Ian on Sunday
by Ian McDonald
March 28, 2004
One of the greatest scholarly and intellectual achievements by a Guyanese reached its culmination in the launching of Denis William's magnificent and magisterial book Prehistoric Guiana at the Umana Yana on Friday, March 19. The publication of the book, beautifully achieved by Ian Randle Publishers of Jamaica, was facilitated by the Government of Guyana, and the Minister of Culture presided at the launching.
Virtually up to his dying day Denis Williams worked on perfecting this masterpiece. Since he died in 1998 it has taken six years of often frustrating delays to get the book into print. But here at last it is. Any historically minded or intellectually serious Guyanese, or indeed West Indian, should have this book in his or her library.
In Prehistoric Guiana we have the work of Denis Williams the archaeologist and anthropologist of worldwide stature. But Denis, astonishingly, was much more than that. He was certainly one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met in my life. Nobody except Martin Carter matched him as a creative presence in this nation. When these two men died within a year of each other in 1997/98 we could almost feel the world of art and sensibility in Guyana grow narrower in imagination, meaner in spirit, shallower in intellect, smaller in stature, weaker in all that inspires humanity to do its best.
Denis's creativity was expressed in an extraordinary variety of ways. Some men write novels, some are celebrated painters, some compile works of deep scholarship, some edit important magazines, some make brilliant careers of lecturing and teaching, some are devoted keepers of a nation's heritage. And in each case what these men do so well is enough to make them famous and fill their lives with value. But Denis Williams did all these things with passion and intelligence mixed to a high pitch of achievement. And, beyond the myriad public achievements, it is well known that his private conversation was a full and stimulating education all by itself. There is an African saying that when an old man full of wisdom dies a whole library is burned down. When Denis died not only a library burned but also whole galleries of art and the imagination went up in flames.
When Denis returned from Africa in 1968 I met and got to know him. He went into the interior to farm and write and paint. I used to send books and magazines to him in his forest domain and he never failed to thank me in letters which I treasured for their wonderful range of interest, depth of reflection and lucid literary expression. From that time when I first got to know him well he seemed to me, in the variety of his passions and enthusiasms, a sort of West Indian Leonardo Da Vinci. He seemed filled with that fervent eagerness to understand all the world's mysteries which the scientist Louis Pasteur called "the inner god, which leads to everything." There is a passage about Da Vinci, that greatest of all Renaissance men, which could have described Denis as I remember him in the tumult of his enthusiasms:
"It seemed that nothing was impossible for him, that he could attempt anything - and understand anything. He composed treatise after treatise; with supreme self-confidence, he sought to penetrate the secrets of art, water, air, mankind, the world. He was interested in geology, in fossils, in ancient architectures and in the formation of mountains. He investigated the origins of milk, colic, tears, drunkenness, madness and dreams. He talked of writing what the soul is. He dreamed of flying like an eagle or a kite and began to draw plans of flying machines. Alongside a drawing of a bird in a cage he wrote: 'my thoughts turn to hope.'"
Dr Mark Plew, Professor of Anthropology at Boise State University in the United States, Denis's close colleague, has this to say in his editorial preface in Prehistoric Guiana: "With the passing of Denis Williams, Guyana lost one of its most accomplished and remarkable scholars. In the area of archaeology, he had no peers. For some twenty-five years and with little financial assistance, he pioneered the archaeology of Guyana. Travelling from one end of the country to the other, he conducted surveys and excavations and routinely published his findings. The prolific nature of his life's work is reflected in Prehistoric Guiana. This most important work represents the first major synthesis of the prehistory of Guyana."
And all the launching of the book Professor Plew praised the depth and originality of the work done, the amazing dedication involved in the tasks of field work, research and writing which went into completing the book and said that this monumental work would be an outstanding source of inspiration for scholars in the fields of archaeology and anthropology.
All Guyanese will feel proud of Denis Williams's great achievement. In the world of scholarship, in the realm of intellectual endeavour, our country reflected in his work stands considerably taller.