2 September 2013 - 1:41 pm

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there… or not!

Just as you thought our blog probably couldn’t get more random (by random, I clearly mean AWESOME), I go and bring archaeology, of all things, into the mix.

But I was thinking the other day how strange it was that in the relatively small world of enterprise education I have now met two other people who have started off in archaeology, just like me. What is the missing link?

Ali in a hole

That’s me, in a hole, diggin’ me up some innovation!

And then like a lightning bolt, it hit me – one of the biggest things archaeologists study is INNOVATION. Sometimes in the archaeological record, we see people start to do new things, and we want to know why. Maybe they changed the shape of a stone tool. Maybe they started burying their dead in a different way. Maybe they started using tents and shelters instead of caves or sleeping in the open air. Perhaps they started decorating their pots in a new style.

The main reason people innovated in the past is the same reason why people innovate today. They saw a problem or need, and they found a way of solving that need.

My PhD thesis focused on innovation in stone tool technology just after the last Ice Age finished in Britain (hard to imagine now with all this glorious weather isn’t it?) People were changing the shape of the stone tools they used to tip their weapons, but as far as we can tell they were using them for the same purpose. So why innovate? What was the need or problem they needed to solve? Well, it looks like it was all to do with identity, communication, and a sense of belonging. If your stone tools looked the same as someone else’s, it showed that you had a shared social network over huge distances– how modern is that? People needed to communicate with others in their social network because they were facing big challenges – moving across new and different landscapes that they didn’t know after the ice sheets disappeared, and perhaps learning to get sustenance from new ecosystems that were developing in the new climate. So, being innovative by creating a recognizable and new style of weapon helped solve the problems that came with exploring ‘strange new worlds’.

A lot of the innovation we see going on in modern times also functions to bring people together. Look at all the online social networks. Facebook will probably be seen as one of the biggest innovations of our generation (ok ok, MY generation, you spring chickens), and the whole purpose of it is to get people connecting, but also sharing an identity. On Facebook, we can share information with a vast number of people that might help them negotiate the world around them (not sure LOLCats necessarily does that but there you go).

Or look at how Apple have successfully created a social identity associated with their products – if you have a Mac in your office instead of a PC, you’re probably signifying to other people that you are young, in touch with modern technology, maybe a ‘creative’ type of person, interested in design (that might not be your intention, but thanks to Apple branding, that’s what other people might think).

So really, when we innovate, we are still doing the same things that our ancestors did thousands of years ago. The past really isn’t a foreign country, and they don’t do things that differently there!

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  • About the author

    Ali Riley

    I am one of the three Enterprise Learning Development Officers here at USE, and I work directly with the Faculties of Science and Social Sciences. My background is actually in archaeology - random I know - but I have always had a bit of a side-interest in how people learn, and now this has led me to this very rewarding role! I'm still to be found in muddy holes at weekends though... I'll be blogging about Enterprise Education, including news, events, success stories, and my experiences of working with academics to offer a great learning experience to students.