A fossilized Shanghai Tower

I have read numerous versions of how modern civilization might appear in the future archaeological record. However, I liked this particular exploration of what Shanghai Tower, a 2,000 foot structure, might become over millions of years.

Photo by Manuel Joseph on Pexels.com

Almost immediately, water making its way down to the lowest levels it will react with the calcareous material in concrete, to form cathelmites – stalactite- and stalagmite-like growths that form in human-made environments. These will continue to grow for thousands of years, transforming the shopping mall into something akin to a horror movie set. If humanity is still around, most things of value will have been stripped out before the Tower is completely abandoned, but perhaps not everything. Aluminium in the ventilation system, stainless steel in the food court – maybe even a few cars in the garage levels will be left to perform remarkable transformations…

The story continues even deeper underground. The entire Shanghai Tower sits on top of a concrete raft, one metre thick and covering nearly 9,000 sq m (97,000 sq ft). Beneath this are 955 concrete-and-steel piles, each a metre in diameter, driven up to 86m (282ft) deep into soft ground. After several million years, as the weight of the sea water and sediment warps the subterranean layers beyond recognition, some of the foundation piles will fracture, twisting within compacting mudrock formations like the fossil roots of an immense, long-vanished tree.

As millions of years stretch into tens of millions, the transformations come more slowly. Rare earth minerals, leached from discarded mobile phones and other electronic devices, may begin to form secondary mineral crystals. Glass from windshields and shop windows will devitrify, darkening just as obsidian does after long burial. By now, the entire city is compressed to a layer perhaps only a few metres thick in the strata. All that is left of Shanghai Tower is a geological anomaly studded with the fossil outlines of chopsticks, chairs, sim cards, and hair clips.

All of this will be deeply buried, in some cases thousands of metres down. But geology never stands still. After around one hundred million years, as new mountain ranges begin to form, the layer of compacted rubble that was once Shanghai Tower may be pushed upwards, and revealed. 

A tower is not just a modern landfill or a single-family home; it is a monument to modern society in a similar way to the massive temples of past civilizations.

The idea that the tower would emerge again as part of a new mountain range is an interesting one. The assumption in a lot of these modern fossil/future archeology writings is that modern civilization will mostly disappear from the Earth’s surface. Many science fiction writings have the same idea: all that modern humans prize in the Industrial Revolution and urbanization will fade away just as everything else has in the past. Certainly, modern structures and infrastructure will only last for so long. What exactly is the predicted lifespan of a major skyscraper, let alone a single-family home or a big box store? Or, all of it will go away due to disaster, war, or the accumulation of garbage and self-induced environmental catastrophe.

Given how we dig and reconstruct the past, I still find it interesting to ponder that someone might come along and dig down and discover a major city that looks abandoned. What was life like there? Why did the city disappear? This was a global city?

Study suggests cities and farming began more than 40,000 years ago

A recent study suggests cities may have started much earlier:

For centuries, archaeologists believed that ancient people couldn’t live in tropical jungles. The environment was simply too harsh and challenging, they thought. As a result, scientists simply didn’t look for clues of ancient civilizations in the tropics. Instead, they turned their attention to the Middle East, where we have ample evidence that hunter-gatherers settled down in farming villages 9,000 years ago during a period dubbed the “Neolithic revolution.” Eventually, these farmers’ offspring built the ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the great pyramids of Egypt. It seemed certain that city life came from these places and spread from there around the world.

But now that story seems increasingly uncertain. In an article published in Nature Plants, Max Planck Institute archaeologist Patrick Roberts and his colleagues explain that cities and farms are far older than we think. Using techniques ranging from genetic sampling of forest ecosystems and isotope analysis of human teeth, to soil analysis and lidar, the researchers have found ample evidence that people at the equator were actively changing the natural world to make it more human-centric.

It all started about 45,000 years ago. At that point, people began burning down vegetation to make room for plant resources and homes. Over the next 35,000 years, the simple practice of burning back forest evolved. People mixed specialized soils for growing plants; they drained swamps for agriculture; they domesticated animals like chickens; and they farmed yam, taro, sweet potato, chili pepper, black pepper, mango, and bananas…

“The tropics demonstrate that where we draw the lines of agriculture and urbanism can be very difficult to determine. Humans were clearly modifying environments and moving even small animals around as early as 20,000 years ago in Melanesia, they were performing the extensive drainage of landscapes at Kuk Swamp to farm yams [and] bananas… From a Middle East/European perspective, there has always been a revolutionary difference (“Neolithic revolution”) between hunter gatherers and farmers, [but] the tropics belie this somewhat.”

Two things strike me:

  1. The article suggests that this finding just occurred now because scholars assumed it wasn’t worth examining the tropics. This happens more often than researchers want to admit: we explore certain phenomena for certain reasons and this may blind us to other phenomena or explanations. In a perfect world, there would be so many researchers that everything could be covered and research that rules out explanations or shows a lack of phenomena would be valued more highly.
  2. That cities and agriculture took a longer time to develop does not seem too surprising. The shift to more anchored lives – tied to farming and larger population centers – would have been quite a change. Arguably, the world is still going through this process with the pace of urbanization increasing tremendously in the last century and nations and cities desperately trying to catch up.

Now that scientists are looking into this matter, hopefully we get a more complete understanding soon.

Deconstructed images of McMansions

Check out this gallery of photos from a designer who has deconstructed images of McMansions. Here is a brief description of the photos:

Designer Michael Jantzen plays with perspective both literally and figuratively.

His photo collection, “Deconstructing the Houses,” rotates parts of buildings to give the appearance of fragmentation. Doing so is meant to change our view of McMansions from lifelong investment to money pit.

“I picked out houses that were very large and expensive to work with,” he told Business Insider in an interview. “The idea that these very expensive places, so many of which are in foreclosure, struck me. I wanted to play with the idea of stability.”

My take: these images are meant to show that the McMansions are falling in on themselves. While this could be commentary specifically regarding the recent economic and housing crisis, it could also refer to common critiques of McMansions: they are poorly designed and constructed homes that won’t last as long as traditional or well-built homes.

These images also remind of the occasional piece you can find about the idea of people in the future finding American ruins. I remember first seeing this idea in a David McAuley book where people were picking through an overgrown forest and finding pieces of Washington D.C. What would people two hundred years from now think if they found houses as depicted in these images?

Note: I like the addition in a number of the photos of people standing in the driveway or on the sidewalk in front of the house. I wonder what it might look like if people were running out of the house in fear or puzzlement…

Finding an old ship beneath Manhattan

I’ve always been fascinated by cities and what is beneath them. Even American cities, which tend to be younger compared to other cities around the world, have some interesting items buried underground. The New York Times reports on the discovery of a 30-foot long 18th-century ship found at the World Trade Center site.

h/t The Infrastructurist