Bronze Age

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Ancient History, Classical History and Mythology

The Bronze Age is a period in a civilization's development when the most advanced metalworking (at least in systematic and widespread use) consisted of techniques for smelting copper and tin from naturally occurring outcroppings of ore, and then alloying those metals in order to cast bronze. The Bronze Age is part of the three-age system for prehistoric societies. In that system, it follows the neolithic in some areas of the world. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the neolithic is directly followed by the Iron Age.


The earliest evidence of bronze metalworking dates to the mid 4th millennium BCE Maykop culture in the Caucasus. From there, the technology spread rapidly to the Near East and after some time to the Indus Valley Civilization (see Meluhha).

Near Eastern Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in the Near East is divided into three main periods (the dates are very approximate):

  • EBA - Early Bronze Age (c.3500-2000 BC)
  • MBA - Middle Bronze Age (c.2000-1600 BC)
  • LBA - Late Bronze Age (c.1600-1200 BC)

Each main period can be divided into shorter subcategories such as EB I, EB II, MB IIa etc.

Metallurgy developed first in Anatolia, modern Turkey. The mountains in the Anatolian highland possessed rich deposits of copper and tin. Copper was also mined in Cyprus, Egypt, the Negev desert, Iran and around the Persian Gulf. Copper was usually mixed with arsenic, yet the growing demand for tin resulted in the establishment of distant trade routes in and out of Anatolia. The precious copper was also imported by sea routes to the great kingdoms of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The Early Bronze Age saw the rise of urbanization into organized city states and the invention of writing (the Uruk period in the fourth millennium BC). In the Middle Bronze Age movements of people partially changed the political pattern of the Near East ( Amorites, Hittites, Hurrians, Hyksos and possibly the Israelites). The Late Bronze Age is characterized by competing powerful kingdoms and their vassal states (Ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Hittites, Mitanni). Extensive contacts were made with the Aegean civilization ( Ahhiyawa, Alashiya) in which the copper trade played an important role. This period ended in a widespread collapse which affected much of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

Iron began to be worked already in Late Bronze Age Anatolia. The transition into the Iron Age c.1200 BC was more of a political change in the Near East rather than of new developments in metalworking.

Indian Bronze Age

The Bronze Age on the Indian subcontinent began around 3300 BC with the beginning of the Indus Valley civilization.

East Asian Bronze Age

Bronze artifacts were exhumed in historic site of Majiayao culture (3100 BC to 2700 BC) of China. However, it is commonly accepted that China's bronze age began from around 2100 BC during the Xia dynasty.

In Ban Chiang, Thailand, ( Southeast Asia) bronze artifacts have been discovered dating to 2100 BC .

The Erlitou culture, Shang Dynasty and Sanxingdui culture of early China used bronze vessels for rituals as well as farming implements and weapons .

The Middle Mumun pottery period culture of the southern Korean Peninsula gradually adopted bronze production circa [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 (circa 900-700 B.C.). 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 AD 100.

Aegean Bronze Age

Bronze Age copper ingot found in Crete.
Bronze Age copper ingot found in Crete.

The Aegean bronze age civilizations 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 1750 AD, with the notable exception of the Polynesian sailors.

The Minoan civilization based from Knossos appears to have coordinated and defended its bronze-age trade.

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 favour 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, 40 miles 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 harbour, 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 which 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 archeological 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 centre 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.

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.

Central European Bronze Age

Bronze age weaponry
Bronze age weaponry

In Central Europe, the early Bronze Age Unetice culture ( 1800- 1600 BC) includes numerous smaller groups like the Straubingen, 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 BC- 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:

  • Biskupin (Poland)
  • Nebra (Germany)
  • Zug-Sumpf, Zug, Switzerland

Nordic Bronze Age (1500-500 BC)

In northern Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, Bronze Age inhabitants manufactured many distinctive and beautiful artifacts, such as the pairs of lurer horns discovered in Denmark. Some linguists believe that a proto-Indo-European language was probably introduced to the area around 2000 BC, which eventually became the ancestor of the Germanic languages. This would fit with the evolution of the Nordic bronze age into the most probably Germanic pre-Roman iron age.

The age is divided into the periods I-VI according to Oscar Montelius. Period Montelius V already belongs to the Iron Age in other regions.

British Bronze Age

In Great Britain, the Bronze Age is considered to have been the period from around 2100 to 700 BC. Immigration brought new people to the islands from the continent. Recent tooth enamel isotope research on bodies found in early Bronze Age graves around Stonehenge indicate that at least some of the immigrants came from the area of modern Switzerland. The Beaker people displayed different behaviours from the earlier Neolithic people and cultural change was significant. Integration is thought to have been peaceful as many of the early henge sites were seemingly adopted by the newcomers. The rich Wessex culture developed in southern Britain at this time. Additionally, the climate was deteriorating, where once the weather was warm and dry it became much wetter as the bronze age continued, forcing the population away from easily-defended sites in the hills and into the fertile valleys. Large livestock ranches developed in the lowlands which appear to have contributed to economic growth and inspired increasing forest clearances. The Deverel-Rimbury culture began to emerge in the second half of the 'Middle Bronze Age' (c. 1400- 1100 BC) to exploit these conditions. Cornwall was a major source of tin for much of western Europe and copper was extracted from sites such as the Great Orme mine in northern Wales. Social groups appear to have been tribal but with growing complexity and hierarchies becoming apparent.

Also, the burial of dead (which until this period had usually been communal) became more individual. For example, whereas in the Neolithic a large chambered cairn or long barrow was used to house the dead, the 'Early Bronze Age' saw people buried in individual barrows (also commonly known and marked on modern British Ordnance Survey maps as Tumuli), or sometimes in cists covered with cairns.

Bronze Age boats

  • North Ferriby
  • Dover - see also Dover Museum
  • Langdon Bay hoard - see also Dover Museum

Irish Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in Ireland commenced in the centuries around 2000 B.C. when copper was alloyed with tin and used to manufacture Ballybeg type flat axes and associated metalwork. The preceding period is known as the Copper Age and is charcaterised by the production of flat axes, daggers, halberds and awls in copper. The period is divided into three phases Early Bronze Age 2000-1500 B.C.; Middle Bronze Age 1500-1200 B.C. and Late Bronze Age 1200-c.500 B.C. Ireland, is also known for a relatively large number of Early Bronze Age Burials.

Waddell, J. 1998. The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland. Galway.

Eogan, G. 1983. The Hoards of the Irish Later Bronze Age. Dublin

Andean Bronze Age

An Andean bronze bottle made by Chimú artisans from circa 1300 A.D.
An Andean bronze bottle made by Chimú artisans from circa 1300 A.D.

The bronze age in the Andes region of South America is thought to have begun at about 900 B.C. when Chavin artisans discovered how to alloy copper with tin. The first objects produced were mostly utilitarian in nature, such as axes, knives, and agricultural implements. Later on, However, as the Chavin became more experienced in bronze-working technology they produced many ornate and highly decorative objects for administrative, religious, and other ceremonial purposes, as well as household use, as decorative work in gold, silver and copper was a highly developed tradition that had already long been known to the Chavin.

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