There is perhaps nothing more of a physical catalyst and symbol of the change in human ingenuity than Bronze. The trade of its composite parts strengthened cultural bonds between peoples whilst its properties impacted warfare and notions of possession as humanity entered what can be seen as one of its first technological revolutions: the Bronze age.
Bronze represents more than the brilliant ingenuity of the human mind. It is the beginning of the stage of shared learning that will result in four thousand years of accelerating innovation. The bronze age would be the start of a journey which took humanity from staring at the stars to joining them. Even more amazingly the fundamentals of theoretical physics that would enable this also began in the bronze age as thriving trade created more free time for intellectuals to ponder.
When the Bronze Age collapsed, later peoples looked back and imagined a time where gods and men joined the battlefield in epics like the Iliad, such was its prowess and impression on humanity.
To call the Bronze age a revolution perhaps seems over enthusiastic given the relatively slow pace of Bronze adaptation compared to today’s globalised and digital world, but its impact would be significant enough to define an archeological era. The process took place over several thousand years in Afro-Eurasia starting with the first understanding of metals like gold and, more importantly for Bronze, the use of Copper.
Humanity’s first steps into metallurgy, as early as 9,000BCE, would pave the way for understanding the properties of metal: at what temperature it melted, how it solidified and what use that then was. It didn't take long for copper axes to be understood as superior to stone axes and even in places comparatively lagging behind like neolithic Sweden, stone axes began to imitate copper ones in their design.
Some of the early bronze discoveries are the result of accidental use of naturally occurring Copper-tin alloys like Stannite but the intentional creation of Bronze as an alloy metal created with the blending of native Copper & Tin was perfected in the late 3rd millennium BCE and thats when the Bronze age really kicks off in India, Western Eurasia & shortly after in China.
Bronze didn’t spread by trade alone, it seems to have popped up independently in several locations. If you want an easy understanding of how Bronze was discovered in multiple locations, give a couple of blokes free time, a hot fire, some metal to melt, cool and whack each other with to see what’s hardest and sharpest. Humanity really hasn’t changed that much!
Metals, often initially visible at the surface, were extracted through a process of mining. Both native Copper and Tin were mined through horizontal and vertical shaft methods, making use of ladders & ropes to access the ore. For my friends reading in the UK, you can see fantastic examples of this in Cornwall & Wales.
Tin was far rarer than Copper and in the peak of demand was more valuable than Gold. It was also rare to find Tin & Copper in one site with the exception of a few places including Cornwall. The region, after furnishing its own bronze wares from around 2,000BCE, became one of the most significant exporters of Tin in Europe and potentially as far as the near East. We certainly know it was significant in France, the lower Netherlands and in Germany where Tin on the Nebra Sky Disc was verified as having come from Cornish mines.
The classic combination of Bronze was created by combining 90% melted Copper & 10% melted Tin for the use of bladed and pointed weapons, whilst a slightly lower volume of tin was used to make bronze for armour. These standardised methods became such a staple and standard of connected bronze age economies that bronze was kept as a store of value, with several finds of multiple unused bronze axe heads having been unearthed by archeologists at various sites.
Once a superior technique was developed through trial and innovation it spread and as trade of materials became more vast and of greater volume, innovation increased further. What this lead to was the sharpest, hardiest weapons and armours humanity had known to date and this lead to simultaneous innovations in warfare.
Trade, war & power always go hand in hand. If something presents itself as an easier way of securing resources (security, food, shelter) and social status (mating rights, access to knowledge, proximity to resource) it becomes more desirable. This then creates more conflict, requiring ever increasingly sophisticated methods of attack and defence but also, importantly diplomacy. All of which drives further trade for materials, further wealth and power and further desire for war and demand for greater diplomacy. In this way wealth and innovation are crucial for evolving the complexities of power & politics.
This abundance in place of subsistence also allows for more free time. Abundance & Time have children more beautiful than War for they birth Order & Specialisation. Having an excess of resource means Order is necessary which leads to greater levels of societal structure and protection. Aspects like justice & politics become essential for peaceful trade and the fair administration of proceeds amongst a group involves members of a society, raising their expectations along with levels of knowledge and literacy. Specialisation, the second child means artists, teachers, priests, poets and every more advanced mechanists contribute to a more advanced society. The circumstances of the Bronze age therefor drive humanity forwards into new levels of complexity, largely beginning to displace the communal societies that began to form in the Neolithic in favour of palatial societies (many of which, like Minoan Crete did remain fairly communal which is conducive to peace & prosperity when balanced with proper incentives).
The Bronze age represents a turning point for humanity on another level. Here Humanity began to behave very evidently in a way inline with Universal physics. There are several very long term trends evident in physics that are mirrored in human behaviour, ultimately which is governed by the same rules as all matter. These trends are: Increase in Complexity of structure, increase in Energy consumption and increasing Acceleration.
Complexity is of course visible socially in the Bronze Age, we see the emergence of epic poetry, warfare of notable scale, but most importantly we see the rise of intricate societies based around trade and the exchange of culture. Complex relationships that valued the power of war, keeping it at bay where possible and embracing it with ferocity when not. We see strings of complexity with increased trade and politics too, tying humanity together. But the development of Bronze itself is also complex on a physical material level too.
The intentional creation of Bronze, sees humanity take two elements and fuse them together to create an alloy. This is the first time a living organism consciously does this to our knowledge on earth, and potentially in the whole of existence. It mirrors the scale of formation of elements of increasing complexity in space history such as we see in the formation of Stars and the Solar systems. Life, itself a part of increasing complexity, here for the first time consciously chooses to create a substance of increased complexity.
The increase of energy consumption is apparent and obvious, fires needed to be heated to well over the needs for warmth or cooking for melting metals, then subsequent treatment for finished products. It is even possible to detect atmospheric metal changes in the archeological record dating to the period corresponding to the Bronze Age. The transportation of ingots required materials for ships and carts whilst the increased productivity & prosperity required increased production of food to meet growing populations. Although still very, very low compared to today there are estimates of a global population of around 100million in the hight of the Bronze age, having risen from estimates of 25-30million at 4,000BCE. This also drove innovations in farming & water management.
The Bronze Age saw further innovations which would subsequently drive up both complexity of society and energy consumption. Each innovation made another innovation possible, as did each new demand of a growing civilisation. The acceleration effect is obvious at this point, a result of accumulated resources and knowledge. Today we make technological leaps in a single year of arguably greater significance than the entire technological history of humanity. This is largely a result of collective learning, by which we learn from others including those long dead thanks to records and cumulative learning, by which we may today expect to learn a lot due to the availability and access to information.
The bronze age is the first time humans consciously contribute to material complexity, and this begins their acceleration towards ever heightened levels of technical ability and understanding. Perhaps in the bronze age, humanity truly did talk to the gods, and learnt their secrets of fire and sorcery; creating metals and carrying out universal trends. Perhaps such stories are metaphors or simply ‘Golden Days’ fantasies written about in subsequent dark ages where hope was harder to imagine.
There is perhaps a warning in the history of Bronze age civilisations worth examining further, one of malfeasance and disaster. The collapse of the Bronze Age is thought to have been significantly worse than that of Rome and arguably represents the largest scale societal collapse known in the historical record (although not in the archeological record where H.Sapien once nearly bottle necked out of existence!).
The collapse of Bronze age societies lead to a severe loss of knowledge, technical prowess, trade connections and peace with declining cultures competing to seize territory and resource access. Several civilisations collapsed entirely including the Mycenaean & Hittites whilst several others declines severely, including the new kingdom of Egypt & the Canaanite state. The city of Mycenae, Greece, for example was destroyed by an earth quake and rebuilt only to fall to fire less than a century later whilst 90% of small Greek Bronze Age towns were destroyed or abandoned indicating significant depopulation. By 800 BC this seems to have caused a recession of bronze in Britain, one of the key mining areas for Tin, signifying the collapse to have impacted the entire trade network.
There is a bustle of discussion still amongst scholars as to the cause of collapse with conversation covering: Climatic change due to the Suns natural variability; several earthquakes and volcanic eruptions; failings in leadership & administration (due perhaps to complacency of inheriting rulers); and the impacts of the Dorians (from Macedonia region) invading Greece and the “Sea Peoples” who appear to have been invaders or raiders, notably pestering the Hittite region & Egypt. The Sea Peoples are a subject perhaps for another time, they may have been displaced or warring Mycenaean Greeks, or from Sardinia & are the Nuragic culture. Other accounts from Egypt referring to circumcision means they may have been Semitic. It’s also possible they weren’t a coherent band at all but rather a trend of Pirates due to the turbulence of the period.
Whether the cultures collapsed due to integrated systemic collapse, raiding parties or environmental factors, it ultimately happened as a result of innovation falling behind demands. If the demand is climatic change, survival requires innovation in farming, water extraction and resource management. If the demand is earth quakes, this requires innovation in building design (see Japan). If the demand is Piracy, the requires innovation in naval control & policy. Demands soon pile up when it’s not possible to pay the piper and innovation always has a high initial cost, meaning a spiralling collapse is always possible in times of recession. When resources fall, war is inevitable in Human history.
Collapse happened on a larger scale in the Bronze age than ever before or since due to increased interconnectedness and complexity. Subsequent ‘dark ages’ followed throughout the last 2 millennia and we could very easily see them again. In fact some writers go as far as to say this has already been happening in Europe since the mid 20th Century. Some, like the economist Adam Smith might point in the earlier direction of Industrialisation and highlight loss of intelligence due to deskilling as the cause. Others like the contemporary Douglas Murray might point to the effects of anti-European rhetoric such as the attack on the conventional family, on trade and on native European peoples from media players coupled with the largest mass migrations ever seen causing rapid internal changes and conflicts as well as wealth redistribution. He would highlight the United Kingdom where more undocumented migrants cross the Channel every month than the entire invading force of the Norman conquest of 1066, all whist questioning the possible challenges of this is heavily self-censored.
Other proponents of impending catastrophe would point to current supply issues; failing polar political structures; disinformation; the undeniable threat of global Soil degradation through short-sighted mismanagement; the threat of collapsing fish stocks; of falling pan-species fertility & androgenic traits due to plastic pollution; of air quality and of the threat of climatic change (which is often seen as the most pressing but in reality is the least of humanities concerns, we did after all thrive very well in Europe during a time where lions and hippos roamed the Savannah of England!). Humanity certainly isn’t short of demands against its existence.
Regardless of potential current or future cause: in a globalised world, where most people don’t possess the means to provide their own food, water and warmth the result of mounting demands exceeding innovation now would be disastrous beyond the scale of anything we’ve seen previously. In the Bronze age, families fished, farmed, sailed & fought; any single family unit was capable of survival. In contrast today we have a society that is in part highly specialised at elite levels of Science and Technology and in part deskilled in the working classes. There are very, very few family units as a percentage capable of surviving a civilisation collapse today. If the supermarkets ran dry, more than 90% of metropolitan populations would starve to death within a few short months with people who choose to prepare for such eventualities as were seen several times in the 20th century still somehow seen as the odd ones.
What do we do with all of this? We reflect, stoically, on the very real strength but also vulnerability of our human story with reverence for those who came before. Not in some romanticised airy fairy manner, but with a very real accord and respect for history and the innovations that paved the road to where we stand today. Whilst we stand here, it is imperative we now understand the burden of our consciousness and we ask ourselves, what will we do to honour the struggles of the past and to ensure our future?
We need to ask if we have the strength of society to flourish now and the resilience that would be needed to survive a collapse. Do we have the ability to burden the responsibility of the human story and contribute to its future as active participants and not just hopeless spectators? Do we have the strength to continue it if our civilisation collapses? Are we participating in keeping our society robust & responsible?
Why am I talking about the potential for human catastrophe when you came here for a nice blog about the Bronze age? Because history we don’t learn from, is nothing more than a fairy tale.
The flip side of complexity and interconnectedness such as we have today is that we do have the ability to innovate rapidly and to communicate needed changes with each other. There is no one with a vested interest in complete societal collapse and we have incredible access to informative resources to combat threats. Already we have incredible breakthroughs on the horizon in fields like quantum data transportation and we are learning more about the structure of our universe than ever before. There is certainly no need for any kind of despair, on the contrary we must embrace our history and look forward to an incredible future of demands solved through innovation. Collapse is NOT inevitable until all matter is gone in billions of years. We might well even solve that demand some day with innovation! For now I implore you to participate in learning, become resilient and we will thrive under the Sun, in a future that is brighter than the most glorious days of our past. The dark ages don’t have to come and they don’t have to last. The human story has always been one of overall ingenuity.
If you want to own a modern homage to the past to serve as a reminder of our human story, you can get 20% off all Descended from Odin’s bronze collection with the code BRONZEBLOG.
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