LAYERS OF CLAY
Do you ever think about the future? Like waaaaay into the future?
Earlier this summer, on D-Day, I stared at the calendar and got to pondering the date of 6/6/16. Then I thought that in 50 years, it will look cool when the date is 6/6/66. Not that I’m into devil worship squared or anything. It’s more about the symmetry.
So what’s the point of all this fun with numbers?
Well, I got a little disappointed in the fact that a half century from now will be 6/6/2066, and that 2 and 0 mess up my OCD imagination. The perfect date in this earth-shatteringly important thread, I realized, would be 6/6/6666.
None of us will be around in four thousand years (spoiler), but what occurs to me from this random rabbit trail in my brain, is that while four thousand years from now is unthinkable, that much time and much more has already passed in human history.
I can’t fathom human society even fifty years from now, let alone four millennia, so for perspective I started thinking about what was going on 4,000 years ago.
Granted, technological advancement moved waaaaay slower back then. But stuff was moving all over the planet. I love how Wikipedia says something like “2,000 BCE: Glass Appears.” Imagine in the year 6,000 if we are nothing more than a footnote in which “The internet first appeared.” To further twist your brain, think about the fact that humans were living and loving and trying and failing another 4,000 years before glass!
By 4,000 years ago, Babylon was the dominant empire in the region of Mesopotamia, a.k.a. the Fertile Crescent, a.k.a. the heart of civilization from which the world expanded and stretched in all directions. (Think Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, etc…)
Yet despite all the time between us and them, folks back in the ancient day shared many of the same experiences as us. Sure, they fought wars and natural disasters like volcanoes and killer storms took their toll, but consider some of the everyday things they were learning.
- People drank beer. One famous ancient artifact called the Alulu Beer Receipt tells us so.
- For that matter, the privileged few wrote stuff down. On clay tablets, of course (no relation).
- The Minoans got hold of a pottery wheel, and we’re still finding artifacts from the stuff they made, most of which is way nicer than the last art project your kid brought home from school.
- They were cooking lots too. Pepper was being used in Indian cuisine at least by 1984 BCE.
- Domesticated horses were on the scene in Mesopotamia—only a few decades removed from its Dark Age—by 4,000 years ago. Imagine all those centuries of people who never enjoyed horseback riding.
- People were living under the first known code of laws. Yes, there were plenty of lawless years in humanity. Not the greatest era ever. Turns out some regulation is wonderful.
- The Bronze Age was just beginning in what we know today as Northern Europe.
- The first aqueducts were built by 1900 BCE. Water management was always critical, and this was a big first step towards indoor plumbing.
- Mentuhotep II had just united Egypt under central rule, moving the capital to his home base of Thebes and initiating the era now called the Middle Kingdom. Politics, diplomacy, and foreign policy were well in effect back then.
Four thousand years ago, the Amorites were becoming a world power. The word Amorite was Hebrew speak for westerner. Amorites were outsiders, just like the folks who pestered the mighty Roman Empire until they finally took over. The word barbarian simply meant outsider. Xenophobia (fear of outsiders) is as old as people.
Yup, the Amorites were rockin’ and rollin’ by 1984 BCE. In time, their king Sin-Muballit (dibs on that being my new hip hop name) assumed the Babylonian throne (in 1812 BCE) and ruled until being succeeded by his son Ammurapi. You might know him better by his Akkadian name—Hammurabi.
And you know what else they were doing way back when? Building walls.
“It is thought the very first wall not built around a city was erected by the Sumerian King Shulgi of Ur 2038. Shulgi’s wall was 155 miles (250 kilometres) long and was built between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to keep the invading Amorites out of Sumerian lands. This wall was unusual in that it did not surround a city but, rather, marked a territorial, national (rather than private) boundary and, as such, was a first of its kind.” Joshua J. Mark (quoted from http://www.ancient.eu/wall/)
Ol’ Shulgi died just about 4,000 years ago this year. The next three generations of Shulgis tried to make the wall work, but since it had two open ends invaders eventually figured out how to just march around it (kinda like Germany v. France in 1940).
A wall in ancient Syria. A wall in the Roman Empire. Walls during the Byzantine Empire. And in recent campaign rhetoric, walls today. Always outsiders to fear. Always us versus them. Always barriers to keep others out because we humans have been at each other’s throats since the beginning of recorded history. Like it never ends.
Did I mention Shulgi’s dad died in battle? If only everyone could’ve just got along, they could’ve been riding horses and making bad pottery school projects instead.
What’s old is new
Thousands of years later and we’re still talking about Syria and Iran while threatening to build more walls. And we’re still drinking beer too, of course. It’s not like we’ve completely lost our way.
I never realized how relevant ancient history was until I taught it. Seems like we’re just living through a never-ending cycle of progress-fear-fail-repeat. Few of us will be remembered 4,000 years from now, but maybe there’s a Hammurabi among us, someone who will so permanently alter history that they can never be forgotten.
But I find some hope in all this history. For one, we’ve been this screwed up as a species for this long, and we’re still here. So we’ve at least managed to go through a lot of major technological advancements without annihilating ourselves.
I wonder what all those ancient folks thought about the future. Before the Greeks came along, earlier civilizations didn’t focus on their place and time in a larger historical picture so much.
Our past experiences typically shape the way we envision the future, so our imaginations are limited by what’s come before us.
One thing we know is that there is a future we can’t fathom. Human nature stays the same, and we see much good and much bad in the rearview mirror. Historians stereotype past civilizations as either optimistic or pessimistic. How will ours be judged? Much of that answer will depend on which parts of our experiences we choose to hold onto. We can dwell on the worst and build a future in that image, or we can push back against negativity, choosing to celebrate the best of humanity and striving to create something hopeful in the face of predictable challenges.
I hope that someday, thousands of years from now, when students are reading up on ancient history from their pod classrooms on Mars, they will see an entry about the 21st century that says something like:
“Dawn of the internet age: Challenging era. People made many mistakes as they grappled to understand one another in a new digital age that fell under the long shadow of international conflicts like the world had never seen. The world changed exponentially faster than anyone had ever thought possible. But the people of the second millennial age learned to embrace unity in diversity. It was a good time.”
Oh, and if you’re reading this in the year 6666, I’m assuming time travel is a thing, so please come pick me up and take me for a spin. I’d like to stop some tragic events, make some investments, and possibly run for president in 2016.