Interesting Facts and Events From the Bronze Age

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The popular assumption is that the Bronze Age came immediately after the Stone Age. In fact, between these two there was the Copper Age, also called the Chalcolithic. Copper itself could be found in pure form in nature (only a few metals can be found in this way), and it could be processed directly into tools and weapons that were somewhat better than stone tools from the late Stone Age. Pure elemental copper, however, was not a good material to work with; it was just better than stone. Eventually, our human ancestors figured out how to combine copper with another metal, tin, into an alloy called bronze. This was much more durable than pure copper and provided really usable tools and weapons and enabled the first real cities with many people who specialized in different professions thanks to useful and fairly available/affordable tools. And it also enabled serious organized warfare. However, bronze had a downside.

 

From a geological point of view, copper and tin do not occur together. They are usually far apart, so long-distance trade is required to either bring the copper to where the tin is, or preferably the tin to where the copper is, because tin is geologically much rarer than copper, and you need a large amount of copper for a small amount of tin. A famous tin merchant is Joseph of Arimathea from Christian mythology who tin-plated all the way from the island of Britain to the eastern Mediterranean. He allegedly became extremely rich, rich enough to pay for the burial place of an executed preacher. It is also the reason why many assumed that the Holy Grail was to be found somewhere in England. Compared to copper, iron is extremely widespread geologically, and of course even more so than tin. That means things got a lot easier once you figured out how to purify an iron source to iron (there are different types of iron ore and things like swamp iron, and I once read that there was some kind of sand in Japan that is extremely rich in iron, with each iron source requiring at least slightly different methods) and how to make forges that are hot enough to melt iron.

 

The need for long-distance trade just to produce what was the basis of the industry was gone! Once people could handle iron, bronze was used only for a few specialized purposes where it made sense to continue using it, and probably also as a luxury item for the 1% of the population (Joseph of Arimathea reportedly lived in the beginning or middle of the first century, long after the end of the Bronze Age). Some parts of the world also skipped the troublesome Bronze Age and went straight from stone to iron, probably after learning the basics from others. Because iron is so much easier to find, while it is just a little more difficult to machine. Unfortunately, Ursula le Guin does not seem to have been aware of this. In one of my favorite fantasy novels, "A Wizard of Earthsea", bronzesmithing appears, again and again, to make a certain island as primitive and poor to call. . If they were poor, they would rather have no metalworking craftsmen at all than struggle with horribly expensive bronze. Bronze requires long-distance trading, while you can find shitty sources of refined iron basically everywhere. This is a flaw in an otherwise beautiful novel.

 

You could, admittedly, make full-length swords out of it, suitably male-length swords, as opposed to bronze, which really limited you to short blades if you wanted something that could withstand use. Only later, when the ironsmiths took the first step towards a limited understanding of charring, were they able to make iron types ( iron alloys, since in practice iron is always an alloy of iron and carbon - pure iron is a joke, as far as I know) with different material properties produce. This resulted in the use of various time-consuming forging processes to make great blades, such as European style pattern welding, which results in blades with what is supposed to be a beautiful "snake" pattern (if you add acid to the blade at the end of the process to make the pattern better visible) or the Japanese refolding technique, which is basically similar.

 

This sword appears to have a pattern-welded middle section, in which a softer but flexible iron alloy is mixed with a harder but much less flexible iron alloy, while the edges are made of only one alloy, probably a hard one to give a solid edge received, one that you can sharpen and re-sharpen many times as it becomes dull through use. Or maybe the entire blade is pattern welded, but the blacksmith has only acid-treated the middle part? Later, the ironworkers and smiths learned to master metallurgy so well that they could make long-lasting sword blades without the time-consuming process of pattern welding. Some swords were still pattern-welded simply because you thought it looked cool, but that was no longer necessary.

 

 

 

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