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This article is about the historical / archaeological period known as the Iron Age. For the mythological Iron Age, see Ages of Man. For History of iron mining, see ferrous metallurgy.

The Iron Age is the period generally occurring after the Bronze Age, marked by the prevalent use of iron.

The early period of the age is characterized by the widespread use of iron or steel. The adoption of such material coincided with other changes in society, including differing agricultural practices, religious beliefs and artistic styles. The Iron Age as an archaeological term indicates the condition as to civilization and culture of a people using iron as the material for their cutting tools and weapons. The Iron Age is the third principal period of the three-age system created by Christian Thomsen (1788–1865) for classifying ancient societies and prehistoric stages of progress.

In historical archaeology, the ancient literature of the Iron Age includes the earliest texts preserved in manuscript tradition. Sanskrit literature and Chinese literature flourished in the Iron Age. Other texts include the Avestan Gathas, the Indian Vedas and the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible. The principal feature that distinguishes the Iron Age from the preceding ages is the introduction of alphabetic characters, and the consequent development of written language which enabled literature and historic record.

Bronze Age Neolithic Stone Age

Dates are approximate, consult particular article for details

The beginning of the Iron Age in Europe and adjacent areas is characterized by certain forms of implements, weapons, personal ornaments, and pottery, and also by systems of decorative design, which are altogether different from those of the preceding age of bronze.The work of blacksmiths—developing implements and weapons—are hammered into shape, and, as a consequence, gradually departed from the stereotyped forms of their predecessors in the Bronze Age, of which objects were cast, and the system of decoration, which in the Bronze Age consisted chiefly of a repetition of rectilinear patterns, gave way to a system of curvilinear and flowing designs. The term "Iron Age" has low chronological value, because it did not begin simultaneously across the entire world. The dates and context vary depending on the region, and the sequence of ages is not necessarily true for every part of the earth's surface. There are areas, such as the islands of the South Pacific, the interior of Africa, and parts of North and South America, where peoples have passed directly from the use of stone to the use of iron without an intervening age of bronze.

Chronology

Around 3000 BC, iron was a scarce and precious metal in the Near East. The earliest known iron artifacts are nine small beads, dated to 3200 BC, from burials in Gerzeh, northern Egypt, that were made from meteoritic iron, and shaped by careful hammering. Iron's qualities, in contrast to those of bronze, were not understood. Between 1200 BC and 1000 BC, diffusion in the understanding of iron metallurgy and use of iron objects was fast and far-flung. In the history of ferrous metallurgy, iron smelting — the extraction of usable metal from oxidized iron ores — is more difficult than tin and copper smelting. These other metals and their alloys can be cold-worked, or melted in simple pottery kilns and cast in molds; but smelted iron requires hot-working and can be melted only in specially designed furnaces. It is therefore not surprising that humans only mastered iron smelting after several millennia of bronze metallurgy.

In 2005, metallurgical analysis by Hideo Akanuma of iron fragments found at Kaman-Kalehöyük in 1994 and dating to c. 1800 BCE revealed that some of these fragments were in fact composed of carbon steel; these currently form the world's earliest known evidence for steel manufacture.

Modern archaeological evidence identifies the start of iron production as taking place in Anatolia around 1200 BC, though some contemporary archaeological evidence points to earlier dates.

Lack of archaeological evidence of iron production made it seem unlikely that it had begun earlier elsewhere, and the Iron Age was seen as a case of simple diffusion of a new and superior technology from an invention point in the Near East to other regions. It is now known that meteoric iron, or iron-nickel alloy, was used by various ancient peoples thousands of years before the Iron Age. Such iron, being in its native metallic state, required no smelting of ores. By the Middle Bronze Age, increasing numbers of smelted iron objects (distinguishable from meteoric iron by the lack of nickel in the product) appeared in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia.

Iron in its natural form is barely harder than bronze, and is not useful for tools unless combined with carbon to make steel. The percentage of carbon determines important characteristics of the final product: the more carbon, the harder the steel. The systematic production and use of iron implements in Anatolia began around 2000 BC. Recent archaeological research in the Ganges Valley, India showed early iron working by 1800 BC. However, this metal was expensive, perhaps because of the complications of steel-making. It is attested in both documents and archaeology as a material for precious items such as jewellery.

Anthony Snodgrass suggests that a shortage of tin, as a part of the Bronze Age Collapse and trade disruptions in the Mediterranean around 1300 BC, forced metalworkers to seek an alternative to bronze. As evidence, many bronze implements were recycled into weapons during this time. More widespread use of iron led to improved steel-making technology at lower cost. Thus, even when tin became available again, iron was cheaper, stronger, and lighter, and forged iron implements superseded cast bronze tools permanently.

Recent archaeological work has modified not only the above chronology, but also the causes of the transition from bronze to iron. New dates from India suggest that iron was being worked there as early as 1800 BC, and African sites are turning up dates as early as 1200 BC, confounding the idea that there was a simple discovery and diffusion model. Increasingly, the Iron Age in Europe is being seen as a part of the Bronze Age collapse in the ancient Near East, in ancient India (with the post-Rigvedic Vedic civilization), ancient Iran, and ancient Greece (with the Greek Dark Ages). In other regions of Europe, the Iron Age began in the 8th century BC in Central Europe and the 6th century BC in Northern Europe. The Near Eastern Iron Age is divided into two subsections, Iron I and Iron II. Iron I (1200–1000 BC) illustrates both continuity and discontinuity with the previous Late Bronze Age. There is no definitive cultural break between the 13th and 12th century BC throughout the entire region, although certain new features in the hill country, Transjordan, and coastal region may suggest the appearance of the Aramaean and Sea People groups. There is evidence, however, that shows strong continuity with Bronze Age culture, although as one moves later into Iron I the culture begins to diverge more significantly from that of the late 2nd millennium.

History

Post-classical era Bronze Age

During the Iron Age, the best tools and weapons were made from steel, particularly alloys which were produced with a carbon content between approximately 0.30% and 1.2% by weight. Alloys with less carbon than this, such as wrought iron, cannot be heat treated to a significant degree and will consequently be of low hardness, while a higher carbon content creates an extremely hard but brittle material that cannot be annealed, tempered, or otherwise softened. Steel weapons and tools were nearly the same weight as those of bronze, but stronger. However, steel was difficult to produce with the methods available, and alloys that were easier to make, such as wrought iron, were more common in lower-priced goods. Many techniques have been used to create steel; Mediterranean ones differ dramatically from African ones, for example. Sometimes the final product is all steel, sometimes techniques like case hardening or forge welding were used to make cutting edges stronger.

Near East

Southwest Asia / Middle East

Main article: Ancient Near East

In Chaldaea and Assyria, the initial use of iron reaches far back, to perhaps 3000 BC. One of the earliest smelted iron artifacts known was a dagger with an iron blade found in a Hattic tomb in Anatolia, dating from 2500 BC. The widespread use of iron weapons which replaced bronze weapons rapidly disseminated throughout the Near East (North Africa, southwest Asia) by the beginning of the 1st millennium BC.

Finds of Iron
Early examples and distribution of non precious metal finds.
Date Crete Aegean Greece Cyprus Total Anatolia Grand total
1300–1200 BC 5 2 9 0 16 33 49
1200–1100 BC 1 2 8 26 37 N.A. 37
1100–1000 BC 13 3 31 33 80 N.A. 80
1000–900 BC 37+ 30 115 29 211 N.A. 211
Total Bronze Age 5 2 9 0 16 33 49
Total Iron Age 51 35 163 88 328 N.A. 328

 

 

Near East timeline

Sassanid Empire Parthian Empire Seleucid Empire Achaemenid Empire Ancient Near East

Dates are approximate, consult particular article for details
         Prehistoric (or Proto-historic) Iron Age      Historic Iron Age

Ancient Near East

Main article: Ancient Near East

The Iron Age in the Ancient Near East is believed to have begun with the discovery of iron smelting and smithing techniques in Anatolia or the Caucasus and Balkans in the late 2nd millennium BC (c. 1300 BC). However, this theory has been challenged by the emergence of those placing the transition in price and availability issues rather than the development of technology on its own. The earliest bloomery smelting of iron is found at Tell Hammeh, Jordan around 930 BC (C14 dating).

The development of iron smelting was once attributed to the Hittites of Anatolia during the Late Bronze Age. It was believed that they maintained a monopoly on ironworking, and that their empire had been based on that advantage. Accordingly, the invading Sea Peoples were responsible for spreading the knowledge through that region. This theory is no longer held in the common current thought of the majority of scholarship, since there is no archaeological evidence of the alleged Hittite monopoly. While there are some iron objects from Bronze Age Anatolia, the number is comparable to iron objects found in Egypt and other places of the same time period; and only a small number of these objects are weapons. As part of the Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age, the Bronze Age collapse saw the slow, comparatively continuous spread of iron-working technology in the region. The Ugaritic script was in use during this time, around 1300 BC. Ugarit was one of the centres of the literate world.

Assyro-Babylonian literature, written in the Akkadian language, of Mesopotamia (Assyria and Babylonia) continues into the Iron Age up until the 6th centuries BC. The oldest Phoenician alphabet inscription is the Ahiram epitaph, engraved on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram from circa 1200 BC. It has become conventional to refer to the alphabetic script as "Proto-Canaanite" until the mid-11th century BC, when it is first attested on inscribed bronze arrowheads, and as "Phoenician" only after 1050 BC. The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet is identical to the Phoenician alphabet and dates to the 10th century BC.

Europe

Main article: Iron Age Europe

In Europe, the use of iron covers the last years of the prehistoric period and the early years of the historic period. The regional Iron Age may be defined as including the last stages of the prehistoric period and the first of the proto-historic periods. Iron working was introduced to Europe in the late 11th century BC, probably from the Caucasus, and slowly spread northwards and westwards over the succeeding 500 years. The widespread use of the technology of iron was implemented in Europe simultaneously with Asia.

The Iron Age in Europe is characterized by an elaboration of designs in weapons, implements, and utensils. These are no longer cast but hammered into shape, and decoration is elaborate curvilinear rather than simple rectilinear; the forms and character of the ornamentation of the northern European weapons resembles in some respects Roman arms, while in other respects they are peculiar and evidently representative of northern art. The dead were buried in an extended position, whereas in the preceding Bronze Age cremation had been the rule.

Asia

The widespread use of the technology of iron was implemented in Asia simultaneously with Europe. In China, the use of iron reaches far back, to perhaps 4000 years BC.

Central Asia

The Iron Age in Central Asia began when iron objects appear among the Indo-European Saka in present-day Xinjiang between the 10th century BC and the 7th century BC, such as those found at the cemetery site of Chawuhukou.

North Asia

The Pazyryk culture is an Iron Age archaeological culture (ca. 6th to 3rd centuries BC) identified by excavated artifacts and mummified humans found in the Siberian permafrost in the Altay Mountains.

South Asia

South Asia timeline

Dates are approximate, consult particular article for details
         Prehistoric (or Proto-historic) Iron Age      Historic Iron Age
Indian subcontinent
Main article: Iron Age India

The history of metallurgy in the Indian subcontinent began during the 2nd millennium BC. Archaeological sites in India, such as Malhar, Dadupur, Raja Nala Ka Tila and Lahuradewa in present day Uttar Pradesh show iron implements in the period 1800 BC – 1200 BC. Archaeological excavations in Hyderabad show an Iron Age burial site. Rakesh Tewari believes that around the beginning of the Indian Iron Age (13th century BC), iron smelting was widely practiced in India. Such use suggests that the date of the technology's inception may be around the 16th century BC.

Epic India is traditionally placed around early 10th century BC and later on from the Sanskrit epics of Sanskrit literature. Composed between approximately 1500 BC and 600 BC of pre-classical Sanskrit, the Vedic literature forms four Vedas (the Rig, Yajur, Sāma and Atharva). The main period of Vedic literary activity is the 9th to 7th centuries when the various schools of thought compiled and memorized their respective corpora. Following this, the scholarship around 500 to 100 BC organized knowledge into Sutra treatises.

The beginning of the 1st millennium BC saw extensive developments in iron metallurgy in India. Technological advancement and mastery of iron metallurgy was achieved during this period of peaceful settlements. One iron working centre in east India has been dated to the first millennium BC. In Southern India (present day Mysore) iron appeared as early as 12th to 11th centuries BC; these developments were too early for any significant close contact with the northwest of the country. The Indian Upanishads mention metallurgy. and the Indian Mauryan period saw advances in metallurgy. As early as 300 BC, certainly by AD 200, high quality steel was produced in southern India, by what would later be called the crucible technique. In this system, high-purity wrought iron, charcoal, and glass were mixed in crucible and heated until the iron melted and absorbed the carbon.

India timeline

Dates are approximate, consult particular article for details
         Prehistoric (or Proto-historic) Iron Age      Historic Iron Age
Sri Lanka

The protohistoric Early Iron Age in Sri Lanka lasted from 1000 to 600 BC. Radiocarbon evidence has been collected from Anuradhapura and Aligala shelter in Sigiriya. The Anuradhapura settlement is recorded to extend 10 hectares by 800 BC and grew to 50 hectares by 700 - 600 BC to become a town. The skeletal remains of an Early Iron Age chief was excavated in Anaikoddai, Jaffna. The name 'Ko Veta' is engraved in Brahmi script on a seal buried with the skeleton and is assigned by the excavators to the 3rd century BC. Ko, meaning "King" in Tamil, is comparable to such names as Ko Atan and Ko Putivira occurring in contemporary Brahmi inscriptions in south India. It is also speculated that Early Iron Age sites may exist in Kandarodai, Matota, Pilapitiya and Tissamaharama.

East Asia

East Asia timeline

Three Kingdoms of Korea Proto–Three Kingdoms of Korea Gojoseon Kofun period Yayoi period Early Imperial China Imperial China Iron Age China Warring States period Spring and Autumn Period

Dates are approximate, consult particular article for details
         Prehistoric (or Proto-historic) Iron Age      Historic Iron Age
China
Main article: Iron Age China

In China, Chinese bronze inscriptions are found around 1200 BC. The development of iron metallurgy was transpired by the 9th century BC. The large seal script is identified with a group of characters from a book entitled Shĭ Zhoù Piān (ca. 800 BC). Iron metallurgy reached the Yangzi Valley toward the end of the 6th century BC. The few objects were found at Changsha and Nanjing. The mortuary evidence suggests that the initial use of iron in Lingnan belongs to the mid-to-late Warring States period (from about 350 BC). Important non-precious husi style metal finds include Iron tools found at the Tomb at Ku-wei ts'un of the fourth century BC.

The techniques used in Lingnan are a combination of bivalve moulds of distinct southern tradition and the incorporation of piece mould technology from the Zhongyuan. The products of the combination of these two periods are bells, vessels, weapons and ornaments and the sophisticated cast.

An Iron Age culture of the Tibetan Plateau has tentatively been associated with the Zhang Zhung culture described in early Tibetan writings.

Korea
Main article: Proto–Three Kingdoms of Korea

Iron objects were introduced to the Korean peninsula through trade with chiefdoms and state-level societies in the Yellow Sea area in the 4th century BC, just at the end of the Warring States Period but before the Western Han Dynasty began. Yoon proposes that iron was first introduced to chiefdoms located along North Korean river valleys that flow into the Yellow Sea such as the Cheongcheon and Taedong Rivers. Iron production quickly followed in the 2nd century BC, and iron implements came to be used by farmers by the 1st century in southern Korea. The earliest known cast-iron axes in southern Korea are found in the Geum River basin. The time that iron production begins is the same time that complex chiefdoms of Proto-historic Korea emerged. The complex chiefdoms were the precursors of early states such as Silla, Baekje, Goguryeo, and Gaya Iron ingots were an important mortuary item and indicated the wealth or prestige of the deceased in this period.

Japan
Main articles: Yayoi period and Kofun period

Iron items, such as tools, weapons, and decorative objects, are postulated to have entered Japan during the late Yayoi period (c. 300 BC to AD 300) or the succeeding Kofun period (c. AD 250 to AD 538), most likely through contacts with the Korean Peninsula and China.

Distinguishing characteristics of the Yayoi period include the appearance of new pottery styles and the start of an intensive rice agriculture in paddy fields. Yayoi culture flourished in a geographic area from southern Kyūshū to northern Honshū. The Kofun and the subsequent Asuka periods are sometimes referred to collectively as the Yamato period; The word kofun is Japanese for the type of burial mounds dating from that era.

Africa

In Africa, where there was no continent-wide universal Bronze Age, the use of iron succeeded immediately the use of stone. Metallurgy was characterized by the absence of a Bronze Age, and the transition from "stone to steel" in tool substances. Sub-Saharan Africa has produced very early instances of carbon steel found to be in production around 2000 years ago in northwest Tanzania, based on complex preheating principles. Nubia was one of the relatively few places in Africa to have a sustained Bronze Age along with Egypt and much of the rest of North Africa. The Meroitic script was developed in the Napatan Period (c. 700–300 BC).

Africa timeline

Dates are approximate, consult particular article for details
         Prehistoric (or Proto-historic) Iron Age      Historic Iron Age

Ancient Egypt

In the Black Pyramid of Abusir, dating before 2000 BC, Gaston Maspero found some pieces of iron. In the funeral text of Pepi I, the metal is mentioned. A sword bearing the name of pharaoh Merneptah as well as a battle axe with an iron blade and gold-decorated bronze shaft were both found in the excavation of Ugarit.

Iron metal is singularly scarce in collections of Egyptian antiquities. Bronze remained the primary material there until the conquest by Assyria. The explanation of this would seem to lie in the fact that the relics are in most cases the paraphernalia of tombs, the funeral vessels and vases, and iron being considered an impure metal by the ancient Egyptians it was never used in their manufacture of these or for any religious purposes. It was attributed to Seth, the spirit of evil who according to Egyptian tradition governed the central deserts of Africa.

Sub-Saharan

See also: Nok culture, Urewe and Bantu expansion

Discoveries of very early copper and bronze working sites in West Africa in Niger, however, can still support that iron working may have developed in that region and spread elsewhere. Iron metallurgy has been attested very early, the earliest instances of iron smelting in Termit, Niger may date to as early as 1500 BC. In Central Africa, Iron working may have been practiced as early as the 3rd millennium BCE. It was once believed that iron and copper working in Sub-Saharan Africa spread in conjunction with the Bantu expansion, from the Cameroon region to the African Great Lakes in the 3rd century BC, reaching the Cape around AD 400.

Sub-Saharan Africa has produced very early instances of carbon steel found to be in production around 2,000 years ago in northwest Tanzania, based on complex preheating principles. These discoveries, according to Schmidt and Avery (archaeologists credited with the discovery) are significant for the history of metallurgy.

At the end of the Iron Age, Nubia became a major manufacturer and exporter of iron. This was after being expelled from Egypt by Assyrians, who used iron weapons.

Gallery

Iron Age Examples

See also

General
Fogou
Lists
List of archaeological periods, List of archaeological sites
Metallurgy
Blast furnace, Roman metallurgy
Other
Synoptic table of the principal old world prehistoric cultures

Further reading

  • Waldbaum, Jane C. From Bronze to Iron. Göteburg: Paul Astöms Förlag (1978): 56-8

References

External links

General
  • from resourcesforhistory.com


Publications
  • Andre Gunder Frank and William R. Thompson, . American Institute of Archaeology, San Francisco, Ca., January, 2004.
News
  • . Archaeologists have found evidence of a massacre linked to Iron Age warfare at a hill fort in Derbyshire. BBC. 17 April 2011