Humanity sometimes gives the impression of an obsession with age. Newspaper reports of things happening to people invariably seem to include the age of the person concerned. Fashion is dictated by age. In the social side of life age categories dominate. Did Shakespeare create the tendency with his often-quoted “Seven Ages of Man”? (It is perhaps significant that the ladies seem to have raised no objections to the title.) Shakespeare often tended to be a trend-setter.
In the early 19th. century a Danish prehistorian Thomsen carried Shakespeare’s concept a stage further, in looking at not individual Man, but Mankind. If we assume that a main difference between humankind and the animal kingdom was the ability to use tools, then the idea arose that the development of human civilization could be measured by developments in the tools being used. In Thomsen’s time the idea was that the history of mankind’s development could be divided into three areas. These were Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age. Soon however folk came along to make it more complicated – surprise, surprise! It was felt that the use of stone world-wide as a tool source came in three phases. These were Paleolithic (Old Stone), Mesolithic (Middle Stone), Neolithic (New Stone) Ages. In addition it was found that in certain parts of the world people did not use the more sophisticated bronze straight away, with its addition of tin to make it harder, but instead for a period (usually brief) made do with softer pure copper. So for them the Copper (Chalcolithic) Age appears between Neolithic and Bronze.
There are however significant weaknesses in this basically Three Age System. One complaint about learning History is its apparent obsession with Dates. But when it comes to putting dates on these periods of civilization we run into problems. Nowadays we are so used to instant reactions world-wide to change that we have problems with the concept that one part of the world might have adopted bronze while another culture some distance away might go on using stone for many hundreds of years thereafter. There are several reasons for this. Bronze required copper and tin (the latter a comparatively rare ore). The technology of finding and mining both and even more of smelting and processing was daunting. It often meant importing the ores which had to be paid for by goods in exchange. In fact international trade and navigation got a great boost when bronze came into use. Also if stone meets your needs effectively why get into bronze with all its complications – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
The Iron Age leaves us with problems. Depending on where you were it could have been said to appear between 1500 BC and 500 BC. But communities in the Pacific Ocean were spared this innovation until the 1800’s AD. Again, it would be interesting to compare the use of iron in Roman times, say, with the use of iron in 1890 , and again in 2016.Between Roman and Victorian times iron was accompanied with timber, bronze, stone etc. But by the 19th.centurt the use of iron increased massively with the coming of steam-driven machinery, iron ships, utensils and items of all kinds. So did the European Iron Age begin around 500 BC or 1800 AD?
Another problem future archaeologists will have to contend with is the impact of new metals and technologies. From the beginning of the 20th. century aluminium and related light alloys have contended massively with iron. From the latter years of Victoria’s reign our tools have been driven by electric power – the Electric Age? If Communication is regarded as more important than the use of tools what about the Electronic or the Digital Age?
A side issue arising from the “Age” system of tracking the movement of culture is the assumption that each age marked an increase in basic human intelligence. If “necessity is the mother of invention” does that mean that as people evolve new methods of doing things they automatically become more intelligent? Humanity’s track record from the time bronze replaced stone doesn’t seem to bear this out. Conversely, did Robinson Crusoe become less intelligent when he had to go back to earlier ways? There seems to have been a Victorian concept that people who got together in cities, used metals, law, writing, political systems were in some way of superior intelligence to other communities still leading a more simple life. We still seem to be stuck in that materialistic groove. Until fairly recently in archaeology societies which produced the megaliths were regarded as inferior to the urban societies of, say, Sumeria and Egypt.
We could ask ourselves what is progress – how do we measure it? Medicine has made enormous advances, but the resulting increase in the world’s population has not been catered for by advances in agriculture and trade. Advances in military technology are not an acceptable answer to the population problem. Did the Bronze – Iron – Digital Ages produce answers?