1902 Encyclopedia > Archaeology > Archaeology - Iron Period

(Part 5)


Archaeology - Iron Period

4. The fourth of Iron Period is that in which the art of smelting the ores of the most abundant metal had at length been mastered; and so iron superseded bronze for arms, sword-blades, spear-heads, axes, daggers, knives, &c. Bronze, however continued to be applied to many purposes of personal ornament, horse furniture, the handles of sworn and other weapons; nor must it be overlooked that flint and stone were still employed for lance and arrow heads, sling- stones, and other common purposes of warfare or the chase, not only throughout the whole bronze period, but far into the age of iron. The discovery of numerous arrow-heads, or flakes of black flint, on the plain of Marathon, has been assumed with good reason to point to the use of such rude weapons by the barbarian host of Darius; and the inference is confirmed by the facts which Herodotus records, that Ethiopian auxiliaries of the army of Xerrex, ten years later, were armed with arrows tipped with stone.

The essential change resulting from the maturing of the iron period lies in the unlimited supply of the new metal. Had bronze been obtainable in sufficient quantity to admit of its application to the endless purposes for which iron has since been employed, the mere change of metal would have been of slight significance. But the opposite was the case. The beautiful alloy was scarce and costly; and hence the arts of the Neolithic period continued to be practiced throughout the whole duration of the age of bronze. But iron, though so abundant in its ores, requires great labour and intense heat to fuse it; and it needed the prolonged schooling of the previous metallurgic era to prepare the way for the discovery of the properties of the ironstone, and processes requisite to turn it to account. Iron, moreover, though so abundant, and relatively of comparatively recent introduction, is at the same time the most perishable of metals. It rapidly oxidizes unless protected from air and moisture, and hence few relics of this metal belonging to the prehistoric period have been preserved in such a state as to illustrate the skill and artistic taste of the fabricators of that last pagan era, in the way that the implements of the three previous periods reveal to us the habits and intellectual status of those older times.

But the iron is the symbol of a period in which pottery, personal ornaments of the precious metals, works in bronze, in stone, and other durable materials, supply ample means of gauging the civilization of the era, and recognising the progress of man in the arts, until we come at length to connect their practice with definite historical localities and nations, and the names of Egypt and Phoenicia, of Gadir, Massilia, the Cassiterides, and Noricum, illuminate the old darkness, and we catch the first streak of dawn on a definite historical horizon. Thus, with the mastery of the metallurgic arts is seen the gradual development of those elements of progress whereby the triumphs of civilization have been finally achieved, and man has advanced towards that stage in which the inductive reasonings of the archaelogist are displaced by records more definite, though not always more trustworthy, as the historian begins his researches with the aid of monumental records, inscriptions, poems, and national chronicles.

Within the later iron period, accordingly, we reach the era of authentic history. There is no room for doubt that, whatever impetus the Roman invasion may have given to the working of the metals in Britain, iron was known there prior to the landing of Julius Caesar. Within this archaeological period, however, the examples of Roman art and the influences of Roman civilization begin to play a prominent part. To this period succeed the Saxon and Scandinavian eras of invasion, with no less characteristic peculiarities of art workmanship, as well as of sepulchralrites and social usages. In these later periods definite history comes to the aid of archaeological induction, while those intermediate elements of historical re-edification, the inscriptions on stone and metal, and the numismatic series of chronological records all unite to complete a picture of the past replete with important elements for the historian.

The connection between archaeology and geology has been indicated, but that between archaeology and ethnology is of much more essential significance, and is every day being brought into clearer view. By the investigation of the tombs of ancient races, and the elucidation of their sepulchral rites, remarkable traces of unsuspected national affinities are brought to light; while a still more obvious correspondence of arts in certain stages of society, among races separated alike by time and by space, reveals a uniformity in the operation of certain human instincts, when developed under nearly similar circumstances, such as goes far to supply a new argument in proof of the unity of the human race.

The self-evident truths confirmatory of the principles upon which this system of primitive archaeology is based, may be thus briefly summed up: - Man, in a savage state, is to a great extent an isolated being; co-operation for mutual and remote advantage, except in war and the chase is scarcely possible; and hence experience at best but slowly adds to the common stock of knowledge. In this primitive stage of society the implement and weapons which necessity renders indispensable are invariably supplied from the sources at hand; and the element of time being of little moment, the rude workman fashions his stone axe or hammer, or his lance of flint, with an expenditure of labour such as, with the appliances of civilization, would suffice for the manufacture of hundreds of such implements.

The discovery of the metallurgic arts, by diminishing labour and supplying a material more susceptible of varied forms as well as of ornamentation, and also one originating co-operation by means of the new wants it calls into being, inevitably begets social progress. The new material, moreover, being limited in supply, and found only in a few localities, soon leads to barter, and thence to regular trade; and thus the first steps towards a division of labour and mutual co-operation are made. So long, however, as the metal is copper or bronze, the limited supply must greatly restrict this social progress, while the facilities for working it admit of that isolation so natural to man in a rude state; and these, added to the frequent discovery of copper, in its natural condition much more nearly resembling a ductile metal than the ironstone, abundantly account for its use having preceded that of the more abundant metal.

Great experience must have been acquired in earlier metallurgy before the iron ore was attempted to be wrought. In this, co-operate was indispensable; but that once secured, and the first difficulties overcome, the others results appear inevitable. The supply is inexhaustible, widely diffused, and procurable without excessive labour. The material elements of cvilisation were thereby rendered available, and all succeeding progress might be said to depend on the capacity of the race.

The simplicity which characterizes the archaeological disclosures of Scandinavia, Germany, Ireland, and other regions of trans-Alpine Europe lying outside of the range of ancient Greek or Roman influences, has contributed some important aids to the study of prehistoric arts; but the full significance of their teachings has yet to be tested by comparison with the primitive arts pertaining to Egypt, Greece, Asia Minor, and other ancient centres of earliest civilization . To this certain singularly interesting disclosures of very recent date, which some have regarded as at variance with the foregoing classification of archaeological epochs, help to furnish the desired materials. The researches of Dr Heinrich Schliemann on one of the most memorable sites which epic poetry has selected for the mythic beginnings of history, have brought to light what he believes to be actual remains of the Troy of the Iliad. Dr Schliemann began his systematic explorations in 1871, and pursued them, during the available seasons, till the month of June 1873. With patient assiduity the accumulated debris on the scene of ancient civic settlement was sifted and opened up by regular excavations, till the natural rock was exposed at a depth of upwards of 50 feet. Throughout the whole of this, abundant traces of former occupation were brought to light; and so great an accumulation of debris and rubbish upon an elevated site affords undoubted evidence of the vicissitudes of a long-settled centre of population. To this specific evidence lent additional confirmation. The foundations of a temple, supposed to be that of the Ilian Athena of the time of Alexander, along with coins, inscriptions, and numerous remains of architecture and sculpture, combined to fix the era of an ancient, but strictly historical, period. At a further depth of upwards of 6 feet, broken pottery, implements of bronze, and charred wood and ashes, showed the traces of an older settlement which had perished by fire. But the artificial character of the debris encourage further research; and when the excavations had been carried to about double the depth, Dr Schliemann came upon a deposit rich in what may be styled Neolithic remains: axes, hammers, spear-heads, and other implements of polished diorite or other stone, weights of granite, querns of lava, and knives and saws of flint abounded, associated with plain, well-executed pottery, but with only two pins of copper or bronze to indicate any knowledge of metal. Continued excavations brought to light additional stone implements and weapons; until at a depth of some 33 feet, well-wrought implements and weapons of bronze, and pottery of fine quality and execution, revealed the traces of an earlier civilization on the same ancient site.

In all this, while there is much to interest, there is no thing to surprise us. here, near the shores of the Hellespont, at a point accessible to the oldest known centres of civilization, - to Egypt, Phoenicia, Assyria, Greece, Carthage, and Rome, - a civilized community, familiar with the arts of the bronze period of the Mediterranean shores, appears to have yielded to vicissitudes familiar enough to the student of ancient history. After a time the desolated locality tempted the settlement of some barbarian Asiatic horde, such as the steppes of that continent could furnish even now. They were ignorant of metallurgic arts; though probably, like the savage tribes of the New World at the present time, not wholly unaware of the manufacture of implements and weapons of bronze or other metals. Such a local alternation of bronze and stone periods in a region lying in close proximity alike to vast areas of Asiatic barbarism, and to the most important centres of ancient civilisation, in no degree conflicts with a general system of succession of archaeological periods. Mexcio and Peru, while in a purely bronze age, were overthrow by Spanish invaders. Large portions of their ancient territories were abandoned to utter barbarism, and even now are in the occupation of savage tribes. But the ancient city of Montezuma has been made the capital of a civilized state; the beds of its canals have been filled up, burying therein obsidian, stone, and bronze implements, pottery, sculptures, and much else pertaining to its ante-Columbian era; and it only requires such a fate as its modern history renders conceivable enough, to leave for future ages the buried strata of a civic site revealing similar evidences of the alternation of semi-civilised, barbarian, and civilized ages, on the same long-inhabited site of Toltecans and Aztecs, Indian savages, and modern Mexicans and Spaniards.

Read the rest of this article:
Archaeology - Table of Contents

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries