It is conventional to divide prehistory into stone, bronze and iron ages.
In modern times, this scheme is attributed to Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (G 2072-5, 1788-1865). He recognised the pattern while classifying objects for the National Museum of Denmark.
However, the Roman poet Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, c. G 1997-8, c. 99-55 BC), in his scientific poem On the nature of things, wrote that humans first used stone for their tools, then copper and finally iron (Book 5, lines 1281-1296). Lucretius's reference to copper can be taken as shorthand for bronze (which is 90 percent copper).
Before Lucretius, the Greek poet Hesiod (c. G 1970, 750 BC) described five ages, in the following order: gold, silver, bronze, heroes, and iron. Here, the age of heroes stands out as not being named after a metal. It seems to refer to what, in modern reckoning, would be the late bronze age/early iron age, a time of warfare and social breakdown in the Greek peninsula. As for gold and silver, Lucretius also noted that people were using these metals in what for him was the copper age, but he said they preferred copper because it could be worked more easily than the two precious metals.
These three basic ages -- stone, bronze and iron -- have been further divided and refined in various ways.
The stone age, for example, is divided into the old stone age (palaeolithic) and the new stone age (neolithic), while the old stone age is itself divided into the upper, middle and lower palaeolithic (with the upper being the most recent part). Between the stone and bronze ages is recognised to be a copper age, known as the chalcolithic or eneolithic.
Terminology varies between the archaeological traditions of different regions. For example, in African archaeology, the upper/middle/lower palaeolithic tend to be called the late/middle/early stone age. Meanwhile, in Europe there is recognised a mesolithic between the palaeolithic and neolithic; although 'mesolithic' literally translates as 'middle stone age', this is not the same as the African middle stone age, which refers to the middle part of the palaeolithic. In some regions outside Europe, the equivalent of the mesolithic is called the epipalaeolithic.
The history of fully modern humans begins with the upper palaeolithic (or whichever term is preferred in other regions, e.g. late stone age in Africa).
What age are we in today?
We continue to use iron. The contents of the average cutlery drawer, for example, are generally made of iron (or more precisely steel, which is over 95 percent iron and has been the predominant form of iron since antiquity). On the other hand, we have introduced a variety of other materials to replace iron in various applications -- notably plastics, which future archaeologists will no doubt find clogging up excavations dating from our period. So this could be the plastics age. Alternatively, some suggestions pick out other features of our time, labelling this the space age or the information age.
To understand the significance of these 'ages', there are two facts we need to consider:
- The 'ages' started and ended at different times in different places. In south-west Asia (Iraq), the start of the bronze age was around G 1840 (c. 4000 BC), while in western Europe it was around G 1920 (c. 2000 BC).
- The technologies were not confined to the ages named after them, but could first appear well beforehand and continued in use long afterwards. For example, iron was already known about in the bronze age, and, during the iron age, bronze continued to be favoured for some items, such as statuary and clothes pins. Similarly, particular stone tool types (lithic modes) are known sporadically from times long before they came into widespread use, and stone tools continued to be made into the bronze age.
Taking the second point first, it is clear that the discovery of the technology did not in itself turn it into a prominent part of everyday life. Phasing out one technology and phasing in the next only occurred after a lengthy delay.
The reason for this is that the whole of society revolved around these fundamental technologies. It was not a question of putting down one type of tool and picking up another. The entire political, economic and social structure had to be rearranged.
Consider the change from stone to bronze.
- (Economic issues) Late stone age people did not generally make their own axes - they were produced by specialists and were traded, sometimes over hundreds of miles. Obviously, the end users had to provide something in return, and so particular goods would flow back towards the makers of the axes. What represented a fair and feasible exchange for a given type of axe would have become established through experience. The end-users and axe-makers did not necessarily meet face-to-face but the axes may have passed through the hands of one or more intermediate traders, who not only saved everyone a long journey but may have played a useful role in swapping the goods the end-users had to offer for other goods more desirable to the axe-makers. To shift from stone to bronze, this network had to be dismantled and a new one constructed - one that now linked the end-users with the people and places where bronze was produced. This represented a problem for the stone axe-makers and for the stone axe-traders. New traders had to set themselves up, and the types and quantities of goods to be exchanged for bronze axes had to be worked out. So this technological shift required all involved to adjust their livelihoods and make contact with different parties, while some (the stone traders) were likely to lose out as others gained.
- (Political issues) Bronze weapons were far more effective than stone weapons. So unless stone age chiefs were quick to get the new technology they were apt to find themselves being overpowered by new warlords, perhaps people they had once dominated but who by luck or judgement got bronze before they did. Not only did vagaries in the obtaining of bronze affect the balance of power, but the superior qualities of bronze allowed warlords to project their authority over much larger areas than before, though that would not be achieved without a fight.
- (Social issues) Stone tools were not just utilitarian objects. They had a place in ritual and religion. This is apparent both from the appearance in burial mounds of stone axes that were clearly ceremonial objects, too good for everyday use, and from studies of contemporary stone-using societies. The shift to bronze thus required a transformation of religious thinking or more generally of cultural ideas and practices. In his classic essay Steel Axes for Stone Age Australians, the anthropologist Lauriston Sharp described how, among Australia's Yir Yoront aborigines, only senior men knew how to make stone axes, and this allowed them to maintain their authority over women and junior men, who had to borrow an axe from a senior man whenever they needed one. However, missionary workers gave the aborigines steel axes, without preferring senior men over the others - indeed senior men avoided the missionaries and tended to lose out in the distribution of steel axes. This removed the basis of the senior men's authority and led to a breakdown in the aborigines' whole social order. Similar social transformations may have been triggered by the switch from stone to bronze.
Thanks to the above issues, there was much inertia or resistance to the historical change from stone to bronze. Not only were the adjustments going to be painful but people had little way of knowing whether it would be worthwhile in the long run. So they avoided going down that route in the first place.
Nevertheless, experimentation continued in the background, and the properties and possibilities of bronze became increasingly familiar until it could no longer be resisted. When the changeover occurred it was inevitably rapid. It was not possible to combine some aspects of stone-based society with some aspects of bronze-based society, because the two were fundamentally incompatible. These were distinct eigenmodes and people had to switch from one to the other wholesale.
The switchover was, however, heavily contested. There was war, impoverishment and cultural disruption as the ambitions of those who stood to gain from bronze clashed with the fears of those who stood to lose out, while trading networks collapsed and relations between members of society were fundamentally renegotiated.
In short, the stone-bronze transition was accompanied by a dark age, when the political, economic and social institutions of the stone age were broken down to make way for the building of new political, economic and social institutions more suited to the conditions of the bronze age. This is in accordance with the phoenix principle.
What is true of the stone-bronze transition is true of other transitions. They were also brought about via dark ages. Within the stone age, it is possible to detect dark ages mediating the transitions to mesolithic and neolithic society. And this is also what lies behind Hesiod's identification of an 'age of heroes' between the bronze and iron ages. The age of heroes was a time of violence and warrior culture, when kings and armies thrashed out a new geopolitical landscape for the iron age, and learned how to organise and fight with their new weapons.
We can now return to the first point, i.e. that technological change occurred thousands of years earlier in some places than in others.
The traditional view would be that new technology just took a long time to diffuse say from the middle east to northern Europe, and that this would be evidence of the lack of contact between ancient societies.
We now see that the delay has nothing to do with societal contacts or the flow of ideas. In fact, ancient societies were in frequent contact, and information took just years, not thousands of years, to get from one place to another. The problem was that societies needed to undergo vast political, economic and social changes if they were to exploit the information that was coming through. It was the sheer magnitude of the changes, not the difficulty of communication, that slowed down technological uptake.
It is the same as in Africa today. Africa is exposed to advanced industrial technologies almost as soon as they come into use elsewhere, but Africa is nonetheless finding it difficult to transform itself politically, economically and socially so as to incorporate the technologies fully into its way of life.
It is not only underdeveloped societies that may find it hard to transform. Sometimes societies lag behind precisely because they are already successful and have little incentive to change.
At the time of the bronze age, Egypt lumbered on, not taking up the bronze technology that was making great headway among the fragmented city states of Mesopotamia. Egyptian society was already highly adaptive and its vested interests were powerful enough to fend off changes that might challenge their social position. In a similar way, mighty and monolithic China lagged behind as the fragmented polities of Europe made great technological advances in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Both Egypt and China suffered because of their conservatism, though both eventually accelerated into the new technological era.
Thinking about history in terms of technological ages therefore has both good and bad points:
- It is 'good' in that the various technologies genuinely stand for distinctive configurations of social institutions, which, because of their mutual incompatibility, changed wholesale from one to the other.
- It is 'bad' in that the emphasis on technology may fail to convey the important point that these ages involved far-reaching political, economic and social, not just technological, transformations.
As labels for major societal eigenmodes, the stone-bronze-iron ages, with their subdivisions, are too convenient to give up. We just have to remember that they are a shorthand for what were ultimately sociological rather than technological revolutions.
Nevertheless, the difficulty of deciding whether we are still in the iron age or, if not, what age we should call this, indicates that the age concept is not abstract and generalised enough to cover ongoing technical and societal change. We need something more formal and theoretical.
Such an improved measure is a society's total technology complement or inventory. Rather than using just one technology to stand for the total way of life of a society, we can consider all the technologies that the society incorporates into its way of life -- i.e. not just 'bronze', say, but weaving, needlework, pottery, roof-thatching, bow-making, net-making etc.
The 'inventory' concept provides a more nuanced characterisation of technological change than the blunt division into stone/bronze/iron ages. It allows for finer gradations of technological level and it can be immediately generalised to current and future technological levels. We do not need to argue about whether this should be called the space age or the plastics age; we merely tot up the total inventory of modern technologies. Unlike the 'age' concept, the 'inventory' concept also decouples technology from an explicit dependence on time, and this is more consistent with the fact that technological advances do not occur everywhere simultaneously, even among societies that are in contact.
I will return to a more detailed discussion of inventory in a later post. The main purpose of this post has been to get a handle on the significance of technological ages -- i.e. that they are good rules of thumb, which have some theoretical justification behind them.