The term Bronze Age refers to a period in human cultural development when the most advanced metalworking (at least in systematic and widespread use) included techniques for smelting copper and tin from naturally-occurring outcroppings of copper and tin ores, creating a bronze alloy by melting those metals together, and casting them into bronze artifacts. These naturally-occurring ores typically included arsenic as a common impurity. Copper/tin ores are rare, as reflected in the fact that there were no tin bronzes in western Asia before 3000 BC. The Bronze Age is regarded as the second part of three-age system for prehistoric societies though there are some cultures that have extensively written records during the Bronze Age. In this system, it follows the Neolithic in some areas of the world. On the other hand, in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Neolithic is directly followed by the Iron Age. In some parts of the world, a Copper Age follows the Neolithic and precedes the Bronze Age.
|Bronze Age |
|Early Bronze Age |
|Early Bronze Age I||3300–3000 BC|
|Early Bronze Age II||3000–2700 BC|
|Early Bronze Age III||2700–2200 BC|
|Early Bronze Age IV||2200–2000 BC|
| Middle Bronze Age |
|Middle Bronze Age I||2000–1750 BC|
|Middle Bronze Age II||1750–1650 BC|
|Middle Bronze Age III||1650–1550 BC|
| Late Bronze Age |
|Late Bronze Age I||1550–1400 BC|
|Late Bronze Age II A||1400–1300 BC|
|Late Bronze Age II B||1300–1200 BC|
The Aegean Bronze Age begins around 3000 BC when civilizations first established a far-ranging trade network. This network imported tin and charcoal to Cyprus, where copper was mined and alloyed with the tin to produce bronze. Bronze objects were then exported far and wide, and supported the trade. Isotopic analysis of the tin in some Mediterranean bronze objects indicates it came from as far away as Great Britain.
Knowledge of navigation was well developed at this time, and reached a peak of skill not exceeded until a method was discovered (or perhaps rediscovered) to determine longitude around AD 1750, with the notable exception of the Polynesian sailors.
One crucial lack in this period was that modern methods of accounting were not available. Numerous authorities believe that ancient empires were prone to misvalue staples in favor of luxuries, and thereby perish by famines created by uneconomic trading.
How the Bronze Age ended in this region is still being studied. There is evidence that Mycenaean administration of the regional trade empire followed the decline of Minoan primacy. Evidence also exists that supports the assumption that several Minoan client states lost large portions of their respective populations to extreme famines and/or pestilence, which in turn would indicate that the trade network may have failed at some point, preventing the trade that would have previously relieved such famines and prevented some forms of illness (by nutrition). It is also known that the breadbasket of the Minoan empire, the area north of the Black Sea, also suddenly lost significant portions of its population, and thus probably some degree of cultivation in this era.
Recent research has discredited the theory that exhaustion of the Cypriot forests caused the end of the bronze trade. The Cypriot forests are known to have existed into later times, and experiments have shown that charcoal production on the scale necessary for the bronze production of the late Bronze Age would have exhausted them in less than fifty years.
One theory says that as iron tools became more common, the main justification of the tin trade ended, and that trade network ceased to function as it once did. The individual colonies of the Minoan empire then suffered drought, famine, war, or some combination of these three factors, and thus they had no access to the far-flung resources of an empire by which they could easily recover.
Another family of theories looks to Knossos itself. The Thera eruption occurred at this time, 110 kilometers (70 mi) north of Crete. Some authorities speculate that a tsunami from Thera destroyed Cretan cities. Others say that perhaps a tsunami destroyed the Cretan navy in its home harbor, which then lost crucial naval battles; so that in the LMIB/LMII event (c. 1450 BC) the cities of Crete burned and the Mycenaean civilization took over Knossos. If the eruption occurred in the late 17th century BC (as most chronologists now think), then its immediate effects belong to the Middle Bronze to Late Bronze Age transition, and not to the end of the Late Bronze Age; but it could have triggered the instability that led to the collapse first of Knossos and then of Bronze Age society overall. One such theory looks to the role of Cretan expertise in administering the empire, post-Thera. If this expertise was concentrated in Crete, then the Mycenaeans may have made crucial political and commercial mistakes when administering the Cretans' empire.
More recent archaeological findings, including on the island of Thera (more commonly known today as Santorini), suggest that the center of Minoan Civilization at the time of the eruption was actually on this island rather than on Crete. Some think that this was the fabled Atlantis (a map drawn on a wall of a Minoan palace in Crete depicts an island similar to that described by Plato and similar too to the form Thera very likely had prior to its explosion). According to this theory, the catastrophic loss of the political, administrative and economic center by the eruption as well as the damage wrought by the tsunami to the coastal towns and villages of Crete precipitated the decline of the Minoans. A weakened political entity with a reduced economic and military capability and fabled riches would have then been more vulnerable to human predators. Indeed, the Santorini Eruption is usually dated to c. 1630 BC. And, the Mycenaean Greeks first enter the historical record a few decades later c. 1600 BC. Thus, the later Mycenaean assaults on Crete (c.1450 BC) and Troy (c.1250 BC) are revealed as but continuations of the steady encroachments of the Greeks upon the weakened Minoan world.
Each of these theories is persuasive, and aspects of all of them may have some validity in describing the end of the Bronze Age in this region.
The Bronze Age on the Indian subcontinent began around 3300 BC with the beginning of the Indus Valley civilization. Inhabitants of the ancient Indus Valley, the Harappans, developed new techniques in metallurgy and produced copper, bronze, lead and tin. The Indian Bronze Age ends at the start of the Iron Age Vedic Period (1500–500 BC). This is during the Harappan culture, which dates from 1700 BC to 1300 BC, that overlaps the transition period between the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age period. As a result, it is difficult to pinpoint the true end of the Indian Bronze Age.
Bronze metallurgy in China originated in what is referred to as the Erlitou (also Erh-li-t’ou) period, which some historians argue places it within the range of dates controlled by the Shang dynasty. Others believe the Erlitou sites belong to the preceding Xia (also Hsia) dynasty. The U.S. National Gallery of Art defines the Chinese Bronze Age as the “period between about 2000 BC and 771 BC,” a period that begins with Erlitou culture and ends abruptly with the disintegration of Western Zhou rule. Though this provides a concise frame of reference, it overlooks the continued importance of bronze in Chinese metallurgy and culture. Since this is significantly later than the discovery of bronze in Mesopotamia, bronze technology could have been imported rather than discovered independently in China.
Iron is found in the Zhou period, but its use is minimal. Chinese literature dating to the 6th century BC attests a knowledge of iron smelting, possibly making iron a Chinese invention, yet bronze continues to occupy the seat of significance in the archaeological and historical record for some time after this. Historian W. C. White argues that iron did not supplant bronze “at any period before the end of the Zhou dynasty (481 BC)” and that bronze vessels make up the majority of metal vessels all the way through the Later Han period, or through AD 221.
The Chinese bronze artifacts generally are either utilitarian, like spear points or adze heads, or ritualistic, like the numerous large sacrificial tripods. However, even some of the most utilitarian objects bear the markings of more sacred items. The Chinese inscribed all kinds of bronze items with three main motif types: demons, symbolic animals, and abstract symbols. Some large bronzes also bear inscriptions that have helped historians and archaeologists piece together the history of China, especially during the Zhou period.
The bronzes of the Western Zhou period document large portions of history not found in the extant texts, and often were composed by persons of varying rank and possibly even social class. Further, the medium of cast bronze lends the record they preserve a permanence not enjoyed by manuscripts. These inscriptions can commonly be subdivided into four parts: a reference to the date and place, the naming of the event commemorated, the list of gifts given to the artisan in exchange for the bronze, and a dedication. The relative points of reference these vessels provide have enabled historians to place most of the vessels within a certain time frame of the Western Zhou period, allowing them to trace the evolution of the vessels and the events they record.
The Middle Mumun pottery period culture of the southern Korean Peninsula gradually adopted bronze production (c. 700–600? BC) after a period when Liaoning-style bronze daggers and other bronze artifacts were exchanged as far as the interior part of the Southern Peninsula (c. 900–700 BC). The bronze daggers lent prestige and authority to the personages who wielded and were buried with them in high-status megalithic burials at south-coastal centres such as the Igeum-dong site. Bronze was an important element in ceremonies and as for mortuary offerings until 100.
In Central Europe, the early Bronze Age Unetice culture (1800–1600 BC) includes numerous smaller groups like the Straubing, Adlerberg and Hatvan cultures. Some very rich burials, such as the one located at Leubingen with grave gifts crafted from gold, point to an increase of social stratification already present in the Unetice culture. All in all, cemeteries of this period are rare and of small size. The Unetice culture is followed by the middle Bronze Age (1600–1200 BC) Tumulus culture, which is characterised by inhumation burials in tumuli (barrows). In the eastern Hungarian Körös tributaries, the early Bronze Age first saw the introduction of the Mako culture, followed by the Ottomany and Gyulavarsand cultures.
The late Bronze Age Urnfield culture, (1300–700 BC) is characterized by cremation burials. It includes the Lusatian culture in eastern Germany and Poland (1300–500 BC) that continues into the Iron Age. The Central European Bronze Age is followed by the Iron Age Hallstatt culture (700–450 BC).
Important sites include:
One of the characteristic type of artifact of the Early Bronze Age in Ireland is the flat axe. There are five main types of flat axes: Lough Ravel (c. 2200 BC), Ballybeg (c. 2000 BC), Killaha (c. 2000 BC), Ballyvalley (c. 2000–1600 BC), Derryniggin (c. 1600 BC), and a number of metal ingots in the shape of axes.