The Coming of the Age of Iron

   Also posted at the
 Lincoln Heights Literary Society


Theodore Wertime and James Muhly, eds.,
The Coming of the Age of Iron (Yale, 1980.)

Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age
(Princeton, 1993.)



In the 1820's the Danish archaeologist Christian Jürgensen Thomsen divided human prehistory into three stages, basing his division on the materials used to make weapons and tools: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. These were probably distant descendants of Hesiod's four ages (Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron),  though Hesiod's ages were a declining series, with each age crueler and more corrupt than the one before, whereas Thomsen was describing a progressive advance to ever-higher levels. The term "Iron Age" still pops up now and then as a cliche, even though it has been abandoned by archeology.

During the colonial and post-colonial periods, steel production was often used as an index of progress, and even in countries without supplies of ore (notably Mongolia) steel mills were built to produce steel that was hardly even needed. The mystique of steel was especially strong among Communists. "Stalin" means something like "man of steel", and Lenin used steel as a metaphor for the perfect philosophy of Marx: "From the philosophy of Marxism, cast of one piece of steel, it is impossible to expunge a single basic premise, a single essential part, without deviating from objective truth."  When Mao put decentralized backyard steel mills at the center of his demented economic plan, it was a most peculiar hybrid of Bolshevik steel-worship and Gandhian self-reliance (which in India was based on home spinning and weaving).

It is likely that Stalin's choice of a steel-based pseudonym had a second underlying implication, besides the commitment to industrial development.  Before the nineteenth century steel mostly meant weapons, especially swords: "Now is steel twixt gut and bladder interposed". Among the Turks and Mongols of the steppe (who ruled parts of Russia for centuries), the name Temur (or Timur), meaning iron or steel, was quite common.  The ruthless Tamerlane's true name was Timur; several Mongol emperors were named Temur; and Genghis Khan's personal name was Temujin (which means "Smith").[1]

The Coming of the Age of Iron gives you lots of detail about the early history of iron and steel technology.  The book isn’t well-edited, with a mediocre index, lots of loose ends, and one table printed partly upside-down -- so that it isn’t right no matter which way you turn the book. It’s a fun book, though, if you like to wrestle with puzzles, and there’s  lots of new vocabulary like “carburization”, “cuppulation”, “cementite” (= iron carbide) and “sponge iron”, together with new technical meanings of such familiar words as “quench”, “bloom”, and “flux”.

The quick picture is that in the eastern Mediterranean area between 1200 BC and 1000 BC, iron and steel rather abruptly came into heavy use, mostly for making weapons, and that they gradually spread from there[2]. Iron had been produced in small quantities for centuries before that (“sporadic iron”), but it had never been very important, and at one point iron was a precious metal worth forty  times its weight in silver.

The antecedents to iron-smelting were many: the use for paint, as far back as the Old Stone Age, of red, yellow, and brown ochre (all of which are iron ores)[3]; the kiln technology used in making glass, pottery, cement, and terra cotta; the smelting of tin, copper, and lead from their ores; and the production of alloys such as bronze. The turning point came when the controlled production of carburized steel became possible, since pure iron is too soft. There’s a metaphysical irony here: because steel is superior to iron, it has always been assumed that it is has been purified by fire; but the fact is that iron is pure and steel is impure -- the charcoal fire changes ferrite (pure iron) into iron carbide.

This book, together with Robert Drews’ The End of the Bronze Age (Princeton, 1993) makes it pretty clear that iron and steel didn’t make anything happen. The rise of iron roughly coincided with a series of invasions which brought down many of the empires of the Eastern Mediterranean (notably Troy), but the evidence tells us that the invasions came first, and that the heavily militarized conquering nations afterwards developed steel technology for military uses. During the nineteenth century it was often thought that technological changes (or access to resources) caused social changes,  but nowadays it is more often thought, as in this case, that the social changes led to the increased exploitation of already-existing technology and resources.

In the literary records of this transition there is a tendency toward nostalgia. It was from the point of view of the defeated older cultures that Hesiod’s more militaristic Iron Age was worse than the preceding Bronze Age, and it has been noted that while the society Homer wrote about was clearly a Bronze Age culture, the language of Homer’s own writing uses many Iron Age metaphors (notably a lengthy comparison of the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus to the tempering of a sword by quenching).

If iron is thought of as a marker or a result rather than as a cause, the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age was a reality. The conquered empires used bronze and practiced chariot warfare, whereas the conquering nations were barbarian border peoples who fought as infantry – and who, after their  conquests, developed steel technology for military purposes. (Neither book underlines the point, but it seems that in the beginning steel was almost entirely used for weapons, only later for tools, and last of all for structural purposes.)

After 1000 BC iron and steel technology spread rather erratically, without much relation to civilizational level. Iron came late to Egypt and India[4] despite their well-developed civilizations, and the barbarous steppe peoples (Scythians, Huns, and Turks) smelted their own iron quite early, as did the Celts and Teutons. (According their own legends as well as Chinese reports, the earliest Turks were metallurgical specialists). Before the arrival of Europeans, sub-Saharan Africa had developed its own iron and steel technologies, some of which were quite sophisticated and were taken to the New World by the Portuguese.

With the Industrial Revolution production ballooned, and iron and steel acquired a much wider range of uses and came to be taken as index of economic development and prosperity. (Probably this is what led to the overestimation of the importance of iron in prehistory). In 2004 the world produced an astonishing  billion tons of iron and steel. Today the Chinese steel industry is by far the largest, so if iron and steel really had the key importance people sometimes give it, the rest of us would be in serious trouble.


African metallurgy brought by slaves to the New World

Documentary on African metallurgy


[1] Genghis Khan also had a Nestorian Christian daughter (whose husband was an Onggut Turkish Christian named George), and one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons was a Catholic convert. But there was no brother Don, no matter what Bob Dylan says.

[2] In several respects the island of Cyprus had a special importance in the development of metallurgy. It is even sometimes thought that the name “Cyprus” was derived from the word “cuprum” for copper, but the truth is more interesting than that. The Greek word for copper was “aes”, but Cyprus was so important in the copper trade that the phrase “aes Cyprium” (copper of Cyprus) became common in Latin, later to be shortened to “Cyprium” and then “cuprum”.

It is sometimes claimed that the Hittites and the Philistines had a special importance in the development of iron and steel technology, but the authors in the Wertime-Muhly book found no solid evidence of this.

[3] In the real world, and not just in symbolism, the color red is often a sign of the presence of iron. Besides red ochre, blood (from hemoglobin), rust, and the planet Mars are reddened by iron compounds. Most oxygen-carriers are pigments, as is chlorophyll, and species with non-iron-based oxygen-carriers have green, blue, or purple blood. (More here).

[4] The Wertime-Muhly book says little about India, leading me to believe that iron and steel came to India very late. During the early Christian era India developed a steel industry producing the highly-prized “Damascene” or “wootz” steel, but Googling finds little evidence of an Indian steel industry before that time -- though there are quite a number of unattested nationalistic claims.


I am emersonj at gmail dot com.

All original materials copyright John J Emerson.

Return to Idiocentrism