Episode 5: The Metals Revolution and the Revolution of Ideas
Before I jump into the narrative itself, I want to thank the School of Advanced Research, and Dr. William Parkinson, for posting a lecture on the metals’ revolution online, which was particularly helpful alongside a number of books I used for research on this period. Since my specialty is in modern France this period is about as far from my expertise as possible, so it was nice to get a free lecture on it from an expert.
One thing which I mentioned in the last podcast was that the dating of the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, and the early metals ages are all problematic because of a lack of material evidence and potentially incorrect assumptions based on that evidence. As such, the stone age timescale is not ‘set in stone,’ and neither are the metals ages, but instead they often overlap. Dr. Parkinson noted in his lecture that metals in particular have been hard to date because they were the first fully recyclable technology. Whereas stones, pottery and animal bones couldn’t easily be refashioned for other purposes, and left behind residue in the process, every bit of metal could be reused during the smelting process. As such, the ‘first’ metal objects that have been found are probably not the first invented. Even if archeologists could find the ‘oldest’ metal item on Earth it would not be the oldest metal item ever, as the oldest metal item was probably smelted and refashioned into some other tool. Because of this, archeologists originally thought that Europe’s Copper Age began in the year 2,000 BCE, but now many archeologists push it back as far as 5,000 BCE.
The foundation of today’s episode will be the metals revolution, which saw early humans abandon stone tools and replace them with copper, bronze and then iron. This period was not just a revolution in technology or material accessibility. The development of new technologies led to remarkable changes to society. Over the course of the Copper Age, through the Bronze Age, few ‘technologies,’ were invented. There were two new breakthroughs during this period which were the smelting of metal and the use of secondary animal products. Yet, this period was absolutely revolutionary for human beings due to the byproducts of these technologies. The socioeconomic, cultural, political, religious, ideological, psychological, ethnic and interpersonal effects of these inventions were enormous. New major technologies are always transformative and the metals revolution was one of the most important periods of transformation in human history.
“But how is it that simple metal tools and milking goats change what it meant to be a human being?” -you ask. I think the best way of thinking about the metals revolution is to compare it to other technological-based breakthroughs in human history. Perhaps the best example is to think about how much the internet changed the world. As someone who was born in 1990, I always lived with the internet; yet the majority of the world, even the majority of the United States for a time, was without the internet during my childhood, so I at least knew what life was like before it, unlike most of my current students who consistently remind me of my age. Today, the internet serves as one of the most revolutionary breakthroughs in all human history; yet, when it was first invented it had very inauspicious beginnings. The internet was originally invented by the US Department of Defense as a means of rapid communication across long distances. This project was meant to give the US Military the capacity to rapidly respond and outflank enemy movements across the world. Despite this, the internet has gone on to revolutionize every single aspect of human life.
The unintended side-effects of the internet are too numerous to even list here, though the major ones are worth considering. The internet has fundamentally altered communications, as any human being on planet Earth can communicate with another instantly, for free. It’s totally changed entertainment culture, as any human being can access virtually every movie, tv series, or internet series ever made instantly. Because the internet has allowed for trans-national communication it has led to a greater exchange of ideas than ever before, and a blending of all aspects of culture from music, literature even food recipes. The internet has changed communication, as regional dialects of English have blended together to form a common English language. Not only has an ‘internet English’ language developed, but important English words have been incorporated into other languages, as smaller language groups utilize English words on a regular basis.
The internet has also changed interpersonal relations. Before the internet a person’s ability to connect with someone was limited to face-to-face interactions. While the telephone allowed for long-distance communication, it only provided audio. Today, people can constantly communicate in an audiovisual medium, meaning that spatial boundaries between people have disappeared. But, while we are more connected than ever to people across the world, humans are increasingly isolated form their neighbors and family members.
On the more negative side, while the internet has become a repository for human knowledge, much of that knowledge is incorrect. For millions of years of human history the greatest danger that we’ve faced is a lack of access to information; information about which animals might be over the next hill and kill us, information on how to cure a disease or which food is safe to eat. Thanks to the internet there is no lack of information for nearly every problem; instead there are the problems of misinformation and irrelevant information. Thus, humanity’s entire relation to knowledge has changed. Even what it means to be human has changed, I believe. I’m guessing that any of you listening to this podcast has an internet-accessible phone, meaning that at every single waking moment of your existence you are in constant contact with the rest of the human race. In this sense, the internet has virtually eliminated the every concept of ‘alone.’ Most human beings, in the strictest sense, are never alone. Now ‘isolation’ is no longer a physical state, but a feeling, as we are always connected to the other 7 billion people on the planet through technology, yet struggle to find meaningful emotional connections to our family members, roommates, neighbors and co-workers. This incredible invention known as the internet, or world wide web when I was growing up, was originally invented for the sole purpose of replacing the radio as a more reliable form of communication for troop movements. Instead, it has changed what it means to be a human being.
Every technological breakthrough causes a revolution in society, so while the invention of metals smelting may seem largely unimportant, they did in fact change the very nature of humanity in this era. Smelting meant that these peoples were developing even more specialized technology. In addition to smelting, molds were developed, and we begin to see uniform weapons and tools. The first metal used was copper, which was malleable, making it easy to forge. However, this relatively soft metal was not ideal for hunting or cutting down trees. Tinkering with the smelting process led early smiths to create bronze out of arsenic and copper, before eventually copper and tin were combined. Bronze proved far more effective in tools and weapons due to its relative strength versus copper and because it was much lighter than stones. While copper deposits were found across Europe, some of the largest copper deposits came from the Great Orme Mine in northern Wales and was transported across Europe. Furthermore, the largest deposits of tin north of the Alps came from Cornwall. France was lucky to be so near these two British regions as early French towns could either import the raw materials for smelting or finished products. While copper and other metals were first experimented with before 5,000 BCE, it is around 3,000 BCE that bronze became fairly commonplace. Widespread bronze tools meant more efficient hunting, and wood-cutting, and bronze-armored soldiers were far superior to their stone and wood armored counterparts.
In addition to smelting the other major technological breakthrough was the Secondary Products Revolution. Secondary products include animal products that don’t use up the animal itself. These products include milk, dairy, cheese, sheep’s wool and fertilizer. Furthermore, draft animals were bred and used for labor, such as delivering goods and pulling ploughs. The addition of milk products meant that early French inhabitants had a broader diet, and may have been healthier than their earlier counterparts. Combined with increased fishing and humans were gaining access to far more food sources.
Aside from the immediate effects of bronze instruments there were a number of byproducts of the metals revolution. Perhaps the most important was socio-economic inequality. Metal tools didn’t decay as easily as other goods, and so wealth could be conserved, leading to families inheriting metal weapons and tools, which meant they were far better off than their neighbors. Bodies were often buried with pottery, animal bones, tools and other items, possibly because of a belief in a spirit world, but, according to Dr. William Parkinson, as a way of showcasing wealth. This theory is backed up by the fact that only a minority of graves possessed goods, meaning that there was an inequal distribution of goods during this time, and probably a politico-economic hierarchy.
This period saw the invention of a whole new paradigm: luxury. In France and Germany, metal pins and necklaces denoted power status. Furthermore, bronze razors show evidence of the first known attempts at personal grooming. It is without question that those who could afford to cut their hair and shave their beards and wear metal necklaces would be among the elite of the Bronze Age. Thus, the Bronze Age was also the birth of fashion.
As a result of socio-economic inequality and a rising population within communities these early peoples were probably split into familial groups that were part of a greater tribe, as opposed to a small tribe of interrelated people. Because of this, there was probably a sense among these people that their loyalty was to their family first, and then the tribe. Evidence of this is that megalithic constructs weren’t built in the Bronze Age as tribes did not all come together to form communal burial grounds, and instead families had their own burial places. This in and of itself is pretty revolutionary, as this period potentially saw a definitive split in the thinking of early peoples between ‘family’ as a direct lineage group and ‘tribe,’ being a culture that one was part of, but was more distant from. In essence, people may have become more insular within the family unit, while interacting with tribes on a secondary basis. Not only that but during this period travel became more widespread, making tribes more important as a protective force, even if people’s allegiance to the tribe was secondary to their families.
Accompanying all of these massive changes was an explosion of travel. Trade networks crisscrossed Europe as tin from Cornwall and copper from Wales and southern Germany was traded across Europe. Cross-cultural trade meant that more wealth accumulation occurred. Concurrently, a whole new profession developed during this period, which was banditry. Whereas previous raiders may have stolen food and women, bandits raided towns for wealth. This wealth would then be traded to other towns, so in a strange way, bandits enhanced the trade networks of Bronze Age Europe, as more metals had to be delivered because of bandit raids. Bandits and invaders also led to the development of fortifications and the entrenchment of people in towns.
Before the metals and Secondary Products revolutions people tended to be migratory. Even Neolithic peoples were known to move from one town to another as there wasn’t much rooting them in place. One bad harvest could mean that members of a late Stone Age community could leave everything behind and try to start life somewhere else, because after all, they really weren’t leaving much behind. In the Copper and Bronze Age this changed. Houses became more permanent. Towns included fortifications, which couldn’t easily be rebuilt. Domesticated animals grew in numbers and could not be as easily transported. Furthermore, as generations of dead were buried these places held symbolic and religious value. As generation after generation lived in a specific place they developed highly-profitable trade routes. Finally, outside travel exposed townspeople to raiders and bandits. As such, nomadism fell out of fashion as early French dwellers assumed a sedentary lifestyle.
One potentially momentous invention in this period was the creation of government. Towns had an incredible diversification of roles, meaning at some point the most powerful families believed society needed to be regulated, particularly in the face of bandits and possible invaders. Thus a concept of authority developed as power relations were defined based on seniority, martial prestige, religious pedigree and wealth. With the emergence of authority came the development of customs. Custom can be distinguished from law; whereas law is uniformly understood within a culture and carries standardized sentences, customs are general social guidelines and can be more easily negotiated.
Finally, the development of sedentary peoples led to the emergence of recognizable groups of people. Collections of towns in a relatively small area probably developed a base language which they used to speak with one another. Consistent trade and cultural exchange led to a homogenization of smelting and pottery practices. It is from this period that the Bell Beaker Culture, the Tumulus Culture, and a number of other early French groups arose. It is not too unthinkable that during this period a handful of nearby towns may have joined together to protect against raiders or engage in important joint religious ceremonies. Thus, distinct cultures and language families emerged.
Alright, that will do it for this week’s podcast. Next time, we will look at a major culture that dominated France for a millennia: the Celts. So far we’ve been blazing through millions of years of history in a few episodes and we’re finally approaching a period with records, and with named individuals. All I can say is thank goodness, because as a modern historian I much prefer having too many sources than too few and the further along in history we proceed the more sure we can be of what really happened.
Ancient History Encyclopedia
Dr. William Parkinson’s public lectures on the Celtic migrations.