Material Culture

I read an interesting piece recently about the way in which we name historical eras after metals (Sorry, I have no idea where it was!). This naming shapes how we think about the past and gives the casual reader a feeling that the metals are the most important bits. Metal tends to mean weapons and hunting gear, and archaeologists in the past were often more interested in those ‘manly’ things than in evidence of gathering or other domestic activities. There’s been recognition of this, and progress, but it’s there in a lot of earlier work.

What if metal isn’t key to pre-history? It’s interesting to consider what early technologies might have resulted in significant cultural shifts. I’ve written before about the necessity of the baby sling in human development, but what else would be key?

Ceramics – for cooking, and for storage. 

The spoon – making it easier to eat cooked plant matter from your ceramic pot. Also making it possible to feed invalids and young children.

String. My son pointed out that without string, you can’t have bows or spears and are limited to opportunism, scavenging, or having to get up close and personal with anything you want to kill and eat. 

The sewing needle – enabling the making of clothes, bags, baby slings, making it easier to make shelters out of hides. Makes shoes possible.

Weaving – baskets and textiles. Increased warmth, storage, improved gathering options, means to pen livestock and make fish traps, and cradles. 

Art – the pre-history of art is really interesting. Apparently the first stage was collecting things that seemed interesting. Then we got into modifying what was around. Then we took up making art from scratch. It’s reasonable to assume there must have been a lot of less durable art, and that it wasn’t all cave paintings.

There’s probably lots of others. Not all of them could easily be dug up, but signs of less durable materials can be found. Part of the prominence of metals is how well it survives in the ground, but that’s certainly not the only factor, and less emphasis on what is assumed to be male would be helpful. It’s the focus on stone in the Stone Age that has us imagining people draped in skins and living in caves. Ceramics are Stone Age. So are string, and baskets.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

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