New Frontiers of the Bronze Age Collapse (Pt. 1/3)

Bronze Age Greek palace of Knossos

(Go to Part 2, Part 3)

The Bronze Age is difficult to study because written language was a lot less widespread back then, and all of the artifacts have had a lot longer to be destroyed than more recent ones. We tend to think, therefore, about the “start” of European history as the rise of the Greek city states of Athens and Sparta with their flowering of philosophy, mathematics, and literature. (In short, the Iron Age.) If we think back before Homer’s day, our focus shifts, from the edge of Europe to the edges of Asia and Africa–Egypt, Anatolia, and Judea. (Indeed, our notion that “continents” are important units by which people are defined is probably faulty in this context, where bodies of water are probably equally important.)

Sewers of Knossos (source)
Sewers of Knossos

But there were fortified towns of +5,000 people in Greece a good 6,000 years before Homer composed his epics, way back in the neolithic. By the Bronze Age, Greece had cities and palaces with aqueducts, sewers, tons of art, writing, and international trade. (The Greek Bronze Age began around 3,200 BC.)

Chalcolithic town of Los Millares, Spain
Model of the Chalcolithic town of Los Millares

Egypt in the Bronze Age built its famous pyramids; across the Mediterranean, in Spain, we find the pre-bronze fortified town of Los Millares (population +1,000), the many towns of El Agar, and the impressive city of La Bastida.

A few locations excepted (for reasons that will become clear in a moment,) the Bronze Age required long-term navigation, trade, and techno-social complexity.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Copper is abundant and relatively easy to find, but too soft to make good tools. Mixing it with tin makes it harder and more functional, but tin is much rarer and harder to find–and tends not to be located anywhere near the copper ores. Bronze Age peoples, therefore, had to engage in long-distance trade to make their bronze.

1024px-Metallurgical_diffusionSpain was one of the Mediterranean’s major sources of tin; Cornwall (southern Britain) and the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge,) in southern Germany were the others.

The Nebra Sky Disk, c. 1600 BC Germany, contains Cornish tin, Austrian copper, and Cornish or Carpathian gold. Trade in Cornish tin was long believed to be controlled by the the Phoenician Empire of North Africa. While it may be that the Phoenicians only controlled the Mediterranean end of the tin trade, a great many Phoenician coins have been found in southern Britain.

The Amber Road
The Amber Road

Another major trade item was amber, probably used primarily for jewelry but also sometimes burned as incense. Amber hails from northern Europe/Scandinavia, whose trade routes I wrote about back in Elsewhere in the Baltic: Gotland; the “Amber Road” stretches from the southern shores of the Baltic to northern Italy. From there it was traded to Carthage, Egypt, and Syria. (King Tut was interred with ornaments made of Baltic amber.) If amber made it to the Silk Road, it could have traveled even further afield.

So I wonder: How advanced were things circa 1,000 BC? Certainly most people were subsistence farmers, but then again, most people today are still farmers. Did the Europe of 1,000 or 6,000 BC look much like the Europe of 1,000 AD, but with fewer cathedrals? Did the Roman and Greek eras introduce major changes in the level of organization and the general shape of European daily life (even allowing for the massive collapse that followed in the western half of the Roman Empire,) or was this more or less the road Europe was already on? Would the culture of bronze age Europe be remotely familiar to us, or was it totally different? And how much of an effect (if any) did all of this trade have on the lives of ordinary people?

To be continued… (Go to Part 2, Part 3)



6 thoughts on “New Frontiers of the Bronze Age Collapse (Pt. 1/3)

  1. Not directly related, but in terms of trying to imagine the past… I’ve started reading about the history of the Chinese language recently, and one of the odder bits is that, in the time of Confucius (so well past bronze age) Chinese had not yet evolved tones. So, to the best of our knowledge, Chinese didn’t sound like what we think of as Chinese. (And, in a twist, if my memory serves, Greek, at the time, was tonal…)

    The other thing, only tangentially related, is that they’ve found some Chinese documents dating to before the major book-burning incident circa 2000 years ago, and among other things, analysis of the writing style indicates that the culture had, even then, been literate for quite a while. Basically, things like Homer and Beowulf are chock full of memory aids, while a lot of ancient Chinese writing is pretty much pure prose. I haven’t actually read any, mind you, and my knowledge of Chinese is only barely getting past “ni hao”… That said, of course, it does seem that given later history, there ought to have been something related going on in China…


    • Interesting, thanks for the information.
      Since Chinese seems annoying to write (at least, it seems that way to me,) because of the sheer number of characters you have to memorize to do it well, I wonder if that has an effect on the way ancient Chinese authors composed their tales.


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