A summary of the characteristics and evolutionary stages of the Bronze Age.
Something as simple as an alloy of two metals led to a critical period for the development of humanity. The Bronze Age was the passage from nomadic humans to sedentary societies, owners and defenders of their lands and crops by means of the most sophisticated weapons, made, of course, of that metal.
The development of agriculture together with a better management of metallurgy gave way, little by little, to marked socioeconomic inequalities, hierarchies of power and complex urban systems that would evolve into the greatest civilizations that ruled in the ancient world.
Next we will discover what great social, cultural and economic changes occurred during the Bronze Age, a period that, if not, we would probably be hunting rabbits in the field to live.
What is the Bronze Age?
The Bronze Age comprises a long period of prehistory that historians place between 3,800 and 1,200 BC At this time there were a series of intense cultural changes that gave rise to the formation of the first great civilizations, together with their social structure , socioeconomic inequalities and complex culture, all the consequence of a new element: bronze, an alloy of copper and tin.
This material gave rise to the manufacture of all kinds of utensils, from tools to work the fields to crafts to decorate the elites, which allowed all kinds of economic and cultural changes to take place. Bronze turned out to be a much more manageable metal than the one used in the previous stage, copper, and would only be surpassed by the metal of the next stage, iron. The ages of Copper, Bronze and Iron are the three that make up the great period of the Metal Age.
The Bronze Age was not a homogeneous period. Historians distinguish in it the following three subdivisions:
Ancient Bronze Age: between 3,500 BC and 2,000 BC
Middle Bronze Age: between 2000 BC and 1600 BC
Final Bronze Age: between 1600 BC and 1200 BC
Features of the Bronze Age
As we mentioned, the Bronze Age is not a homogeneous period. The three sub-stages that divide it show ways of living very different from each other.
1. Ancient Bronze Age
This stage covers about 2,500 years and was the one immediately after the Copper Age. This first period of the Bronze Age is characterized by finding collective burials, that is, stacking the corpses of the recently deceased in the same place, like graves.
The human groups of this period, although they had already begun to develop agriculture in some parts of the world, still had a style of subsistence typical of nomads, gathering fruits and hunting animals. They traveled from region to region looking for food and, when they ran out, they changed places fleeing from hunger.
Some groups developed agriculture and livestock, developing special tools to work the land, made from bronze. These first agricultural cultures settled in fixed places, ceasing to be nomadic and becoming sedentary. They begin to develop the idea of land ownership and what it gives them.
The more fortunate farmers had excess crops, which they traded for minerals or other foods with other ranchers or members of neighboring cultures. Others who were not so lucky preferred to attack those who had more, to seize their assets. This is why at this time weapons begin to emerge with the clear intention of defending themselves or attacking other people. The first wars arise, albeit tribal.
2. Middle Bronze Age
The Middle Bronze Age lasted for approximately 400 years, although the start and duration of this period varies by region. Thanks to a better development of agriculture and livestock, together with a better exploitation of steel resources, trade between human groups arises.
It is at this time that the horse has been domesticated, allowing the transport of goods from town to town with greater ease, especially using the help of carts and bags made with leather or vegetable fabrics.
Trade involves not only the exchange of food and metals, but also of manufactured objects. At this time the figure of the artisan is gaining strength and importance, allowing the creation of better weapons and more sophisticated tools, in addition to making handicrafts such as vessels, jugs or clothing.
With a greater development of weapons and a growing interest in control of the land, wars become more sophisticated. The first military campaigns with strategy are carried out, overcoming the tribal fights based on sticks and stones with real pitched battles with swords, shields and rapiers.
3. Final Bronze Age
The Final Bronze Age lasted approximately 400 years, although as with the rest of the stages of the Bronze Age, its beginning and end is different depending on the region. Traditionally this period is considered as the transition to the Iron Age and great cultural changes take place.
At this time there are marked differences between members of the villages, inherited from the two previous ages. Whether it is because you have been lucky with the farmland or because you are a skilled warrior or craftsman, there are people who have more wealth and prestige than the rest of their neighbors in the town.
The towns are becoming more complex, appearing figures of power similar to what would end up being, over the centuries, the first kings. To demonstrate their power, the wealthiest members of these tribes decorated themselves with bronze and gold jewels, hinting to others that they were above them.
As the art of war has progressed and better strategies have been developed and more damaging weapons have been developed, many villages begin to build walls or are founded on high places, where they can get a good perspective of their surroundings. Swords are more damaging and effective and the first spears are created. Sophisticated defensive garments such as shields, breastplates and helmets are also created.
From farmers to emperors
Archaeologists know that the first socioeconomic differences began to emerge in the Bronze Age, judging from the finds made in tombs. As we mentioned, it is at this age that human beings become sedentary, thanks to the improvement of agricultural techniques. If before people depended on nature, being under the chronic threat of hunger and having to search for animals to hunt and fruits to constantly collect, now, with cultivation they have an almost unlimited source of food.
But not everyone was so lucky. There were those who managed to plant their crops on very fertile land and, in addition, they knew how to work the land, having more benefits. Their surplus was exchanged for other products with other lucky farmers or artisans, which earned them a wide range of products that gave them power.
Others were not so lucky and either starved or had to work on someone else’s land in exchange for a little food. Those with the most gained more influence in the village, while those with the least ended up becoming its servants.
In other cases, those who had not been so lucky fought to achieve what they set out to do by means of sophisticated stratagems. The war for control of resources is something of great importance in the Bronze Age, and therefore it is not surprising that weapons are sophisticated. These tools were not to hunt animals, but to defend themselves and attack other people, steal their crops, make them slaves or kill them to appropriate their land.
Be that as it may, the inequalities worsened over time, causing those who had more to end up holding positions of power within the town. As cultures spread and became more sophisticated, becoming the great civilizations that would be China, Mesopotamia or Egypt, their rulers, whether they were kings, emperors or pharaohs, were probably descended from farmers who in the Bronze Age had found fertile lands or they knew how to make good weapons.
As we advance into the Bronze Age we see that the tombs of the elite were more sophisticated and full of trousseau. All kinds of bronze and gold jewelery, expensive fabrics and very well worked ornaments are some of the objects that we can find in the tombs of those who, surely, were the leaders of the prehistoric villages. They were certainly not egalitarian societies.
González Marcén, Paloma; Lull, Vicente; Risch, Robert (1992). Archeology of Europe, 2250-1200 BC An introduction to the “Bronze Age”. Madrid (first edition) (Editorial Síntesis).
Margueron, Jean-Claude (2002). The first uses of metals. The Mesopotamians. Fuenlabrada: Chair. ISBN 84-376-1477-5.