The Iron Age began around 1,500 B.C. It followed the Stone Age, Copper Age and Bronze Age. North of Alps it was from 800 to 50 B.C. Iron was used in 2000 B.C. It may have come meteorites. Iron was made around 1500 B.C. Iron smelting was first developed by the Hittites and, possibly Africans in Termit, Niger, around 1500 B.C. Improved iron working from the Hittites became wide spread by 1200 B.C.
Iron — a metal a that is harder, stronger and keeps an edge better than bronze — proved to be an ideal material for improving weapons and armor as well as plows (land with soil previously to hard to cultivate was able to be farmed for the first time). Although it is found all over the world, iron was developed after bronze because virtually the only source of pure iron is meteorites and iron ore is much more difficult to smelt (extract the metal from rock) than copper or tin. Some scholars speculate the first iron smelts were built on hills where funnels were used to trap and intensify wind, blowing the fire so it was hot enough to melt the iron. Later bellows were introduced and modern iron making was made possible when the Chinese and later Europeans discovered how to make hotter-burning coke from coal. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]
Metal making secrets were carefully guarded by the Hittites and the civilizations in Turkey, Iran and Mesopotamia. Iron could not be shaped by cold hammering (like bronze), it had to be constantly reheated and hammered. The best iron has traces of nickel mixed in with it.
About 1200 BC, scholars suggest, cultures other than the Hittites began to possess iron. The Assyrians began using iron weapons and armor in Mesopotamia around that time with deadly results, but the Egyptians did not utilize the metal until the later pharaohs. Lethal Celtic swords dating back to 950 BC have been found in Austria and its is believed the Greeks learned to make iron weapons from them.
The technology of iron is believed to have made its way to China via Scythian nomads in Central Asia around 8th century B.C. In May 2003, archeologists announced they found remains of an iron casting workshop along the Yangtze River, dating back to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 - 256 B.C.) and the Qin Dynasty (221 -207 B.C.).
Websites and Resources on Prehistory: Wikipedia article on Prehistory Wikipedia ; Early Humans elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; Prehistoric Art witcombe.sbc.edu/ARTHprehistoric ; Evolution of Modern Humans anthro.palomar.edu ; Iceman Photscan iceman.eurac.edu/ ; Otzi Official Site iceman.it Websites and Resources of Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals: Britannica britannica.com/; Wikipedia article History of Agriculture Wikipedia ; History of Food and Agriculture museum.agropolis; Wikipedia article Animal Domestication Wikipedia ; Cattle Domestication geochembio.com; Food Timeline, History of Food foodtimeline.org ; Food and History teacheroz.com/food ;
Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons: online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory
Copper Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age
Archaeologists usually shy away from assigning fixed dates to the Neolithic, Copper, Bronze and Iron Ages because these ages are based on stages of developments in regard to stone, copper, bronze and iron tools and the technology used to make and the development of these tools and technologies developed at different times in different places. The terms the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age were coined by the Danish historian Christian Jurgen Thomsen in his Guide to Scandinavian Antiquities (1836) as a way of categorizing prehistoric objects. The Copper Age was added latter. In case you forgot, the Stone Age and Copper Age preceded the Bronze Age and the Iron Age came after it. Gold was first fashioned into ornaments about the same time bronze was.
David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “It is important to understand that terms such as Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age translate into hard dates only with reference to a particular region or peoples. In other words, it makes sense to say that the Greek Bronze Age begins before the Italian Bronze Age. Classifying people according to the stage which they have reached in working with and making tools from hard substances such as stone or metal turns out to be a convenient rubric for antiquity. Of course it is not always the case that every Iron Age people is more than advanced in respects other than metalworking (such as letters or governmental structures) than the Bronze Age folk who preceded them. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]
“If you read in the literature on Italian prehistory, you find that there is a profusion of terms to designate chronological phases: Middle Bronze Age, Late Bronze Age, Middle Bronze Age I, Middle Bronze Age II, and so forth. It can be bewildering, and it is damnably difficult to pin these phases to absolute dates. The reason is not hard to discover: when you are dealing with prehistory, all dates are relative rather than absolute. Pottery does not come out of the ground stamped 1400 B.C. The chart on the screen, synthesized from various sources, represents a consensus of sorts and can serve us as a working model.
Iron and the Hitittes
About 1400 B.C., the Chalbyes, a subject tribe of the Hitittes invented the cementation process to make iron stronger. The iron was hammered and heated in contact with charcoal. The carbon absorbed from the charcoal made the iron harder and stronger. The smelting temperature was increased by using more sophisticated bellows. About 1200 BC, scholars suggest, cultures other than the Hittites began to possess iron. The Assyrians began using iron weapons and armor in Mesopotamia around that time with deadly results, but the Egyptians did not utilize the metal until the later pharaohs.
According to People World: “In its simple form iron is less hard than bronze, and therefore of less use as a weapon, but it seems to have had an immediate appeal - perhaps as the latest achievement of technology (with the mysterious quality of being changeable, through heating and hammering), or from a certain intrinsic magic (it is the metal in meteorites, which fall from the sky). Quite how much value is attached to iron can be judged from a famous letter of about 1250 BC, written by a Hittite king to accompany an iron dagger-blade which he is sending to a fellow monarch. [Source: historyworld.net]
The letter from the Hittite king to a valued customer, probably the king of Assyria, about his order for iron, reads: 'In the matter of the good iron about which you wrote, good iron is not at present available in my storehouse in Kizzuwatna. I have already told you that this is a bad time for producing iron. They will be producing good iron, but they won't have finished yet. I shall send it to you when they have finished. At present I am sending you an iron dagger-blade.' [Source: H.W.F. Saggs Civilization before Greece and Rome, Batsford 1989, page 205]
Iron-Making First Achieved in Africa?
The generally accepted view is that Iron smelting was first developed by the Hittites, an ancient people that lived in what is now Turkey, around 1500 B.C.. Some scholars argue that iron-making was developed around the same time by Africans in Termit, Niger around 1500 B.C. and perhaps even earlier at other places in Africa, notably Central African Republic.
Heather Pringle wrote in a 2009 article in Science: “Controversial findings from a French team working at the site of boui in the Central African Republic challenge the diffusion model. Artifacts there suggest that sub-Saharan Africans were making iron by at least 2000 B.C.E. and possibly much earlier — well before Middle Easterners, says team member Philippe Fluzin, an archaeometallurgist at the University of Technology of Belfort-Montbliard in Belfort, France. The team unearthed a blacksmith's forge and copious iron artifacts, including pieces of iron bloom and two needles, as they describe in a recent monograph, Les Ateliers d'boui, published in Paris. "Effectively, the oldest known sites for iron metallurgy are in Africa," Fluzin says. Some researchers are impressed, particularly by a cluster of consistent radiocarbon dates. Others, however, raise serious questions about the new claims. [Source: Heather Pringle, Science, January 9, 2009]
According to a 2002 UNESCO report: “Africa developed its own iron industry some 5,000 years ago, according to a formidable new scientific work from UNESCO Publishing that challenges a lot of conventional thinking on the subject.iron_roads_lg.jpg Iron technology did not come to Africa from western Asia via Carthage or Merowe as was long thought, concludes "Aux origines de la métallurgie du fer en Afrique, Une ancienneté méconnue: Afrique de l'Ouest et Afrique centrale". The theory that it was imported from somewhere else, which - the book points out - nicely fitted colonial prejudices, does not stand up in the face of new scientific discoveries, including the probable existence of one or more centres of iron-working in west and central Africa andthe Great Lakes area. [Source: Jasmina Sopova, Bureau of Public Information, The Iron Roads Project. Launched by UNESCO in 1991 as part of the World Decade for Cultural Development (1988-97)]
Hittite bas relief
“The authors of this joint work, which is part of the "Iron Roads in Africa" project, are distinguished archaeologists, engineers, historians, anthropologists and sociologists. As they trace the history of iron in Africa, including many technical details and discussion of the social, economic and cultural effects of the industry, they restore to the continent "this important yardstick of civilisation that it has been denied up to now," writes Doudou Diène, former head of UNESCO's Division of Intercultural Dialogue, who wrote the book's preface.
“But the facts speak for themselves. Tests on material excavated since the 1980s show that iron was worked at least as long ago as 1500 BC at Termit, in eastern Niger, while iron did not appear in Tunisia or Nubia before the 6th century BC. At Egaro, west of Termit, material has been dated earlier than 2500 BC, which makes African metalworking contemporary with that of the Middle East.
“The roots of metallurgy in Africa go very deep. However, French archaeologist Gérard Quéchon cautions that "having roots does not mean they are deeper than those of others," that "it is not important whether African metallurgy is the newest or the oldest" and that if new discoveries "show iron came from somewhere else, this would not make Africa less or more virtuous." "In fact, only in Africa do you find such a range of practices in the process of direct reduction [a method in which metal is obtained in a single operation without smelting],and metal workers who were so inventive that they could extract iron in furnaces made out of the trunks of banana trees," says Hamady Bocoum, one of the authors.
Iron Age Palestine (1200 - 550 B.C.)
Abercrombie wrote: “The Iron Age is divided into two subsections, the early Iron Age and The Late Iron Age. the early Iron Age (1200-1000) illustrates both continuity and discontinuity with the previous Late Bronze Age. There is no definitive cultural break between the thirteenth and twelfth century throughout the entire region, although certain new features in the hill country, Transjordan and coastal region may suggest the appearance of the Aramaean and Sea People groups. There is evidence, however, that shows strong continuity with Bronze Age culture, although as one moves later into the early Iron Age the culture begins to diverge more significantly from that of the late second millennium. [Sources: John R. Abercrombie, University of Pennsylvania, James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET), Princeton, Boston University, bu.edu/anep/MB.html |*|]
“The Late Iron Age (1000-550) witnessed the rise of the states of Judah and Israel in the tenth-ninth century. These small principalities exercise considerable control over their particular regions due in part to the decline of the great powers, Assyria and Egypt, from about 1200 to 900. Beginning in the eighth century and certainly in the seventh century, Assyria reestablishes its authority over the eastern Mediterranean area and exercises almost complete control. The northern state of Israel is obliterated in 722/721 by King Sargon and its inhabitants taken into exile. Judah, left alone, gradually accommodates to Assyrian control, but towards the end of the seventh century it does revolt as the Assyrian empire disintegrated. Judah's freedom was short-lived, however, and eventually snuffed out by the Chaldean kings who conquered Jerusalem and took some of the ruling class into exile to Babylon. During the period of exile in Babylon, the area, particularly from Jerusalem south, shows a mark decline. Other areas just north of Jerusalem are almost unaffected by the catastrophe that befell Judah. |*|
“The University of Pennsylvania Museum possesses a rich collection in Iron Age material from almost all its excavated sites. The Beth Shan strata are particularly helpful in illustrating the continuity with the Bronze Age in Iron I. The same probably can be said for the Sa'idiyeh cemetery. Beth Shemesh, however, shows the discontinuity with the Late Bronze Age given its somewhat intrusive Aegean evidence usually associated with the Philistines. In The Late Iron Age, the following sites adequately cover the culture: Gibeon, Beth Shemesh, Tell es-Sa'idiyeh, Sarepta and to a lesser extent Beth Shan. Many of the small finds photographed below come from Gibeon, Sa'idiyeh and Beth Shemesh. Models and simulations are taken from publications of Sa'idiyeh and Sarepta. |*|
Iron Tools in Ancient Egypt
Iron was made around 1500 B.C. by the Hitittes. About 1400 B.C., the Chalbyes, a subject tribe of the Hitittes invented the cementation process to make iron stronger. The iron was hammered and heated in contact with charcoal. The carbon absorbed from the charcoal made the iron harder and stronger. The smelting temperature was increased by using more sophisticated bellows. About 1200 B.C., scholars suggest, cultures other than the Hittites began to possess iron. The Assyrians began using iron weapons and armor in Mesopotamia around that time with deadly results, but the Egyptians did not utilize the metal until the later pharaohs.
André Dollinger wrote in his Pharaonic Egypt site: “Rare meteoritic iron has been found in tombs since the Old Kingdom, but Egypt was late to accept iron on a large scale. It did not exploit any ores of its own and the metal was imported, in which activity the Greeks were heavily involved. Naukratis, an Ionian town in the Delta, became a centre of iron working in the 7th century B.C., as did Dennefeh. [Source: André Dollinger, Pharaonic Egypt site, reshafim.org.]
“Iron could not be completely melted in antiquity, as the necessary temperature of more than 1500°C could not be achieved. The porous mass of brittle iron, which was the result of the smelting in the charcoal furnaces, had to be worked by hammering in order to remove the impurities. Carburizing and quenching turned the soft wrought iron into steel.
“Iron implements are generally less well preserved than those made of copper or bronze. But the range of preserved iron tools covers most human activities. The metal parts of the tools were fastened to wooden handles either by fitting them with a tang or a hollow socket. While iron replaced bronze tools completely, bronze continued to be used for statues, cases, boxes, vases and other vessels.”
Iron Working in Ancient Egypt Developed from Meteorites
It appears that iron working in ancient Egypt developed from meteorites. The Guardian reported: “Although people have worked with copper, bronze and gold since 4,000 B.C., ironwork came much later, and was rare in ancient Egypt. In 2013, nine blackened iron beads, excavated from a cemetery near the Nile in northern Egypt, were found to have been beaten out of meteorite fragments, and also a nickel-iron alloy. The beads are far older than the young pharaoh, dating to 3,200 B.C. “As the only two valuable iron artifacts from ancient Egypt so far accurately analysed are of meteoritic origin,” Italian and Egyptian researchers wrote in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science, “we suggest that ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of fine ornamental or ceremonial objects”. [Source: The Guardian, June 2, 2016]
“The researchers also stood with a hypothesis that ancient Egyptians placed great importance on rocks falling from the sky. They suggested that the finding of a meteorite-made dagger adds meaning to the use of the term “iron” in ancient texts, and noted around the 13th century B.C., a term “literally translated as ‘iron of the sky’ came into use … to describe all types of iron”. “Finally, somebody has managed to confirm what we always reasonably assumed,”Rehren, an archaeologist with University College London, told the Guardian. “Yes, the Egyptians referred to this stuff as metal from the heaven, which is purely descriptive,” he said. “What I find impressive is that they were capable of creating such delicate and well manufactured objects in a metal of which they didn’t have much experience.”
The researchers wrote in the new study: “The introduction of the new composite term suggests that the ancient Egyptians were aware that these rare chunks of iron fell from the sky already in the 13th [century] B.C., anticipating Western culture by more than two millennia.” Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, of the University of Manchester, has similarly argued that ancient Egyptians would have revered celestial objects that had plunged to earth. “The sky was very important to the ancient Egyptians,” she told Nature, apropos of her work on the meteoritic beads. “Something that falls from the sky is going to be considered as a gift from the gods.”
“It would be very interesting to analyse more pre-Iron Age artifacts, such as other iron objects found in King Tut’s tomb,” Daniela Comelli, of the physics department at Milan Polytechnic, told Discovery News. “We could gain precious insights into metal working technologies in ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean.”
Africans Invent Steel 1,900 Years before Europeans
The Haya people on the western shore of Lake Victoria in Tanzania made medium-carbon steel in preheated, forced-draft furnaces between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago. The person usually given credit with inventing steel is German-born metallurgist Karl Wilhelm who used an open hearth furnace in the 19th century to make high grade steel. The Haya made their own steel until the middle of the middle 20th century when they found it was easier to make money from raising cash crops like coffee and buy steel tools from the Europeans than it was to make their own. [Source: Time magazine, September 25, 1978]
The discovery was made by anthropologist Peter Schmidt and metallurgy professor Donald Avery, both of Brown University. Very few of the Haya remember how to make steel but the two scholars were able to locate one man who made a traditional ten-foot-high cone shaped furnace from slag and mud. It was built over a pit with partially burned wood that supplied the carbon which was mixed with molten iron to produce steel. Goat skin bellows attached to eight ceramic tubs that entered the base of the charcoal-fueled furnace pumped in enough oxygen to achieve temperatures high enough to make carbon steel (3275 degrees F). [Ibid]
While doing excavations on the western shore of Lake Victoria Avery found 13 furnace nearly identical to the one described above. Using radio carbon dating he was astonished to find that the charcoal in the furnaces was between 1,550 and 2,000 years old. [Ibid]
John H. Lienhard at the University of Houston wrote: “The Hayas made their steel in a kiln shaped like a truncated upside-down cone about five feet high. They made both the cone and the bed below it from the clay of termite mounds. Termite clay makes a fine refractory material. The Hayas filled the bed of the kiln with charred swamp reeds. They packed a mixture of charcoal and iron ore above the charred reeds. Before they loaded iron ore into the kiln, they roasted it to raise its carbon content. The key to the Haya iron process was a high operating temperature. Eight men, seated around the base of the kiln, pumped air in with hand bellows. The air flowed through the fire in clay conduits. Then the heated air blasted into the charcoal fire itself. The result was a far hotter process than anything known in Europe before modern times.
“Schmidt wanted to see a working kiln, but he had a problem. Cheap European steel products reached Africa early in this century and put the Hayas out of business. When they could no longer compete, they'd quit making steel. Schmidt asked the old men of the tribe to recreate the high tech of their childhood. They agreed, but it took five tries to put all the details of the complex old process back together. What came out of the fifth try was a fine, tough steel. It was the same steel that'd served the subsaharan peoples for two millinea before it was almost forgotten.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ancientfoods.wordpress.com ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018