The system is most apt in describing the progression of European and Mediterranean societies, although it has been used to describe other histories as well. The system has been criticised for being too technologically determinist.
It also soon became apparent that the switches from one age to another did not happen quickly or decisively. Flint tools remained in use in a limited fashion into the Iron Age in Europe and early metal items often appear in what should technically be the Neolithic.
Using the three-age system to measure the advancement of societies is often quite inaccurate, as some developments have appeared in different societies at vastly differing stages of their development. For example, Classic Period Maya society had mathematics and astronomy that rivaled early renaissance Europe, but were still technically a stone age culture. Some pre-Inca cultures had metalworking starting in 1500 BC. The Japanese had pottery as early as 10,000 BC but did not begin bronze work or rice farming until 1000 to 500 BC.
The difficulty of applying this system outside of Europe is illustrated by the case of Korean prehistory. The three age system was applied during the post-Japanese colonisation period (1945– ) as a way to counter the erroneous claims of Japanese colonial archaeologists who insisted that, unlike Japan, Korea had no 'Bronze Age' (Pai 2000). Instead, Japanese archaeologists such as Fujita Ryosaku incorrectly hypothesized that the Korean peninsula changed abruptly from a 'stone age' culture to a Chalcolithic culture. The three-age system was used widely in Korea by scholars and the general public until the 1990s despite the fact that it does not fit with the unique intricacies of prehistoric Korea. For example, until recently the periodisation scheme used by Korean archaeologists proposed that the 'Neolithic' began in 8000 BC and lasted until 1500 BC. This is despite the fact that palaeoethnobotanical studies clearly indicate that the first bona fide cultivation did not begin until circa 3500 BC.
Furthermore, archaeologists used to claim that the 'Bronze Age' began in 1500 or 1000 BC and lasted until 300 BC. This idea has been repudiated, however, because although bronze may have been exchanged into Korea before 700 BC, bronze technology was not adopted in the southern Korean Peninsula until circa 700 BC. The archaeological record clearly indicates that bronze objects were not consumed in relatively large numbers until after 400 BC. Despite the obviously poor fit with Korean prehistory, some historians who are experts in early Korean history (c. 300 B.C.–AD 668) continue to use the unsuitable Neolithic-Bronze-Iron monikers. On the other hand, most prehistoric archaeologists recognize the problems with the three-age system and have adopted a periodisation scheme based on changes in pottery design and technology, i.e. the Jeulmun (c. 8000–1500 BC) and Mumun Pottery Periods (1500–300 BC).
Although the three-age system has been rendered less and less accurate and usable by modern archaeological discoveries, today, it still remains an enduring concept of prehistoric archaeology as the terms have become ingrained in people's minds, including those of archaeologists. General familiarity with the long periods of time involved in prehistoric archaeology better enables archaeological information to be conveyed to the public.
|Stone age||Palaeolithic||Handmade tools and objects found in nature – cudgel, club, sharpened stone, chopper, handaxe, scraper, spear, harpoon, needle, scratch awl||Hunting and gathering||Mobile lifestyle – caves, huts, tooth or skin hovels, mostly by rivers and lakes||A band of edible-plant gatherers and hunters (25–100 people)||Evidence for belief in the afterlife first appears in the Upper Palaeolithic, marked by the appearance of burial rituals and ancestor worship. Priests and sanctuary servants appear in the prehistory.|
|Mesolithic (other name epipalaeolithic)||Handmade tools and objects found in nature – bow and arrow, fish – basket, boats||Tribes and Bands|
|Neolithic||Handmade tools and objects found in nature – chisel, hoe, plough, yoke, reaping-hook, grain pourer, barley, loom, earthenware (pottery) and weapons||Neolithic Revolution - transition to agriculture. Gathering, hunting, fishing and domestication||Farmsteads||Tribes and formation of chiefdoms in some Neolithic societies the end of the period|
|Bronze Age||Copper and bronze tools, potter's wheel||Agriculture – cattle – breeding, agriculture, craft, trade|
|Iron Age||Iron tools||Formation of cities||Formation of states*|
Diverse histories and meta-narratives.(From Genesis to Prehistory: The Archaeological Three Age System and its contested reception in Denmark, Britain, and Ireland; A World History of Nineteenth-century Archaeology: Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Past )(Book review)
Dec 01, 2008; PETER ROWLEY-CONWY. From Genesis to prehistory: the archaeological Three Age System and its contested reception in Denmark,...