KNOXVILLE, TN—A 1995 e-mail extracted from the hard drive of a recently unearthed Compaq desktop PC offers a tantalizing glimpse into the day-to-day life of a primitive Internet society, said the archaeologists responsible for its discovery.
"We're very excited by this find, because only by understanding our e-mail past can we hope to understand our e-mail present and future," said Northwestern University archaeology professor Lane Caspari, who has been leading the dig through the equipment storage area of a Knoxville-area credit union since late April, on Tuesday. "The discovery also sheds new light on the 1990s—an era we know very little about."
Written by a "email@example.com" and addressed to a "firstname.lastname@example.org," the writer expresses the ancient equivalent of boredom, asks the receiver about his or her status in their primeval office environment, then refers to the act of sending the e-mail itself.
"Nothing going on," begins the e-mail. "What's up with you? Are you going to Mike's b-day thing on Friday? I'm thinking about it. I might go, but I'm not sure yet."
The e-mail continues, "Let me know if you get this e-mail twice. I'm still trying to learn the system. I think the managers know when we're on the Net, so I'll stay away from the web surfing and check my e-mail only once a day."
The e-mail is signed only "K." It contains no subject line.
"It shows that these forgotten people of the '90s had many of the same concerns as modern man, such as b-days, and slow periods at work," Caspari said. "The presence of the archaic slang verbalization 'what's up' appears to indicate that they cared about the immediate welfare of others in their closely knit community, much as we do today."
But the artifact reveals differences as well. According to Caspari, the find indicates that people from that era spoke a much earlier form of e-mail language alien to our own, employing the full spellings of most words, and lacking the versatility and advanced expression of smiley-face or frowny-face emoticons.
Researchers were hoping that "Untitled 1995," as they've dubbed it, would help fill-in the long-sought missing link between the ancient e-mail world and the modern era. The Compaq's hard drive crashed shortly after the discovery, a more thorough study of the early writing is impossible. Only a paper copy of the e-mail remains.
"It was heartbreaking to see that hard drive die, but there was a certain tragic poetry to it, as well," Caspari said. "Few have ever had the privilege of receiving, first-hand, a beacon from our distant past, calling out to us across the sea time."
Neither e-mail address is active any longer, but their names may provide clues to long-forgotten events or important rulers of the time.
"Scully666' was likely a figure from these people's pantheon of god-figures," Caspari said. "'Makincopeez' is a reference lost to the ages."
Only four known e-mails pre-date this one, including a 1992 ASCII drawing of Star Trek's Mr. Spock, found by a group of Indian laborers salvaging precious metals from computer hardware in a Mumbai dump in 2004.
Caspari said it was "extraordinary" that the early e-mailers showed an awareness of the importance of their new tool.
"This clearly points to a reverence for the technology, but also an intense anxiety about a power they could not have understood," Caspari said. "It's safe to assume that 1995 was a terrifying and confusing time, and they must have struggled to make sense of it all."
While much work remains before researchers can hope to illuminate the secrets of the ancient and mysterious period of the late '90s, they say the discovery itself is an important milestone in understanding human history.
"Listening to the whir of the disc drive and watching the blink of the cursor, we glimpsed, for a moment, life through a completely different set of eyes," Caspari said. "But, in the end, we realized have more in common with our shadowy ancestors than we might like to think."