The term “Bronze Age” was first coined by the Danish Antiquarian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788-1865), as part of the three-age-system. It was used to classify artifacts based on whether they were made from stone, bronze, or iron. An ancient civilization which either produces bronze on its own or acquires it through trade is considered to be in the Bronze Age. As such, different civilizations entered the Bronze Age at very different times and lasted far longer in some places than in others. However, there are certain characteristics that Bronze Age civilizations have in common with each other.
Making the Bronze Age
The hallmark of the Bronze Age was of course the production and use of bronze. Bronze is an alloy, or combination of metals with other metals or elements, consisting primarily of copper and roughly 12-12.5% of either tin or arsenic. Unlike iron, which has a relatively high melting point of 1,538 °C (2,800 °F), copper (1,085 °C or 1,985 °F), tin (231.9 °C or 449.4 °F), and arsenic (816.8°C or 1,502°F) have far lower melting points. These lower melting points were well within the range of what ancient kilns could achieve.
During the Bronze Age, the production of bronze always involved some level of trade in order to acquire the necessary ores. The earliest production of bronze involved the use of copper and arsenic since it is possible to find naturally occurring mixed ores of copper and arsenic. Bronze produced in this way is known as arsenical bronze, which is considered inferior to bronze produced with tin. Tin bronze was superior as the addition of tin lowered the overall melting point that the kiln was required to reach, created a stronger final product, and did not produce toxic fumes in the way that arsenic did.
Bronze Age Chronology
Establishing an overarching chronology of the Bronze Age is very difficult. This period is defined by the widespread use of bronze, but the introduction and development of bronze technology was not universally synchronous. This means that the Bronze Age began and ended at different times, in different places. As a result, the chronological differences between different Bronze Age civilizations can be stark. It is, therefore, not uncommon for the term Bronze Age to be associated more with a particular culture or civilization than a period of time.
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A basic chronology of the Bronze Age, focusing on the most familiar Bronze Age civilizations, is nevertheless still useful, as it helps to contextualize and visualize the period. It should be noted that this is by no means a complete list of every Bronze Age.
- The Ancient Near East: ca.3300-1100 BC
- Egypt: ca. 3150-1100 BC
- The Aegean: ca. 3000-1100 BC
- India: ca. 3300-1500 BC
- China: ca. 2000-771 BC
- Great Britain: ca. 2100-750 BC
- Nordic Bronze Age: ca. 1700-500 BC
Geographic Range of the Bronze Age
One of the defining aspects of the Bronze Age was its wide geographic range, which resulted from the necessity of engaging in trade. Neither copper nor tin is as common as other metals. In order to manufacture large quantities of Bronze it was necessary to secure access to deposits of copper and tin either through direct control or through trade agreements.
Competition over access to the supply of these metals forced people to search further and further afield. This competition along with human migrations and warfare spread bronze making technology across a vast geographic range, which extended beyond the usual “Cradles of Civilization” to other peoples. Besides China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus River Valley, and the Aegean, bronze making was also known on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, South East Asia, Japan, Korea, Central Asia, Central Europe, Sub Saharan Africa, and in West Africa.
While the spread of bronze making technology was certainly helped by the necessity of engaging in trade, some cultures developed this technology on their own. The process and methods used to create bronze are, after all, not particularly difficult to replicate and could potentially be discovered whilst engaging in any manner of activity involving kilns or large fires. It is, however, no easy matter to determine if bronze making technology was transmitted through outside contact or discovered independently. Copper working in the Americas had nothing to do with anything being down in Europe, Africa, or Asia. While some bronze artifacts have been found in the Americas, the proportions of the alloy make it unclear if the bronze was produced on purpose or b accident.
The Development of Writing
Another hallmark of the Bronze Age was the development of writing. Various proto-writing systems had emerged during the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods, but it was not until the Bronze Age that fully developed writing systems appeared. As with bronze making technology, some writing scripts were developed independently while others were influenced by earlier systems. These early writing systems include but are not limited to Mesopotamian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Cretan hieroglyphics, Chinese logographs, and the Indus script.
By the end of the Bronze Age the first alphabets, standardized sets of basic written symbols that represent basic units of sound, were developed. Prior to this most writing systems consisted of some combination of ideograms, pictorial depictions of the words they represent, phonograms, depictions of a sound or sequence of sounds, and determinatives, which provide clues as to their meaning without directly writing sounds. Most alphabets trace back to the Semitic languages of the Near East and the Proto-Sinaitic script which was developed to facilitate communication between the Egyptians and the various Semitic peoples.
During the Bronze Age, some form of urban revolution also occurred as cities either appeared for the first time or expanded and grew in complexity. The earlier Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods produced some large settlements, but nothing on the scale of the Bronze Age cities. Generally, it has been argued that it was a combination of the Neolithic Revolution, farming, and the domestication of animals, combined the Urban Revolution, the development of cities, which allowed civilizations to emerge.
Cities are defined as possessing ten characteristics that resulted from and led to the Urban Revolution. These are a higher than normal population density, specialization of labor, tax systems, monumental architecture, the formation of a ruling class, writing, a system for recording practical sciences, symbolic art, long-distance trade, state organization based on residence rather than kinship.
The urban cultures of the Bronze Age were just as complex and sophisticated as the cities which gave birth to them. In China geomancy was used to plan out new cities so that their outer walls were aligned with the four cardinal directions, while the cities of the Indus Valley developed sanitation systems with running water. Many cities, especially those in the Near East, were centered on temples and had a highly ritualized and sophisticated priestly caste. In Egypt, cities served to control the rich and fertile farmlands of the Nile.
During the Bronze Age, there were a number of new technologies that were developed to assist with a variety of tasks. Unlike stone or copper, bronze was far more durable and easier to shape or work with so it could be used to make all manner of objects. One of the most important inventions of the Bronze Age was the wheel, which was put to a variety of uses. The pottery wheel was used to increase the production and quality of ceramics, cartwheels facilitated long-distance trade, and the chariot which dominated the battlefield were all Bronze Age inventions stemming from the wheel. Other notable Bronze Age inventions include rope, umbrellas, kites, plows, swords, locks, and soap.
Some technological advances of the Bronze Age were less about creating something entirely new and more about improving existing technologies. In some instances, it was during the Bronze Age that these technologies first assumed identifiable forms which can be detected in the archaeological record. Armor, which appears to have been constructed out of bark and animal hides earlier, could now be made out of bronze. The axe, already a venerable tool by the Bronze Age, was improved with the addition of the bronze axe head and the socket, making it a far more durable and effective tool known as a socketed axe.
Bronze Age Collapse
Generally, the bronze was supplanted by iron as technological development made it possible to harness this stronger and far more abundant metal. This was a long process so that bronze and iron were often used side by side, and of course, this process did not occur everywhere at once. The transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age is usually quite difficult to detect; by archaeological convention, the presence of cast or wrought iron alone does not mean that a site can be dated to the Iron Age. Instead, locally produced iron or steel must reach a point where it is superior bronze and be in widespread use.
There is, however, one notable exception to this rule. Between 1200-1000 BC the Bronze Age civilizations of the Aegean, Egypt, Anatolia, and the Ancient Near East experienced a catastrophe referred to as the “Late Bronze Age Collapse.” During this period many civilizations crumbled, kingdoms collapsed, and cities were destroyed. Some areas survived but emerged in a weakened state. The exact cause and nature of this collapse have been hotly debated and a number of theories have been put forth. While the exact causes and nature of the collapse are unclear, for the regions affected the collapse represents a far more distinct break between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age than what is found in other regions.
After the Bronze Age
Regardless of the manner in which it happened, the Bronze Age came to an end. In many, although not all, cases it was followed by the Iron Age. This transition represented both a technological and cultural shift. Technologically, bronze and the production of bronze were replaced by iron and ironworking in a rather drawn-out process over a great length of time. This technological shift was, however, often accompanied by and in some cases encouraged by cultural shifts. In many parts of the world, the end of the Bronze Age was heralded by the arrival or emergence of new cultures or peoples.
The Bronze Age Aegean, Near East, and Anatolia all experienced sudden technological and cultural shifts during their transition to the Iron Age. Egypt and the Indus Valley experienced a severe period of decline, and show as much evidence of change as they do continuity. Europe entered into the Iron Age much later and in a far more gradual manner. In China bronze and iron were used interchangeably so that China does not have an Iron Age. Instead, Chinese prehistory gives way to a history periodized by ruling dynasties.