Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The iron revolution

The production of iron began some time in the second millenium BCE in western to central Asia. Its precise history is not clear, but the most recent evidence tells us it could date as far back as 2000 BCE in Anatolia, 1800 BCE in India and 1500 BCE in Africa, suggesting that it arose in various regions independently and was then diffused from these centres, not appearing in Britain for example until it was imported as a new technology around 700 BCE.

Although iron was known to human cultures as early as the second millenium BCE, its mass production was only possible with the invention of the bloomery. This was a furnace capable of achieving the high temperatures required to smelt it. A key impetus to creating this technology was the shortage of copper and tin following the Bronze Age collapse.

Smelting is the process by which iron is extracted from iron ore: the intense temperatures make the iron separate from the rest of the ore in a mass known as a ‘bloom’. The ancient blacksmith would hammer this mass to knock out cinders and slag and produce wrought iron, a hard malleable substance ideal for making tools. In its natural form iron is too soft to be very useful, but when combined with carbon it becomes harder than bronze. The bloomery allowed the controlled absorption of carbon by burning charcoal.

The working of iron also allowed the production of steel, an alloy known to the ancient world in which iron is mixed with carbon. The oldest example we have was found at a site in Turkey: thought to be part of a knife, it dates to around 2000 BCE. Steel has the hardness of cast iron (which has a high carbon content), and the malleability of wrought iron, making it the most useful iron product, but ancient technology could not produce it efficiently. Steel did not displace iron as the dominant material of civilisation until well into the modern era, when the Industrial Revolution introduced new methods for its mass production.

Iron did not sweep instantly across the ancient world, but over the next several centuries it spread at different times into different regions. There is a gap between the dates of the first iron use and the dates that a culture is considered to have entered the Iron Age, i.e. when iron displaced bronze, wood and stone as the principal material for tools and weapons.

Iron had a number of advantages. It was harder than bronze, making it more durable and much more effective for implements, transforming agricultural productivity through the introduction of iron axes and iron ploughs. Even in the Bronze Age, farmers often used wood and stone tools because bronze was not strong enough to work the earth. Iron was also more abundant than bronze, making it cheaper. Bronze was an expensive preserve of the ruling class, used for weapons, statues and luxury goods while the toiling masses remained dependent upon wood and stone. Iron was technology for the masses – every village could support its own blacksmith.

The superiority of iron weapons is sometimes given as a possible cause of the Bronze Age collapse, but it seems that the use of iron was not widespread until a period roughly contemporaneous with or after the collapse. It seems more correct to see the mass production of iron as humanity’s response to the crisis of productivity that had caused such a profound faltering and rolling back of society. The advent of mass-produced iron was a revolutionary forward step for human culture, helping to forge new social relations and forms out of the tottering structures of the Bronze Age. The comparatively limited civilisations of that period, built upon key fertile centres such as the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia, could now be superceded by more expansive ones fuelled by bigger surpluses, productivity and populations: such as Assyria, Persia and Rome.

Publication notice

Marxist ThoughtMy article on the Minoans has been published in the Greek journal Marxist Thought, Volume 2, May–August 2011. (in Greek)

Crisis and revolution: from bronze to iron

For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.
- Hesiod, Works and Days

In the second millenium BCE, human culture produced another of those revolutionary leaps which have driven its development since it first appeared. Yet the leap was preceded by a fall.

We have discussed the broad pattern of development of human culture since the last Ice Age. In some areas, notably the Near East, Paleolithic hunter-gatherers responded to climatic change by becoming Neolithic farmers, massively increasing productivity by domesticating animals and cultivating plant foods such as cereals. By the eighth millenium BCE, agricultural societies were building urban centres like Jericho and Jarmo. Neolithic settlements sprang up in key centres like Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Syria and the Levant. These peoples farmed milk, meat and grain, mastered pottery, weaving and spinning, and built permanent dwellings with wood, mud brick, plaster and stone. The social surplus allowed the upkeep of specialists, leading to greater sophistication in technique, e.g. in making weapons and tools, ploughs and wheeled carts. The sophistication of these cultures is well-attested by towns like Çatalhöyük, in which we see wall-paintings and sculpture alongside metalworking, religion, town planning, animal breeding and foreign trade. From the seventh millenium BCE, copper was being smelted to produce metal tools, and in around 3000 BCE the addition of tin gave society the harder and longer-lasting bronze.

By transforming nature, humanity was gradually taking its destiny into its own hands.

By the third millenium BCE, Bronze Age cultures were resolving the limitations of Neolithic culture through the Urban Revolution. Long distance trade, literacy, weights and measures, irrigation and land reclamation brought further advances in productivity. Civilisations flowered, defended by strong walls and governed by ruling classes – kings, aristocrats and priests served by bureaucracies and armies, all supported by the surplus produced by the agricultural workers who made up the great majority of the population. The demand for trade led the Near Eastern cultures to expand their contacts, setting up the cultural and economic routes that exported the Bronze Age to the Aegean, north Africa, and beyond.

The great cities of the Bronze Age are typified by the city-state of Ugarit, a commercial centre on the Syrian coast. Thousands of surviving texts attest to the great variety of peoples who lived there: Cretans, Cypriots, Hittites, Egyptians, Babylonians, Hurrians. It produced dyed linen and wool, tools, weapons, oils and wine. It was home to a great variety of craftspeople from potters and smiths to scribes and sculptors. Its people built libraries and palaces, created literary myths such as the Cycle of Baal and the epics of Keret and Aqhat, and traded with the great cultures of the Mediterranean. It was a sophisticated, international and wealthy city.

Yet in about 1200 BCE Ugarit was sacked and destroyed. It was one of many cities and states overthrown or abandoned during what historian Robert Drews described as “arguably the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the western Roman Empire” [1] – the so-called Bronze Age Collapse.


From 1200-1100 BCE, the late Bronze Age cultures based around the eastern Mediterranean suffered a profound crisis. The geographical scale of the reversal was exceptional. The Hittites and Mitanni in Anatolia, the Minoans and Mycenaeans in Greece and many major cities in the Eastern Mediterranean – including Ugarit and Troy – were dramatically set back or completely disappeared, and at the close of the New Kingdom Egypt was exhausted and declining [2]. There is plentiful archaeological evidence of this upheaval, such as destruction levels revealing large layers of ash, declines in pottery production and quality, sites depopulated or abandoned, and the breaking-off of written records. In some areas, no new culture replaced the old devastated one. Particularly in Greece and Anatolia, it took centuries for civilisation to recover from a ‘Dark Age’ of stagnancy and illiteracy.

There has been a great deal of speculation by historians about what lay behind this disastrous crisis. The theories include natural disaster, climate change, new military technology, mass migration or a general ‘systems collapse’.

One of the more mysterious elements was the appearance in the 13th century BCE in the eastern Mediterranean of the so-called Sea Peoples: displaced populations moving eastwards looking for new lands and razing the cultures that stood in their way. The source of the name ‘the Sea Peoples’ is an Egyptian inscription from the mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, which depicts Rameses III defeating an attempted invasion from the sea. It is probably inaccurate to see the Sea Peoples as a single group with a single origin. Rather, they were disparate peoples displaced from various parts of the Mediterranean.

Preziosi and Hitchcock [3] suggest for example that the Mycenaeans were overthrown by forces from inside or outside, perhaps mercenaries recruited from surrounding ‘barbarian’ peoples, and forced to migrate, following the established trade routes eastwards, displacing other peoples in a kind of domino effect. There are connections between the material culture of the Aegean and of the Philistines of the Levant, who are believed to have been among the Sea Peoples. The body of evidence for these links includes literary references (e.g. the Bible, which associates Crete with the Philistines) as well as correlations between pottery motifs, weapons, headdresses, burial practices, and more.

But the phenomenon of the Sea Peoples does not really answer the question of the crisis. Were they a cause of the crisis, or a symptom of it? What caused these peoples to migrate in the first place? There is no certainty among archaeologists about interpreting the incomplete evidence. The most likely explanation, formulated by Gordon Childe as early as the 1930s, is strangely absent from the current debate.

A dead end for class society

Across history, humans had found new ways to transform their societies in order to meet the needs created by new conditions. Hunter gatherers had responded to the end of the Ice Age with the Neolithic Revolution, and to the new demands of settled life – e.g. soil degradation, centralisation and technology – with the Urban Revolution.

Broadly the late Bronze Age cultures were commanded by powerful ruling classes commanding centralised states with bureaucracies, organised around the transfer of wealth to themselves from the masses. This meant an increased exploitation of the peasant cultivators, and their reduction to serfdom or even slavery. As Childe pointed out, “such concentration was probably essential to ensure the production of the requisite surplus resources and to make these available for effective social use” [4], i.e. for all its evident evils, class society was a progressive step forwards for humanity.

But class society would become a brake on development. As Childe argued:

Progress before the [Urban] revolution had consisted in improvements in productive processes made presumably by the actual producers, and made moreover in the teeth of superstitions that discouraged all innovations as dangerous.

But by the revolution the actual producers, formerly so fertile in invention, were reduced to the position of ‘lower classes’. The ruling classes who now emerged owed their power largely to the exploitation of just those hampering superstitions.

By around 2500 BCE early civilisation’s wave of technological innovations – irrigation, the plough, the sailing boat, the harnessing of animals, the wheel, copper, bricks, writing, bronze [5] – had dried up. Elites that drew heavily upon superstition to justify themselves had no interest in further investigation of the natural world. They could also exploit big reserves of labour power and saw no need for improvements in technique. But the great cultures of the 13th century BCE were confronted with very high costs in maintaining their bureaucracies, military and extravagant monarchies.

Instead of investing in technology and increasing production, these ruling classes expended immense resources on tombs, public works, military adventures and luxury consumption. Much as we may admire achievements such as the Pyramids, their cost was extraordinary, and they contributed little to the progressive development of society as a whole.

The ruling class, itself the product of a progressive advance – class society – was now holding civilisation back from the further advances needed to feed the elite’s demands for resources. In short, the Urban Revolution, which had allowed a leap forwards from the limitations of Neolithic culture, had an internal contradiction and was beginning to be constrained by its own limitations. As Marx put it:

At a certain stage in their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations which have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters.[6]

With the strain this contradiction imposed on society as a whole, a shift in circumstances – a drought, a migration, a rising of a ‘fringe’ people [7] – could easily tip society into crisis. Indeed, there is strong evidence of widespread drought in this period.

In a later age, a new mode of production, capitalism, could develop within the framework of feudalism. There was no such alternative available to the Bronze Age. Social forces such as the peasant cultivators or merchants were incapable of taking over the organisation of those cultures, which were therefore stuck in a cycle of rise and fall. As one culture fell apart, another took its place, sometimes by force – only for this to fall apart in its turn. This pattern is not of course limited to 1200 BCE, but during the Bronze Age Collapse it became generalised, applying not simply to individual cultures but to the broader civilised world. With no possibility of a revolutionary step forwards in the class struggle, there remained only “the mutual ruin of the contending classes”.[8] The apparent barbarism of the Sea Peoples, perhaps themselves displaced by the crisis, might be one expression of this.

The analysis in this article might be seen as a reinvention of the theory of ‘systems collapse’, currently the most credible theory amongst archaeologists, but from a Marxist perspective. In my view, ‘causes’ such as drought, the migration of peoples, new weapons technology and so on were important aspects of the crisis but the ultimate explanation is more fundamental than these or a mere combination of them.

The effects of the collapse were of course uneven. Although Egypt entered a period of decline, it retained a cultural continuity between the Bronze and Iron Ages. In other regions the change was more stark. In the Aegean the late Bronze Age was followed by a Dark Age, when the loss of long-distance trade and the breakdown of great bureaucratic states caused a fragmentation into smaller, more backward societies. This had a significant affect upon artistic production. Monumental buildings were no longer built, pottery designs became simpler, the Linear B script fell into disuse, craft output fell and the resources spent on art declined.

Though the collapse was a period of destruction and decline, there was also a positive opportunity for rebirth. The loss by Egypt of its territories in the Levant and the disintegration of the Hittite empire in Anatolia created the space for new, smaller cultures like the Phoenicians, inventors of the alphabet, or the Lydians, inventors of coinage, to emerge as commercial powers. And in time the recovery would bring a new wave of cultures. Among them was a culture whose art is often held up as one of humanity’s highest achievements – the ancient Greeks – whom we will examine presently.

Human history was also on the cusp of a new phase of civilisation, characterised by a technology that would change the world: iron.

[1] Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age (1995).
[2] Egypt’s period of decline occasioned the first recorded labour strike in history, when food rations failed to be provided for the skilled artisans in Deir el-Medina.
[3] Donald Preziosi and Louise A. Hitchcock, Aegean Art and Architecture (1999).
[4] Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936). This article draws upon Childe’s thesis from chapter 9 on ‘the acceleration and retardation of progress’.
[5] For a fuller list see Childe, op. cit.
[6] Karl Marx, Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).
[7] In the process of creating military machines, kings increasingly recruited mercenaries from their frontiers: Libyans and Asiatics for Egypt, peoples from Asia Minor for the Hittites, the Dorians for the Mycenaeans. These ‘fringe’ peoples, armed and organised, acquired the military capacity to bring down their employers.
[8] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848).