Masters of Metal: Introduction

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During the third and second millennia b.c., societies emerged from the Atlantic to the Urals that were characterized by the use of bronze for a wide variety of weapons, tools, and ornaments and, perhaps more significantly, by pronounced and sustained differences in status, power, and wealth. The period that followed is known as the Bronze Age, a somewhat arbitrary distinction based on the widespread use of the alloy of copper and tin. It is the second of Christian Jürgensen (C. J.) Thomsen's tripartite division of prehistory into ages of Stone, Bronze, and Iron based on his observations of the Danish archaeological record.

Society did not undergo a radical transformation at the onset of the Bronze Age. Many of the social, economic, and symbolic developments that mark this period have their roots in the Late Neolithic. Similarly, many of the characteristics of the Bronze Age persist far longer than its arbitrary end in the first millennium b.c. with the development of ironworking. The Bronze Age in Europe is of tremendous importance, however, as a period of significant change that continued to shape the European past into the recognizable precursor of the societies that we eventually meet in historical records. Professor Stuart Piggott, in his 1965 book Ancient Europe from the Beginnings of Agriculture to Classical Antiquity: A Survey, calls it "a phase full of interest" in which the preceding "curious amalgam of traditions and techniques" was transformed into the world "we encounter at the dawn of European history."


In most parts of Europe, the Late Neolithic societies described in the previous section blend imperceptibly into the Early Bronze Age communities. No one living in the late third millennium b.c. would have suspected that archaeologists of the nineteenth century a.d. would assign such significance to a modest metallurgical innovation. At the beginning of the second millennium b.c., people continued to inhabit generally the same locations, live in similar types of houses, grow more or less the same crops, and go about their lives not much differently from the way they lived in previous centuries. There were, of course, some subtle yet significant differences. For example, in Scandinavia, Bronze Age burial mounds generally occur on the higher points in the landscape, while Neolithic ones are in lower locations.

The major changes of the Early Bronze Age are not a radical departure from patterns observed in the later Neolithic. Rather, they are an amplification of some trends that began during the earlier period, including the use of exotic materials like bronze, gold, amber, and jet, and the practice of elaborate ceremonial behavior, not only as part of mortuary rituals but also in other ways that remain mysterious. These changes reflected back into society during the following millennium to cause a transformation in the organization of the valuables and the ways in which the possession of these goods served as symbols of power and status. Thus, by the end of the Bronze Age, prehistoric society in much of Europe was indeed different from that of the Neolithic.


Bronze is an alloy of copper with a small quantity of another element, most commonly tin but sometimes arsenic. The admixture of the second metal, which can form up to 10 percent of the alloy, provides the soft copper with stiffness and strength. Bronze is also easier to cast than copper, allowing the crafting of a wide variety of novel and complex shapes not hitherto possible. The development of bronze fulfilled the promise of copper, a bright and attractive metal that was unfortunately too soft and pliable by itself to make anything more than simple tools and ornaments.

During the course of the Bronze Age, we see a progressive increase of sophistication in metallurgical techniques. Ways were found to make artifacts that were increasingly complicated and refined. Now it was possible to make axes, sickles, swords, spearheads, rings, pins, and bracelets, as well as elaborate artistic achievements such as the Trundholm "sun chariot" and even wind instruments such as the immense horns found in Denmark and Ireland. The ability to cast dozens of artifacts from a single mold makes it possible to speak of true manufacturing as opposed to the individual crafting of each piece. Some scholars have proposed that metal-smithing was a specialist occupation in certain places. Such emergent specialization would have had profound significance for the agrarian economy, still largely composed of self-sufficient households. Some metal artifacts, such as the astonishing Irish gold neck rings, seem to be clearly beyond the ability of an amateur to produce.

Copper and tin rarely, if ever, occur naturally in the same place. Thus one or the other—or both— must be brought some distance from their source areas to be alloyed. Copper sources are widely distributed in the mountainous zones of Europe, but known tin sources are only found in western Europe, in Brittany, Cornwall, and Spain. Thus, tin needed to be brought from a considerable distance to areas of east-central Europe, such as Hungary and Romania, where immense quantities of bronze artifacts had been buried deliberately in hoards. Similarly, Denmark has no natural sources of copper or tin, but it has yielded more bronze artifacts per square kilometer than most other parts of Europe.

It is in this need to acquire critical supplies of copper and tin, as well as the distribution of materials such as amber, jet, and gold, that we see the rise of long-distance trading networks during the Bronze Age. Trade was no longer something that happened sporadically or by chance. Instead, materials and goods circulated along established routes. The Mediterranean, Baltic, Black, and North Seas were crossed regularly by large boats, while smaller craft traversed shorter crossings like the English Channel.


Much more than both earlier and later periods, the Bronze Age is known largely from its burials. In large measure, this is due to the preferences of early archaeologists to excavate graves that contained spectacular bronze and gold trophies. Settlements of the period, in contrast, were small and unremarkable. This imbalance is slowly being corrected, as new ways are developed to extract as much information as possible from settlement remains.

Bronze burials are remarkable both for their regional and chronological diversity, although occasionally mortuary practices became uniform over broad areas. The practice of single graves under barrows or tumuli (small mounds) is widespread during the first half of the Bronze Age, although flat cemeteries are also found in parts of central Europe. Some of the Early Bronze Age barrows are remarkably rich, such as Bush Barrow near Stonehenge and Leubingen in eastern Germany. Occasional graves with multiple skeletons, such as the ones at Amesbury in southern England and Wassenaar in the Netherlands, may reflect a more violent side to Bronze Age life. Around 1200 b.c., there was a marked shift in burial practices in much of central and southern Europe, and cremation burial in urns became common. The so-called urnfields are large cemeteries, sometimes with several thousand individual burials.

Alongside the burial sites, other focal points in the landscape grew in importance. The megalithic tradition in western Europe continued the practice of building large stone monuments. Stonehenge, begun during the Late Neolithic, reached its zenith during the Bronze Age, when the largest upright sarsen stones and lintels still visible today were erected, and other features of the surrounding sacred landscape, such as the Avenue, were expanded. At widely separated parts of Europe, in southern Scandinavia and the southern Alps, large rock outcrops were covered with images of people, animals, boats, and chariots, as well as abstract designs. Offerings were made by depositing weapons and body armor into rivers, streams, bogs, and especially springs.


The variation in the burials has led to the very reasonable view that the Bronze Age was characterized by increasing differences in the access by individuals to status, power, and wealth. Admittedly, burial evidence may overemphasize such differences, but a compelling case can be made that certain burials, such as the oak-coffin tombs of Denmark, reflect the high status of their occupants. The amount of effort that went into the construction of some Bronze Age mortuary structures and the high value ascribed to the goods buried with the bodies—and thus taken out of use by the living—is consistent with the expectations for such a stratified society. These are not the earliest examples of astonishingly rich burials in European prehistory, as the Copper Age cemetery at Varna attests. The displays of wealth in some Bronze Age burials are so elaborate and the practice is so widespread, however, that it is difficult not to conclude that society was increasingly differentiated into elites and commoners.

Evidence for such social differentiation appears late in the third millennium b.c. in widely separated areas. Among these are the Wessex culture of southern England, builders of Stonehenge; the Unětice culture of central Europe, whose hoards of bronze artifacts reflect the ability to acquire tin from a considerable distance; and the El Argar culture of southern Spain, who buried many of their dead in large ceramic jars. Somewhat later, in places such as Denmark and Ireland, lavish displays of wealth provided an opportunity for the elite to demonstrate their status.

Archaeologists have pondered the question of what form these differentiated societies took. Some have advanced the hypothesis that they were organized into chiefdoms, a form of social organization known from pre-state societies around the world. In chiefdoms, positions of status and leadership are passed from one generation to the next, and this elite population controls the production of farmers, herders, and craft specialists, whose products they accumulate, display, and distribute to maintain their social preeminence. As an alternative to such a straightforwardly hierarchical social structure, other archaeologists have advanced the notion that Bronze Age society had more complicated and fluid patterns of differences in authority and status, which changed depending on the situation and the relationships among individuals and groups. Whatever position one accepts, it is clear that social organization was becoming increasingly complex throughout Europe during the Bronze Age.

The most complex societies were found in the Aegean beginning in the third millennium b.c. On the island of Crete, the Minoan civilization developed a political and economic system dominated by several major palaces in which living quarters, storerooms, sanctuaries, and ceremonial rooms surrounded a central courtyard. Clearly, these were the seats of a powerful elite. During the mid-second millennium b.c., the fortified town of Mycenae on the Greek mainland, with its immense royal burial complexes, became the focus of an Aegean civilization that was celebrated by later Greek writers such as Homer and Thucydides. Bronze Age developments in the Aegean proceeded much more quickly than in the rest of Europe, and the Minoans and Mycenaeans were true civilizations with writing and an elaborate administrative structure.

The Bronze Age continues to pose many challenges to archaeologists. In particular, the significance of age and gender differences in Bronze Age society will need to be explored to a greater degree, as will the possible meanings of the remarkable sacred landscapes created by monuments and burials. The roles of small farmsteads and fortified sites need to be better understood. The European Bronze Age is a classic example of how new archaeological finds, rather than providing definitive answers, raise more questions for archaeologists to address.

Peter Bogucki

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Masters of Metal: Introduction

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