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Hundreds of years ago, the once-opulent city of not-Atlantis incurred the wrath of the gods and was cast to the bottom of the ocean. Now, our intrepid adventurers have been sent to the lost city of not-Atlantis to retrieve forgotten lore recorded by the not-Atlanteans (along with whatever other treasure they can snag).

My question is: What sort of written media would survive at the bottom of the ocean for a few hundred years?

On one end of the spectrum, exposed paper would degrade and water-soluble pigments would run, which is unfortunate because I imagine these would be very common. On the other end of the spectrum, engraved stone would likely survive, but stone is a rather inconvenient method of recording information unless you deliberately need it to stand the test of time.

But there's a lot in between these two extremes. The ancient Greeks are well-known for painting things on pottery. Would such paintings survive underwater? Are there natural pigments, paints, or inks which would survive underwater? Are there paper-like materials which are waterproof and good for writing?

The conditions of storage might also change things. Could burying a book in mud at the bottom of the ocean (but not too deep that you can't find it) protect it from decay? It is possible that some of the more valuable tomes were cached in waterproof cases, but what sort of container would keep its contents dry while underwater for hundreds of years?

How could this forgotten lore have been recorded and/or stored to survive underwater for hundreds of years until our adventurers discover it?

Not-Atlantis had a technology level no more advanced than approximately medieval (I could do elements of Renaissance in a pinch, but there is definitely no plastic or digital media). Magic is abundant in this world, but we shall assume non-magical means of writing and preservation for the purposes of this question. The ruins of not-Atlantis need to be mostly navigable, not entirely buried in mud and silt. The water should be suitable for aquatic life. The not-Atlanteans were human-like sea-faring surface-dwellers before the cataclysm, so their common writings would not have deliberately needed to be waterproof (although they may have taken special steps to preserve a small number of choice texts).

The less contrived the circumstances for writing to survive under these conditions, the better. I suspect that real-world underwater archaeology and shipwreck salvaging could inform a good answer to this question.

There are several related questions on what sort of writing an underwater civilisation would use. This question differs in that we assume methods of writing developed by and readable by surface-dwelling people, and that I am interested in the longevity of such records (although I expect some overlap in the answers).

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  • $\begingroup$ Bronze and gold tablets. And, very obviously, coins. We have a large amount of ancient coins recovered from under the sea. (And we did occasionally find intact water-tight ancient containers.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 26 '21 at 11:34
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Unfortunately, this would not work in the ocean. The bottle (if glass or well-fired percelain) can remain secure, but the cap/cork/stopper will not resist centuries of saltwater immersion. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Jun 26 '21 at 12:35
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    $\begingroup$ @PcMan surprisingly sometimes they can, A few sealed amphora in which wax was used to seal a ceramic lid, have survived completely dry after 2000 years at toe bottom of the ocean. now the chances are very low, only one amphora out of hundreds in the same wreck survived in this condition. newscientist.com/article/… $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 26 '21 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ If magic exists in your world, you don't need the texts to physically survive in order for the content to be recoverable. The objects were created and written on using boring mundane processes, and so many are partially damaged or illegible, but present-day salvage uses magic to overcome that problem. If you can summon the spirit of a dead person and interview them, you can use an eroded tablet as a focus to scry into the past and read the original. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jun 26 '21 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Tom that's a potential option, if you can find magic potent enough to scry that far into the past. For context, this is for a D&D 5e campaign, so the magic available to the adventurers is already well-defined. Speak with dead only works on intact corpses, which may be in short supply under these conditions. A high level cleric ability for reading an object's past only goes back a few days. Resources are also limited, so the adventurers need to be able to identify which texts are the ones they want before deciding which texts to take for further analysis. $\endgroup$
    – BBeast
    Jun 27 '21 at 2:24
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Clay tablets

Clay tablets have been found in 2,400 year old shipwrecks in the black sea. The tablet is undamaged and completely legible. Since these were also a common form of writing you have no problem justifying writing on them, to last they would have to be fired clay but that was normal for anything intended to be permanent. Unlike pottery it is fairly hard to crush a flat tablet.

https://greekreporter.com/2018/12/12/two-ancient-greek-finds-among-top-10-discoveries-of-2018/

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Yep. these were preserved because the water is still, and sterile. It was well below the Black Sea's Anoxic layer, with the absence of currents to erode or sealife to nibble on or Oxygen in the water to corrode, is what preserved the tablet. (And the ship they came in, that wreck looks a few years old, not its true age of 2400 years). In such an environment even oak gall ink on vellum texts would be rescueable by a good chemist. Unfortunately, such environments are quite scarce. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Jun 26 '21 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ @PcMan but something like paper or parchment would not survive even under those conditions. and unlike those material sea life has little reason to "nibble" on a lump of clay. this is hardly the only clay tablet found in a shipwreck. and oxygen really doesn't bother clay. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 26 '21 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, it does (parchment, that is). it loses almost all of its structural strength, to the extent that you would not be able to unroll a scroll and would need to scan it in an MRI or similar 3-d nonintrusive scanner. But the fibers and the ink both would remain. And yes, sea life LOVES to nibble on clay, especially clay with handy precut grooves in it. It presents a habitable surface not unlike a coral reef's surface. The clay tablets that remained intact were covered in inert sand. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Jun 26 '21 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ @PcMan please , feel free to show examples of parchment surviving underwater in anywhere near the condition clay tablets have, that is completely legible and whole. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 26 '21 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ Why would I, considering that bears absolutely no resemblance to any claim I made. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Jun 26 '21 at 13:12
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Organic materials don't do well with long submersion, especially in sea water that contains enough oxygen for life to flourish (there are locations in the Black Sea where hydrogen sulfide in the water makes it nearly sterile, and wood has survived for thousands of years, but this requires very uncommon conditions of stagnation).

As in another answer, writing on materials that survive long immersion is the best bet -- pottery, stone, precious metals (even iron/steel does pretty well on the single-century scale -- there are a lot of mostly-intact wrecks from WWII and some a few decades older).

If someone with modern metallurgy was trying to preserve writing in the sea, trading off cost and durability, it would be hard to beat stainless steels -- 304 and more so 316 steels will last a very long time in sea water (because they form a protective oxide layer -- heavy enough to resist even the chloride ions in sea water). Otherwise, platinum group metals (including iridium, osmium, ruthenium, rhodium, and palladium) are very resistant to corrosion (but rare and hard to refine and work) followed by, gold, silver, copper, and bronze (in order of descending durability) -- or heavy, non-porous platings of these on other base metals.

One reasonably plausible option would be engraved printing plates (a technology that predates Gutenberg or even Chinese movable type by centuries), which were often made of bronze for its combination of workability and durability. The writing would be in mirror image, but with most languages that's not a big deal once you know what you have.

Alternatively, if text written on ordinary paper or parchment with ancient inks (carbon in gum binder, iron sulfate/gallate/tannate, or vegetable dyes -- all of which are vulnerable to water in varying degrees) were being protected for a long sea voyage, it might well have been sealed in barrels, pots, or even glass jars -- and pots and jars have been found that preserved drink and foodstuffs for a thousand years and more.

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Written or decorated pottery, in particular if enameled, is rather sturdy, the main risk coming from physical damage to the substrate.

Same goes for carved stone, as long as there is sediment covering it and preventing growth of organisms.

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Scrimshaw

scrimshaw

https://museumcrush.org/the-scrimshaw-made-by-an-african-fighting-the-slave-trade-in-1827/

Scrimshaw describes carved ivory, tooth or whalebone. These materials are easier to carve than stone and more durable than wood. They do not require firing like ceramic.

Plus scrimshaw is more fantastic. I can imagine public artworks like Trajan's Column carved and written on huge teeth and bones from some unknown great sea creature.


answering question in comment - how long would these materials last?

ivory from uluburun shipwreck https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Uluburun12.jpg

This is ivory recovered from the Uluburun shipwreck. It is from around 1300 BC. That is not a million years, but is pretty old as sunken artifacts go!

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  • $\begingroup$ How well do these materials survive over time, especially in wet conditions? They are, after all, still organic. (It's definitely a neat form of writing, though.) $\endgroup$
    – BBeast
    Jun 27 '21 at 2:28
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Your notion that paper doesnt survive underwater is not true. Depending on the conditions, paper and ink will survive just fine. Scraps of paper form a book were found on Black Beard's ship that sunk 300 years ago. Also, shipwrecks in cold enough water, are expected to have their documents well preserved.

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Partial answer, just in my area of expertise, which is pottery, to answer this part of your question:

The ancient Greeks are well-known for painting things on pottery. Would such paintings survive underwater?

High-fire pottery survives quite well underwater. Glazes on such pottery can be quite vibrant and undamaged even after 500 years in the sea, and there is a thriving antiquities business in Asian "shipwreck ceramics". So if your Atlantean civilization possessed the ability to fire pottery to 1500C or more, any "documents" on these ceramics would be clearly and easily readable.

Low-fire pottery, like that made by the Greeks and Babylonians, however, only survives being underwater in ideal conditions, such as the sterile environment at the bottom of the black sea. There, even low fired red/black ware can survive intact and colorful for millenia.

However, in normal shallow waters, since low fire ware is very porous, it gets used as anchor material and even digested by sea life. Even where the ceramic vessels or tablets survive largely intact, any surface decoration gets eradicated, rendering any writing on the clay (whether via glaze or shallow impressions like cuneiform tablets) unreadable rather quickly.

There's one other historical type of clay document that could survive well without being at the bottom of the Black Sea, though, which is fired, enveloped clay tablets. "Secure" documents during the Bablyonian period were enclosed in outer clay envelopes. Sometimes they were even fired, in order to make a "permanent" record of something. If your civilization had a practice of creating archival records by enclosing them in clay envelopes and firing them, such tablets would survive even thriving sea life, because the damage would ruin the envelope, not the tablet.

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If the data being recorded was important enough, inscribed on gold tablets. Gold is easy to work with and pretty much inert. afaik there's only one acid that will dissolve it.

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