I think there’s a few icons most contemporary folks can reliably identify, regardless of what language we speak or read. The skull and crossbones seems to almost universally indicate that you should avoid something, and things like STOP and GO indicators at crosswalks are usually easily determined. If you look at a laundry tag, though, there’s a few mysteries. The little picture of what appears to be an iron makes enough sense, but what about the beaker with the little dots in it? Is the square with a circle in it supposed to represent a dryer, or an industrial washer? They’re not quite as intuitive as I’d prefer them to be. Fortunately the symbols are usually supported by some text along the line of “tumble dry low heat” or some such, so I usually do okay.

Speaking of interpreting symbols, have you heard about the signs they’re working on to warn the future about buried radioactive waste? Since most of that stuff will continue to be hazardous for 10,000 years, they’re trying to come up with something that will be easily interpretable to whomever might come across the site through time. As a matter of perspective, people hadn’t really even invented agriculture 10,000 years ago, so it’s hard to think of what things might be like in another ten millennia. Odds are they won’t speak English as we know it. No one really made a decision to stop speaking Old English, it just sort of shifted over time to what we speak today, so they need to find a way to warn people who don’t speak any known language about buried danger.

It’s an interesting exercise, but I don’t know how successful they might be. I think I saw one version of the sign (I searched the web, but couldn’t find it) that showed a dude keeling over after digging, getting attacked by what seemed like some sort of malevolent ghost. It’s certainly a good warning probably intended to appeal to any future superstitions, but I have a suspicion that the skeptical prospectors of the future will probably regard such a sign as “The Pharaoh’s Curse” and just keep digging. After all, how many archaeologists do you know that check every dig site with a Geiger counter before excavation?

That said, I hope they’ll come up with something effective. Assuming the past won’t affect the future seems to have created a lot of messes these days, and it would be nice to not contribute to that cycle of poor decisions.