Vere Gordon Childe, 1930

The Bronze Age

First Published: by Cambridge University Press, 1930
Mark-up: Steve Painter



A detailed account of the metallurgical processes employed in antiquity must be relegated to technical works, but a short description of some aspects thereof is desirable both to justify the assertions of the first chapter and to make intelligible the sequel. As to mining, we have already remarked that at first weathered surface deposits of ore, even if poor, were exploited. In the case of tin, supplies could be obtained from alluvial deposits by washing as with gold. However, it is certain that even in Europe before the end of the Bronze Age the veins of ore were followed underground by means of shafts and galleries many of which are well preserved in the Austrian Alps.[1].

Nilotic smith at workThe process of smelting, particularly in the case of surface ores, consisting of oxides, silicates or carbonates — the so-called oxidised ores — was comparatively simple. Heating with carbon (charcoal) suffices to effect the reduction and liberate the metallic copper. In the case of some of the copper ores, found principally in deeper workings, a preliminary roasting may be necessary to produce artificially an oxidised ore. The reduction could be quite well effected in a shallow clay-lined pit such as was used in Japan last century,[2], Ignited charcoal is placed on the floor of the pit, and a conical pile of charcoal and ore in alternate layers is heaped up over it. A blast is applied through a clay nozzle when the mass will be reduced in about an hour. The metal settles to the bottom of the hole. The slag and unburnt charcoal is thereupon raked off, and the metal dragged out in lumps when on the point of solidifying.The cakes of raw metal from European “founders’ hoards” display under the microscope the peculiar structure caused by breaking the metal when it was thus on the point of solidifying. In the Tyrol remains of more elaborate furnaces built into the hillside have been found.

Tin and lead can be obtained by the same methods though the loss from volatilisation is considerable. Lead ores were probably valued at first for the silver they contain. To purify the precious metal the process termed cupellation must have been applied. The silver-lead amalgam produced by simple reduction is strongly heated in a blast of air whereby the lead is oxidised, the metallic silver remaining at the bottom of the furnace or crucible.

For the production of the important alloy, bronze, two processes were available. The ores of copper and tin might be smelted together or the two metals fused together. The former process may have been first employed. In the true Bronze Age, however, the extant evidence points to a deliberate mixture of the two metals. Another alloy used in antiquity was electrum, consisting approximately of two parts gold and one part silver. It was used in Troy, the Caucasus, Mesopotamia and Hungary. Since the native gold of Transylvania, Pactolus and elsewhere is strongly argentiferous, electrum may well be a natural alloy.

The raw metal from the smelters was probably not generally cast into ingots. The material from the bottom of the furnaces was rather broken up into cakes of convenient size before it had set hard. However, ingots were sometimes at least cast. From Cyprus and Crete we have a number of ingots of copper, probably Cypriote, cast in the form of a Minoan double-axe and sometimes stamped with a character of the Minoan script. Similar ingots are depicted among the tribute brought to Eighteenth Dynasty Pharaohs, and one has been found in Sardinia. In Central Europe copper was apparently traded in the form of neck-rings or torques. Hoards consisting exclusively of such torques, made of pure copper, have been unearthed particularly between the tin-producing region of Bohemia and the copper lodes of Slovakia and the Alps.[3]


Clay nozzle from pile-village of Morigen, Switzerland (after Ischer)The operations of the smith need more detailed description to enable us to understand the peculiarities of the metal objects that constitute such prominent documents on Bronze Age civilisation. The raw metal was first melted in crucibles of clay. In Egypt these crucibles, to judge by the tomb paintings, were heated over an open fire. Actual crucibles have been found in European sites. But these exhibit the effects of heat only round the rim[4] and on the inside, so that we must assume the use of a furnace similar to that employed in Japan last century. The clay crucible was placed in a hollow packed with charcoal; sticks of ignited charcoal were laid upon it and these covered with lumps of copper. On the application of a blast the metal would melt and drip into the crucible. In either case a blast was needed to secure adequate heat so that the smith must have assistants. In Egypt down to the New Kingdom human lungs provided the current of air, and we see parties of youths sitting by the furnace and blowing down pipes! Thereafter leather bellows are depicted. The wind was conducted into the fire through a clay nozzle. Such blast pines are regularly found in European villages of the Late Bronze Age, notably the Swiss lake-dwellings[5], Velem Szent Vid and other industrial settlements in Hungary (Fig 2).

Simple objects, flat on one face, can be cast by pouring the molten metal into a form, hollowed out in the ground or carved on a block of stone(s). This is known as the open hearth process. A number of stone moulds for casting simple objects such as flat celts have been found in Great Britain and other countries. Moulds for flat celts are peculiarly common in Scotland (Fig 4).

Usually a more elaborate sort of mould was required. Even for daggers (except the most primitive flat type), spearheads and palstaves a mould in at least two pieces must be employed[6]. A number of specimens have come down to us from the Middle and Late Bronze Age of Europe (Fig 5). The usual procedure was to take two corresponding pieces of stone, generally schist or sandstone, carefully rubbed flat and smooth on one face each, and to carve on each piece the negative outline of half the desired object. By combining the two a “valve mould” is obtained whose internal hollow is the exact negative of the object to be manufactured. Of course it is essential to secure an exact correspondence between the two valves and a stable union. That might be ensured by dowelling the two halves together, but often it was thought sufficient just to lash the two pieces together; ribs are sometimes cut in the back of the mould to give the thongs a better purchase.

Egyptian goldsmiths (after de Morgan)

When the valves have been fitted together liquid metal is poured in through a channel with a funnel-like mouth, specially cut for it in the mould. At least in the case of large objects, like rapier blades, fine capillaries running from the internal hollow to the edge must be cut to allow the air to escape from the enclosed space.

Stone mould for flat celt, ScotlandSimilar capillaries, in this case radiating from the inlet tube like veins, are needed to allow the liquid metal to spread evenly in casting in a valve mould large thin plates. As the two valves never fitted exactly, a little of the liquid metal will have spread into the join between the two faces. This appears on the product as a thin ridge or “seam” (Gussnaht) all round which, together with the spur or “fount” left by the metal remaining in the inlet channel, must be subsequently removed by hammering and rubbing with sand. Some traces of the seam are generally to be found on rough or rejected metal tools. Among the latter are to be seen castings spoilt through the slipping of the valves during the process. The little ridges left by the vein-like capillaries that served to ensure the rapid spread of the metal over a thin surface might be retained as decorative elements instead of being rubbed away.

More complicated moulds were needed for tools with a socket for the shaft. Axe-heads of the modern type with a shaft-hole could be produced with a two-valve mould if a clay core was introduced where the shaft-hole was to come. It was sufficient to provide a depression at the bottom of the mould to keep the core in position. There is a mould for a double-axe from Troy VI that illustrates the arrangement. The manufacture of an implement like a socketed spearhead or a socketed celt, where the tube for the shaft follows the long axis of the artifact and is essentially closed at one end, is more difficult; for the metal must flow all round the core that represents the socket. The core has therefore to be suspended from its upper end so that the metal can pass under it as well as round it. For other objects three- or four-piece moulds must have been used. None such have actually survived, but the position of the seams or flaws due to the slipping of one part of the mould show how the several valves were arranged. Looped buttons can be cast in a tripartite mould, one piece containing the negative of the button top while two pieces with the join at right angles to the face of the first section provided the loop (Fig 8). Chains composed of closed annular links required four valves joining obliquely.

Stone valve mould for spearhead, British MuseumNevertheless, except for quite simple implements, stone or metal moulds were seldom used for the actual casting. This was carried out rather by the cire perdue (verlorener form) process. The procedure is as follows. A wax model of the desired object is first prepared. This is then dipped in a bath of clay of creamy consistency so that it becomes coated all over with an exactly fitting skin of clay, which is allowed to dry on it. The whole is then enveloped in thicker clay to protect it. When this too has dried, the whole is heated so that the wax melts and runs out through an aperture left for the purpose. Liquid metal is poured by the same channel into the vacuum created. When the metal has cooled, the clay of the mould must of course be broken to allow of the extraction of the casting. Each mould can thus serve for one casting only. Hence the archaeological evidence for the use of the process in prehistoric times is mainly inferential. Only a few fragments of the actual moulds have survived. But one group of objects, representing the stock-in-trade of a Late Bronze Age smith unearthed at St Chely-du-Tarn (Lozere) in France, included a large lump of wax[7]. From Egypt and Mesopotamia textual evidence for the employment of the cire perdue process is extant.

The cire perdue process sounds very complicated and laborious. But really, once the technique has been acquired, the only part that required time and close attention was the preparation of the wax model. This could be greatly accelerated and simplified by casting the model in a mould. In point of fact, while some stone moulds of the types just described above were no doubt directly employed for making the final bronze casting, the majority of them, and probably all bronze moulds (Fig. 6), were used not for the casting proper but for forming quickly the wax model. Models could be turned out very readily with the aid of such moulds and moreover could very easily be trimmed up and embellished so as to yield an admirable model. Difficult operations could be simplified by the use of this procedure since the model was always subject to adjustment before being coated with clay. So, in the manufacture of socketed celts, the core could be steadied during the casting of the model by a wedge under its lower end; the crack in the wax left by this could easily be filled up before the model was dipped in its clay bath. It is possible too that the marvellous curvilinear patterns that adorn Hungarian and Scandinavian bronzes were engraved, not with hammer and chisel on the hard bronze itself, but on the soft wax of the model.

Bronze valve mould for palstave, British MuseumThe cire perdue process is also applicable to the casting of thin objects over a core. Metal vessels can be made by modelling a lump of clay to the required shape, coating the lump with a thin layer of wax and then enveloping the whole in a mantle of clay, leaving of course in the outer cover a passage for drawing off the wax and pouring in the metal. In the case of objects such as vases the clay core would be broken up after the casting, but in other cases it might be left in place. The Scottish National Museum possesses a sword-pommel which turns out on examination to be just a clay core sheathed in thin bronze. It was doubtless prepared in the way just described.

Castings made on the open hearth or in a valve mould had subsequently to be trimmed up by rubbing with sand and hammering to remove the seam and other roughnesses. The edge of cutting tools and weapons, whether cast in stone moulds or by the cire perdue process, must be sharpened by hammering which served also to harden the metal. Hammering was moreover the only method of producing sheetmetal known to the ancients. It must be remembered that while copper and gold can be worked with the hammer while cold, bronze must be brought to a red heat before hammering has much effect.

Wire, at least in Europe, was never made by “drawing”. Gold and bronze wire of a round section might be made by hammering out a rod of the metal and then rolling it to round off the edges. Alternatively a narrow ribbon of thin metal was twisted very tightly. A wire of triangular cross-section might be made by hammering a metal rod into a V-shaped groove. In Egypt there is some evidence that gold wire was really manufactured under the Middle Kingdom by drawing — forcing the metal through fine holes.

Reconstruction of a three-piece mould for bronze buttonsFor joining pieces of metal, rivets were used throughout the Bronze Age, as today. The rivets had, of course, to be of softer metal than the objects to be riveted, eg a bronze poor in tin. In the Aegean and Spain silver rivets were often employed for riveting bronze or copper daggers. In the Ancient East soldering was also regularly used for joining pieces of gold and silver. The Sumerians also employed lead as a solder for copper, In barbarian Europe no such processes were known during the Bronze Age. That incidentally debarred the European jeweller from using filigree work, gold wire soldered on to a solid background so as to form a pattern, a process very popular with Sumerian and Trojan goldsmiths. Brazing, the union of two pieces by heating the edges to be joined nearly to melting-point and hammering, is also said to have been practised by the Sumerians and was possibly known even to the barbarians of continental Europe. The latter certainly employed a process of casting-on (Anguss). When, for example, it was desired to weld together two tubes, they were placed end to end and the join surrounded by a wax ring. This was then coated with clay and replaced by a metal ring by the cire perdue process. The hilts of daggers were sometimes cast to fit on to the blades in the same way, the hilts being modelled in wax fitting over the blades.


Clay mould for socketed celt, Healthery Burn caveA sine qua non for the free use of metal whether on the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia or on the boulder clays of Denmark was, as we saw, regular foreign trade. In the Ancient East trade by the third millennium BC was probably conducted on very much the same lines as native commerce in Asia today, save that coined money was unknown. A collection of clay tablets found in Cappadocia are inscribed with the business letters of a group of bankers and merchants settled there in connection with the metal trade. They give a lively picture of the traffic between the metalliferous regions of Asia Minor and the agricultural and industrial cities of the Tigris-Euphrates plains. Great caravans of merchandise travelled up and down the famous route that follows the Euphrates. The commerce was financed by a system of loans, secured by contracts many of which have come down to us. Other documents from Mesopotamia, also written in the wedge-like characters called cuneiform, refer to the importation of copper from the mountainous region east of the Tigris and of metal and stone from Magan (probably Oman on the Persian Gulf), Egyptian records from the Old Kingdom onwards refer to expeditions sent by the Pharaohs across the desert to Sinai for the extraction of copper and turquoise. Contemporary inscriptions mention the importation of cedar-wood by ship from North Syria. It was to secure this trade the Egyptians established a colony or protectorate at Byblos. Sidney Smith[8] has pointed out how commercial relations between the civilised states would have involved actual transference of population as they do today. Craftsmen from foreign lands would gravitate to cities where political or geographical circumstances had created a market for their wares and skill and would in turn add to the riches of their adopted home.

Archaeological data faithfully reflect these commercial relations by the wide distribution of rare substances or common types. Lapis lazuli beads were worn even in prehistoric times from Baluchistan to Egypt. Obsidian was used in the prediluvian settlements of Susa and al’Ubaid as in Predynastic Egypt. In Late Predynastic and protodynastic times we find a number of artistic motives and architectural devices, at all times common in Mesopotamia, abruptly and temporarily adopted in Egypt as if in imitation of Sumerian originals. Conversely in the early Royal Tombs of Ur we find the Egyptian sistrum represented. The most dramatic proof of extensive commercial relations is however the discovery in several pre-Sargonic sites in Mesopotamia of seals, differing altogether in design and fabric from the countless native seals, but identical with specimens unearthed in prehistoric sites in the Indus valley. This is the earliest recorded instance of the transmission of manufactures over such vast distances. The transference of such instruments of commercial negotiation clearly implies an extensive trade in other articles, such as cotton, between the two distant regions. And so we see that the caravans were already crossing the Syrian and Persian deserts and merchantmen already furrowing the Mediterranean and Erythraean seas five thousand years ago!


The conditions of trade in barbarian Europe would naturally be somewhat different. Here there were as yet no cities, but only villages of peasant farmers or meeting-places for semi-nomadic herdsmen. While such had little but slaves to offer the civilised folk of the Ancient East, the tin of Tuscany and Cornwall, the gold of Transylvania and Ireland and above all the amber of Jutland and East Prussia[9] might well find a market in the East Mediterranean world. It is significant that the first continental centres where metal came into use lie either in the vicinity of such deposits or along routes leading thereto. Relations with the East Mediterranean centres of metallurgy are demonstrated not only by the obvious derivation of most early European metal objects from ancient Oriental models, but also by their association with Egyptian or Aegean manufactures such as glazed beads or, in Central Europe, Mediterranean shells.

The intimacy and wide extent of commercial relations between the several parts of Europe during the Bronze Age is illustrated by the number of types common to a wide area and by the diffusion of stray examples of types, specialised in a particular area, far beyond their primary habitat. Thus at the beginning of the Bronze Age the same types of dagger were in use in Eastern Spain, Brittany, Great Britain, Upper Italy, Czechoslovakia, Southern Germany and Eastern France. The peculiar weapon known as the halberd was common to Upper Italy, Spain, Ireland and Central Germany. Direct interchange of goods is demonstrated by the occurrence sporadically in Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Central Germany and Denmark of a type of gold collar, termed a lunula, common only in Ireland and Scotland[10]. Again a form of battle-axe, native to Hungary, is represented by stray specimens from Bavaria, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Silesia, Poland, and the Ukraine. Axe-heads of types characteristic of Britain and Italy respectively have been found side by side in Sweden.

It is therefore plain that even manufactured articles were traded between the various communities of European barbarians, to say nothing of substances like arnber and jet. But it must be noted that the “communities” just referred to are more than geographical districts, and the “types” that help to define them have other functions to fulfil in the archaeologist's scheme. We must therefore diverge here to define a “culture”.


During the Bronze Age, as in the preceding period, Europe was divided up among a multiplicity of distinct communities or peoples. These may be distinguished from one another by burial rites, architecture, art and the types of tools, weapons, vessels and ornaments they used. The distinctive metal, bone, stone and pottery types (artifacts), regularly found associated[11] in graves and settlements over a given geographical area, together with the peculiarities of the domestic and funerary structures in which they occur, constitute what is called a culture. In a culture thus defined there is good reason to recognize the material expression of that community of traditions which distinguishes a people in the modern sense.

Types, therefore, are symbols of cultural groups and their relations, but also, as we shall see, indicators of relative age. This dual function is not without inconvenience; for a culture, like the people it represents, is not static but can move about. It is therefore well to ask in any given case whether the appearance of a specific type in a region outside its original home is due to trade or migration. In the first case its appearance in the new region will serve to establish a synchronism with the home area; in the alternative this is not guaranteed; for a conservative people coming into a progressive area may bring with them and retain old-fashioned types.

To answer the question the following considerations are helpful. When a culture moves bodily, ie when the whole complex of types, fashions and habits spreads, into an area where the said forms of tools and weapons, artistic conventions and burial rites had not previously been generally current, we must admit that we are dealing with a migration. That might conceivably be a slow process throughout which some or all the types remained without material modification. In any case, the more intimate and imponderable traits of a culture, such as pottery and burial rites that could hardly be traded and would rarely be imitated and that only by immediate neighbours, will move as much as portable commodities like metal types. The reader will, moreover, doubtless concede that the supersession of a more practical type, like the shaft-hole axe, by an inferior one, such as the socketed celt, can hardly be explained by the external relation of trade or neighbourly imitation but implies something deeper, such as conquest or immigration.

Conversely when stray objects properly belonging to one culture are found in the area of another associated with types proper to the latter, we are dealing with “external relations”. Trade is the simplest and most natural explanation for the appearance of a Hungarian axe in North Germany or an Irish ornament in Denmark, but it is always possible that the axe was dropped by a Hungarian raider or the lunula looted from Ireland by a Danish pirate.


As a result of the extensive trade of the Bronze Age and its peculiar conditions, we have a class of closed finds very rare in previous epochs. In addition to grave furniture and relics from settlements we now encounter what are called “hoards”[12]. These are groups of implements, ornaments or vessels buried together in the earth. Sometimes hoards have been enclosed in a vessel; occasionally there are traces of a sack or leather bag, but naturally such receptacles have seldom survived. Hoards are of various kinds: some appear to be just the personal possessions of an individual or a household and may be termed “domestic hoards”. Such consist of a few tools, weapons and ornaments, comprising as a rule only one specimen of each type and normally showing signs of use. They have probably been buried by their owner in time of danger or while he was travelling and never retrieved so that their survival is an indication of the owner's misfortune. Domestic hoards may be regarded as closed finds guaranteeing the contemporary use of all the articles deposited together. They are thus valuable for synchronising types, but otherwise of no special interest.

Objects found together at the foot of a rock or a tree or in a spring or a swamp, may sometimes at least represent offerings made to a divinity supposed to inhabit the spot[13]. They are accordingly termed “votive hoards” and in general provide no guarantee of the contemporary use of the objects comprised in them.

The remaining hoards belong to traders and normally contain several examples of each type of tool, weapon or ornament. In the Early Bronze Age the traders’ hoards consist almost entirely of new or half-finished articles. Some at least seem to have belonged to travelling tinkers, bartering metal products which they were prepared to finish off on the spot to suit the taste of the customer. So some Central German hoards contain a number of dagger — or halberd — blades to which the merchant would fit hilts as required. The same hoards often contain amber beads, showing that their depositors were engaged in the amber trade. In the Late Bronze Age some of the traders had begun to specialise in particular lines, and accordingly we find hoards consisting exclusively of swords, sickles or vases as the case may be. But even in the Early Bronze Age there are hoards composed entirely of ingots of raw copper in the form of torques.

The contents of the foregoing commercial hoards in all probability were in contemporary use. That is not, however, true of another group of hoards, very common in the Late Bronze Age, that seem in some cases to have been left by a class of trader. They are characterised by the presence of old and broken tools, obviously scrap metal collected for remelting, and often too of metallurgical tools, moulds and ingots of raw metal; such are termed “founders’ hoards” to distinguish them from ordinary traders’ hoards. The distinction is vital since the objects included in them may be of very different date, being in fact any old pieces of scrap metal. Yet some such hoards probably belong to gangs of travelling tinkers who went round the countryside repairing broken tools and collecting scrap metal at a time when the demand was peculiarly intense. Others are so large that they must represent the stock of a village smithy buried at a moment of danger, or of a station in the international metal trade.

The accepted explanation of traders’ hoards is that they were buried by the travelling merchant, when he saw himself threatened by some danger, with the intention of reclaiming them when the peril was past. And in point of fact when plotted on a map, they are seen to lie along natural routes and to be thickest just where danger might be expected, for instance on the frontier of two cultural provinces. Hence a multitude of hoards, whether commercial or domestic, is anything but a sign of prosperity. It was rather in times of unrest that valuables had to be entrusted to the preservation of the earth. So the majority of hoards of Roman coins, unearthed in France and Scotland, are shown by their dates to have been buried during reigns when it is known that those lands were harried by civil war or barbarian raids.


With the aid of maps showing the distribution of contemporary hoards and of individual types, found isolated or in other closed finds, it is possible to plot out in some detail the main arteries of the European economic system. Of all the commercial highways thus disclosed, the amber route[14] connecting the Baltic and the Adriatic was the most important. The ways, that diverged slightly at different periods, are clearly marked by amber ornaments, datable by their associations in graves and hoards. From Jutland the fossil resin was transmitted, during the Early Bronze Age, up the Elbe to Bohemia and thence across the Bohmer Wald to the Upper Danube at Linz or Passau. An early branch route, however, followed the Saale valley through Thuringia (where there are important salt deposits) to the headwaters of the Main and then reached the Upper Danube over the Frankish Jura. Thence in either case the Inn was followed to the foot of the Brenner. The traders used this pass to bring their goods by way of the Adige to the Po valley and the head of the Adriatic.

The large number of tools and weapons of Italian pattern found along the amber route show that the inhabitants of Upper Italy played an important part as intermediaries in the trade. Still the quantities of amber found in tombs in Greece from 1600BC on leave no doubt that the Aegean market was already open. At the same time Bohemia was a very important agency, so much so indeed that its inhabitants may be said to have controlled the northern end of the route. The principal medium of barter used in the actual vicinity of the deposits during the Early Bronze Age was a gold ear-ring or lock-ring of a type originating immediately in Hungary and perhaps made of Hungarian gold; such ornaments have been found in very considerable numbers in Jutland as well as in Bohemia and Saxo-Thuringia. It looks as if the people of the last two regions kept to themselves the bronze work of the south and bartered to the Danish natives only the gold they got from Hungary in exchange for tin.

During the Middle Bronze Age the western branch of the central amber route along the Saale came into greater prominence, and a loop way was introduced as an alternative, following an old hill trackway across Thuringia to the Rhine near Mainz, then running upstream to the mouth of the Neckar, and traversing that gap to reach the Upper Danube near Augsburg.

Very possibly the East Prussian amber deposits were being tapped even during the Early Bronze Age. A series of hoards and stray bronzes, mostly of Saxo-Thuringian pattern, can be traced across Eastern Germany and Poland to converge near the mouth of the Vistula. Though the hoards of this date do not contain amber, they clearly denote a trade in Saxo-Thuringian bronzes, which can only have been exchanged for East Prussian amber. The regular and extensive exploitation of the latter deposits, however, dates only from a late phase of the local Bronze Age, overlapping with the Early Iron Age in Austria. At that date the material was carried up the Vistula to its first elbow at Torun, thence to the Oder near Glogau and so across Silesia to the Glatz Pass. Thence the March valley was followed to the Danube, Thereafter the exact course of the route is obscure, but it seems to have traversed Styria and Carniola to reach the head of the Adriatic.

Other routes on a smaller scale have been worked out in limited areas. A glance at the map of hoards, classified by periods appended to Behrens’ Bronzezeit Suddeutschlands, will give a good idea of what can be determined. On the other hand, the map of hoards in Dechelette's Manuel tells one very little, because all hoards are shown by the same symbol without distinction of age.


Intercourse during the Bronze Age was facilitated by the climatic conditions then ruling over our continent[15]. While the earlier part of the New Stone Age had been wetter, though warmer, than the present, drier conditions set in towards the close of that period and were intensified during the Bronze Age. The result of this sub-boreal phase, as climatologists term it, was that tracts that are today naturally wooded became parklands or, in extreme cases, open heath or steppe.[16] As the primeval forest, dangerous to traverse by reason of the bears and wolves it sheltered, and difficult to clear with expensive bronze axes, presented to our forefathers the most serious obstacle to settlement and free movement, the dry period was to most Europeans a climatic optimum. In some parts of the North European plain, however, the drought may have been so great as to be incompatible with sedentary agriculture, thus promoting popular migrations. In Ireland and large tracts of Great Britain, on the contrary, it is excessive wind and moisture that impedes the growth of timber. Here, therefore, the sub-boreal epoch was certainly a forest phase; to it belongs the upper layer (there is often an older one of Mesolithic Age) of tree trunks and stools discovered in our peat-mosses. In these islands, therefore, the sub-boreal dryness had little effect upon the area available for settlement. Only the dry uplands were really thickly populated, and even the trade routes avoided as far as possible the wooded valleys unless a navigable river flowed along them.


The commercial intercourse, essential to the very existence of a Bronze Age, was expedited by a series of inventions. Perhaps the most revolutionary was the harnessing of animal motive power, the first step in the emancipation of mankind from the burden of crushing physical labour that has led to the steam engine and the petrol motor. Neolithic man possessed oxen and other tame beasts, but there is no conclusive evidence that he ever set them even to drag his plough; when he travelled he and his wife must carry the household goods as among the Australian aborigines today. But very early in the Bronze Age of the Ancient East the ox had been yoked to the plough and set to work in the fields, and even in Europe, by an early phase of the same period, representations of an ox-drawn plough were being carved on the rocks of the Ligurian Alps.

On sandy deserts or open grasslands the same animal could be harnessed to draw loads on runners.[17] Effective use of the animal's tractive powers, however, involved the discovery of the wheel. Therewith mankind set foot on the road that led to the motor car. The earliest wheeled vehicles known as yet have recently been brought to light in tombs at Kish and Ur dating from before 3000BC.[18] The wheels are clumsy affairs, just three solid pieces of wood, shaped to segments of a circle, clamped together and tyred with leather, that turned with the axle. Otherwise the outlines of later cars are clearly foreshadowed. The draught animals, asses or oxen, were harnessed on either side of a pole fixed to the middle of the fore-axle. They were guided by reins which passed through a double ring or terret, fixed to the chariot pole. Light two-wheeled chariots are little, if at all, later than these four-wheeled carts. A model cart from the Indus valley dates from the third millennium, while by that time wheeled vehicles were also known in Crete, as is shown by a clay model of MM I date. Even in Spain there are quaint rock-paintings, representing a wheeled cart, that may date back to the Copper Age. In Egypt, however, wheeled vehicles were apparently unknown before the end of the Middle Kingdom. Thereafter they were introduced by the barbarian invaders known as the Hyksos. About the same time the two-wheeled chariot drawn by horses was adopted in the Aegean area. In the Minoan and Mycenaean chariots the axle is under the body of the car, whereas in contemporary Egyptian vehicles it was in front[20]. Whether wheeled vehicles were known north of the Alps during the earlier part of the Bronze Age is still uncertain. By the middle of that period bridle-bits furnish, as we shall see, evidence of the subjugation of the horse, and pendants in the form of a wheel imply a knowledge of that device.

While on the topic of the wheel we must mention another very different application of the invention, the potter's wheel.[21] All Neolithic vessels have been built up by hand, aided only by a leaf or mat on which the lump of clay might stand, and smoothing tools of wood or bone. By Old Kingdom times, however, the Egyptians were utilising a pivoted disc that would revolve readily as the pot was being shaped. It is sometimes called the tournette. But by 30000BC Sumerian potters were already using the true wheel that will spin fast. The lump of soft clay is placed on the centre of, or on a tray connected by a sort of axle to the centre of, a horizontal wheel. The latter can be made to rotate rapidly by the potter's foot or by an assistant. A lump of clay of the proper consistency thus set spinning almost automatically assumes a cylindrical form; all the potter's hand has to do is to give the gyrating mass the required contours. By the use of this device ten or twenty vessels can be modelled, and that more symmetrically, in the time required for building up one by free hand. On the other hand, with the adoption of the wheel, pottery tends to become a factory product and to lose much of its individuality.

Going back in the East to at least 3000BC, the potter's wheel reached Crete and Troy II by MM I times (from which dates the earliest evidence too for the wheeled vehicle in the Aegean). Soon after the device crossed to mainland Greece. But farther north and west pots continued to be made exclusively by the free hand till late in the Iron Age. There is, however, evidence that a cognate device, the lathe, was in use in Britain by the middle of the local Bronze Age.

Parallel to the acceleration of land transport by the use of the wheel went a great expansion of maritime intercourse. Even Mesolithic man had been able to venture on the sea in some sort of craft so as to reach the island of Oransay, and the immense voyages of the Polynesians in improved (top-straked) dug-outs, show what could be accomplished without the use of any metal tool. But no true ships certainly antedate the copper axe and chisel. Even before the union of the lands in one kingdom, the predynastic Egyptians depicted on their vases quite big vessels with two cabins and propelled by as many as fifty oars. These boats seem to have grown out of a small raft made of bundles of papyrus lashed together, but their sides were probably already made of planks of Syrian timber tied together like the original papyrus bundles. At the same time another type of vessel with a very high prow, only known at first from Egyptian monuments, had grown up on the Persian Gulf and the Erythraean Sea[22]. These were sailing ships, so that the dwellers on those coasts had already harnessed the winds as their contemporaries onshore had subdued the strength of ox and ass. This is another mechanical invention attributable to the Bronze Age.

In the Aegean[23], ships related to the high-prowed Erythraean type but equipped with fixed rudders are depicted from Early Minoan times onwards. Probably it was hence that hardy mariners sailed beyond the Pillars of Hercules whose ships provided the models for Scandinavian boat-builders. The latters’ products have been depicted on rock-carvings in Southern Sweden. In any case the Egyptian, Aegean and Syrian ships of the third millennium were certainly capable of crossing the Mediterranean. The diffusion of megalithic tombs along the coasts of Portugal, France, Ireland and Scotland to Scandinavia may reasonably be regarded as proof that they also faced the Atlantic and the North Sea. And indeed Danish amber and English jet were reaching the western coasts of the Mediterranean even during the Copper Age. So it is fairly certain that maritime intercourse between Scandinavia, the British Isles and the Iberian Peninsula supplemented the great transcontinental land route from the North to the Mediterranean throughout the Bronze Age.


The other inventions incidental to international commerce need not be described here in detail. The necessity for contracts and accounts no doubt gave an impetus to the development of writing. Many documents written on clay tablets from Mesopotamia and Crete bear witness to this use of writing. As mastery of the art was the accomplishment of a few “scribes”, the average correspondent, being unable to sign his name, would instead impress upon the soft clay a seal bearing a distinctive emblem, originally perhaps his guardian animal or totem.

A system of metrology was equally needed for trade. Various standards were used by the different civilisations of the Ancient East. In continental Europe have been found a number of symbolic double-axes, apparently Copper or Early Bronze Age in date. On being placed on the scales, it is found that the weights of such are interrelated, all being multiples of an Asiatic unit termed the mina. Late in the Bronze Age weights of stone and lead have been found in the Swiss lake-dwellings. In form they are quite like modern weights with a little loop for suspension; they too correspond to multiples of a mina.


The intimacy of the subsisting commercial relations makes the correlation and synchronisation of deposits from different parts of Europe far easier during the Bronze Age than in the preceding New Stone Age. The types of tools, weapons and ornaments, current in our continent, did not remain constant for any length of time, as they had in the Orient. They were rapidly modified in response to new inventions and changes of fashion. In the case of some tools and weapons the changes take place in a continuous and regular order in one direction, illustrating progressive advances, just as improvements are incorporated in each year's new model of, say, an Austin car. Thus the celts or axe-heads are modified along several divergent lines till all converge again upon the socketed celt. Similarly the triangular dagger grows into a short dirk, then a rapier and eventually a cut-and-thrust sword.

When the progressive improvement of a tool can thus be represented as a series of stages, we have what is termed a typological series.[24] The presumption is that the more perfect types are later than the cruder ones, so that such a series would have a direct chronological value. This assumption is not, however, necessarily justified; for degeneration is as much a fact as evolution. A typological series can only be accepted as representing a chronological sequence when the direction of evolution has been tested by the independent dating of at least two stages. Moreover, the more rudimentary types naturally tend to persist side by side with their descendants. Hence while an advanced type indicates a relatively late date, a more rudimentary one is no such sure sign of antiquity. If you see a 1930 model Austin in a garage, you are sure that the year is 1930 or later; a 1924 model is no sure proof that you have been transported back to that year.

In several parts of continental Europe it has been possible to construct typological series illustrating the development of the celt, the dagger and sword, the spearhead, the razor, the safety-pin, etc, and to synchronise the several stages in one series with corresponding stages in the rest. This gives a sequence of periods defined by contemporary types. Montelius, a Swede, who first elaborated this method of establishing the relative chronology of barbarian Europe, recognized six periods in Scandinavia. It is claimed that in a large number of closed finds of, say, Period III, only a small minority of the types would belong to Periods II or IV and none at all to I or V.

Within the area served by European trade the several stages, distinguished typologically in the different provinces, can be synchroniaed, and we thus obtain a relative chronology, based on typology, valid for the whole of Europe. On these principles we can easily distinguish everywhere within the economic system three main periods, which we term the Early, Middle and Late Bronze Ages. The last period should close with the beginning of the first Iron Age or Hallstatt period in Austria, Switzerland and South Germany, but actually in Great Britain, Scandinavia and Hungary the arrival of iron was belated so that we have a prolongation of the Bronze Age in such areas. While the tripartite division above indicated is accurate enough for the present study and is indeed as minute as can be applied in practice to Europe as a whole, much finer divisions have been established by local specialists for restricted areas.

Montelius, as noted, distinguished six periods for Scandinavia (generally represented by Roman numerals) of which the last three overlap with the Hallstatt Iron Age farther south. Sophus Muller[25] identified twice as many in Denmark, P. Reinecke[26] divides the pure Bronze Age in South Germany into four periods, lettered A to D, followed by a phase he terms Hallstatt A, in which iron had nevertheless not penetrated beyond the Alps. Kraft[27], who follows Reinecke, therefore terms his Hallstatt A “Bronze Age E”. The Early and Late Bronze Ages of Britain were each divided into two periods by Montelius[28], giving five in all. British archaeologists are, however, agreed that this subdivision cannot be carried through in practice and have further observed that the first marked gap in our Bronze Age comes at the beginning of what should be the Late Bronze Age[29]; the Middle period is with us always vague and ill-defined. In France Dechelette[30] distinguished four periods, but these[*] are discordant with Reinecke's Central European system which, for reasons explained below, must set the standard.

Any typological division is necessarily somewhat arbitrary and must be used with due caution. It is plainly applicable only to regions forming part of a single economic system, so that the interchange of goods and the spread of ideas is rapid and regular. The systems upon which our tripartite division is based were devised for countries lying along the central amber trade route, where most of the leading types were evolved. We shall meet serious difficulties in applying it to other regions, such as England, which participated only indirectly or not at all in Scandinavian, Central European and North Italian progress. In the case of Spain, relations with the rest of continental Europe seem to have been broken off during the Early Bronze Age, and types of the Middle period are totally lacking. It is, therefore, likely that Early Bronze Age types remained current in the Peninsula long after they had gone out of fashion in Central Europe. Trade between Western Europe and Russia only became effective in the latest Bronze Age. All the older types are virtually absent, but that by no means implies that the vast area was depopulated from the end of the Stone Age. Similarly only a few celts and daggers of Early Bronze Age type are known from Denmark because there a belated Stone Age persisted. One or two little ornaments of Early Bronze Age type from late Stone Age graves demonstrate this overlap.[31]

Again a type, not clearly imported and datable in its place of origin, can only be invoked as dating a deposit if the type in question was in effective use, and so susceptible of evolutionary modification, in the culture to which the deposit belongs. For example, in Hungary celts were seldom used for axeheads, the normal axehead having a hole for the shaft, as in our modern tool. Accordingly the celt in Hungary was never improved as in other parts of Europe by the growth of flanges, wings, and then a stop-ridge. The flat celt remained in vogue, but its occurrence here is no indication of an Early Bronze Age date.

A further defect of typological chronology is the difficulty of recognising what may be called “retardation”, when synchronising different provinces. On the theory, each improvement in the typological series originated at one point and quickly spread thence throughout the economic system. But there is no guarantee that the new type should be traded in all directions or find immediate acceptance everywhere. On a rigid application of the typological method all deposits containing types belonging to the same phase should be contemporary. Yet there are indications that the Late Bronze Age types evolved in Central Europe (Upper Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Southern Germany) were only introduced into Britain and Hungary as the result of migrations that may have been quite gradual. Yet the scheme offers no means of checking the possible delay thus involved.


The foundation of the European Bronze Age in, and its continued connections with, the Aegean and the Ancient East, opens up the possibility of assigning to the relative divisions sketched above absolute values in terms of solar years. The invention of the Oriental prototypes from which the European objects are ultimately derived plainly gives a terminus post quem for the appearance of the latter. The range of the simpler original forms, such as flat celts, is, however, so great as to afford no serviceable basis for synchronisms. The earliest pins, ear-rings and collars current in the Danubian province reproduce exactly specialised Asiatic models. But the first two groups go back in their homeland to before 3000BC, which is an impossible date for the European copies. The collars on the other hand are known from Syria and Egypt first about 1800BC, and this, if the Oriental origin of the form be admitted, would give a reasonable upper limit for our Early Bronze Age. An approximation to a lower limit is suggested by a clay vessel from an Early Bronze Age grave in Saxony that seems to copy a peculiar sort of metal cup popular in the Aegean between 1700BC and 1500BC. Certain Egyptian or Cretan paste beads found in tombs furnished with Early Bronze Age daggers and axes in South-eastern Spain would give a still lower limit to the period there but that the types of bead have rather too wide a range.

Right at the end of the Middle Bronze Age a rapier of Aegean type, datable there about 1350BC, appears in German graves. Then, before 1200, swords, apparently of European origin and Late Bronze Age date, reached Greece and Egypt. A cross-dating is thereby obtained fixing the beginning of the Late Bronze Age between 1300BC and 1250BC. These figures are, however, only valid for the standard region along the central amber trade route. Elsewhere we must allow for a considerable retardation as already explained.

1. ANDRES. Bergbau in der Vorzeit. Leipzig, 1922. (Also article “Bergbau”" in Real)

2. GOWLAND. “Early Metallurgy in Europe”, Arch., LVI

3. CHILDE. The Danube in Prehistory. Oxford, 1929

4. GOWLAND. “Early Metallurgy in Europe”, Arch., LVI

5. ISCHER. Die Pfahlbauten des Bielersees. Biel, 1928

6. EVANS, JOHN. Ancient Bronze Implements of Great Britain. London, 1881

7. D'CHELETTE. Manuel d'archtologie prthistorique, celtique et gallo-romaine. Vol. n. Paris, 1910

8. SMITH, SIDNEY. The Early History of Assyria. London, 1927

9. NAVARRO. “Prehistoric Routes Between Northern Europe and Italy Defined by the Amber Trade”. Geographical Journal, Dec. 1925

10. COFFEY. The Bronze Age in Ireland, Dublin, 1913

11. Objects are said to be associated when the are found together in circumstances indicative of contemporary use, eg as the furniture of a single burial or in the ruins of a single hut.

12. DECHELETTE. Manuel d'archeologie prehistorique, celtique et gallo-romaine. Vol. n. Paris, 1910

13. SOPHUS MULLER. Oldtidens Kunst i Danmark, Copenhagen, 1921

14. NAVARRO. “Prehistoric Routes between Northern Europe and Italy defined by the Amber Trade.” Geographical Journal, Dec. 1925

15. GAMS AND NORDHAGEN. Postglaziale Klimadnderung ... in Mitteleuropa. Munich, 1923

16. TSOUNTAS. The Mycenean Age : a study of the monuments and culture of pre-Homeric Greece, 1898-99

17. There is some very uncertain evidence from Finland for the use of a sleigh, drawn presumably by reindeer or dogs, even in Mesolithic times.

18. CHILDE. The Most Ancient East. London, 1928

20. EVANS, A.J. “The Ring of Nestor”. JUS. XLV

21. HARRISON. Pots and Pans. London, 1927

22. FRANKFORT. Studies on the Ancient Pottery of the Near East. Royal Anthropological Institute, Occasional Papers, 6 and 8. London, 1924-6

23. NAVARRO. “Prehistoric Routes between Northern Europe and Italy defined by the Amber Trade.” Geographical Journal, Dec. 1925

24. MONTELIUS. Die altere Kulturperioden. i. Stockholm

25. MULLER, SOPHUS. In MS AN. 1914-1 5

26. REINECKE. In Altertumer unserer heidnischen Forzeit. v. *.(On his Plate III (Period III) 1 and 10 are Reinecke B,and 2, 5, 1 1, 14, 1 6, 19 and 20 Reinecke C, therefore all Middle Bronze Age; while 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13 and 15 are Late Bronze Age, Reinecke D.)

27. KRAFT. Die Kultur der Bronzezeit in Suddeutschland. Tubingen, 1925.


29. FOX. The Archaeology of the Cambridge Region. Cambridge, 1923

30. DECHELETTE. Manuel d'archeologie prehistorique, celtique et gallo-romaine. Vol. n. Paris, 1910

31. CHILDE. The Dawn of European Civilisation. London, 1924