A developmental approach to ancient innovation: The potter's wheel in the Bronze Age east Mediterranean

Carl Knappett, Sander Van Der Leeuw

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


In this paper, we view creativity through the lens of innovation, a concept familiar to archaeologists across a range of contexts and theoretical perspectives. Most attempts to understand ancient innovation thus far, we argue, have been limited by their lack of capacity to cope with the multiple scales of innovation: Those that track widespread changes, like the beginnings of metallurgy, fail to account for the changes experiences by individual craftspeople; those that do justice to the details of the micro-scale, with 'thick' description, cannot well explain the regional adoption of new practices. Here we develop an intermediary position, at the meso-scale, which we hope can serve to integrate these different scales. It is based on the notions that all innovation entails learning (and hence cognitive transformations) and that learning is very often supported at this meso-scale, through 'communities of practice'. Drawing on the ethno-archaeological literature in particular, we emphasise how learning is a process of embodied cognition. Our archaeological case study is then drawn from the Bronze Age east Mediterranean, where a striking innovation in pottery making - the use of rotative kinetic energy via the potter's wheel - sees a very uneven uptake from region to region over the course of many centuries. We propose certain differences in community organization from one region to another that might account for such variation in the adoption of an innovation, with the island of Crete in particular seeing a much more stable trajectory of adoption than many of its neighbouring areas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)64-92
Number of pages29
JournalPragmatics and Cognition
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2014


  • Bronze Age
  • Creativity
  • Innovation
  • Invention
  • Novelty
  • Potter's wheel
  • Rotative kinetic energy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Computer Science
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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