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Materials from the past contain lessons for today

Studying ancient materials and the way they were made can give us groundbreaking insights into the past. Not only that, the interplay between people and materials is highly relevant for society today, says Ann Brysbaert, Professor of Ancient Technologies, Crafts and Materials, at the Faculty of Archaeology. Inaugural lecture 25 October.

Is old technology relevant for today's society? This must be referring to new technologies, such as digital innovations? Not at all; Professor Ann Brysbaert is definitely talking about making and using objects that were used in societies thousands of years before the start of our era. Studying centuries-old artefacts, buildings and manufacturing processes gives us practical and philosophical tips for our modern life. In her inaugural lecture, Brysbaert will show how this works using examples from her research based on three themes: materials, technology and crafts. (The word 'crafts' here refers to things made by hand, which is a somewhat narrower concept than 'trades'.)

Brysbaert
The Mycenaeans, a people who lived in Greece between 1600 and 1100 B.C., accomplished incredible things in the field of architecture and logistics. How did they do it and what can we learn from them?

Maximum use

In many cases, we are used to throwing things away once we have used them, but on that score we can learn a lot from people from earlier times. Brysbaert explains how minute research on materials found on an archaeological site show that thousands of years ago materials were re-used in highly innovative ways. In Greece in the Late Bronze Age (1300 B.C. – 1200 B.C.), if the inhabitants of a house were tired of their wall paintings, for example, the plaster was stripped off and re-used in floors. Another example: in a workshop in an ancient Greek palace from the 13th century B.C., metal remnants, glass beads, and blue pigment were found, along with pieces of plasterwork in an oven. There are indications that metal scraps that ended up in a glass paste after being heated could then be used by glass workers. This blue glass paste could be converted into a blue pigment and used in paintings. Other sources indicate that the pieces of plasterwork in the oven could be re-used as stands for melting pots because they were so heat resistant. All these finds together indicate that in this place and in this society maximum attention was paid to the re-use of materials. 

Technological developments

Brysbaert also discusses in her inaugural lecture her fascination for how technologies developed in the distant past. 'Archaeological research shows that cooperation is an important driver for innovation,' she says. 'At times and in places where things are not going well, people come together and think up creative solutions. There's a good lesson here for modern humans: we need one another to be able to innovate and continue our development.' 

Brysbaert
The Trio in the interior of Suriname build their own houses, mainly from materials from nature. As a result, thy have extensive knowledge of materials. Houses damaged by weather or insects are demolished, and the parts that are still good are reused. (Amotopo, 2007; photo: Jimmy Mans).

Crafting is an undervalued skill

Brysbaert sees a similarity between the crafts of ancient times and present-day crafting: it is an activity that is generally practised in groups. People learn from one another while making things. Crafting today and in earlier times also gives people an identity: we identify with the things we make. Studying crafting and the processes associated with it is has value for present-day society. 

Brysbaert believes that making things and the knowledge of materials that it involves are both skills that are highly undervalued. 'We are taught to think and use our heads, but we're no longer taught to do things, make things, be active or play.'  The archaeological study of making things, learning from each other and appreciating one another for what we are capable of and what we do, reminds us just how important these skills are.

Text: Jan Joost Aten
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