Iron Age: Timeline & Facts

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

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

In this lesson, we'll explore the Iron Age and what that meant for different parts of the world. We'll examine the rise of mighty empires, learn where iron seems to have developed first, and discover how it spread across places like Europe.

What is so Special About the Iron Age?

You might ask why the use of iron came later than bronze, or why using a different metal for tools was such a significant development. The significance of Iron Age technology comes from the need for craftsmen to develop new ways to heat the metal ore, which had a much higher melting point than copper or tin, the introduction of a new career called blacksmith, and increased availability and longevity of metal tools for farming and warfare. This allowed for the rise of much larger empires, increased agricultural production, and significant engineering advances in a variety of fields.


1600s blacksmith using many of the same tools used during the early Iron Age.
blacksmith


The Rise of Iron

The Iron Age is not a concrete set of years, nor does it occur at the same time throughout the world. As each region, and the region cultures at that location, adopted the use of iron and replaced bronze tools with iron tools, they entered the Iron Age. A great deal of this was spurred on by a critical copper shortage throughout the Middle East. The first appearance of the Iron Age occurred around 1200 BCE in the Near East as well as in Persia, India, and Greece. However, ironwork actually appeared about 300 years before this with the Hittites, an empire centered in what is today the country of Turkey. However, their use of iron does not officially herald in an Iron Age because they managed to keep the secret of iron technology for three centuries.


Hittite bull sculpture which may be related to a bull-headed god.
bull sculpture


In fact, archaeologists are still investigating whether iron spread throughout the Near East from the Hittites or if other cultures were forced to develop the technology themselves because the Hittites successfully kept their secrets. One possibility is that iron technology spread throughout the Near East from a separate ironworking culture. Recent discoveries show the people of West Africa, in what is today the country of Niger, independently developed iron technology at the same time as or slightly earlier than the Hittites.

Iron Ages in Other Regions

Let's take a look at when the Iron Age occurred in other places around the world.

India

Although archaeologists have found evidence of iron technology in India as early as 1800 BCE, hundreds of years before the earliest evidence of Hittite iron, the dominant material for toolmaking remained bronze for quite a while. This delayed the onset of India's Iron Age, by hundreds of years, not for lack of technological knowledge but simply by lack of use. Archaeologists today debate the possibility of beginning in the 13th century BCE after discovering a possible site of industrial smelting. Regardless of when it started, Indian ironworkers utilized the crucible to create high-quality steel, adding carbon to iron ore, by the 2nd century CE.

Europe

European use of iron appears to be a product of interaction with the Middle East and Asia Minor, first appearing around 1000 BCE in Eastern Europe. The most notable spread of the technology occurred as part of the mass-expansion of the Hallstatt culture, better known as the Celts, between 800 and 600 BCE. From their home in the Alps, the Celts spread across Europe and into Britain, owing their advantage to the superiority of iron weapons.


Iron Sickle, Torc, and Hand-axe from the Hallstatts, better known as the Celts.
Iron Tools Hallstatt Celts


China

Though iron technology in China appeared around 500 BCE, it was little used for the first three centuries. China's Iron Age officially began in the late 3rd century to early-2nd century BCE during the Warring States Period, a time of great political upheaval where rulers of several kingdoms struggled for dominance. Mainly using a casting method, the Chinese made iron bells, jars and vases, weapons, and jewelry.


The Great Wall of China was built during the early Iron Age in China.
Great Wall of China


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