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Medieval steel armor and iron gloved hands were products of Iron Age Europe. 		Source: Atmosphere / Adobe Stock

Iron Age Europe: 2000 Years Of Change Rolls Across The Continent

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The Iron Age is the name given to the third and last division of the Three Age System. The beginning and the end of the Iron Age varies according to region. Indeed, even in Europe, the Iron Age occurred at different times depending on the area of the continent one is looking at. As its name suggests, this age was characterized by the emergence of iron as the main tool-making material. Although this may be the most obvious feature of the Iron Age, the widespread use of iron tools had an impact on society that went well beyond technology. These include economic, social, and political changes. This article attempts to highlight some of the features of Iron Age Europe. It should be pointed out, however, that this article merely provides a general overview of the subject.  

The idea of the Three Age System was established during the 19th century. This system, which is based primarily on the raw materials that archaeological tools were made of, divides prehistory into three ages: the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. The Three Age System is commonly considered as archaeology’s first paradigm, and Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, the director of the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities in Copenhagen, is credited with the establishment of this system.

Iron Age Europe metalwork in progress around 1000 BC. (Archivist / Adobe Stock)

Iron Age Europe metalwork in progress around 1000 BC. (Archivist / Adobe Stock)

Iron Age Europe in the Three Age System

Thomsen introduced the Three Age System in 1837, when he published an essay entitled “Kortfattet Udsigt over Mindesmærker og Oldsager fra Nordens Fortid” (“A brief outlook on monuments and antiquities from the Nordic past”), in a collected volume called Guideline to Knowledge of Nordic Antiquity. Originally published in German and Danish, the essay was subsequently translated into English in 1848. Thomsen’s Three Age System was initially applied to the archaeological materials found in Scandinavia. In time, his idea was applied in other parts of Europe, as well as the rest of the world. Despite the criticisms it has received, the Three Age System continues to be used even today.

The idea of dividing historical or prehistoric periods according to the materials societies used, however, predated Thomsen. In 1593, for example, Michele Mercati, the curator of the Vatican Botanical Gardens, speculated that stone axes must have been made by the ancient inhabitants of Europe who did not have the technical knowledge of creating bronze and iron tools. Much earlier still was Lucretius, a Roman poet who lived during the 1st century BC. The poet is reported to have entertained the idea that there was a time when mankind had no knowledge of metals, and that weapons would have been made of stone or wood.

Returning to Thomsen, the antiquarian developed the Three Age System when he held the role of voluntary curator of the Royal Commission for the Preservation of Antiquities, Denmark. In this capacity, Thomsen had to deal with a huge collection of artifacts that came from both the royal and university collections. These were to be combined into a national collection, and Thomsen had to find a way to organize the artifacts. This resulted in the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities, which was first opened to the public in 1819, and, of course, the creation of the Three Age System.

A farrier making horseshoes from iron in the old way. (sakdinon / Adobe Stock)

A farrier making horseshoes from iron in the old way. (sakdinon / Adobe Stock)

Iron Age Europe Beginnings Varied With Region

As mentioned, the onset of the Iron Age varied across the world. In the Middle East, for example, the Iron Age is said to have begun around 1200 BC. In China, on the other hand, the Iron Age only began around 600 BC. In Europe, the Iron Age also started at different times, depending on the region. Like the Middle East, the beginning of the Iron Age in Southeast Europe is dated to around 1200 BC. The widespread use of iron tools in Central Europe happened at a later date, i.e., around 800 BC, and later still for Northern Europe, i.e., around 600 BC.

Similarly, the end of the Iron Age varies according to region, and may even be thought of as arbitrary, since iron tools were not replaced by tools of a different material. The end of the Iron Age in Greece, for example, is regarded as having ended in the 6th century BC and succeeded by the period of Classical Greece. In Western and Central Europe, the termination of the Iron Age is placed at the 1st century BC, as a result of the Roman conquests. In Scandinavia, the Iron Age only ended around the 9th century AD and was followed by the Viking Age.      

Due to the variations in geographical location and time period it may be more appropriate to consider “Iron Ages” in the plural, rather than a monolithic Iron Age in Europe. Nevertheless, some aspects of Iron Age Europe, along with its impacts on society, may be considered.

Of course, the widespread use of iron tools is the most obvious impact of the Iron Age. Some of the issues associated with this new technology included the control and exploitation of the raw materials, the technical knowledge behind the production of the tools, and the organization of the manufacturing process.

Iron Age Europe helmets made by the Vikings, who were late to acquire iron metalwork technology. (luciano / Adobe Stock)

Iron Age Europe helmets made by the Vikings, who were late to acquire iron metalwork technology. (luciano / Adobe Stock)

Iron Was Discovered As A Bronze By-product

It has been speculated that iron was probably discovered as a by-product of bronze working. The earliest users of iron tools, it has also been pointed out, were the same ones who had used bronze tools before that. Therefore, it is thought that the individuals or groups who were previously in control of bronze were in control of iron during the Iron Age. The two metals, however, are quite different.

For instance, bronze is an alloy, meaning that it is made of a combination of metals, i.e., copper and tin. Iron, on the other hand, does not need alloying with other metals. Instead, the production of usable iron requires fuel and labor to smelt the iron ore. In other words, high enough temperatures must be reached, and skilled control of pyrotechnology is essential.

As iron ore, one of the main sources of iron in Europe, contains impurities, the bloom (the porous mass of iron and slag) has to be hammered whilst red-hot, so as to reduce the impurities, and to change the metal’s internal structure. Only after this process is achieved can the final shaping of the iron tool be carried out.   

In addition to the technological developments, the introduction of iron tools also had a huge impact on the very fabric of the prehistoric European societies that used them. For instance, the production of iron tools required special knowledge, and those who possessed it became an important class of specialists. Apart from that, it has been pointed out that the use of iron tools led to the intensification of farming techniques, which in turn resulted in the formation of larger communities. There was also increased interaction between these Iron Age societies, both within Europe, and beyond.

The largest of these Iron Age sites in Europe are Europe’s fortified oppida (singular oppidum). During the Late Iron Age, many oppida, though not all, were situated on top of hills, and therefore the word “hill fort” has also been used to describe this type of settlement. The oppida have been commonly considered as cities, though this may not be entirely true. In some cases, such settlements were indeed permanent. Excavations conducted at these sites, however, have revealed that many of the oppida were not densely populated, and that they may have served as places of refuge in times of trouble. Moreover, some oppida are thought to have served as sites of ritual activity.

It should be mentioned, however, that most Iron Age settlements were much smaller in size than the oppida. It is estimated that the number of people living in such settlements were often less than 100. Most of these people would have been involved in agricultural activities, i.e., growing crops and raising livestock. Nevertheless, there were also individuals in these settlements who were specialized craftsmen. These crafts, of course, included the manufacture of iron tools.

Although iron was used to produce better agricultural tools, this metal was also used to create better weapons. Many iron weapons have been found in graves, deposits, and on battlefields that date to the European Iron Age. The abundance of these iron weapons, however, does not necessarily mean that armed violence was widespread during the European Iron Age.

It has been suggested, for instance, that iron weapons may have served a primarily symbolic function, and were meant to deter wars, rather than to be used in war. Additionally, even though there is direct evidence for the conduct of war in Iron Age Europe, its frequency in any given place and time is far from certain.

Medieval armor was almost all made of iron, and it also signaled social status. (Mr Doomits / Adobe Stock)

Medieval armor was almost all made of iron, and it also signaled social status. (Mr Doomits / Adobe Stock)

Iron Age Europe and Social Stratification

Another aspect of the Iron Age in Europe that has been explored by researchers is the social stratification that occurred during this period. This may be seen, for instance, in the establishment of the oppida, whereby its inhabitants had different social roles to fulfill. Apart from that, social stratification is also reflected in the burials from this period. Speaking of burial practices, it has been pointed out that there was a change from cremation during the Bronze Age to inhumation during the Iron Age.

For the elites of Iron Age Europe, inhumation was also an opportunity for the conspicuous display of wealth. As an example, a group of princely graves dating to the later part of the Hallstatt culture, an Iron Age culture that dominated Central and Western Europe, have been studied by archaeologists. The graves consist of a burial chamber covered by a barrow, the construction of which would have been a monumental undertaking. In addition, the barrows were prominent features in the landscape, and served to remind the population of who was in charge.

These Iron Age barrows served to emphasis the prestige of a certain elite, and/or his/her lineage. This was especially important at the time of an elite’s death, as this resulted in the overt disruption of the social order. The prestige of the elites was enhanced by the goods buried with them. The dead would have been buried with rich objects that came not only from the surrounding area, but also things imported from further afield. One may also imagine the performative aspects of the burial rituals, which no doubt would have served to further impress upon the population the prestige of the elites.

Whilst some of the barrows were robbed in ancient times, others were found intact by archaeologists. By analyzing the contents of these burials, some insight into the lives of the elites who lived during the European Iron Age may be obtained. For instance, grave goods that were buried with elite individuals include both everyday items and more exotic ones. The deceased were often adorned with personal ornaments of bronze and gold and accompanied by weapons and tools. An analysis of these objects provides information not only about the identity of individuals, but also the society they belonged to.

Apart from that, drinking vessels, including Greek jugs for pouring and serving wine, kraters for mixing the wine, and amphorae for the storage and transport of the wine, have also been found in graves.

These artifacts reflect another aspect of Iron Age Europe, i.e., long-distance trade, in this case, with the Greek world. In addition to the flow in physical objects from the Greek world to Central and Western Europe, these artifacts also suggest the import of ceremonial wine-drinking, and the emulation by these elites of certain Greek practices.

Ancient workers using machines in a warm foundry in Paris in 1848. (Mannaggia / Adobe Stock)

Ancient workers using machines in a warm foundry in Paris in 1848. (Mannaggia / Adobe Stock)

Iron Age Europe Was A Time Of Great Change

To conclude, Iron Age Europe, as its name implies, saw the widespread adoption of iron tools by European societies at that time. Although this is perhaps what the period is best-known for, its significance goes far beyond such technological changes.

Indeed, the archaeological evidence indicates that the Iron Age was a time that saw great changes occurring in Europe, and affected, amongst other things, the economic, social, and political aspects of life.

Whilst this article has highlighted some aspects of Iron Age Europe, and provided a generalized overview of the period, there are many works that would provide additional information about this subject. These include specific Iron Age cultures, regions and periods, particular aspects of life in Iron Age Europe, and individual / groups of Iron Age sites.

Top image: Medieval steel armor and iron gloved hands were products of Iron Age Europe. Source: Atmosphere / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren                                                                             


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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