View Full Version : How long can paper last? And a skeleton? (Given the right conditions)

01-11-2011, 01:20 AM
In the story I'm planning right now, a character is inside a tunnel and gets trapped in a cave-in. Then she discovers she's inside a room with a skeleton. The skeleton is clutching a satchel or some kind of bag, and inside that bag is a notebook diary that details the last few days of this person's life and what was happening in the world.

(And what WAS happening was that there was a planet-wide alien invasion that nobody could stop. This person hid inside this room to try to escape the inevitable, and wrote the diary, and eventually died there.)

Thing is, I want about a thousand years to have gone by. This room has been totally sealed all this time.

So, with that said,

Would the paper even still be paper? Or just dust? Will it be protected inside a vinyl satchel or something? (Given that rats or bugs could have gotten into the room.) How could the notebook have survived?

Regarding the skeleton, since it's been lying dormant inside this room all this time, would it be intact? Would any of the clothing or anything on it still be there?

01-11-2011, 01:50 AM
If your dead guy knew he were writing for posterity, he would have had a journal made of cotton paper. He also might have taken additional precautions like keeping it in a zipper-lock plastic bag when he wasn't writing in it.

The condition of the skeleton would be based on a lot of environmental factors - if it were cold and dry enough, it might be a dried-out but otherwise well-reserved corpse, rather than a skeleton.

01-11-2011, 03:03 AM
In the right conditions paper can last for a long time. I have books in my personal collection that are nearly 200 years old. There are many books that are older than that. The Book of Kells is dated at around 800BC, although I think it's printed on animal skin and not paper.

This website sells books that range from 100 to 200 years old. http://www.poormansbooks.com/

So clearly paper can survive that long in the right conditions.

01-11-2011, 03:22 AM
Modern buzzwords for paper meant to last a long time are "archival" and "acid free." If he wants the paper to be preserved a long time he can choose appropriate paper as well as take other steps. Even if he doesn't think of it and gets the cheapest paper notepad he sees, there's still a reasonable chance of it surviving, but it may be quite fragile.

There are terms for books of a certain age, such as:

01-11-2011, 03:49 AM
If your dead guy knew he were writing for posterity, he would have had a journal made of cotton paper. He also might have taken additional precautions like keeping it in a zipper-lock plastic bag when he wasn't writing in it.

Only if he knew in advance. It sounds like the attack happened and the dead guy ran and hid wth no advance planning. Doesn't lend itself to having a journal with cotton pages. I don't even know where'd I'd get something like that from if I wanted to.

As shaldna said, though, in the right condition paper lasts a long time. The oldest book I own is from 1885, so not 200 years, but it's still in very readable condition. for a hand-written diary, archival quality pens are very easy to come by. I buy all my pens from Paperchase, and on a casual inspection just now I can see that they're all archival quality (or claim to be). So I'd say it's feasable.

Can't help with the bones etc. though. Sorry.

01-11-2011, 06:45 AM
As for getting cotton pages, I have a stack of cotton paper I print resume's on when I'm trying to get a nicer job. It hasn't seemed to help me much but it might.

A lot of people keep it on hand for things like that or cover letters, important invitations. So he could have cotton paper.

He'd need something waterproof to keep it in if he's gonna break down to a skeleton. its a nasty slimy thing. mummification from a cold dry climate would be more likely to have preserved him, though the paper would be brittle.

Maybe the cave can be below freezing all year around for the last thousand years.

01-11-2011, 02:04 PM
Thank you for the feedback. It's all been very helpful. I was concerned that after a thousand years, the paper might have turned to dust, but it's highly possible that it wouldn't, especially if it's zipped inside a protective bag. I expect it to be brittle, but still readable.

Regarding the skeleton, (which I didn't mention, not that it's important to this thread, was a female), I'd really like the character to find a skeleton, not a mummy. I'm guessing that rodents and other insects would come in and devour anything organic after the person died, which would leave behind a skeleton after a thousand years had gone by.

I think the idea of the cotton paper is sound, but probably not an important fact for this story, and this character wouldn't have had time to get some, anyway. This particular alien invasion happens really fast. They had about a day's advance it was coming, then nobody could stop it. It's not like "V" really, more like War of the Worlds, only bacteria couldn't hurt the aliens. This character who escaped it had little time to prepare, only hide and wait.

01-11-2011, 05:23 PM
FWIW, as far as the bones go, dry is important. And nothing bigger than a rat getting at them helps too. If they've been fully sheltered and kept dry, I'd think a thousand-year-old skeleton would still look very much like a skeleton. Probably quite fragile and chewed on. The smaller bones like the hands and feet might be gone. If she was wearing natural fibers when she died those would probably be gone. Though any synthetics -- polyester, nylon, elastic bands and such -- would still be there. Probably be just fine, in fact, if sunlight hasn't touched them.

01-11-2011, 05:55 PM
As people have said, you're going to need dry, dry, dry, as in desert dry. Paper can last pretty well in those conditions, but is going to be very brittle, and probably would fall apart if touched.

The problem I have is that anything that's going to destroy the body into a skeleton isn't going to increase the survivability of the paper. For example, rats and mice will do a good job of stripping bones, but would probably use the paper for bedding. Even insects would have the potential to eat the paper as well as the body.

In the up to two hundred year range, it's happened, but it's unusual. If the paper was sealed or otherwise blocked from access, it could work. Realize that plastic deteriorates with time, especially in sunlight. I think plastic would become incredibly brittle in a thousand years in a dry environment.

I think you're going to need your character surprised the paper survived. And humidity down in the single digits. Something that becomes sealed doesn't lose its moisture to any great degree over time.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

01-11-2011, 06:46 PM
Do not forget the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some are in bits, but others are fairly intact.

Do not forget the mummies in the mountains of the Andes. They are sort of dried-up and still have their skin and other tissues, and whatever clothing they wore at the time of death.

I am sure there are other examples. Some mummies found in China come to mind. The women were buried under large, paddles in the shape of phallic symbols; the men under boats which resembled the female sexual organs. I think these mummies were quite old.

Cold and dry seem to be the two key words.