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Copyright: National Museum of Antiquities

Lessons from the Bronze Age: ‘In order to achieve something, you have to give something up.’

Professor David Fontijn is fascinated by the question why people destroy objects that are dear to them. It is a phenomenon that you find everywhere in the world, gaining particular strength in the European Bronze Age. Fontijn wrote a book on this ‘economy of destruction’, published by Routledge.

Economies of destruction

The period of the Bronze Age, roughly some 4,000-5,000 years ago, features the first signs of a recognizable economy in Europe. ‘It saw the start of the circular economy, long-distance trade, and the first signs of globalization', Fontijn explains. However, that familiarity is confronted with a phenomenon that seems bizarre. ‘These people, so rational and advanced, destroyed and deposited their most valuable tools in huge numbers. It feels like a tremendous waste of resources, but yet they did it, and the question is why. That is what the book Economies of Destruction is about.’

Presumptions

The question of ‘why’ is interesting in itself. ‘I dedicated an entire chapter on this. In the end it has much to do with a number of presumptions about what economy is. What defines things like value.’ Fontijn gradually came to the conclusion that economies are far less rational than he had thought. ‘From working my way through the Bronze Age I learned that economies are not rational at all, not even in our time. I think it is fascinating to explore how people act. They seem often steered by a sense of moral incentives that are beyond the ideas of a truly capitalist economy.’

Deposited bronze objects. Photo: Minja Hemminga, Archol BV
Professor David Fontijn in the field

Moral economy

Asked for an example of a moral economic choice, Fontijn reflects on his own choices. ‘A very simple example, is when I go to the supermarket and I buy meat, I usually buy organic meat. It costs more money, but I have the feeling that I contribute to something good. In all fairness, I have no idea what I am actually buying. I trust, trust, that by sacrificing some of my money I am helping the environment.’ In that sense, purely from a basic understanding from financial ratio, it is a little bit about throwing away money.

Moral economy steers the choices we make in our lives. ‘You see this very clearly in the Bronze Age. They gave up huge amounts of trade stock, the material they could have used in trade.’ But the process in which they gave up these goods was ritualized. ‘It is a guided practice. Objects are deposited in different ways, destroyed, in circles, at specific locations in the landscape. People knew what they were doing.’

Rational destruction

This, basically, is the main message of the book. ‘It shows that society, in order to achieve something, always has to give something up. And the giving up is usually done in a thoughtful, deliberate way. Destruction is not irrational, but done with your heart and your soul.’

The bent sword of Werkhoven. Photo: National Museum of Antiquities

Value

Fontijn hopes his book will have relevance beyond a general archaeological audience. ‘Through studying the economy of the Bronze Age, I gained a new understanding on what economies are. It is an example of a behavioral and policial economic study, so my hope is that it will also be of value for anthropologists, or even economists.’ The fact that the book is published in paperback further eases way of access for a larger audience.

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