The Bronze Age is a historical period characterised by the use of bronze rather than stone or iron. Depending where on the planet you’re standing, it dates from around 3300-3000 BC to 1200-600 BC. That’s that question answered, thanks very much for reading.
OK, fine, there’s a bit more to it than that.
It’s not as easy to pin down as your childhood history books led you to believe
Things seem so simple when you’re learning the history of the world as a kid. There were dinosaurs, then Neanderthals, then our earliest ancestors chipping away at life with primitive tools. Then, across the world, news of bronze spread with incredible rapidity and everyone upgraded their tools, launching a whole new age that can easily be pinpointed. But as that massive age range in the introduction reveals, it’s quite a vague period of time.
Its beginning is defined by a great leap forward in smelting technology
Before the discovery of bronze, stone and copper were the heroes of the material world. But the combination of heated copper and another element – first arsenic, then the more stable tin – meant tools, weapons, armour and other items became stronger and more durable. Of course, copper and tin aren’t often found in the same area, which means this dawning era is also characterised by that other iconic human invention: trade. As an example, copper from Cyprus could be teamed with tin from Cornwall in Britain, forging external relationships as well as swords.
There was a fair bit of agriculture
Asking what life was like in the Bronze Age is a lot like asking how much a dress costs. But since we’re talking about it because of Britain’s Pompeii – Bronze Age Life, it’s probably fine to focus on the English experience. This is the period when agriculture really came into its own, allowing humans to settle down in one place with enough food to start thinking about things other than survival. Like, say, building Stonehenge, putting up dwellings or the concept of private land ownership.
They didn’t have a lot of things we take for granted
Mirrors, for example, weren’t the sort of thing people had lying around, which gave still pools of water a virtual (and, in many instances, sacred) monopoly on showing you your own face. Coinage was more of an Iron Age invention, meaning trade – such as it was – worked on a barter sytem. And this was also the period where people started domesticating horses, which obviously revolutionised travel, work and art. As an aside, since we’re talking about art, the Nebra Sky Disc is an amazing artefact from Bronze Age Germany.
It wasn’t ended by the miraculous discovery of ironworking
Look, it wasn’t like one day a local genius walked into the main hut district of his hamlet clutching a piece of iron in triumph, instantly upgrading his civilisation’s tech level and allowing the building of Legion units. Iron was actually available before bronze - ancient Egyptians made jewellery and weapons from meteoric iron - but it takes a far higher heat to be worked and corrodes more easily. This may also explain why we find less ancient iron objects than bronze. There are plenty of theories about the Bronze Age Collapse that caused the fall of civilisation in the Mediterranean and Near East – if you want more information on what might have happened, this interview with Professor Eric H Cline is a good one.
Educated on all things Bronze Age? You haven't even gotten started. Discover more on Britain’s Pompeii – Bronze Age Life this Sunday on SBS at 7:30pm and soon after on SBS On Demand.