A brief history of the iron age

Mankind's early history has been defined in terms of materials classes, namely, the stone age, the bronze age, and the iron age.

Although history books are not written by materials scientists this terminology reveals the huge relevance that materials had and have in mankind's history.

The Iron Age is the prehistoric period in any region during which tools and weapons were mainly made of iron or steel. The adoption of this material typically coincided with other changes in manufacturing, society, including differing agricultural practices, religious beliefs and art.

The Iron Age is the last principal period in the three age system for classifying prehistoric societies, preceded by the Bronze Age. Its dates and context vary depending on the geographical region. The Iron Age in each area ends with the beginning of the historical period, i.e. the production of written sources that document history. For instance, the British Iron Age ended with the Roman Conquest.

The term "Iron Age" was originally derived from the "Ages of Man" (see e.g. Ovid), i.e. the ages of human existence on the Earth according to Classical mythology. While modern historians assume earlier ages in this scheme to be completely mythical ("The Golden Age" and the "Silver Age"), the later Bronze Age and Iron Age of classical mythology are assumed to have preserved the memory of actual periods when the metals mentioned dominated human life.

Classically, the Iron Age is taken to begin in the 12th century BCE in the ancient Near East, ancient Iran, India and Greece. In other regions of Europe, it started in part considerably later. The Iron Age began in the 8th century BC in Central Europe and the 6th century BC in Northern Europe. Iron use, in smelting and forging for tools, appears in West Africa by 1200 BCE, making it one of the first places for the birth of the Iron Age. It is believed that meteoric iron, or iron-nickel alloy, was used by various ancient peoples thousands of years before the Iron Age. This type of iron, being in its native metallic state, required no smelting of ores but instead pieces of the iron-nickel alloy that is typical of metallic meteorite finds were cut and cold worked to serve as products.

The Iron Age is divided into two subsections, Iron I and Iron II.

Iron I (1200-1000 BCE) 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. There is evidence, however, that shows strong continuity with Bronze Age culture, although as one moves later into Iron I the culture begins to diverge more significantly from that of the late second millennium.

The Iron Age is usually said to end in the Mediterranean with the onset of historical tradition during Hellenism and the Roman Empire, in India with the onset of Buddhism and Jainism, in China with the onset of Confucianism, and in Northern Europe with the early Middle Ages.

The arrival of iron use in various areas is discussed in more detail below, broadly in chronological order.

By the Middle Bronze Age, increasing numbers of smelted iron objects (distinguishable from meteoric iron by the lack of nickel in the product) appeared throughout Anatolia, Mesopotamia, the Indian subcontinent, the Levant, the Mediterranean, and Egypt. Some sources suggest that iron was being created in some places then as a byproduct of copper refining, as sponge iron, and was not reproducible by the metallurgy of the time.

The earliest systematic production and use of iron implements originates in Anatolia. African production of iron has been suggested to have begun at around the same time, and possibly even before Anatolia, but recent discoveries suggest that iron working appeared in Anatolia since 2000 BCE. Recent archaeological research at Ganges Valley, India showed early iron working by 1800 BCE. By 1200 BCE, iron was widely used in the Middle East but did not supplant the dominant use of bronze for some time.

Bronze was previously used to make tools because its melting point is lower than that of iron. The Iron Age began with the development of higher temperature smelting techniques. During the Iron Age, the best tools and weapons were made from steel, an alloy consisting of iron with a carbon content between 0.02% and 1.7% by weight. Steel weapons and tools were nearly the same weight as those of bronze, but stronger. However, steel was difficult to produce with the methods available. Therefore, many Iron Age tools were fashioned of wrought iron. Wrought iron is weaker than bronze, but because it was less expensive, and more easily sharpened, people used it anyway. Iron is by itself an adequately strong metal without additional alloys (although it could be further strengthened by case-hardening or forge welding small amounts of steel to areas subject to wear such as edges). Bronze, on the other hand, requires copper and tin, which are less common than iron. Additionally, iron can be sharpened by grinding whereas bronze must be re forged.

Around 1800 BCE, for reasons yet unknown to archaeologists, tin became scarce in the Levant, causing a decline in bronze production. Copper, also, came to be in short supply. As a result, pirate groups around the Mediterranean, from around 1800-1700 BCE onward, began to attack fortified cities in search of bronze, to remelt into weaponry.

Bronze was much more abundant in the period before the 12th to 10th century, and Snodgrass suggests that a shortage of tin, as a result of the trade disruptions in the Mediterranean at this time, forced peoples to seek an alternative to bronze. That many bronze items were recycled and made from implements into weapons during this time, is evidence of this.

The Iron Age in the Ancient Near East is believed to have begun with the discovery of iron smelting and smithing techniques in Anatolia or the Caucasus in the late 2nd millennium BCE (circa 1300 BCE).

The use of iron weapons instead of bronze weapons spread rapidly throughout the Near East or the southwest Asia by the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE. Anatolians had begun forging weapons out of iron, which was a superior metal to bronze, by 1500 BCE at the latest.

The use of iron weapons by the Hittites was believed to have been a major factor in the rapid rise of the Hittite Empire.[citation needed] Because the area in which iron technology first developed was near the Aegean, the technology expanded into both Asia and Europe simultaneously, aided by Hittite expansion. The Sea Peoples and the related Philistines are often associated with the introduction of iron technology into Asia, as are the Dorians with respect to Greece.

 Early examples and distribution of non precious metal finds.

Inhabitants at Termit, in eastern Niger became the first iron smelting people in West Africa and among the first in the world around 1500 BCE. Iron and copper working then continued to spread southward through the continent, reaching the Cape around CE 200. The widespread use of iron revolutionized the Bantu-speaking farming communities who adopted it, driving out and absorbing the rock tool using hunter-gatherer societies they encountered as they expanded to farm wider areas of savannah. The technologically superior Bantu-speakers spread across southern Africa and became wealthy and powerful, producing iron for tools and weapons in large, industrial quantities. In addition to wrought iron, very early instances of carbon steel were found to be in production around 2000 years before present in northwest Tanzania, based on complex preheating principles. These discoveries, according to Schmidt and Avery (archaeologists credited with the discovery) are significant for the history of metallurgy.
 Archaeological sites in India, such as Malhar, Dadupur, Raja Nala Ka Tila and Lahuradewa in present day Uttar Pradesh show iron implements in the period 1800 BCE - 1200 BCE. Some scholars believe that by the early 13th century BCE, iron smelting was practiced on a bigger scale in India, suggesting that the date the technology's inception may be earlier.

The beginning of the 1st millennium BCE saw extensive developments in iron metallurgy in India. Technological advancement and mastery of iron metallurgy was achieved during this period of peaceful settlements. An iron working centre in east India is dated to the first millennium BCE.

In Southern India (present day Mysore) iron appeared as early as 11th to 12th centuries BCE; these developments were too early for any significant close contact with the northwest of the country. The Indian Upanishads mention weaving, pottery, and metallurgy.

The Indian Mauryan period saw advances in metallurgy. As early as 300 BCE, certainly by CE 200, high quality steel was produced in southern India, by what would later be called the crucible technique. In this system, high-purity wrought iron, charcoal, and glass were mixed in crucible and heated until the iron melted and absorbed the carbon.

In 1972, near the city of Gaocheng) in Shijiazhuang (now Hebei province), an iron-bladed bronze tomahawk  dating back to the 14th century BCE was excavated. After a scientific examination, the iron was shown to be made from meteoric siderite. The Iron Age in East Asia began, however, when iron objects began to appear in present-day Xinjiang between the 10th century BCE and the 7th century BCE, such as those found at the cemetery site of Chawuhukou. This was soon followed by the development of iron metallurgy on the Manchurian plain by the 9th century BC. Iron metallurgy reached the Yangzi Valley toward the end of the 6th century BCE. The few objects were found at Changsha and Nanjing. According to the mortuary evidence suggests that the initial use of iron in Lingnan belongs to the mid to late Warring States period (from about 350 BCE).

The techniques used in Lingnan is a combination of bivalve moulds of distinct southern tradition and the incorporation of piece mould technology from the Zhongyuan The products of the combination of these two periods are bells, vessels, weapons and ornaments and the sophisticated cast.

An Iron Age culture of the Tibetan Plateau has tentatively been associated with the Zhang Zhung culture described in early Tibetan writings.

The Yayoi period  is an era in the history of Japan from about 500 BCE to 300 CE. Distinguishing characteristics of the Yayoi period include the appearance of new pottery styles and the start of an intensive rice agriculture in paddy fields. The Yayoi followed the Jōmon period (14,000 BCE to 500 BCE) and Yayoi culture flourished in a geographic area from southern KyÅ«shÅ« to northern HonshÅ«.

The succeeding Kofun period  lasts from around 250 to 538. The word kofun is Japanese for the type of burial mounds dating from this era. The Kofun and the subsequent Asuka periods are sometimes referred to collectively as the Yamato period.

Iron objects were introduced to the Korean peninsula through trade with chiefdoms and state-level societies in the Yellow Sea area in the fourth century BCE, just at the end of the Warring States Period but before the Western Han Dynasty began. Yoon proposes that iron was first introduced to chiefdoms located along North Korean river valleys that flow into the Yellow Sea such as the Cheongcheon and Taedong Rivers. Iron production quickly followed in the 2nd century BCE, and iron implements came to be used by farmers by the 1st century CE in southern Korea. The earliest known cast-iron axes in southern Korea are found in the Geum River basin. The time that iron production begins is the same time that complex chiefdoms of Proto-historic Korea emerged. The complex chiefdoms were the precursors of early states such as Silla, Baekje, Goguryeo, and Gaya Iron ingots were an important mortuary item and indicated the wealth or prestige of the deceased in this period.

Iron working was introduced to Europe around 1000 BCE, probably from Asia Minor and slowly spread northwards and westwards over the succeeding 500 years.

The early 1st millennium BCE marks the Iron Age in Eastern Europe. In the Pontic steppe and the Caucasus region, the Iron Age begins with the Koban and the Chernogorovka and Novocherkassk cultures from ca. 900 BCE. By 800 BCE, it was spreading to Hallstatt C via the alleged "Thraco-Cimmerian" migrations.

Along with Chernogorovka and Novocherkassk cultures, on the territory of ancient Russia and Ukraine the Iron Age is to a significant extent associated with Scythians, who developed iron culture since the 7th century BCE. The majority of remains of their iron producing and blacksmith's industries from 5th to 3rd century BCE was found near Nikopol in Kamenskoe Gorodishche, which is believed to be the specialized metallurgic region of the ancient Scythia.

From the Hallstatt culture, the Iron Age spreads west with the Celtic expansion from the 6th century BCE. In Poland, the Iron Age reaches the late Lusatian culture in about the 6th century, followed in some areas by the Pomeranian culture.

The ethnic ascriptions of many Iron Age cultures has been bitterly contested, as the roots of Germanic, Baltic and Slavic peoples were sought in this area.

In Central Europe, the Iron Age is generally divided in the early Iron Age Hallstatt culture (HaC and D, 800-450) and the late Iron Age La Tène culture (beginning in 450 BCE). The Iron Age ends with the Roman Conquest.

In Italy, the Iron Age was probably introduced by the Villanovan culture but this culture is otherwise considered a Bronze Age culture, while the following Etruscan civilization is regarded as part of Iron Age proper. The Etruscan Iron Age was then ended with the rise and conquest of the Roman Republic, which conquered the last Etruscan city of Velzna in 265 BCE.

In the British Isles, the Iron Age lasted from about 800 BCE[33] until the Roman conquest and until the 5th century CE in non-Romanised parts. Structures dating from this time are often impressive, for example the brochs and duns of northern Scotland and the hill forts that dotted the islands.

The Iron Age is divided into the Pre-Roman Iron Age and the Roman Iron Age. This is followed by the migration period. Northern Germany and Denmark was dominated by the Jastorf culture, whereas the culture of the southern half of the Scandinavia was dominated by the very similar Gregan Iron Age.

Early Scandinavian iron production typically involved the harvesting of bog iron. Scandinavian peninsula, Finland and Estonia show sophisticated iron production very early, but further dating is currently impossible. The range varies from 3000-2000 BP. This knowledge is associated with the non-Germanic part of Scandinavia. Metalworking and Asbestos-Ceramic pottery are somewhat synonymous in Scandinavia due to the latter's capacity to resist and retain heat.

Source: Wikipedia


Acta Mat. 2011, 59, p. 364