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After the Neolithic: The Metal Ages

D. K. Jordan


  1. The Metal Ages: Copper, Bronze, and Iron (Link)
  2. The Bronze Age Anyway (Link)
  3. The Example of Mesopotamia (Link)
    1. Civilization (Link)
    2. Mud, Water, & Trade (Link)
    3. Elites, Mesopotamian & Generic (Link)
    4. Temples & Politics (Link)
  4. Other Civilizations (Link)

1. The Metal Ages: Copper, Bronze, and Iron

The agricultural revolution gradually brought to a close the long period of human history for which stone tools are the major surviving artifacts. The terms “Paleolithic,” “Mesolithic,” and “Neolithic” (“Old Stone,” “Middle Stone,” and “New Stone”) are used for this reason. With the new possibilities that agriculture brought into being, however, new materials turn up in the archaeological record, and archaeologists speak of subsequent prehistoric and early historic periods in the Old World as the Bronze Age and the Iron Age (which in southern Europe began about 1700 BC and about 750 BC, respectively).

Copper & Bronze. If one takes the metallic references seriously, different dates apply to different areas, of course. The Bronze Age in Europe begins somewhere between 2000 and 1500, depending on the area, but in Western Asia it is earlier, beginning sometime between 2500 and 1500). Some primitive bronze in both areas seems to occur by about 3500 BC, however, and it is impossible to tell when and where “the first” bronze was made. In some regions, such as Turkey and Mesopotamia, specialists find it useful to distinguish a “copper age” or Chalcolithic [kal-ko-LITH-ic] between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. As the name implies, the Chalcolithic saw the use of copper without the additives that make it into stronger bronze (copper plus tin) or brass (copper plus zinc).

It is reasonable to ask what may have stimulated interest in the difficult exploitation of these metals. One answer is that a combination of population growth and climate change was placing pressure on human adaptations and stimulating a range of experimental modifications in ways of doing things [Note 1] Various ores had been chipped like other stones for millennia, of course. But they came into their own only when they could be heated and separated from other materials, and the extraction of relatively pure metal, let alone its working, is extremely difficult. Given the difficulty of exploiting metals, even population and climate pressure leave questions about how it all got started.

Iron. This essay does not discuss the Iron Age. In most of the world iron ore is more plentiful than the copper and tin needed to make bronze —iron makes up about 5% of the earth’s crust— and iron is stronger (although subject to rust). But, although cheaper and stronger, iron requires more heat to work it well. The necessary technical skill to produce hammered iron artifacts first appeared in central Turkey about 1800 BC, but was regarded as a secret of the central Anatolian defense industry until eventually pried out of them by Assyrian conquerors sometime about 1100 BC. (The Assyrians blabbed about it and the secret then spread quickly.)

Iron was formed in these areas through hammering, but when the knowledge of iron working eventually reached China, craftsmen there developed casting techniques (based on earlier bronze casting).

Because iron could be made of cheaper material, it eventually transformed life partly because it made metal implements, whether for agriculture or for war, available to lower classes in the population, who had not been able to afford bronze

Not surprisingly, the date at which the Iron Age begins differs in different areas, just as dates for the Bronze Age do. In Western Asia the Iron Age begins somewhat before 1100 BC, in Europe somewhat later —750 BC is a round number— and in Africa some time during the first millennium AD. Arguably we are still living in the Iron Age, but the term is seldom applied to societies with an extensive written tradition, which are described as “historic,” while the Iron Age is “prehistoric.” (Actually futurologists and historians seem to be in the process of deciding that we are living near the beginning of the “Information Age.”)

Metal Ages. The terms “Bronze Age” and “Iron Age” are appropriate in that they do designate periods in which bronze and iron came to be important materials in the objects found in archaeological sites. On the other hand, like the “-lithic” words, they ambiguously refer to a single item in the artifact inventory, to an era, and to a stage of development, seen as more or less inevitable once agriculture is discovered.

The use of the terms “Bronze Age” and “Iron Age” continues a tradition of viewing prehistory that was initiated by the Greek writer Hesiod of the eighth century BC, who divided history into five great ages. These began with a mythical “Golden Age,” “when Saturn reigned in heaven” and proceeded through ages of progressively baser materials to his own day in the “Iron Age.” Iron had become a prominent material for making tools, Hesiod noted, and he thought it was also an appropriate symbol for an age in which human hearts had become “as hard as iron,” and things were generally going to pieces.

Early in the XIXth century a Danish curator picked up this ancient system and organized finds in a Danish museum as Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Setting Hesiod’s allegorical fantasies (and old-age grouchiness) aside, it is interesting that even in antiquity there was an awareness of a progression of industrial materials and of the fact that they had implications for the state of human society.

One difficulty with the “metallic terms” is that the ability to work a metal says little about how much it was worked, or what was made from it, or who used it for what purposes or with what implications. In most respects the Bronze Age of northern Europe could just as well be Neolithic, for little was done with bronze that couldn’t have been done without it. In the Near East the Bronze Age brought some advances in weaponry, but far less than the Iron Age did afterward. In northern Europe copper made little real difference except in the creation of prestige items. In Ireland, for example, much bronze working was devoted to making horns and bells, and the bronze of the Bronze Age was largely irrelevant to daily life. [Note 2]

Similarly, in China bronze was almost entirely devoted to luxury food and wine vessels used as prestige items sustaining an early state that seems to have had plenty of weaponry made of other materials. Bronze mattered, but as a source of symbols for elites. However, social structure was more elaborated in China than in northern Europe, and prestige symbols for elites were correspondingly more significant.

Another problem with a term like “Bronze Age” is that metal items, like many other things, were sometimes traded long distances and could become important to populations that were unable to produce them on their own. After the arrival of Europeans, some metal tools, such as axes and tomahawks, were used over much of North America. (So, for that matter, were guns.) Did that make the North American tribes “Iron Age” peoples? Perhaps, but the term is rarely applied to them.

In general, iron made a greater difference to everyday life than bronze did, mostly because iron, uglier and harder to work but stronger and made from more plentiful materials, was less often used for prestige items and was more often made into functional weapons and tools, especially nails. With iron, a great many activities, from clearing trees and building houses to plowing fields and smashing heads, became substantially more efficient.

Any detailed archaeological discussion inevitably finds the metallic terms inadequate for serious comparative use, but for present purposes, as we turn our attention to archaic states arising from the Neolithic, the traditional term Bronze Age will have to serve.

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2. The Bronze Age Anyway

The Old World Bronze Age can be thought of as representing a series of cultural and social innovations in societies in which agriculture and the developments that sprang most directly from it had already become facts of life. The Neolithic base period in the Old World extended roughly from the first evidence of agriculture in about 8000 BC to about 5000 or 4000 BC.

As populations increased and as understandings and social structures developed for the integration of human activity in denser populations, a series of what archaeologists call “high civilizations” developed, including the world’s first major cities, with monumental architecture and centralized state apparatus. The Bronze Age is normally associated with hierarchical societies, often dominated by chiefs or kings and warrior nobles and built with the labor of slaves. One might argue that the most important fact about bronze had nothing to do with its physical properties, but rather was its cost and its ability to symbolize its owner’s importance.

The greater population densities of the late Neolithic and metal ages was associated with greater concentrations of power and the clear emergence of kingdoms. In the context of schemes of cultural evolution, a kingdom is like a chiefdom, but with greater institutionalization of individual parts, more clearly demarcated social classes, and under the authority of a hereditary monarch who does not have personal relations with all his subjects.

The larger kingdoms —even empires— that often emerged at this point throw into ever higher relief the continuing human problem of political organization. The typical Bronze Age solution is a small class of decision makers, and a much larger class of followers, so that we find what seems (in modern perspective) extreme social class differentiation, with an absolute monarch on top and slaves or at least serfs at the bottom. (Some examples of strongly class-differentiated kingdom organization of this kind continued into modern times and have been studied ethnographically. One of these is the kingdom of Bunyoro in what is today Uganda, described elsewhere on this web site. [Link])

Whether we see them as chiefdoms, kingdoms, or archaic empires, most metal-age polities would strike us as quite totalitarian, headed by “corrupt” monarchs interested in making their own lives comfortable and not particularly concerned if others’ interests were damaged in the course of their doing so.

Archaeologist Jean-Paul Demoule has pointed out that organization and administration become necessary as a population reaches a certain size, and that this almost inevitably produces inequality and hierarchy, which in turn means that the administrative elites [Note 3] find it in their interest to prevent the “defection” or “dispersion” of the non-elites. He writes:

To avoid such a dispersion, three factors can come into effect to play a role, singly or in combination. (1)The elites impose their power by force, which requires a great deal of energy and is not necessarily sustainable, or (2) the elites use, often in good faith, ideological persuasion, such as love for one’s masters or, more securely, belief in ideological-religious systems which promise happiness in the hereafter as a prize for hard work and merit on this earth, or (3) environmental conditions so severe that their subjects cannot reasonably leave. (Demoule 2008: 58) [Source]

In the context of “royal” power and competition for “nobility” and high social status, the role of metal, especially bronze, in the symbolization of prestige was sometimes extremely important.

This seems to have been the case in early China, where hundreds of thousands of artistically worked bronze pieces were been created almost exclusively to bolster status claims by the nobility of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Nowhere was bronze working raised to a higher art or more completely integrated into the system of political stratification. Magnificent ancient Chinese bronzes are found in staggering numbers in the world’s art museums. (Accordingly a separate page on this web site is devoted to Early Chinese Bronzes)

As with other prestige materials, copper and bronze were often imported. Thomas Levy of UCSD, who has done extensive research on copper mining in Israel and Jordan, writes:

The earliest and most spectacular prehistoric metallurgical remains in the Middle East, and perhaps in the world, are represented by the famous Cave of the Treasure copper hoard. The collection includes over four hundred “prestige” copper objects, including crowns, scepters, mace heads, and other objects, most of which were made from copper … [that] probably originated over 1,000 kilometers from the southern Levant, somewhere in eastern Turkey and/or Azerbaijan in the Fertile Crescent. (Levy 2007: 33) [Source]

In many areas writing either developed independently or was borrowed or stimulated from other areas. The first availability of writing is the event that tradition regards as the end of prehistory and the dawn of history in the strict sense of the term. In some areas it is regarded as the end of the Bronze Age itself.

The states that emerged once agriculture had been established as a primary mode of human subsistence bring us into a kind of human life that we can recognize as very much like our own. Just as we were able to recognize the biologically fully modern human being in the capacities and forms of the Upper Paleolithic, so also we are able to recognize the culturally and socially fully modern human being with the development of Bronze Age empires. What was still missing from a modern perspective, and what would be a critical further step in the making of the modern world, were ideas of scientific reasoning and of human rights. These were to require another couple of millennia.

Each of these metal-age cultural and social developments was unique in many ways, even as modern civilizations are different from each other. It is difficult to generalize about them, except very superficially. At the same time, it is impractical to present them individually, society after society, in very much detail, but our discussion of the evolution of culture and society would be incomplete without at least one example. For this purpose, a separate essay focuses on Mesopotamia as a Bronze Age Civilization.

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