The Bronze Age

What was the Bronze Age?

The Bronze Age is a time period when bronze replaced stone as the preferred material for making tools and weapons. This led to improvements in agriculture and brought with it changes in the way people live. Some groups of Bronze Age people developed early writing and other important advances included irrigation, the wheel and the potter’s wheel.

Different societies entered the Bronze Age at differing times. Some of the best known Bronze Age civilisations include those of the ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mycenae, the Indus Valley and the Shang Dynasty in China.

Top 10 facts

  1. The Bronze Age is the name given to the period of time between the Stone and Iron Ages.
  2. Bronze is an alloy or mixture of tin and copper.
  3. Bronze alloy is harder than either of the metals from which it is made. It could be used to make a greater range of tools and weapons than had previously been possible.
  4. Where societies developed early writing they are said to be part of a historic (as opposed to a prehistoric) time period. The ancient Egyptians could record their own histories and laws using hieroglyphs.
  5. Irrigation and the metal plough transformed the development of agriculture and meant that, where the climate permitted, it was possible to farm year round. Forest clearance led to the development of large farms and fields were separated by walls.
  6. Growth of trade for bronze and bronze products was aided by improved navigation skills. Knowledge of astronomy and mathematics also developed during this period.
  7. The invention of the wheel meant that animal drawn vehicles could drive along tracks and roads.
  8. The potter's wheel and textile production meant that better pottery and clothing could be produced.
  9. Metal workers and those who traded in metals were probably the most important and wealthiest people in Bronze Age society.
  10. Some Bronze Age societies developed a ruling class who were supported by military power. Some Bronze Age kings ruled empires and administered laws.

Timeline

  • 5500 BC
    Extraction of metals begins in Persia and Afghanistan

  • 4000 BC
    Ur in Mesopotamia is world’s first city

  • 3800 BC
    Bronze discovered in Middle East

  • 3500 BC
    First Egyptian cities develop

  • 3300 BC
    Bronze Age begins in Sumer

  • 3300 BC
    Start of Indus Valley Civilization

  • 2700 BC
    Beginnings of Sumerian written history

  • 2100 BC
    Bronze Age in Britain

  • 1700 BC
    Nordic Bronze Age; Shang Dynasty established in China

  • 650 BC
    End of Bronze Age in Britain

Did you know?

  • The earliest writing systems were developed in Mesopotamia (cuneiform) and Egypt (hieroglyphs).
  • The ancient cities of the Near East had populations of tens of thousand of people.
  • Devon and Cornwall provided much of the tin for Western Europe during this period. Copper ore was mined in North Wales.
  • Bronze Age graves from around Stonehenge show that migrants had travelled to Britain from Switzerland.
  • The Bronze Age in Britain lasted approximately 1,700 years.
  • The Beaker people may have introduced beer drinking into Britain.

Look through the gallery and see if you can spot the following:

  • A recreation of a Bronze Age British roundhouse
  • Bronze Age daggers
  • A gold cape made during the Bronze Age
  • A Bronze Age longboat
  • A Bronze Age beaker
  • The Uffington white horse
  • A Bronze Age shield

Gallery

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Using bronze meant craftsmen could produce a greater range of tools and weapons than had previously been possible. Metal working skills could also be used to produce household and luxury goods and fine jewellery.

Agriculture benefited from bronze ploughs which were more efficient than earlier wooden ones. Bronze axes cleared forests and increased the land available for growing crops and grazing animals. Irrigation helped make farming more productive and dry stone walls marked field boundaries. People could now produce more food than they needed. Trade in metals and goods could take place over long distances thanks to improved sailing skills and early tracks and roads now carried carts and wagons drawn by animals.

Trade in bronze meant that some people grew rich and powerful. Over time this led to a more divided society from the king at the top, through priests, soldiers, farmers down to the lowliest slaves. Changes in the way people were buried and in the objects that they were buried with, help to show the differences between the rich man and the poor.

Empire building was now possible and a greater range of weapons including chariots and armour may have encouraged raids and warfare. Some of the great battles and wars of the period have left traces in the historical record, others are the subject of myth and legends such as the battles fought by the Greeks and Trojans over Helen of Troy, and still others form part of the stories told in the Old Testament such as the battle fought by Joshua at Jericho.

Some historians believe that bronze was first brought to Britain by the Beaker people. These migrants appear to have mixed with local people and other migrating groups and over time came together to form what is known as the Wessex culture. This is associated with single burials in round barrows and rich grave goods.

One form of Bronze age housing in Britain was the roundhouse. Built to a circular plan, this had wall posts of wood or stone filled in with wattle-(woven wood) and- daub, a mixture of mud and straw. The house had a central hearth around which people slept and was roofed with hides, thatch or turf.

People could now weave wool into cloth. Most people wore tunics, perhaps belted or worn with jewelled clasps. Women tended to wear longer skirts and men may have worn leggings, cloaks and hats. Razors and tweezers were used to remove hair. Richer people would have displayed their wealth on finer textiles and ornamentation.

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