Imitation: the sincerest form of flattery?

"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."

Albert Einstein once famously quoted that ‘the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.’ Psychologists and sociologists have since proven this to be the case; they argue that creativity is the linking up of existing knowledge in an original way. In that sense, novel combinations are a result of various social interactions in which knowledge and ideas are adopted and transformed by the individual. Being creative is thus very much a social mechanism. Arguably, an unravelling of past creativity has the potential to reveal its origins and therefore aid in the investigation of past social relations and interactions.

 

The Bronze Age in Europe was a patchwork of different social and cultural practices which we are amidst trying to disentangle through analysis of the material culture these people left behind. Just as countries in modern day Europe have obvious differences in cultural traditions, Bronze Age material culture also displays dissimilarities and similarities. What were the reasons for such similarities and differences? Why would one community favour a decorative motif or technique over another one? Similarly, why would a social group adopt a particular motif from a neighbouring community and incorporate with their existing ornamentation and techniques?

 

Too often decorative ‘influences’ and the spread of ideas are explained in terms of diffusionism and mechanisms of social mobility where cultural groups migrate, taking their culture with them. Although there is evidence that proves individuals in the Bronze Age did travel to acquire knowledge (think Otzi and the Amesbury Archer), diffusionist approaches to Bronze Age Europe negate the role of the individual in imitation and transformation of material culture. Individual craftspeople were intentionally or unconsciously adopting and transforming motifs and techniques from a variety of sources indicative of various social interactions. What was the nature of these interactions? Were they peaceful or a result of conflict? Were they within or between communities? What was the social function of such imitation and transformation? With so many questions to answer, it seems we have only begun to scratch the surface when it comes to really understanding social relations in the Bronze Age.

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Archaeology should be less about coming up with the right answers and more about asking the right questions.

A few months ago I began the laborious (and downright frustrating) task of writing a history of research for the Bronze Age in Croatia and Serbia. The majority of literature is culture-historical in orientation. This means that the primary focus has been on establishing a chronological development through a discussion of artefact typologies. Quite frankly I find this all extremely dull, not to mention infinitely complex and in some cases almost incomprehensible. Often when reading the extensive descriptions of pottery vessels and metal objects I am plagued by the question: ‘so what exactly is this telling me?’ Frequently this is left unanswered.

Many archaeologists in this part of the world are what I would term ‘culture happy.’ By this I mean that all objects and sites are designated to a cultural group based on appearance, style and their date. In some cases though using this approach is nonsensical; Bronze Age material culture in this area is so complex (and in some cases just plain weird), and often researchers are left stumped and even more confused. By trying endlessly to place artefacts and sites into precise little groups, are we as archaeologists completely missing the point?

There seems to be an incessant pandemic, not just in central Europe, where academics are fearful of ‘getting it wrong.’ Perhaps this is a product of the academic system itself. Yet it is just not enough anymore to think that the material speaks for itself, and provide safe answers to the same safe questions. As archaeologists, we need to concentrate more on the questions we ask as opposed to the answers we generate. Questions that incite imagination, exploration and encourage us to think outside of the box open up all sorts of possibilities. It is possibility that enables fresh thinking, making our wonderful discipline even more exciting and dynamic.