The European Bronze Age

We’ve just put up an article about Europe 1500 BC – which covers the period 2500 to 1500 BC.

I find this a fascinating period in European prehistory. It’s basically the “European Bronze Age”.

I can remember being taught about the “Stone Age”, then the “Bronze Age”, and finally the “Iron Age”, when quite young at school. For a long time, later in school, and at university and after, I didn’t revisit prehistory; I was too busy studying Classical civilization and after. But then, about ten years ago, when I was first envisaging this project, I started extensive reading about the period – and I was staggered to find these terms still being used. I thought they would have been ditched long ago as being a completely artificial and irrelevant periodizations of history.

But actually, treated right, they’re not too far off the mark. There really was a difference between the Old Stone Age, when humans were essentially hunter-gatherers, and the New Stone Age, or Neolithic, when they became farmers. (For years it puzzled me why the early farming period was labelled “New Stone Age”, until I learned that, as part of their new farming techniques, people developed new stone tools which were polished rather than chipped – so they could make sickles, scythes, mortals and pestles and so on.)

The Bronze Age is particularly interesting. On the face of it, the advent of bronze had very little effect, certainly on the lives of ordinary farmers (i.e. the vast majority of people). Bronze was far too expensive a metal to be used for anything other than ornaments, ceremonial vessels, armour and weapons. The mass of the population continued living a Stone Age existence, with farming and other everyday implements made of stone, wood, bone and antler. And the first civilizations, in Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, arose in an essentially Stone Age environment – the first cities and writing both pre-dated the Bronze Age.

But actually, the development of bronze work really did have a profound impact on society. Because it’s made up of other metals (tin and copper, or, earlier on, tine and arsenic) which are fairly thinly scattered around the place, bronze stimulated the development of long-distance trade. Archaeologists have noted the similarity of decorative styles across hundreds of miles, and these trade links radiated right across western Asia and Europe.

It makes me wonder who conducted the trade. My bet is that, in Europe at any rate, it was in the hands of hereditary clans, who were probably related to the actual bronze workers. Blood relationship would have created the trust for buying and selling over long-distances and oiled the wheels of trade dealings.

Also, the fact that making bronze objects was an expensive process meant that it was concentrated in a comparatively few centres, perhaps just a few hundred scattered over Europe. These centres would have given the groups who controlled them great advantages viz their neighbours – wealth from the trade and military superiority through metal armour and weapons. Hence the Bronze Age was the period which saw the rise of powerful chiefs and warlike aristocracies in Europe. Archaeologists always rub their hands with glee when they see evidence of elite status in society, because they know that civilization’s on its way (even though it may be a few thousand years off).

So, Bronze Age Europe saw the rise of much more complex societies – full-time professional craftsmen, powerful rulers, military aristocracies, the first chiefdoms which covered a sizeable territory (proto-states, in fact). All these are tokens of a changing world.

Just one more thing (and I must be quick – I’ve been told that blog entries must be brief!) – did the rise of elites mean more poverty for the ordinary guy? I suspect not. The new chiefly centres would also have been centres of local exchange – i.e. market places. This would have stimulated farmers to use their land more productively and in a more sophisticated manner (by concentrating more on those crops that could be exchanged for other foods and goods). Also, the extension of chiefly authority over a wide area would have brought the ordinary villagers more peace with neighbouring villages – so that they would have been more able to exploit the land further way from the defended village site.

Enough! If you’ve got any insight on any of the above, please share them with me!


By Peter Britton