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Material: the mother of innovation

It is not man’s ingenuity, but rather materials that are the source of innovation and progress. This is what archaeologist Maikel Kuijpers concludes based on his research into craftsmanship and material processing in the Early Bronze Age.

"Many highly educated westerners have lost the knowledge of how objects or materials work, or how to fix or manufacture things. Since the Enlightenment, greater emphasis and value have been placed on intellectual abilities in our societies. But there really should be more appreciation of the ability to craft materials and create something by hand. These skills are a source of innovation and progress. By re-assessing our values in this respect, you can involve groups in society who now often - unjustly - have a lower social status, such as craftsmen and technicians. Archaeologist Maikel Kuijpers draws this conclusion based on research into craftsmanship and metalworking. Kuijpers initially focused on the early Bronze Age, but as his research progressed, his interest in craftsmanship extended to the present time.

Conversations about craftmanship

“What is craftmanship? How do you develop it, how do you transfer it, and what role does it play in societies?” These are some of the questions Kuijpers asks himself in his research on metalworking in the early Bronze Age, in which he sought to discover how the first forms of metalworking came about and how they were transferred. One major problem was that he obviously could not ask the ancient craftsmen themselves. In order to find out more about craftsmanship in general, and about the craftsmanship of axes from the Bronze Age, he spoke with young, highly trained, contemporary craftsmen from all kinds of disciplines, such as instrument makers and furniture makers.

In ancient Egypt, people knew how to make a concave waterproof shell from wood. Nowadays in shipbuilding, a lot of prefabricated parts are used, which means that there are precious few people who can boast that they are true masters of the craft.

Material teaches humans

One of Kuijpers' greatest insights through these conversations was that experimentation with materials continually plays a crucial role in the production of new products and innovation. "Archaeologists often create an image in which ancient people themselves possessed the ingenuity or some kind of plan for continually improving materials. I found out that you can only arrive at beneficial innovations by physically working with the material, employing all the senses and getting to know the material intimately. It's almost as if the material teaches humans how to create something, rather than vice versa. In my opinion, that is also one of the reasons that the materials copper, tin and bronze have played such a major role in the Bronze Age: they are materials that are easily mouldable and conform well to the wishes of the creator.

Kuijpers demonstrates the fact that there was a lot of experimentation in the early Bronze Age by comparing 300 axes from that period. "I concluded that these axes were made by many different people. Additionally, the quality of the axes varies greatly. Archaeologists tend to see every object discovered from the past as an exquisite example of craftsmanship. I do not subscribe to that thinking.”

From fruit waste to leather products

Kuijpers' interest in the role of material knowledge and craftsmanship has, since his PhD, extended to our modern time. “I am concerned with the role of craftmanship in our modern society. Only by examining the material thoroughly and experimenting with it can you get an idea of what you can do with it. Being creative with materials is desperately needed, because we are plundering our planet mercilessly. Fortunately, there are people who are thinking about how to make full use of all materials. For example, there are entrepreneurs who recycle fruit waste into furniture and bags from leather-like material. To arrive at such an innovation, you need to get to know your materials first. I am calling for a revaluation of material use and craftsmanship in our contemporary Western societies.” In the end, it comes down to what we consider valuable knowledge.

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