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Iron Age: Definition, Characteristics, & Importance

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

Use this lesson to learn about the Iron Age. We'll answer what exactly the Iron Age was, what made it distinct from prior ages, and how it impacted the world.

A Better Metal

Imagine you live in the ancient Mediterranean or the Middle East, and plow your fields with strong bronze tools. When soldiers march past, their polished, bronze armor gleams in the sunlight. Then one day, a strange army rides in to conquer your lands. You watch your powerful armies get defeated quickly; their swords shattering against the strangers' weapons. Who are these invaders and what composes their incredible weapons? These conquerors were the Hittites and their weapons were made of a strange new metal called iron. Let's take a look at how iron use came about, how it replaced bronze, and how it led to the rise of the Hittites.

Warfare in the Iron Age
Iron Age Warfare

What Was the Iron Age?

The Iron Age was not a single time period that occurred simultaneously around the world. Instead, the Iron Age refers to when people in a particular location learned to use iron for tools and weapons as well as when they started using iron more than other metals. Iron Age civilizations were still considered prehistoric because most of them did not keep detailed written records of their history. In most circumstances, these societies passed through three ages of technology starting with the Stone Age, then the Bronze Age, and finally the Iron Age.

Characteristics and Importance

True to its name, the Iron Age's main characteristic involved iron. In most regions, the primary material for making tools was bronze, an alloy composed of copper and tin. It's likely bronze would have remained dominant in Western civilization if tin had not been so rare. Between 1800 BCE and 1700 BCE, sudden scarcity in tin caused a steep decline in bronze tool and weapon production. During this time, copper too began to run short. Pirates and raiders began attacking communities to steal any bronze they could find.

Iron in its raw, ore form
iron ore

This shortage likely caused people to experiment with other metals. Iron was more common than copper and tin but it had a much higher melting point than bronze. This meant they couldn't cast tools with iron in the same way. By heating the iron, however, they could make it softer and use hammers to shape it. Over time, people developed ways to increase the temperature of furnaces by using bellows to pump in oxygen. This allowed people to cast objects out of iron and eventually carbon was added to produce steel. Additionally, they discovered that iron tools could be sharpened when they lost their edge rather than needing to recast the object.

Much as the introduction of bronze improved agriculture, military action, and other activities using tools, the introduction of iron improved them even more. The availability of iron solved the problem of material shortages to make bronze. Farmers could use stronger plow blades to break up the toughest soils and increase farmland. Soldiers did not need to recast their swords when they got dull, they just needed to grind their edges back to a sharp point, making tools and weapons cheaper. Additionally, the technology needed to work with iron forced metallurgists to develop new ways of smelting and working with metals.

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