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1/2 idea No. 20: Post-apocalypse historiography: Historiographical experiment #1

By Jon Agar, on 2 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

This is another of those primary source restriction experiments to see what history results if constraints are placed on availability of evidence.

One of my favourite sub-genres of science fiction is the post-apocalyptic, in which our protagonists usually retain some elements of a devastated culture, even if the full meaning or knowledge of that culture has decayed and changed. Examples include Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980), in which the inhabitants roam an irradiated South-east England full of wild dogs and hostile tribes and speak a language evolved form Kentish dialect. Or Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976), in which clones set out to recover technological culture from ruined cities.

And within this sub-genre are worked examples of what can and cannot be learned from surviving primary sources. In Walter M. Miller, Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), nuclear war, followed by ‘simplification’ (a backlash against learning) has destroyed written sources. An order of monks begins the path back to civilisation and technological progress, and are challenged to interpret the relics of the order’s founder, including what appears to be shopping list discovered in a bunker.  Published almost simultaneously with Miller’s novel, but on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961) has protagonists interpreting the sole ancient surviving texts of our time, preserved by accident under a lava-encased upturned bath. They deduce that ‘Ammer-Ka’ had a deity called ‘Cap-i-Taal’. It’s not Lem’s most subtle work, at least in translation.

These are historiographical experiments we can try ourselves.

What can be learned from a single primary source, or small set of surviving sources?

We have to agree rules to this game. We can decide whether:

  1. we retain the understanding of the language(s) of the source(s)
  2. we retain memories or knowledge of the history of entities mentioned
  3. whether we have a single source, a set of connected sources, or a set of disparate sources
  4. whether we are allowed to refer to other contemporary or older sources

The situation in which we have a set of sources but little or no understanding of the language would be a tough constraint indeed (although it is precisely the circumstance that, say, scholars of Pictish stones find themselves).

A reasonable set of rules would be 1. we retain the language 2. we refrain as far as possible from using memory or knowledge of entities mentioned. 3. we start with a single source, or small set of primary sources 4. we are not allowed to refer to other contemporary or older sources.

I have made one, small attempt at this experiment.

In the National Archives there are documents that have been preserved only as ‘Specimens of Classes of Documents Destroyed’. Such documents are attractive subjects for this experiment: they have already been through a destructive process and, quite contingently on an individual basis, survived. They are relics of a mundane, bureaucratic apocalypse.

Here is one such document. It comes from TNA LAB 900/1. If this was our only surviving primary source, if we found it under a post-apocalyptic bathtub or in a nuclear bunker, what history would we reconstruct?


We have no reliable guide to a date. We can clearly see that this document was the product of a highly bureaucratic society (although we are also well aware of a bias shaping what gets written down). We can deduce at least two roles: a ‘claimant’ and an entity, a ‘Ministry of Labour’ (perhaps some religious institution?) that demands information from the ‘claimant’. Furthermore the claimant appears to take the role of ‘share fisherman’, from which we can speculate that the regulation of oceanic sources of nutrition must have been significant. The society, perhaps one divided between ministers and fishermen, was also only partially a literate one. The Ministry demands a ‘sign’, which may also be of religious significance, but which can be substituted by a mere mark. There must be some hierarchical organisation because those who make a mark have to be accompanied by betters, ‘witnesses’. The Ministry also possessed the power of punishment, a sign of an unequal society in which the application of violence was perhaps commonplace. Finally we can deduce that the underclass of fishermen possessed some kinship or social structure, as the tantalising but brief mention of ‘dependants’ reveals. In conclusion the document may have had some ritualistic significance.





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