10 Million-Year Hard Disk


It seems these days that no data storage medium lasts long before becoming obsolete—does anyone remember Sony’s Memory Stick? So have pity for the builders of nuclear waste repositories, who are trying to preserve records of what they’ve buried and where, not for a few years but for tens of thousands of years.

Today, Patrick Charton of the French nuclear waste management agency ANDRA presented one possible solution to the problem: a sapphire disk inside which information is engraved using platinum. The prototype shown costs €25,000 to make, but Charton says it will survive for a million years. The aim, Charton told the Euroscience Open Forum here, is to provide “information for future archaeologists.” But, he concedes: “We have no idea what language to write it in.”

Most countries with nuclear power stations agree that the solution for dealing with long-lived nuclear waste is to store it deep inside the earth, about 500 meters below the surface. Finland, France, and Sweden are the furthest advanced in the complicated process of finding a geologically suitable site, persuading local communities to accept it, and getting regulatory approval. Sweden’s waste management company, SKB, for example, spent 30 years finding the right site and is now waiting for the government’s green light to begin excavation. It plans to start loading in waste a decade from now, and will be filling its underground pits for up to 50 years.

While the designers of such repositories say they are confident that the waste will be safely incarcerated, the most uncontrollable factor is future archaeologists or others with a penchant for digging. Archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf of Linnaeus University in Sweden showed meeting participants an early attempt at warning future generations: a roughly 1-meter-wide stone block with the words “Caution – Do Not Dig” written in English with some smaller text explaining that there is nuclear waste below. But who knows what language its discoverers will understand in thousands or hundreds of thousands of years—or even if they will be human beings? Holtorf points out that a much earlier attempt to warn off future excavations, the Egyptian pyramids, were looted within a generation. “The future will be radically different from today,” says archaeologist Anders Högberg, who is also from Linnaeus University. “We have no idea how humans will think.”

In 2010, ANDRA began a project to address these issues, says Charton. It brings together specialists from as wide a selection of fields as possible, including materials scientists, archivists, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, and even artists—”to see if they have some answers to our questions.” The initial goal is to identify all the approaches possible; in 2014 or 2015, the group hopes to narrow down the possibilities.

The sapphire disk is one product of that effort. It’s made from two thin disks, about 20 centimeters across, of industrial sapphire. On one side, text or images are etched in platinum—Charton says a single disk can store 40,000 miniaturized pages—and then the two disks are molecularly fused together. All a future archaeologist would need to read them is a microscope. The disks have been immersed in acid to test their durability and to simulate ageing. Charton says they hope to demonstrate a lifetime of 10 million years.

Researchers have some time to work on the problem because the repositories will probably not be filled and sealed up until the end of this century. “Each country has its own ideas, but we need to get a common approach,” says SKB’s Erik Setzman. “We technical people can’t solve this problem ourselves. We need help from other parts of society.”


Thanks to Dr. Rajadhyaksha for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

2,500 year old Siberian princess tattoos

The ancient mummy of a mysterious young woman, known as the Ukok Princess, is finally returning home to the Altai Republic this month.

She is to be kept in a special mausoleum at the Republican National Museum in capital Gorno-Altaisk, where eventually she will be displayed in a glass sarcophagus to tourists.

For the past 19 years, since her discovery, she was kept mainly at a scientific institute in Novosibirsk, apart from a period in Moscow when her remains were treated by the same scientists who preserve the body of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.

To mark the move ‘home’, The Siberian Times has obtained intricate drawings of her remarkable tattoos, and those of two men, possibly warriors, buried near her on the remote Ukok Plateau, now a UNESCO world cultural and natural heritage site, some 2,500 metres up in the Altai Mountains in a border region close to frontiers of Russia with Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan.

They are all believed to be Pazyryk people – a nomadic people described in the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus – and the colourful body artwork is seen as the best preserved and most elaborate ancient tattoos anywhere in the world.

To many observers, it is startling how similar they are to modern-day tattoos.

The remains of the immaculately dressed ‘princess’, aged around 25 and preserved for several millennia in the Siberian permafrost, a natural freezer, were discovered in 1993 by Novosibirsk scientist Natalia Polosmak during an archeological expedition.

Buried around her were six horses, saddled and bridled, her spiritual escorts to the next world, and a symbol of her evident status, perhaps more likely a revered folk tale narrator, a healer or a holy woman than an ice princess.

There, too, was a meal of sheep and horse meat and ornaments made from felt, wood, bronze and gold.  And a small container of cannabis, say some accounts, along with a stone plate on which were the burned seeds of coriander.

‘Compared to all tattoos found by archeologists around the world, those on the mummies of the Pazyryk people are the most complicated, and the most beautiful,’ said Dr Polosmak.

‘More ancient tattoos have been found, like the Ice Man found in the Alps – but he only had lines, not the perfect and highly artistic images one can see on the bodies of the Pazyryks.

‘It is a phenomenal level of tattoo art. Incredible.’

While the tattoos, preserved in the permafrost, have been known about since the remains were dug up, until now few have seen the intricate reconstructions that we reveal here.

‘Tattoos were used as a mean of personal identification – like a passport now, if you like. The Pazyryks also believed the tattoos would be helpful in another life, making it easy for the people of the same family and culture to find each other after death,’ added Dr Polosmak.

‘Pazyryks repeated the same images of animals in other types of art, which is considered to be like a language of animal images, which represented their thoughts.

‘The same can be said about the tattoos – it was a language of animal imagery, used to express some thoughts and to define one’s position both in society, and in the world. The more tattoos were on the body, the longer it meant the person lived, and the higher was his position.

‘For example the body of one man, which was found earlier in the 20th century, had his entire body covered with tattoos. Our young woman – the princess – has only her two  arms tattooed. So they signified both age and status.’

The tattoos on the left shoulder of the ‘princess’  show a fantastical mythological animal: a dear with a griffon’s beak and a Capricorn’s antlers. The antlers are decorated with the heads of griffons. And the same griffon’s head is shown on the back of the animal.

The mouth of a spotted panther with a long tail is seen at the legs of a sheep.

She also has a dear’s head on her wrist, with big antlers. There is a drawing on the animal’s body on a thumb on her left hand.

On the man found close to the ‘princess’, the tattoos include the same fantastical creature, this time covering the right side of his body, across his right shoulder and stretching from his chest to his back.

His chest, arms, part of the back and the lower leg are covered with tattoos. There is an argali – a mountain sheep – along with the same dear with griffon’s vulture-like beak, with horns and the back of its head which has a griffon’s heads and an onager drawn on it.

All animals are shown with the lower parts of their bodies turned inside out. There is also a winged snow leopard, a fish and fast-running argali.

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.