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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Know Your Prehistory (6) --
Bronze Age Beginning.
by Joy Saynor.

This sixth article in the series aims to outline the beginnings of the spread of cultures based upon the earliest metal technology, that of bronze, from their cradles in Sumer, the land of the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, to the fringes of south-east Europe itself. The time-span to be examined has again decreased, the direct result of the infinitely greater quantity of evidence which archaeology has produced in the last fifty years: it was in 1922, as Sir Leonard Woolley records, that "Dr G G Gordon, Director of the University Museum of Pennsylvania, approached the British Museum with the proposal of a joint expedition to Mesopotamia. Ur was chosen as the scene of operations. The directorship of the Joint Expedition was entrusted to me." See reference[1]. The time-span, from the fourth millenium to the last centuries of the pagan era, is only twice as long as the Christian era, to give some scale of comparison.

The favourable conditions of climate, soil fertility and abundant water supply, which had helped to create the Urbaid culture of Mesopotamia (the earliest culture of the Sumerians), at the end of the fifth millenium BC, also provided the necessary stimulus for a further step in technological advance. The alluvial valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates, like those of the Indus and the Nile, could give returns of almost a hundred fold from the seed sown. A Sumerian document of 2500 BC shows the average yield on a field of barley as being 86 times the amount of seed sown.See reference [2].

Furthermore, and paradoxically, the very artificiality of an environment without natural stones or flints in the alluvial mud for making tools and weapons, provided the stimulus necessary for cultural advance. If stone and flint, as well as copper and tin, had to be imported, in time the greater flexibility of the metal would lead to its almost exclusive use for certain tools and weapons. Sumerian bronze contained 6%-10% tin, the copper constituent was brought from the Persian Gulf and the eastern mountains, the tin from Iran, Syria and perhaps Europe itself. Wood and lead were other vital imports. But the eleven or so wealthy city states of Sumer, brought into being by the surplus of peasant production, demanded also luxury goods from its merchants and traders. Silver was brought from the Taurus mountains, lapis lazuli -- a bright blue silicate -- from Afganistan, mother of pearl from the Persian Gulf, and some manufactured articles-beads and seal amulets-from the Indus cities. As goods were imported to Sumer, so also they were exported, thus spreading the techniques of the advanced land which had created them. During the third and late second millenia, characteristic forms of tools, weapons, vessels and ornaments were sent to Syria, Anatolia, the Aegean, the Caucasus, Russia and Central Europe. Trade required the wheel, the ox-cart, the pack-horse and the sailing ship.

Merchant colonies were established in Asia Minor. A typical example of such a settlement, growing up almost at the entry of the Dardanelles was the earliest settlement at Troy, Troy I, a fortified hamlet of some 1½, acres. Troy commanded the trade routes, 75 days distant by caravan from Sumer, and Troy II grew into a great walled fortress containing the so-called treasure of King Priam as an indication of its culture and wealth.

Trade required the keeping of accounts, as did religion in Sumer, for the many temples owned large estates. Between them, God and Mammon called into being the first script. At first, pictograms, or shorthand pictures were used; then by about 3,000 BC ideograms expressing ideas, together with phonetic symbols came into general use. It had become possible to reduce the some 2,000 signs and symbols to 600 by 2,500 BC -- a sign of an advancing civilisation. Reed pens scratched the wedge-shaped, or cuneiform, script upon unbaked clay tablets, to leave, for the first time in pre-history, a written record to supplement the finds of the archaeologist. Numerical notation was shown below 10 by single semicircular impressions of the reed; 10 was represented by a circle, 20 by two circles and so on. Standards of length and weight were agreed upon. Time was measured; the day and night were divided into 12 double hours, using both the sun dial and the water clock. As a standard of value to serve as a medium of exchange, barley was replaced by silver and copper, a change from a natural economy to a money economy.

After co-operative labour had created the surplus of wealth, an unequal class structure came into being. At its head stood, in the early Sumerian period, the priest, the "tenant farmer" of the god; later, the priest-king. Surplus of energy, as well as of wealth, together with economic rivalry between the city-states, created was as an institution. The first great military empire was created by Sargon, his sons and grand-son, rulers of the city-state of Agade (or Akkad), south-west of Babylon, at about 2,370 BC. The spoils of war included large quantities of copper and silver; the trade in metals was made a royal monopoly. As Agade declined, Ur became once more predominent, to be succeeded in its turn by Babylon at about 1990 BC. Its greatest ruler, Hammurabi, who ruled at about 1800 BC not only asserted the authority of his city over Assyria, but also established trading contacts with Asia Minor.

Because of the size and the nature of the terrain of Asia Minor, early centralised rule was not possible, but the stability of centuries of husbandry provided a firm foundation for the Bronze Age culture of the Hittites, which lasted from the third millennium to 612-610 BC ending in Persion conquest. The Hittite rulers used cuneiform script, although their language was Indo-European, and a great collection of archives of the government have survived. In this context, it should be noted that our alphabet has developed not from this westward extension of civilisation, but from that part of the coastline of modern Israel, where the Phoenicians, the first great entrepreneurs of pre-history, had their home. By the 10th century BC, the Phoenicians had developed an alphabetic script; the Greeks who traded with them introduced letter forms for vowel sounds, and from this hybrid the western alphabet developed.See reference[3].

The Phoenicians first explored the Mediterranean, then sailed much further afield to obtain their copper and tin, probably as far as south-west Britain, but a stronger impetus was needed to convey the techniques of metallurgy over land to the vigorous but culturally retarded peoples of Northern Europe. The necessary stimulus was two-fold. The first was the rise of Mycenaean Greece, which by the 10th century BC craved for luxury goods, and thus called into being trade routes which crossed the continent of Europe, like the amber route, from Jutland south to Greece, evidence of which was found among the grave goods in the shaft graves of Mycenae. The second factor was the opening of the east Alpine copper mines in the second millenium BC, which cheapened the metal, and influenced techniques throughout pre-historic Europe, techniques which had been developed in the Near East, and which were practised by itinerant smiths making copper torcs and gold wire earrings, and casting objects with mid-ribs and flanges.See reference[4].

The stage was now set for the European Bronze Age to begin, its foundations well prepared in the vigorous culture of late Neolithic Europe, where husbandry and farming had been firmly established, as recent radio-carbon dating has shown, before it was practised in Egypt, India or the Far East. It is with this stage that the next article in the series will be concerned.


  1. Ur of the Chaldees -- Sir Leonard Woolley, 1929 (see also Ur Excavations -- al'Ubaid, 1927 and Ur Excavations -- the Royal Cemetery 1934).
  2. What happened in History -- Gordon Childe, 1942
  3. The Phoenicians -- Donald Harden, 1962
  4. World Prehistory - A New Outline -- Grahame Clark, 1969
Other articles in this series.
Winter 1971 #26 8 Iron Age Progressions
Summer 1971 #24 7 Bronze Age Beginnings
Winter 1970 #22 6 Bronze Age Beginnings
Autumn 1970 #21 5 The Neolithic Period
Spring 1970 #19 4 The Neolithic Revolution
Winter 1970 #18 3 Mesolithic Progress
Autumn 1969 #17 2 The Emergence of Homo Sapiens
Summer 1969 #16 1 The Dawn of Man
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