I recently finished a fictional novel called “Us” by David Nicholls. This book has nothing to do with the Bronze Age (Believe it or not, I sometimes have other interests!) It is about a man called Douglas having a mid-life crisis. His wife (Connie) is about to leave him, in part because of his tumultuous relationship with their son (Albie). Douglas and Albie are two very different people and throughout the book he recalls anecdotes that emphasise this.
Bear with me, there’s a point to this.
One such anecdote involves Douglas’ desire to build Lego models with his son. However, every time he builds a model, Albie breaks it.
Douglas concocts a genius plan. He builds the models with glue so that Albie can’t break them and thus will have a permanent toy to play with.
This upsets Albie greatly.
“But look, I told Albie, now they’ll last forever! Now they won’t smash! But he doesn’t want them to last forever, said Connie, consoling tearful Albie, he wants to smash them, that’s the point! That’s what’s creative about them.” (Excerpt from Us, Page 294).
(Side Note: The moral of this story can also be drawn from watching The Lego Movie.)
But it got me thinking about the idea of creative destruction, or rather the act of destroying or damaging something in a creative manner or with a creative motive.
This is not to say that creativity is the only motive or intent; simply that destroying something is a potential expression of creativity.
A while ago I read an excellent paper about vandalism, specifically graffiti, as a form of destruction with political motive. This form of destruction is inherently creative, expressing creativity while simultaneously damaging a building, a bus stop, whatever.
The debate around destruction in prehistory often circulates around whether destruction serves a functional or ‘ritual’ purpose. Often various practices are noted but there is little consideration of the way in which destruction was undertaken or appreciation of the ideas that must have been involved in developing these practices.
Think, for instance, about the coil and folding of some Iron Age swords . This is an object that has been creatively deformed. It is likely loaded with meanings we might never grasp, but there is a degree of vision behind this destruction that we can grasp. Not to mention the implicit skill involved in bending an iron sword into this shape without breaking it!
So, what about creative destruction in the Bronze Age?
I know from my experiments and from talking to various metalworkers that there are many ways one might destroy a bronze object, but ultimately the most effective way is heating it and hitting it.
The typical reason cited for this is the reduction of larger objects into smaller fragments that might fit into a crucible for remelting. Objects not broken in this way indicate that the mode of destruction might have had a different meaning.
Some swords have clearly been bent by hand into a u-shape to the point of breakage. There are examples of pins deposited in Central Europe that have been tied into knots. Gold lunula in Ireland show signs of having been rolled and unrolled repeatedly. Socketed axes are frequently found with numerous other fragments of multiple objects hammered into the empty sockets.
It is difficult to argue that these various actions served the functionalistic purpose of reducing the objects in size for the crucible.
Similarly, other materials and objects were also being broken into multiple pieces during this period, such as clay moulds, stone querns, and ceramic vessels. Some pieces were buried in corresponding locations (e.g. in two neighbouring houses), or else with only certain fragments selected for deposition.
To state the obvious: it is clear the destruction of objects was not a straightforward, unimaginative practice.
I’m not saying we’ll be able to grasp the prehistoric thought processes behind all of this. And I should stress that my thoughts on these actions are still fairly fluid at the moment. This vague concept of ‘creative’ destruction in my mind refers to both the physical manifestation of the destruction (e.g. objects deformed into certain shapes), as well as the more inaccessible creative thought processes and purposes that influenced prehistoric communities to destroy in the first place.
For years archaeologists have sought to reconstruct many damaged and destroyed artefacts, gluing pot fragments back together in museum displays, or disentangling crushed bracelets, or unbending swords.
But what if we’ve missed the point altogether.
What if we are the Douglas to the Bronze Age’s Albie, gluing things back together that obscure the creative expression that was intended all along.
Food for thought when you next see a reconstruction in a museum.
Or when you’re next building a Lego model.