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Bronze Age Culture

Chronology & characteristics
Art, writing, metallurgy, pottery

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Bronze Age Dancing Girl, from the Harappan or Indus Valley civilisation
Bronze sculpture (c2300-1750 BC) from the Indus Valley civilisation made, using the lost-wax method, about c. 2300–1750 BC. The figurine shows a nude young woman adopting a confident, almost challenging pose. (National Museum, New Delhi.) Image by Gary Todd. (Public Domain).

What is the Bronze Age?

The Bronze Age is a period of history (roughly 3000-1200 BC), which was characterized by the production and use of bronze.

It was named the 'Bronze Age' by the Danish Antiquarian Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788-1865), as part of his three-age-system, which reflected the three different materials from which tools were made: stone, bronze, or iron.

But the Bronze Age is about more than just metallurgy.

To begin with, it marked the end of the prehistoric era and the beginning of recorded history, due to the invention of writing systems.

It also witnessed the growth of cities and urban areas, following the food surplus and population growth triggered by the Neolithic agricultural revolution.

The Bronze Age affected different regions in different ways but, overall, it was a period of growth, new beginnings and increased competition between states.

The first 'civilization' of the Bronze Age was Sumerian culture (c.4000-2000 BC), which dominated southern Mesopotamia, before the rise of Ancient Egypt along the Nile.

For details of other Bronze Age cultures in the region of the Tigris and Euphrates, see:

Chronology

Dates are very approximate, since both bronze and iron were produced at different times in different parts of the world.

Bronze, for example, was made in Greece and India about 3,300 BC, in Egypt about 3,000 BC, in China 2,000 BC, in Britain 1,900 BC, and in Scandinavia 1,700 BC.

Bronze Age Metallurgy

Bronze is a combination of different metals, primarily copper. So the smelting of copper usually preceded the development of bronze metallurgy. As a result, a region's Bronze Age was typically prefaced by a Chalcolithic Age, a period when pure copper was produced.

Copper was used for tools and weapons as well as precious objects.

It was first produced around 6,500 BC in Turkey, before spreading across Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent. By 3,000 BC the use of copper had extended westward across the Mediterranean, into southern Europe.

Bronze was in widespread use by 2,000 BC and stimulated the production and use of several other metals, including gold.

Bronze was harder and more durable than other metals used at the time. Thus Bronze Age civilizations were able to gain a technological advantage over their rivals.

By comparison, iron - a more abundant metal - was not developed until 1,200 BC at the earliest.

This is because kiln technology - developed for ancient pottery - could not cope with iron's high melting point of 1,538 °C (2,800 °F), compared to the much lower melting point of copper 1,085 °C (1,985 °F) or gold 1064 °C (1945 °F).

Bronze Age Culture in Brief

Broadly speaking, the Bronze Age is noted for four main cultural developments:

Writing Systems

Bronze Age cultures were the earliest 'historical cultures' - meaning, they were the first to write things down, thus creating a historical record. Examples of early writing systems include: Egyptian hieroglyphics (3,100 BC); Sumerian cuneiform script (from 3,000 BC); the Indus script (2,800 BC); Cretan hieroglyphics (2,000-1.600 BC), and Chinese logographs (1250–1050 BC).

Technology

The Bronze Age was marked by several important inventions, including the wheel (invented in Sumer c. 3,300 BC); the sword (invented in Turkey c. 3,300 BC); the pottery wheel (invented in Sumer c. 3,129 BC); rope (invented in Egypt c. 2,500 BC); the plough (invented c. 2,000 BC); and the chariot (invented c. 1,900 BC).

These technological developments had a huge impact on production and trade. But the development of iron metallurgy and technology put the Bronze Age out of business.

Urban Development

The Bronze Age engendered the first major cities. The earlier Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods had produced some large towns and settlements, such as Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, but these were dwarfed by large Bronze Age cities, whose populations exceeded 30,000.

Examples include: Akkad, Babylon, Ebla, Erlitou, Isin, Kish, Knossos, Lagash, Larak, Memphis, Thebes, Umma, Ur, Uruk, and Zhengzhou.

The Bronze Age urban revolution produced numerous cities that had the ten characteristics invented by the archaeologist V. Gordon Childe. These features included an unusually high population density, monumental architecture, a system of writing, a tax system, specialization of labor, a ruling class, symbolic art, a system for recording practical sciences, long-distance trade, and an organization based on residence rather than kinship.

Bronze Age Art

The Bronze Age spawned a variety of ancient art, including murals, sculpture, pottery, metalwork, and architecture, from the Atlantic to the Yellow Sea. Much of it was functional or decorative in nature, but a great deal was symbolic.

Pottery

The Bronze Age witnessed the creation of exceptional ancient pottery, notably ancient Chinese pottery (Yangshao and Longshan styles), and ancient Greek pottery of the Minoan culture from the island of Crete.

Outstanding examples included Kamares Ware, as well as objects belonging to the Marine Style.

The most famous and widespread style of Bronze Age pottery featured a new, bell-shaped style of container. These 'bell-beakers' spread rapidly across Europe, reaching Britain within a century.

The Bell Beaker culture originated on the Iberian peninsula and were associated with certain migrations, notably into Britain from the Continent.

Metalworking and Metallurgy

The increase in economic activity, the emergence of specialist craftsmen, led to an upsurge of decorative art in the form of decorated helmets, body armour, swords, axe-heads and other weapons. Sculptors produced outstanding bronzes, such as those from the Xia and Shang Dynasties in China, as well as delicate objects in silver and gold. Examples include:

Following the collapse of the Bronze Age, between c. 1,200 and 1,150 BC, the history of art reveals a widening cultural gap between Northern and Mediterranean Europe.

The presence of precious metals and other minerals, differences in climate, trade, military success, social cohesion and governing institutions - these were all factors which determined economic growth and stability, which in turn regulated the growth of the arts across the civilized world.

Egyptian Pyramids (Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure) at Giza Necropolis, next to the city of Giza, Egypt
Bronze Age megalithic architecture.
The Giza Pyramids and Giza Necropolis, Egypt, seen from the air. The site contains Khufu's Great Pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure, plus lesser pyramid complexes, temples, and the Great Sphinx.
Image by Robster1983/ Leoboudv. (Public Domain).

Megalithic Architecture

The Bronze Age is famous for its megalithic architecture - monumental structures built using large stones called megaliths.

Such buildings included temples, monuments (stone circles, menhirs), towers, sanctuaries, and tombs (dolmens, passage graves).

They were often decorated with a variety of megalithic art, notably relief sculpture and engravings like those at Newgrange Passage Tomb.

First seen during the Neolithic culture, these buildings was often associated with the worship of deities, Kings and other political figures. The style was in evidence across the world, from Europe to Africa and East Asia.

The most famous type of megalithic architecture is undoubtedly the Egyptian pyramids constructed as tombs for the country's pharaohs between 2,700 and 1,780 BC. The most famous examples include:

Egyptian temples are also noted for their huge monumental stones. A good example is the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak temple. See Ancient Egyptian Architecture (3000-60 BC).

Other examples include:

Related Articles

References

(1) Pittman, Holly (1984). Art of the Bronze Age: southeastern Iran, western Central Asia, and the Indus Valley. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 978-0-87099-365-7.
(2) Pernicka, E., et al. (2003). "Early Bronze Age Metallurgy in the Northeast Aegean", In: Wagner, G.A., Pernicka, E. and Uerpmann, H-P. (eds), Troia and the Troad: scientific approaches, Natural science in archaeology, Berlin; London : Springer, ISBN 3-540-43711-8, pp. 143–172.
(3) V.G. Childe (1930). The Bronze Age. New York: The Macmillan Company.
(4) Rackham, Oliver; Moody, Jennifer (1996). "The Making of the Cretan Landscape." Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-3647-7.

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