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The problem: My time travelling hero has travelled from the present, back to 14th century France (think 100 years war) to retrieve the mcguffin, a manuscript. He cannot take any physical objects back (or forwards) with him through time and so in order to have the manuscript in the present day he needs to store it safely for 700 years. He needs to find somewhere that the manuscript won't:

  • rot,
  • be stolen,
  • get burned,
  • be destroyed by revolutionaries,
  • be moved,
  • be prematurely discovered by archaeologists,
  • be eaten by weevils.

So the question is: What material (14th century European tech) should the manuscript be made out of and where would it be safe for 7 centuries?

[In response to questions... The manuscript takes up about the same volume as a modern ream of A4 paper] [The manuscript should remain undiscovered by anyone other than the time traveller] [The information on the document is only valuable if it comes from a provably original manuscript, not a copy]

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Dec 15 '20 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ Does "provably original" mean it has to be that single manuscript, or one of umpteen copies made by your hero before returning to the present? Making sure one of many survives is much easier than making sure one unique manuscript survives. $\endgroup$ – chepner Dec 15 '20 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ @chepner Hmmm, good question. The risk of multiple copies is that someone other than the time traveller might find one, and that is a no-no. $\endgroup$ – DrMcCleod Dec 15 '20 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ The actual time-line of da Vinci's Madrid Codex en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex_Madrid_(Leonardo) is instructive,,, $\endgroup$ – DJohnM Dec 15 '20 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ Something about secret-but-fanatic secret keepers, maybe? $\endgroup$ – Nuclear03020704 Dec 16 '20 at 15:46

14 Answers 14

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There are a few challenges one needs to meet to solve this problem.

First, creating a book in the 14th century was an expensive undertaking. All of the pieces -- the writing material, the ink, the process of writing the document -- had to be done by hand by skilled workers. I don't remember the costs offhand -- although I believe they have been calculated -- but it would require a lot of money. (Can your time traveler bring with him several pounds of gold to pay for these expenses?)

Second, there are two different strategies in preserving an object like this: one is passive, the other active. Each has its strengths & weaknesses. The passive requires finding a spot that would be secure for 700 years. Its strength is security thru obscurity: by being hid, no one would know about it before you wanted it to be revealed. Its weakness is that if something happens to the object -- an accident, theft, damage due to age -- there is no way to right the wrong.

Your time traveler could secure this object in a durable container, & place it in a remote location. The choices would either be somewhere dry (e.g. the Sahara or Arabian Deserts), or cold & wet (e.g. in the permafrost of Siberia or North America). Such places would have a stable environment, & the materials of the manuscript would not deteriorate. (Keeping paper or parchment soaked in an anaerobic environment & frozen will preserve it. That's how written documents found near Hadrian's Wall dating from AD 100 survived.)

The problem with either option is for your time traveler to get to those remote locations in the 14th century. Once accomplished, then there is the challenge of marking the location the manuscript is secreted so it can be found when he returns to the present.

The active would be to entrust this to a family that guard it for that time. The strength here is that there would always be someone to respond in case something happened to the object: repair it if there was an accident or damage from age, protect it from theft, etc. The weakness is that, well, families tend to die out. A certain percentage of couples have no children; another will have only female children, & women had fewer rights for that time. And all it takes is for one irresponsible jerk to come into his inheritance for the object to be destroyed.

Your time traveler could identify a family that is known to have survived down to modern times, which would prevent some of this. But then you encounter the problem others have pointed out above -- since your time traveler has effected the time line simply by going back in time, you have no guarantee this family will actually survive down to modern times.

These solutions have been provided as a thought experiment. To actually implement any of them would require more thought & some careful research. (Or settling on an oddball solution, such as sealing the manuscript in a metal box welded shut & depositing it in the Cairo Geniza. Or have your time traveler create the Voynich Manuscript, thus knowing the key that decodes this mysterious document.)

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the Sahara. If the dry climate can preserve Egyptian papyruses for 2000 years, then 700 will be a piece of cake. $\endgroup$ – Neinstein Dec 15 '20 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ Easily the best answer, the other answers don’t address most of the requirements. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Dec 15 '20 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ I like the Voynich idea. If you want to make sure it sticks around, make it a baffling puzzle that defies all attempts to decipher it. Scholars love a good challenge, and their deep desire for answers would encourage its preservation. $\endgroup$ – bta Dec 16 '20 at 21:51
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@DrMcCleod they did this in the book "The Rise and Fall of DODO", it's actually a really interesting bit of the story where they plan this. The constraints are fairly similar to yours in that the traveler arrives naked.

They solve it by "re-visiting" the same place and making friends who help them to source enough money to pay a cooper to hide the first printed manuscript in America in a barrel. They dig the barrel under a rock that they know is present and undisturbed in the future (because they're already there).

You can tell from the re-use of casks and barrels nowadays that coopers were good enough then to make barrels etc. that last hundreds of years.

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First off, put it on vellum. This is, indeed, very expensive compared to all other papers since it requires sheepskin, but where, say, papyrus decays after a century barring rare conditions to preserve it and needs very fancy handling, vellum is so tough the graduate students regularly get to handle original documents with no more precautions than gloves.

Second off, he should (in the future) thoroughly investigate an obscure library for safety. Didn't get burned in the French Revolution, etc. Check it out for corners where things are not investigated often, too. Pick a library and a corner in it.

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  • $\begingroup$ The problem is with that "obscure library for safety. Didn't get burned ,etc". BY visiting the past, you will have changed the past, thus the future. That's the whole point of your trip! Are you sure your change will not cause that library to now be the campfire for an invading bandit, at some time? $\endgroup$ – PcMan Dec 14 '20 at 14:27
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    $\begingroup$ The same could be said of any means of hiding the manuscript -- if the means of time travel allows it. $\endgroup$ – Mary Dec 14 '20 at 23:40
  • $\begingroup$ correct. thus one needs to use a method that is not fully reliant on future knowledge, such as "which 1% of ancient libraries are still intact" $\endgroup$ – PcMan Dec 15 '20 at 4:33
  • $\begingroup$ This is not fully reliant on it. Nor does the question specify that this is a problem. $\endgroup$ – Mary Dec 15 '20 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ @PcMan thats great, but entirely dependent on what time travel system you subscribe to. many versions dont have that problem. $\endgroup$ – Topcode Dec 15 '20 at 15:50
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Carve it in stone

Yes it will be a bit of a schlepp to carve out 500 pages of text, but that's quite doable. The text need not be super-precise, gravestone-marker class engraving. Simple chisel marks on stone will suffice quite well.

Then, bury the stone in an easily found spot, for future unearthing. Deep enough to be away from treeroots, farmer's ploughs, and definitely deep enough not to be scavenged into some stone wall.
As the material is stone, you need take no precautions for preserving it from decay, other than a covering of earth. No mere animal or natural disaster will possibly affect it in a 700 year timespan. (assuming you don't put it in a riverbed, or something equally daft)

Just be sure to use a natural formation as landmark, to find your stash again. Human artifacts like roads,walls or buildings, and transient natural features like trees, or rivers, may all move around so as to lose your spot.


If , as has been argued in the comments, your time traveling does not actually change history, and you can 100% rely upon knowledge of what does remain preserved over 700 years and what not.

  1. Research carefully for the location you will use to store your manuscript. Make your exact decision to use that location. Select a location that contains an unknown 70-year-old manuscript in perfect condition.
  2. travel back in time. Put your manuscript there, and return. You do not have to worry about protecting it from rot, or fire, or theft, because you already know that location was preserved perfectly for 700 years.
  3. retrieve your manuscript from your chosen location.

p.s. you can skip step (2) Because, you have firmly decided that that is where you will put the manuscript back in time. And time travel cannot alter the future, therefore the manuscript must already be in that location before you depart.

If you make it so timetravel cannot change history, then you can perfectly fake timetravel just by planning to do it, and paradox the whole need for a time-machine out of existence.

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    $\begingroup$ From the clarification edit to the question: "The manuscript takes up about the same volume as a modern ream of A4 paper." Stone will likely be too large for this to be feasible. "The information on the document is only valuable if it comes from a provably original manuscript, not a copy" Stone was not a common medium for manuscripts in the given time period, so this would have to be a copy by the time traveler or at his request. That severely limits the question about material type. $\endgroup$ – Leland Hepworth Dec 14 '20 at 22:04
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    $\begingroup$ @LelandHepworth And that added requirement edited in after the fact also completely changes the intent of the original question, violating the rules of this site. Naughty! $\endgroup$ – PcMan Dec 15 '20 at 4:31
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    $\begingroup$ @PcMan your answer was AFTER the edit that makes it infeasible, 500 pages would be impractical and many mistakes would be likely made, invalidating the text $\endgroup$ – Topcode Dec 15 '20 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ Carving 500 pages of text into stone is the least “quite doable” thing I can think of. Offhand I am not sure than any single person in history has ever done such a thing. The only cases I can think of were done by entire cultures over many decades/centuries and all during the late Neolithic. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Dec 15 '20 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ @RBarryYoung The Norse alphabet (runic futhark) was composed of characters entirely written with straight lines because they habitually carved them onto rocks. $\endgroup$ – nick012000 Dec 16 '20 at 11:39
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Start a cult

Building on @llywrch's "active preservation" answer, instead of a single family devoted to the preservation of the document, recruit multiple people and charge them with both the preservation of the document and the recruitment of the next generation of 'true believers'. If you inform them of the true importance of their task, the contents and purpose of the document could sound magical to people lacking 700 years of context, and they (perhaps rightly?) infer that they are defending against the destruction of the world some distant time in the future, which would give them the motivation to see it through.

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  • $\begingroup$ I believe a bunch of religious fanatics is not a good place to hide something during inquisition and witch hunts. Also, when you have that only magical book you can't make copies of, people handling the book will destroy it. $\endgroup$ – Zizy Archer Dec 16 '20 at 7:39
  • $\begingroup$ Your suggestion reminds me of the story how the Tarot deck is the Egyptian Book of Thoth, entrusted to the Romany/Travellers/Gypsies who pass down the secrets of how to use Tarot cards to see the future. (And were this tale true, the Romany would be rich & well-off, not a marginal ethnic group suffering from widespread discrimination.) $\endgroup$ – llywrch Dec 18 '20 at 17:35
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Hide it in the walls of the Notre Dame cathedral while it's under construction. At the start of the 100 Years War the cathedral is mostly built but not quite finished.

The other answers about vellum are great. Bribe the masons to hollow out a space in the bottom of a large stone brick, and hide your leather-bound vellum codex inside. Don't put it in a statue, a bunch of those are going to be smashed up by revolutionaries later.

This may require some research to make sure that bricks from that section of wall weren't moved in later renovations, and don't put it too close to the roof, because the roof will catch fire later.

In 2019, when the roof of the cathedral collapses due to fire damage, you can bribe the construction workers cleaning up the debris to "discover" your book.

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    $\begingroup$ About the only downside to this is that you need to make sure the book is very waterproof with materials that won't rot or dry out. $\endgroup$ – computercarguy Dec 16 '20 at 17:03
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Hiding it away is the (relatively) easy part.

First, the physical manuscript itself. The only real concern insofar as preservation goes is to stash your manuscript someplace cool and dry. A manuscript made with typical 14th century materials will survive just fine if it's kept away from detrimental conditions. No need to do anything special to the usual types of parchment or ink you'd find in use throughout the Middle Ages.

(I'm unclear on whether your time traveller is going to retrieve an existing document, or create a new one themself and leave it behind, but it shouldn't matter either way.)

Second, finding a good spot. There are many places that have been sealed for 700 years. Before your time traveller goes back in time, have them identify some buildings they're confident haven't undergone any renovations or experienced any structural damage since they were built, where they might be able to stash the manuscript. The walls of a church or a crypt might be good candidates.

Now, the hard part.

Finally, you state:

The information on the document is only valuable if it comes from a provably original manuscript, not a copy

It's not really possible to do this in a way that leaves absolutely no doubt. (How would you prove today that a handwritten letter is not a copy of another handwritten letter?)

If you need the manuscript to appear contemporary to the 14th century, then here's some things to keep in mind to increase the chances that future paleographers will determine that the document is original and authentic:

  1. Use a contemporary language (e.g., don't write in a dialect no one was speaking there in the 14th century). Follow local spelling conventions, etc.
  2. Write using a contemporary script.
  3. Be careful not to make any mistakes of any kind that might be interpreted as scribal copying errors.

The experts will be able to tell that the writting was produced centuries earlier, and can estimate the antiquity of the materials used. But there might be questions as to just how long ago it was written. Someone could conceivably argue that the writing was made more recently that the 14th century using 14th century materials.

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Use a grave site

Grave sites are great because they often have a date on them indicating when they were created. So someone in modern times could look at a grave site and say that its been there since the 1400s. Also, for the most part, people leave them alone.

Find a grave site, which you are sure still exists in modern times. This could be the burial tomb of a famous person, king, or just some ordinary guys grave that you are sure will still be there.

Dig it up and put your manuscript in the coffin, inside of a glass jar with a sealed top.

Dig up the grave in the future.

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  • $\begingroup$ Even better, a plague victim. $\endgroup$ – DrMcCleod Dec 15 '20 at 7:50
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    $\begingroup$ I would be wary of using a grave-site. A lot of graves older than 100 years (at least in the UK) get deepened and the original incumbent moved further down to make room for more residents. You may find when you come to dig up the grave that a) it's not the right person, and b) your original coffin has been placed significantly deeper or even moved to a new site with no record of where.. You might well find that your manuscript is completely lost because of this and nobody is going to look kindly on you digging up every grave in a graveyard to a depth of 10 - 12 feet. $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Dec 15 '20 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ There is also the problem of whether the glass will cast doubt on the discovery. Good glass was very rare and large containers were worse. $\endgroup$ – Mary Dec 15 '20 at 13:36
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Put It Beyond the Reach of Mankind

Just beyond Monaco or Cannes on the east coast, or further out in the Bay of Biscay on the west coast. In these regions the sea floor is more than 3 kilometers below the surface. It was not until the 1980s discovery of the Titanic that human technology had developed sufficiently to explore and retrieve anything from these depths.

Process : you can place your manuscript inside a sea chest. With the aid of some oarsmen to get you out to depth, you can dump your manuscript to the bottom.

Fabrication : put your manuscript in a glass box filled with oil and sealed with wax. Wax and glass seals have worked up to depths of several hundred feet, and by eliminating all air inside the container you significantly reduce the material strength required to avoid implosion. Maybe add one more layer of protection by entombing the wax-sealed box in waterproof cement. Fill the rest of the sea chest with cork and rocks. You want the chest to be able to take on water (so that it doesn't implode as well), but also slow the descent to the bottom, so that the box doesn't crack up after a 3 kilometer fall. Ideally, you'll design for it to hit the bottom at no more than 3 to 4 km per hour.

Recovery : now your box is out of the range of humankind from the 1300s to the 1980s (most of the 700 years). Now you'll need to recover it. If your time-traveller can be on the boat that sent your manuscript to the bottom, he or she can pick good landmarks, choose an easy direction of travel (sunrise or sunset on a particular day of the year -- that can be re-computed in the future), and well estimate distance. You'd be much better equipped for recovery than most treasure hunters. Recovery won't be trivial -- you'd still need to spend a not-inconsiderable sum of cash to get subs down to depth looking for your box.

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ How much sediment would be deposited on the sea floor in 700 years? $\endgroup$ – DrMcCleod Dec 15 '20 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ Good question. I know there's a 400 year old wooden wreck off Finland that barely has any. There are cannon and anchors in the tropics that are several hundreds of years old and still exposed. I'd guess there's a lot of regional variability. What is a good spot might be the kind of future knowledge that wouldn't be changed by time travel? $\endgroup$ – James McLellan Dec 15 '20 at 17:32
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Find a famous building (a cathedral or palace) that is being built in the 14th century and still exists.

This building must have a tile floor in some rooms.

Get access to the process of installing the tiles. Either as someone overseeing the installation, or as one of the workers.

Inscribe the information on the bottom of the tiles. This might be during the night when no one is around, or while the tiles are in storage. Or possibly you are the tile manufacturer, and make sure you sell for the best price.

The tiles get installed in the building.

In the future, pry up the tiles and read the info.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this idea, though a requirement is that it's the original manuscript, not the information contained within (otherwise one could send someone with an eidetic memory to memorise the whole work and transcribe it once they get back) so as a variation on this, bury a lockbox containing the manuscript under the tiles and pry it up in the future. Location is good, details are the only issue. $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Dec 15 '20 at 9:28
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    $\begingroup$ After 700 years of believers walking on them, the tiles will definitively get worn out. Probably enough to damage the text or be replaced entirely. Even solid stone stairs get carved out given enough time and people. $\endgroup$ – JS Lavertu Dec 15 '20 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ @JSLavertu I was proposing to hide the text on the underside of the tiles, opposite of where foot traffic could wear them down. You would have to pry up the tile to read it later. Even that still fails though if they completely replace the tile. The solution to that is to use an area of the building that has little foot traffic (obviously not a main gathering place). $\endgroup$ – user4574 Dec 15 '20 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ @user4574 Look up images of worn stone stairs, you'll see what I mean. Unless you have incredibly thick tiles, they'll get worn through eventually. $\endgroup$ – JS Lavertu Dec 15 '20 at 18:15
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Hide safely in distant place and inside disinfected contained.

To preserve an manuscript from dangers of disasters, bacteria, fungi, animals and man, find a place which is free of them in desired time period, as Atakama desert, hidden chambers of Egiptian pyramids, Anarctica, or Greenland ice sheet, Crystal Cave of Giants in Naica, Mexico.

There is more chance to survive of such valuable documents in any form if properly hidden.

There would be good idea also to encapsulate it inside a clay container with mummification specifics to. Such containers in Egipt preserve i.e cats with inscriptions written on papyrus.

"A thought is stronger than object". So it can be another, completely opposite way to preserve such manuscript from being damaged. Make it saint and valuable religion object. Such will be handled by special holy law.

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Hide it in plain sight by Voyniching it.

Encode your information in a mystery language, and in apparently meaningless diagrams of plants, on vellum. Pass it to a collector. Interest in what the manuscript could possible mean will keep it in circulation, with many copies made and even put online once the modern age is reached making it easy to access when you need it.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem here would be for the time traveller to come up with a convincing proof of why he could decipher it so that people actually believe the content of the document. $\endgroup$ – DrMcCleod Dec 16 '20 at 12:13
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Carve it onto clay tablets.

The ancient Babylonian cuniform written language was carved onto clay tablets; whenever they needed to erase an existing tablet, they would just re-wet the clay and reuse it to make a new tablet with. However, when their cities were burned down, many of these tablets became baked clay and survived thousands of years to be discovered by archaeologists.

As a result, if your protagonist copies the contents of the manuscript onto clay tablets and then bakes them into a kiln, they will become fired pottery that would easily survive 700 years buried in the ground.

It would also be a lot cheaper than some of the more complex options endorsed by some of the other answers, because everyone used pottery back then, so contacting a medieval potter about producing these sort of clay tablets should be entirely doable and perhaps even relatively affordable.

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  • $\begingroup$ Clay & stone are surprisingly fragile media. Once damaged, the text effected is gone for good. Vellum & parchment, on the other hand, has some durability: even if the surface is damaged, the text can be recovered from traces of ink in the medium using tools like UV light or chemical reagents -- although experience has shown chemical reagents often damage the medium further. $\endgroup$ – llywrch Dec 18 '20 at 17:42
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This is a variation of PcMan's answer.

Paint it in stone

Create a PC font that uses drawings of animals instead of roman characters. For example, a deer could be the letter 'd', and an ox could be the letter 'o'. Or you could make it so that each character represents an idea such as in japanese Kanji or old summer to be able to put a lot of text in less characters.

Then paint it on a cave wall. People have found drawings in caves that seem to have been painted thousands of years old[citation needed], so it's feasible to make one to last just a few centuries.

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  • $\begingroup$ Cave paintings might be found by archaeologists. This may or may not be a problem -- OP stated that the storage location should not be disturbed by archaeologists, but didn't specify whether the contents need to stay secret until the present. $\endgroup$ – Ross Presser Dec 14 '20 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ @RossPresser the scientists will be all "wow, these guys painted their day-to-day lives", when the message actually goes like "so I hear you like mudkips..." $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Dec 14 '20 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ But the only way to be sure that the cave will preserve the painting is to find a cave that has even older paintings, and then paint over them. And why bother inventing an ideographic language? You can just copy the text verbatim. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Hoagie Dec 15 '20 at 14:21

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