuries in?
But there are other perils to monuments besides earthquakes and volcanoes. Climate, for instance. Sea levels are slowly rising, so building a tomb on the coast is not a great choice. Finding a dry place with not a lot of seasons (freezing and thawing can be incredibly hard on even the most durable materials) would be ideal, but locations with a consistent temperature are fairly difficult to find, especially in areas where there is also little risk of tectonic activity. Popbot will also have to keep an eye on the water table around her tomb site to make sure that it won’t rise and flood the interior of the tomb (which is why New Orleans, with it’s high water table has cemeteries filled with above-ground vaults and tombs instead of graves.)
Water affects some stones more than others. Marble and limestone, while magnificent in appearance, are both stones easily weathered and eroded by water. “Limestone is one of the worst materials to build something out of that would be impervious to weathering or erosion,” Jull says. A better option, he says, might be granite—a much more durable stone.
Beyond choosing a material for the exterior that won’t slowly erode after a few centuries of rainstorms, a lot of the material choices would have to be aesthetic. A super modern tomb with interiors of reinforced, unadorned concrete might be one person’s dream, while another might want to go the Vanderbilt route, and have an elaborate, Classical-style tomb with platinum wall-coatings that will stay shiny basically forever (the Breakers isn’t a tomb, but it does have platinum coated walls.)
Either way, the personality of the person building the tomb is important. “The tomb’s cultural value and significance should not be underplayed.” Jull says. Imhotep wasn’t just thinking about durability when he built the Pyramid of Djoser, he was thinking also about building something magnificent that his Pharaoh, Djoser, would find appropriately impressive, and worth the massive expenditure. A huge stone pyramid rising out of the desert wasn’t something that had ever been seen before—it was built to make an impact, and built meticulously, with careful and considered engineering going in to all aspects of the tomb.
“To me, it’s a thing that has to be meaningful, because it’s one of the most important moments of your life, deciding how you’re going to be remembered in death” Marjorie Venit, a Professor Emerita of Art and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, says.
A lot of this probably seems incredibly low-tech: putting a bunch of well-crafted stones in the right spot and hoping that a giant meteorite doesn’t obliterate it. That’s because for the most part, stone endures time in a way that other materials don’t. We’re already struggling, now, to preserve sound recordings and digital files that are located in media formats that just aren’t used anymore. Let’s all take a moment of silence for the floppy disc. Digital obsolescence is already a huge issue for libraries and archives who now need to preserve not only the file itself, but also a way of reading it, and keeping that outdated machine running, even after it has ceased to be manufactured and all the repairpeople have faded away.
Preserving information about who is in the tomb is particularly important if the purpose of the tomb is to convey the majesty and identity of the owner long after the people who remembered her are dead. No one knows what the world will be like in another 4,000 years. Language will probably change, so just writing “Here Lies Popbot, The Great And Terrible” in the local language might not be enough to get the point across. Luckily, there are options. When considering long-term solutions for nuclear waste scientists and policy planners have faced the same questions. Nuclear waste will be radioactive for a long time, so planners have to figure out how to warn people away from dangerous sites far into the future, long after language or traditional warning signs have faded. Suggestions have included carving screaming faces or terrifying scenes on large stones near the site, trying to convey the message ‘stay away’ as clearly as possible.
But a tomb doesn’t have to be quite as scary. In order to have people understand the purpose of the structure, the owner could create a kind of Rosetta Stone, something with the same statement written in multiple languages, which might allow a future visitor a chance to decode the message, just like it allowed our civilization to decode the hieroglyphs based on previous knowledge of Greek. Or, they could take a page out of NASA’s playbook. When the Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977 they each carried with them an item called the Golden Record, a gold plated phonograph, and the means to play it, which contained sounds from earth, greetings in 55 languages, and was accompanied by pictures. A similar type of inscription (on a lesser scale) would be enormously helpful. They could describe what culture Popbot was from, what country she lived in and what she did for a living (something with computers, most likely.)
What’s Behind Door Number 1?
There’s one thing missing from all this–what goes inside. Obviously, for a tomb, putting a body inside is important. The extraordinary preservation of mummies means that archeologists are now able to determine how people died thousands of years ago, (or at least, guess). For Popbot, taking advantage of embalming services could offer the same insight to future generations. More intensive preservation techniques, like cryonics, might also be possible, though that would require a lot of technology and care taking over the centuries.
But beyond the body, there’s all the other stuff. Grave goods were popular in many cultures throughout the ages, and that’s where we get a lot of the fun information about past civilizations. And unlike communication, where Popbot wants people from the future to be able to figure out what the meaning of the tomb is regardless of their technology, the grave goods can be as elaborate and technical as we want. Instead of a chariot burial Popbot could be interred with a Tesla. Instead of scenes of lavish feasts painted on the walls, Popbot could have her favorite cat gifs transformed into a series of paintings that would follow her into eternity. Instead of agricultural or cooking tools, she could have an indestructible stand mixer, and a giant tractor. Lavish swords and weapons could be replaced with lightsabers, and instead of having an army of Terra Cotta Warriors to guard her, she could have drones and robot assistants to keep her company. Sure, some of this stuff might not work after 4,000 or so years, but it will be a pretty amazing find for future civilizations–even if they’ve long since surpassed us in technical ingenuity.
The Only Thing To Fear Is Ourselves
But will Popbot’s tomb even make it to the future? “Don’t let anyone know where it is, and you’ve got it made.” Venit says. One of the reasons that the Amphipolis tomb survived for so long is that it was in a remote location, far away from the prying eyes and hands of people. “What destroys tombs, to some extent, it’s climate, but for the most part, it’s us” Venit says. Almost as soon as many of the ancient tombs were created, they were also robbed by their contemporaries who saw the monuments as giant beacons saying ‘Hi there, I’m filled with lots of treasure–want some?’ Later, early excavations of tombs inadvertently destroyed many of the features of the tombsthey were trying to explores as they opened sealed chambers to the elements for the first time in centuries.
When it comes to a lot of the ancient tombs, Venit says that either through robbing or excavation, “We destroyed them. They were built for eternity and they would have lasted for eternity if it were not for us.”
But keeping a monument secret from the public nowadays is nearly impossible–remember the furor over the Google barges? Or how we can’t keep ourselves from peeking inside time capsules only a few centuries old. One potential solution would be to make the tomb open to the public on a limited basis, just like the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids are. That would provide security to the artifacts and some Another option, suggested by Jull, might include making the space more relevant by allowing for multiple people to be interred there, kind of like Westminster Abbey though that wouldn’t offer any guarantee that the original tomb won’t be altered in the future if some future magnate decided that really, cat decorations are so 21st century, and updated the decor with mosaics of octopuses.
The Ideal Resting Place
Knowing Popbot’s love of cats, keeping it open to the public in a controlled way might be the best choice for Popbot’s massive Tomb of the Future. Just think of it, somewhere, rising over a nice, geologically stable portion of the continent is a huge granite edifice, inscribed with salutations in Mandarin, English and Spanish where inside rests the remains of one of the greatest inventors of our generation, Popbot the Magnificent, who lies surrounded by her glorious accumulations of riches and the latest technology of her time. Rest in Peace Popbot. You will be remembered.