The Bronze Age in Mesopotamia: Civilization, Architecture & Weapons

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Mesopotamia's Bronze Age brought with it a lot of change, but why? In this lesson, we'll see how this era defined our ideas about civilization and what role bronze played in that history.

The Bronze Age of Mesopotamia

How do we define civilization? What makes a society complex enough to earn this rank? That's a long-debated question among historians, but many look to the development of stratified political power, entrenched religious systems, advanced agriculture, and enough cultural complexity to develop things like writing. So, where did all these traits first appear together? It was in Mesopotamia, also known as the cradle of civilization.

In this map, Mesopotamia corresponds to the region in dark green
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Defined as the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, today including parts of Iran, Syria, and Turkey, Mesopotamia was home to some of the earliest people to develop agriculture and settle societies. Between 5,000 and 3,500 BCE, those societies grew into the first true civilizations of the world. This coincided with the beginning of Mesopotamia's Bronze Age, defined eponymously by the development of the metal bronze. Of course, bronze was just one change to come to Mesopotamia in this era. It was a time of growth and innovation and war. It was a time of civilization.

Cities and People of Mesopotamia

Around the time that the first people in Mesopotamia learned to smelt copper and tin together to make bronze, the region was primarily home to two cultural groups. In the north were the Akkadians and in the south the Sumerians. Neither was a unified nation, but a collection of related cities and people, and as each grew they came into greater contact with each other. By the 3rd millennium BCE, Akkadians and Sumerians were generally fluent in the others' language.

While Mesopotamia's first city-states had developed in Sumerian lands, the Akkadians developed history's first empire, conquering the Sumerians and incorporating them within their political sphere. This Akkadian Empire lasted from roughly 2334 to 2154 BCE, before falling into decline. As it did, two new nations arose from it. To the north were the Assyrian people, based in the city of Assur, and to the south the Babylonians, based in Babylon, which developed a few hundred years later.

Importance of Bronze

The Bronze Age saw the rise of civilizations in Sumer, Akkadia, Assyria, and Babylonia, but why now? What role did bronze have to play in this growth? As it turns out, bronze was instrumental to the rise of these civilizations because of its usefulness in two things.

Bronze statuette from Mesopotamia
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First is weapons. Bronze weapons were much stronger and more durable than copper weapons, and Mesopotamian armies outfitted themselves with bronze spears, arrows, swords, and shields. This not only allowed them to better protect their resources but gave them the power to spread their influence and assume control of other people's resources. It's no coincidence that the world's first empire emerged with the development of bronze and warfare was a constant feature of this period.

The second major innovation to come from bronze was in agriculture. Bronze agricultural tools, most importantly the plow, were much more reliable than copper and stone ones. Bronze tools let early farmers bring better irrigation to their land, break apart the hard soil, and greatly increase the productivity of their crops. If bronze weapons helped civilizations spread, bronze agricultural tools were the reason these civilizations existed in the first place. The growth of these cities required a surplus of food so that some people could become professional builders, soldiers, merchants, priests, and rulers. Without the increase in agricultural production, the complexity of Mesopotamian civilizations wouldn't have been possible.

Other Innovations

Of course, bronze wasn't the only big innovation to come out of this time period. As Mesopotamian societies became more complex, people innovated in all aspects of life. One development that stands out: the wheel.

Wheels are pretty useful. You can put them on a wagon and transport lots of stuff (for example, all those crops you grew and need to sell at a market), or you can use it to create war chariots, which were instrumental in Mesopotamian warfare. However, some historians think that the wheel was originally invented not for transportation but pottery. A potter's wheel makes the process of pottery quicker and more efficient, so people could create larger and higher quality vases and containers.

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