chapter  4
22 Pages

Material Worlds

In the introduction it was argued that tracing people’s engagement with materials and their properties reveals broader ontological concerns. Geber’s writings on the properties of gold and Palissy’s on techniques of pottery production reveal how these concerns shaped, and were shaped by, the form of their interactions with different materials. In the previous chapters we have had glimpses of how different material articulations were bound up in these broader understandings. However, by virtue of the focus on specific substances these have only been partial glimpses. In this chapter I would like to paint a fuller picture of how materials are

implicated in the creations of new worlds, through a case study focused on the earliest Upper Palaeolithic groups in Europe. This will involve tying together a number of themes (and materials) that have been introduced earlier in this book. Thus far we have looked at the production of Aurignacian basket-shaped beads (Chapter 1), and at how knowledge of mammoths at this time affected the production of things made from their tusks (Chapter 2). However the adoption of mammoth ivory and the widespread production of beads were just two of the changes that took place at the start of the Upper Palaeolithic. At the same time we see the appearance of a new range of tools and, most importantly, the first undisputed representational ‘art’: depictions of humans, animals and composite beings. These changes in the archaeological record have been termed a ‘symbolic explosion’. Some authors see this as a rapid change, representing a significant shift in human cognitive and/or linguistic abilities around this time (Klein 2008); others as the culmination of a series of longer-term, more piecemeal evolutionary trends towards ‘behavioural modernity’ (McBrearty and Brooks 2000). By contrast I will argue that the emergence of new materials in technical

practice was vital to the ‘symbolic explosion’. This process, I will argue, both generated and was generated by the emergence of new understandings of the world. In this chapter, I will trace the relationship between these emergent new materials and changing worlds. This will involve taking a long-term approach to the study of materials, to appreciate the extended and complex histories of certain substances in technical practice, but will also

elucidate episodes of radical change and the unimagined possibilities for life that the use of new materials established.