The identification and analysis of invention is fundamental to understanding early societies. Yet invention tends to be only sporadically addressed by archaeologists, and then usually only within broader studies of innovation. Doubts concerning the ability of the archaeological record to yield data of sufficient quality to investigate invention, together with the perception that the concept leads inevitably to nineteenth-century societal narratives of technological progress, remain widespread. This paper reviews the theoretical approaches to invention in early societies with a particular focus on pyrotechnologies. It highlights the papers within this special section, which demonstrate the capacity of an integrated approach incorporating materials science, archaeology and archaeological theory to understand the processes of both invention and innovation underlying the appearance of pyrotechnologies and their relationships to early societies throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. It is argued that the importance of historical and contemporary debates on inventions, innovations and societies across the world continues to increase—and will do so with or without the active contribution of archaeologists.