Labels in world history

I have received quite a few comments over the years from folk who feel that organising history – especially world history – in terms of such labels as “Iron Age”, “Industrial Revolution” and so on, is misleading. They feel that they are all rough approximations of reality, and therefore can give an impression of simplicity which bears little relationship to reality.

Hunter-gatherers and farmers: separate groups?

Applying labels can create the impression that there are stark boundaries between, for example, certain kinds of society (hunter-gatherers and farmers, for example) or periods (the Bronze Age and Iron Age, say).

In fact, of course, things are never quite so simple. Even until quite recently many farming societies gained a considerable amount of their nutrition from hunting animals, foraging for nuts and berries, and fishing. The Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age at different points of time in different places, and even within communities features of the Bronze Age must have continued well into the Iron Age. Sudden step-changes seldom take place in the way labels suggest.

History a process of continuous change and continuity

It is more realistic to see human history as a continuous process of development, which involves an ever-shifting balance of change and continuity.

In my view, however, labels are simply unavoidable.

We need them to help us understand the past, to impose sense and structure on what would otherwise be a vast amorphous mass of information. If we bear in mind that there is indeed a degree of artificiality in applying labels, then they become a necessary and powerful aid to comprehension.

Use labels, but critically

They allow us to picture the past, to group various characteristics together and apply them to certain times and places. For example, I believe that the term “Iron Age” is in fact an under-see label. The advent and spread of iron-using technology was a revolution in human history. More than the Bronze Age, it decisively moved humanity away from the Stone Age.

In fact, the very process of applying labels forces historians to think through exactly how they apply to different times and places, and so help towards a deeper understanding of the past.

By Peter Britton