The Three-Age System of Archaeology : Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age

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The three-age system of Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age is a method of categorizing prehistoric periods according to tool technology.

The Three-Age System

The three-age system of categorizing prehistoric archaeological periods was developed by Danish archaeologist Christian Jurgensen Thomsen (1788-1865). When Thomsen was curator of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen in 1816, he organized the museum’s collection of Scandinavian artifacts according to the material from which they were made: stone, bronze or iron. He called the system “museum ordering.”

Thomsen reasoned that the cultures using stone tools were the earliest, and the development of bronze and then iron metallurgy indicated an advancement in technology and therefore must have come later in time. His theory was later confirmed by archaeological excavations.

The Three-Age System has its shortcomings. The three ages do not correlate with exact dates, since technologies were developed at different times in different parts of the world. Some cultures never passed through a linear progression of technologies, but instead moved directly from Stone Age to Iron Age, and some Neolithic cultures still exist today in isolated areas. Nevertheless, it provides a useful way to organize stages of human cultural development, particularly for European cultures.

The Stone Age

Beginning as far back as 700,000 years ago, the Stone Age marks early man’s emergence as a tool user. The Stone Age is divided into three main sub-categories.

Paleolithic (Old Stone Age)- People were hunter-gatherers during the Paleolithic period, and used four main types of stone implements: pebble tools, hand axes, flakes and blades. The Paleolithic Age is itself divided into three periods: the Lower (oldest), Middle and Upper (most recent) Paleolithic.

Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age)- The Mesolithic period began approximately 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. It was a transitional period between the hunting and gathering stage and a more settled way of life. Hafted axes, bone tools and microliths, small stone implements that were used as arrowheads or spearpoints, were used during the Mesolithic period.

Neolithic (New Stone Age)- During the Neolithic period, people began to live in permanent settlements. They domesticated animals, cultivated crops including barley, millet and wheat, and developed weaving and pottery. Neolithic culture appeared at different times around the world, beginning between 8000 and 6000 BC in southwest Asia and spreading throughout Europe, Egypt, India and China. It appeared in the New World by 1500 BC.

The Bronze Age

In some areas, the beginning of the Bronze Age was preceded by an intermediate period known as the Chalcolithic, or Copper-Stone Age, when stone and copper were both used concurrently. Limited use of copper as a precious metal occurred as early as 6500 BC in Anatolia, and knowledge of copper metallurgy was common throughout the Middle East and spreading to Europe by 3000 BC.

Copper is too soft to be of practical use for tools, but bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, was a highly desirable metal. Tin was relatively scarce, so the discovery by the Phoenicians of tin deposits in Cornwall, Britain, was of great significance in the expansion of bronze metallurgy. Many technological advances, such as the discovery of the wheel and utilization of domestic oxen to draw plows, took place during the Bronze Age.

The Iron Age

The first use of iron occurred as early as 3000 BC in the Middle East. Meteorites were used as a source of iron, and extraction from ore wasn’t widely used for another thousand years. In approximately 1200 BC, knowledge of iron metallurgy began to spread rapidly throughout Europe, reaching China by 600 BC. Because of its superior strength, iron became the preferred metal for tools as well as weapons.


Image Source: Iron Age Tool from Han Dynasty China

Credit: Snowyowls


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