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Three-age system

Ancient History

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Edited: Feb 28, 2011, 3:35am Top

As I've been exploring the Bronze Age, I've found myself wondering about the Three-age system. I've gone back to look at the history of the concept, but I'm wondering about the way the term may bias our thinking about the ancient world.

These words -- Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age -- are so stark and delineated that is strains credulity to think them other than a placemark for a multitude of ideas too extensive to state simply. I suspect any descriptive term would be inadequate. Regarding the use of metals themselves, patterns of development differed in places, so while best applicable to Europe, the concept falls short in China, Korea and sub-Saharan Africa, to name a few.

Is anyone aware of a good critique of the concept? Read a thoughtful analysis of the issues this raises?

Is this a shorthand that is powerful and useful? What cautions should be observed in using it?

Feb 28, 2011, 9:54am Top

This is a not-unfounded musing. I've been thinking about it a bit lately myself. Hell, even *within* regions, the label comes with several asterisks. For instance, the "Nordic Iron Age" started well after it did in the rest of the continent. I have been thinking a bit recently about how artificial it is to use such labels anyway, since while a particular region may have started, say, smelting bronze, surrounding areas could have still been going strong with flint and obsidian tools (tried and true, dangblastit!) and not have used the new technology, living side by side for centuries.

Relatedly, I recently read somewhere that the changeover in toolmaking between ages wasn't even necessarily any "better" in some ways, despite some specific advantages. For instance, some Stone Age microlith toolkits would have been much sharper than anything made from bronze... but obviously the metal was more malleable and could be shaped how the incipient metalsmiths desired. Likewise, iron isn't necessarily any *better* than bronze for toolmaking, but is much easier to find and pound into tools (since bronze is actually copper + tin).

Feb 28, 2011, 11:23am Top

Thanks Feicht. Glad it's not just what I drank before I posted! :)

You add to the argument that the metals themselves have major flaws as descriptors of a period.

I've seen some writers using time periods to organize their thinking: "Second Millennium Mesopotamia", eg. Maybe with a time and a location, one avoids thinking of a period with greater emphasis than one should on a particular metal or technology. Or maybe there is some better way to organize one's thinking.

My concern is the risk that you give something a name and it confers a reality that may not have existed. The use of iron seems to me not necessarily the idea that best condenses what is significant about that period. I leave unstated a list of alternative terms.

I recall late nineteenth century physics in which the concept of the "ether" was used freely, indoctrinating each new physicist into the misapprehension that such a thing existed, and making workable the false belief that the propagation of light required an as-yet-unseen transmission medium. I understand that the Three-age system is based on actually known artifacts, but the metaphor still conveys the concern.

Feb 28, 2011, 7:32pm Top

SE, Glad it's not just what I drank before I posted

Okay, what were you drinking 'cause I want get myself some of that if it contributes to musings such as yours.

Edited: Feb 28, 2011, 8:12pm Top

Historians are, basically, a lazy* lot. You get a good, simple, easy to remember scheme going, why mess with it?

Seriously, I remember studying "Bronze Age Greece", with my head swimming from the ridiculously large number of subdivisions of "Bronze Age", both Minoan and Mycenean. Once you get past the broad divisions, you can get pretty damn specific.

*Logic and history have always been the concern of idle pedants, unable to do a daily job.
-Juan Jose Arevelo

Edited: Feb 28, 2011, 9:39pm Top

As others have noted, periodization is always imperfect, and presumed universals fail to account for regional variations. (Unthinking the Greek Polis has a thoughtful reconsideration of temporal linerarity in Ancient Greek history in particular.)

I just read a chapter on “Generalizations in Ancient History” by M.I. Finley in his The Use and Abuse of History. He’s always good for historiographical insights.

On the Stone Age—Bronze Age—Iron Age order, somewhere along the line I was taught to think of these not as markers for the use of tools and materials so much as stages in social/cultural development. The different technologies serve as indicators of the capacity for social organization and the mobilization of resources towards particular cultural ends. So for instance, the use of iron was situated in a nexus of relations, processes, and functions: mining, labor resources, smelting, craftwork, weaponry and military strategies, the exercise of authority and warfare, etc.

Of course, the whole idea of Stages of Development is packed with conundrums and inconsistencies…

touchstone edit

Mar 1, 2011, 12:30am Top

>6 HectorSwell: Good thoughts. In response to my own musings, I happened to have picked up M.I. Finley's Ancient History: Evidence and Models, which suggests to me that, tyro to the discipline that I am, historiographical questions thrust themselves upon me as I study.

Edited: Mar 1, 2011, 1:18am Top

Also, in searching around, I found this book: Prehistoric Europe: Theory and Practice edited by Andrew Jones. No touchstone; book not listed on LT. Amazon link:


The introduction addresses problems with the Three-age system, and overall the book looks like it would be useful to those interested in prehistory. Anyone happen to have read it? Is anyone familiar with the author?

edited to add: It ain't cheap

Mar 1, 2011, 11:09pm Top

I would like to see many more titles on this topic.

All I can contribute at this point is a march from pre-history to today as seen thru the eyes of the technological-prone, namely Out of the Fiery Furnace: The Impact of Metals on the History of Mankind. The book does illustrates some the spiralling trails of of metals / refinements working their way thru the world's cultures. Yet it basically presents the advance of civilization as a juggernaut, whereas I would like to see more about the set of waves and ripples in front of and behind the crest called technology.

Mar 2, 2011, 7:14am Top

Could all this be the residue of Hesiod's four ages?

Mar 2, 2011, 11:28am Top

It's part of it. Hesiod gave five: Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic and Iron, with a sense of decline to his own day. Which he rued. Lucretius later reenunciated this with a sense of progress. The idea was then picked up and reworked by archeologists in recent centuries.

Mar 12, 2011, 6:53am Top

Feicht wrote:
For instance, some Stone Age microlith toolkits would have been much sharper than anything made from bronze... but obviously the metal was more malleable and could be shaped how the incipient metalsmiths desired.

One should always remember that Bronze Age people didn't stop using stone. Bronze was used a lot for weapons and jewelry, but most everyday tools were still made from stone and perishable materials. The Iron Age was rather more radical in terms of what ordinary people used for everyday tasks, but older materials of course still remained in use alongside.

(One childhood book put it like this: the Wood Age only ended with the Industrial Revolution.)

Edited: Mar 12, 2011, 2:37pm Top

Does anyone know of any sources focusing on the use of such materials as shell and bone in prehistoric societies?

Edited: Mar 12, 2011, 2:49pm Top

Much of the trove from Blombos Cave in South Africa is relevant to your inquiry:


Here's their site homepage: http://www.svf.uib.no/sfu/blombos/index.htm

Here are a few of many related to early North America:

Shell and bone: http://www.jstor.org/pss/30247639



Mar 12, 2011, 2:56pm Top

Thanks, Stellar. That will keep me occupied for a while.

Mar 12, 2011, 6:31pm Top

1> "...These words -- Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age -- are so stark and delineated that is strains credulity to think them other than a placemark for a multitude of ideas too extensive to state simply...."

I think that's an excellent way to define them - convenient shorthand. The periods have no sharp geographic or temporal boundaries - any more than, say "Renaissance" or "Industrial Revolution" do - but that's the whole point; it's a handy way to talk about an imperfectly defined concept. It was even more useful before there was a way to assign any sort of date to the concepts.

I think the average person might even work backward from a specific date to an "Age". For example, if you said to me "such and such a site in England is dated to 1200 BCE" I would probably think for a second and then say "Ah; it would be Bronze Age, then?" and I would infer a number of things about the hypothetical site. But, if you said "such and such a site in Pennsylvania is dated to 1200 BCE" I would be aware that there would be stone, bone and wood tools involved but it wouldn't occur to me to say "yes; Stone Age Pennsylvania" because the term doesn't really apply to North American archeology.

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