In 2004, in Mali, in west Africa, on the Bandiagara Escarpment, pottery pieces were unearthed; those shards were dated to 11,400 years ago. Pottery is a convincing artifact. It speaks of community and permanence in the first place. A single person could survive on hollowed gourds and perhaps small, crude disposable baskets. Pottery implies gathering larger quantities of fruits, nuts, grains, carrying them distances and storing them as well as water. Larger quantities tell us of more than one person.
The existence of small pieces of pottery tells us more. People had acquired the knowledge of clays, of color extracted from plants, of shaping and hardening those clays and colors, perhaps even of kilns. (The Sudanese people still make colorful pottery without a potter’s wheel, just as their Nubian ancestors did 8,000 years ago.) This in turn tells us that knowledge was acquired, accumulated, passed down generation to generation, so we may infer a stable society, growing and devising the means of stability. (Among the Dogon in Mali, such stability is entrusted to hereditary guilds of potters, masons, blacksmiths, and has been so at least since the 11th Century.)
On these shards are designs. What the particular designs mean, we do not know. In fact, we know almost nothing of the people who created these works. We call them the Tellem. But 11,400 years ago people in west Africa, the Near East and Asia were making clay pottery for utensils, for decoration, for art. And they were using those pots to tell stories to themselves.
‘They’ were ‘us’, modern in every sense. And story telling was as central to them as it is to us. The stories we tell ourselves shape the perceptions of the individual, the perspective of families and clans, the organization of societies and governments. And like the Tellem, the particular story teller in time is forgotten while the story may live on.
Consider the Greek tragedies and heroic myths, the Christian gospels, Beowulf and the writings of Ursula K. LeGuin. The stories live beyond the teller. Who, after all, was ‘Homer’? Beowulf as a saga is little read today, but the story of a warrior hero struggling against insuperable and supernatural odds lives in books (Eaters of the Dead, Michael Crichton) and films (The 13th Warrior). Two adolescent lovers from feuding families was not a new concept in Shakespeare’s time, but Romeo and Juliet will live as a story beyond even the memory of William Shakespeare.
Medieval churches stand while the names of the masons and artisans are lost. Yet the Last Judgment greets you at the entry, and Redemption beckons beyond the portals. The stories we tell, in words and pictures, in buildings and utensils, define us as they did the medieval masons and the Tellem. The stories differ from culture to culture, but the telling reveals us.
Past cell phones and beyond computers, aside from clothing, regardless of laws and institutions, music, libraries, buildings, advertisements, sculpture, paintings are us. They are our stories, retold so often we assimilate their telling into our assumptions. Beneath the facts of our daily living and our governing premises the stories we are told and which we tell in our turn determine our behavior, our aims, our hopes. The stories we tell ourselves and each other in love, in anger, in dreams, in voting booths, in taverns and in churches frame our lives and resonate like drum beats across our years.
Like the Tellem, when time compresses awareness, our stories may remain beyond any living memory of us.