iron age

This article is about the archaeological period known as the Iron Age; for the mythological Iron Age see Ages of Man.
In archaeology, the Iron Age was the stage in the development of any people in which tools and weapons whose main ingredient was iron were prominent. The adoption of this material coincided with other changes in some past societies often including differing agricultural practices, religious beliefs and artistic styles, although this was not always the case.

The Iron Age is the last principal period in the three-age system for classifying pre-historic societies, preceded by the Bronze Age. Its date and context vary depending on the country or geographical region.


Enlarge picture
An Iron Age thatched roof, Butser Farm, Hampshire, United Kingdom
Classically, the Iron Age is taken to begin in the 12th century BC in the ancient Near East, ancient India (with the post-Rigvedic Vedic civilization), and ancient Greece (with the Greek Dark Ages). In other regions of Europe, it started much later. The Iron Age began in the 8th century BC in Central Europe and the 6th century BC in Northern Europe. Iron use, in smelting and forging for tools, appears in West Africa by 1200 BC, making it one of the first places for the birth of the Iron Age.[1][2][3]

The Iron Age is usually said to end in the Mediterranean with the onset of historical tradition during Hellenism and the Roman Empire, to end in India with the onset of Buddhism and Jainism, to end in China with the onset of Confucianism, and to end in Northern Europe with the early Middle Ages.

The arrival of iron use in various areas is discussed in more detail below, broadly in chronological order. Because iron working was introduced directly to the Americas and Australasia by European colonization, there was never an Iron Age in either location.

Iron use in the Bronze Age

By the Middle Bronze Age, increasing numbers of smelted iron objects (distinguishable from meteoric iron by the lack of nickel in the product) appeared throughout Anatolia, Mesopotamia, the Indian subcontinent, the Levant, the Mediterranean, and Egypt. In some places, their use appears to have been ceremonial, and during the Bronze Age iron was an expensive metal, more expensive than gold. Some sources suggest that iron was being created in some places then as a by-product of copper refining, as sponge iron, and was not reproducible by the metallurgy of the time.

The earliest systematic production and use of iron implements originates in Anatolia. West African production of iron began at around the same time, and seems to have been clearly an independent invention (see Stanley J. Alpern's work in History in Africa, volume 2). Recent archaeological research at Ganges Valley, India showed early iron working by 1800 BC.[3] By 1200 BC, iron was widely used in the Middle East but did not supplant the dominant use of bronze for some time.

The transition from bronze to iron

People made tools from bronze before they figured out how to make them from iron because iron's melting point is higher than that of bronze or its components, which makes it more difficult to make tools from iron .

During the Iron Age, the best tools and weapons were made from steel, which is an alloy consisting mostly of iron, with a carbon content between 0.02% and 1.7% by weight. Steel weapons and tools were superior to bronze weapons and tools. But steel was difficult to produce with the methods available at the time, and most of the metal produced in the Iron Age was wrought iron.[4] Wrought iron is weaker than bronze, but people switched anyway. Iron is much cheaper than bronze, since it is much more common than copper and tin, which are the ingredients of bronze. Additionally it is easier to resharpen an iron tool, whereas bronze needs reforging.

At around 1800 BC, for reasons as yet unascertained by archaeologists, tin became scarce in the Levant, leading to a crisis of bronze production. Copper itself seemed to be in short supply. Various "pirate" groups around the Mediterranean, from around 1800-1700 BC onward, began to attack fortified cities in search of bronze, to remelt into weaponry.

Bronze was much more abundant in the period before the 12th to 10th century and Snodgrass[5][6] and other authors suggest a shortage of tin, as a result of trade disruptions in the Mediterranean at this time, forced peoples to seek an alternative to bronze. This is confirmed by the fact that for a period, bronze items were recycled from implements to weapons, just before the introduction of iron.

Ancient Near East

Further information: Bronze Age collapse
Enlarge picture
The world in 1000 BC. Area of ironworking is indicated in red outline; bronze-working areas indicated in pink outline.
The Iron Age in the Ancient Near East is believed to have begun with the discovery of iron smelting and smithing techniques in Anatolia or the Caucasus in the late 2nd millennium BC (circa 1300 BC).[7] From here it spread rapidly throughout the Near East as iron weapons replaced bronze weapons by the early 1st millennium BC. Anatolia's use of iron (from 2000 BC onward) had developed by at least 1500 BC into the manufacture of weaponry superior to bronze. The use of iron weapons by the Hittites was believed to have been a major factor in the rapid rise of the Hittite Empire. Because the area in which iron technology first developed was near the Aegean, the technology propagated equally early into both Asia and Europe,[8] aided by Hittite expansion. The Sea Peoples and the related Philistines are often associated with the introduction of iron technology into Asia, as are the Dorians with respect to Greece.[9]

Finds of Iron Early examples and distribution of non precious metal finds.[10]

Date Crete Aegean Greece Cyprus Total Anatolia Grand total
1300-1200 BC5290163365
1200-1100 BC1282637N.A.74
1100-1000 BC133313380N.A.160
1000-900 BC3730115291.40N.A.211
Total Bronze Age5290163365
Total Iron Age513516388337N.A.511
In the period from the 12th to 8th century, the richest region in iron finds was that of Syria and Palestine.

Military technology designed to complement the use of iron came from Assyria. A macehead found in 1902 at Troy, dated to around 1200 BC, is likely to have been of Assyrian manufacture. Assyria in fact may have considered Troy an outpost of itself. At any rate, iron trade between the two places was well established by that time, with the Assyrians jealously guarding their trade secrets of production. It ought also be noted that the early phase of the Assyrian Empire had trade contacts with the area in which iron technology was first developed at the time that it was developing.

Indian subcontinent

Archaeological sites in India, such as Malhar, Dadupur, Raja Nala Ka Tila and Lahuradewa in present day Uttar Pradesh show iron implements in the period between 1800 BC - 1200 BC.[3] Some scholars believe that by the early 13th century BC, iron smelting was practiced on a bigger scale in India, suggesting that the date the technology's inception may be placed earlier.[3]

The beginning of the 1st millennium BC saw extensive developments in iron metallurgy in India. Technological advancement and mastery of iron metallurgy was achieved during this period of peaceful settlements. An iron working centre in east India has been dated to the first millennium BC.[12]

In Southern India (present day Mysore) iron appeared as early as 11th to 12th centuries BC; these developments were too early for any significant close contact with the northwest of the country.[12]

The Indian Upnishads have mentions of weaving, pottery, and metallurgy.[13]

The Mauryan period in India saw advancements in technology; this technological change involved metallurgy.[14]

Perhaps as early as 300 BC, although certainly by AD 200, high quality steel was being produced in southern India also by what Europeans would later call the crucible technique. In this system, high-purity wrought iron, charcoal, and glass were mixed in crucible and heated until the iron melted and absorbed the carbon.[15]

East Asia

Zhou and Warring States periods

Main article: Iron Age China
In 1972, near the city of Gaocheng (藁城) in Shijiazhuang (now Hebei province), an iron-bladed bronze tomahawk (铁刃青铜钺) dating back to the 14th century BC was excavated. After a scientific examination, the iron was shown to be made from aerosiderite. The Iron Age in East Asia began in earnest, however, when cast-iron objects appeared in Yangzi Valley toward the end of the 6th century BC[16]. The few objects were found at Changsha and Nanjing. According to the mortuary evidence suggests that the initial use of iron in Lingnan belongs to the mid to late Warring States period (from about 350 BC).

The techniques used in Lingnan is a combination of bivalve moulds of distinct southern tradition and the incorporation of piece mould technology from the Zhongyuan The products of the combination of these two periods are bells, vessels, weapons and ornaments and the sophisticated cast.

An Iron Age culture of the Tibetan Plateau has tentatively been associated with the Zhang Zhung culture described in early Tibetan writings.

Korean Peninsula

Iron objects were introduced to the Korean peninsula through trade with chiefdoms and state-level societies in the Yellow Sea area in the fourth century BC, just at the end of the Warring States Period but before the Western Han Dynasty began.[17][18] Yoon proposes that iron was first introduced to chiefdoms located along North Korean river valleys that flow into the Yellow Sea such as the Cheongcheon and Taedong Rivers.[19] Iron production quickly followed in the 2nd century BC, and iron implements came to be used by farmers by the 1st century AD in southern Korea.<ref name="kim" /> The earliest known cast-iron axes in southern Korea are found in the Geum River basin. The time that iron production begins is the same time that complex chiefdoms of Proto-historic Korea emerged. The complex chiefdoms were the precursors of early states such as Silla, Baekje, Goguryeo, and Gaya [20]<ref name="taylor" /> Iron ingots were an important mortuary item and indicated the wealth or prestige of the deceased in this period [21].


Iron working was introduced to Europe around 1000 BC, probably from Asia Minor and slowly spread northwards and westwards over the succeeding 500 years.

Eastern Europe

The early 1st millennium BC marks the Iron Age in Eastern Europe. In the Pontic steppe and the Caucasus region, the Iron Age begins with the Koban and the Chernogorovka and Novocherkassk cultures from ca. 900 BC. By 800 BC, it was spreading to Hallstatt C via the alleged "Thraco-Cimmerian" migrations.

Along with Chernogorovka and Novocherkassk cultures, on the territory of ancient Russia and Ukraine the Iron Age is to a significant extent associated with Scythians, who developed iron culture since the 7th century BC. The majority of remains of their iron producing and blacksmith's industries from 5th to 3rd century BC was found near Nikopol in Kamenskoe Gorodishche, which is believed to be the specialized metallurgic region of the ancient Scythia. [22][23]

From the Hallstatt culture, the Iron Age spreads west with the Celtic expansion from the 6th century BC. In Poland, the Iron Age reaches the late Lusatian culture in about the 6th century, followed in some areas by the Pomeranian culture.

The ethnic ascriptions of many Iron Age cultures has been bitterly contested, as the roots of Germanic, Baltic and Slavic peoples were sought in this area.

Central Europe

In Central Europe, the Iron Age is generally divided in the early Iron Age Hallstatt culture (HaC and D, 800-450) and the late Iron Age La Tène culture (beginning in 450 BC). The Iron Age ends with the Roman Conquest.


In Italy, the Iron Age was probably introduced by the Villanovan culture but this culture is otherwise considered a Bronze Age culture, while the following Etruscan civilization is regarded as part of Iron Age proper. The Etruscan Iron Age was then ended with the rise and conquest of the Roman Republic, which conquered the last Etruscan city of Velzna in 265 BC.

British Isles

Main article: British Iron Age
In the British Isles, the Iron Age lasted from about the 5th century BC until the Roman conquest and until the 5th century AD in non-Romanised parts. Defensive structures dating from this time are often impressive, for example the brochs of northern Scotland and the hill forts that dotted the rest of the islands.

Northern Europe

The Iron Age is divided into the Pre-Roman Iron Age and the Roman Iron Age. This is followed by the migration period. Northern Germany and Denmark was dominated by the Jastorf culture, whereas the culture of the southern half of the Scandinavia was dominated by the very similar Gregan Iron Age.

Early Scandinavian iron production typically involved the harvesting of bog iron. Scandinavian peninsula, Finland and Estonia show sophisticated iron production very early, but further dating is currently impossible. The range varies from 3000 BC - 2000 BC. This knowledge is associated with the non-Germanic part of Scandinavia. Metalworking and Asbestos-Ceramic pottery are somewhat synonymous in Scandinavia due to the latter's capacity to resist and retain heat. The iron ore used is believed to have been iron sand (such as red soil), because its high phosphorus content can be identified in slag. They are sometimes found together with asbestos ware axes belonging to the Ananjino Culture. The Asbestos-Ceramic ware remains a mystery, because there are other adiabatic vessels with unknown usage.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Inhabitants at Termit, in eastern Niger became the first iron smelting people in West Africa and among the first in the world around 1500 BC.[24] Iron and copper working then continued to spread southward through the continent, reaching the Cape around AD 200.<ref name="millermintz" /> The widespread use of iron revolutionized the Bantu farming communities who adopted it, driving out the stone tool using hunter-gatherer societies they encountered as they expanded to farm wider areas of savannah. The technologically superior Bantu spread across southern Africa and became rich and powerful, producing iron for tools and weapons in large, industrial quantities.[1]


1. ^ Duncan E. Miller and N.J. Van Der Merwe, 'Early Metal Working in Sub Saharan Africa' Journal of African History 35 (1994) 1-36; Minze Stuiver and N.J. Van Der Merwe, 'Radiocarbon Chronology of the Iron Age in Sub-Saharan Africa' Current Anthropology 1968.
2. ^ How Old is the Iron Age in Sub-Saharan Africa? - by Roderick J. McIntosh, Archaeological Institute of America (1999)
3. ^ Iron in Sub-Saharan Africa - by Stanley B. Alpern (2005)
4. ^ A Brief History of Iron and Steel Production by Professor Joseph S. Spoerl (Saint Anselm College)
5. ^ A.M.Snodgrass (1967), "Arms and Armour of the Greeks". (Thames & Hudson, London)
6. ^ A. M. Snodgrass (1971), "The Dark Age of Greece" (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh).
7. ^ Jane. C. Waldbaum (1978), "From Bronze to Iron. Vol. Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology" (LIV. Paul Astroms Forlag, Goteburg.)
8. ^ John Collis (1989), "The European Iron Age". (Reprint ed. B. T. Batsford, London.)
9. ^ Leonard R. Palmer (1980), "Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean Prehistory in the Light of the Linear B Tablets"
10. ^ Alex Webb, "Metalworking in Ancient Greece"
11. ^ The origins of Iron Working in India: New evidence from the Central Ganga plain and the Eastern Vindhyas by Rakesh Tewari (Director, U.P. State Archaeological Department)
12. ^ Early Antiquity By I. M. Drakonoff. Published 1991. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226144658. pg 372
13. ^ Upanisads By Patrick Olivelle. Published 1998. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192835769. pg xxix
14. ^ The New Cambridge History of India By J. F. Richards, Gordon Johnson, Christopher Alan Bayly. Published 2005. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521364248. pg 64
15. ^ Juleff, 1996
16. ^ Higham, Charles. 1996. The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia
17. ^ Kim, Do-heon. 2002. Samhan Sigi Jujocheolbu-eui Yutong Yangsang-e Daehan Geomto [A Study of the Distribution Patterns of Cast Iron Axes in the Samhan Period]. Yongnam Kogohak [Yongnam Archaeological Review] 31:1-29.
18. ^ Taylor, Sarah. 1989. The Introduction and Development of Iron Production in Korea. World Archaeology 20(3):422-431.
19. ^ Yoon, Dong-suk. 1989. Early Iron Metallurgy in Korea. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 8(1):92-99.
20. ^ Barnes, Gina L. 2001. State Formation in Korea: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives. Curzon, London.
21. ^ Lee, Sung-joo. 1998. Silla - Gaya Sahoe-eui Giwon-gwa Seongjang [The Rise and Growth of Silla and Gaya Society]. Hakyeon Munhwasa, Seoul.
22. ^ Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd edition, entry on "Железный век", available online here
23. ^ Christian, D. A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia, Blackwell Publishing, 1998, p. 141, available online
24. ^ Iron in Africa: Revisiting the History - Unesco (2002)

See also

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The Ages of Man are the stages of human existence on the Earth according to Classical mythology. Two classical authors in particular offer accounts of the successive ages of mankind, which tend to progress from an original, long-gone age in which humans enjoyed a nearly divine
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3, 4, 6
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Electronegativity 1.83 (Pauling scale)
Ionization energies
(more) 1st: 762.5 kJmol−1
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Atomic radius 140 pm
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The three-age system refers to the periodization of human prehistory into three consecutive time periods, named for their respective predominant tool-making technologies:
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The 12th century BC is the period from 1200 to 1101 BC.


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The Greek Dark Ages (ca. 1100 BC–750 BC) refers to the period of Greek history from the presumed Dorian invasion and end of the Mycenaean civilization in the 11th century BC to the rise of the first Greek city-states in the 9th century BC and the epics of Homer and earliest
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The 8th century BC was a period of great changes in civilizations. In Egypt, the 23rd and 24th dynasties led to rule from Nubia in the 25 Dynasty.
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Hallstatt culture was the predominant Central European culture during the local Bronze Age and preceded the Iron Age throughout most of Northern and North-eastern Europe. Depending on the interpreter, the culture is linked to the Celts or to their predecessors.
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The 6th century BC started the first day of 600 BC and ended the last day of 501 BC.


In the Near East, the first half of this century was dominated by the Neo Babylonian or Chaldean
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Pre-Roman Iron Age of Northern Europe (5th/4th century BC - 1st century BC) designates the earliest part of the Iron Age in Scandinavia, northern Germany, and the Netherlands north of the Rhine River regions that feature many extensive archaeological excavation sites, which have
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smelting, is a form of extractive metallurgy. The main use of smelting is to produce a metal from its ore. This includes iron extraction (for the production of steel) from iron ore, and copper extraction and other base metals from their ores.
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