Developmental stage of human technology when weapons and tools were made from iron. Preceded by the Stone and Bronze ages, it is the last technological stage in the Three Age System framework for prehistory. Iron was produced in Thailand c. 1600 BC, but was considered inferior in strength to bronze until c. 1000 BC, when metallurgical techniques improved, and the alloy steel was produced by adding carbon during the smelting process.
Ironworking was introduced into different regions over a wide time span, appearing in Thailand c. 1600 BC, Asia Minor c. 1200 BC, central Europe c. 900 BC, China c. 600 BC, and in remoter areas during exploration and colonization by the Old World. It reached the Fiji Islands with an expedition in the late 19th century. Iron Age cultures include Hallstatt (named after a site in Austria) and La Tène (named after a site in Switzerland).
Economy and society The economic working of iron, particularly for use in agricultural tools and weapons, was a great step forward in material culture. Unlike copper and tin used in bronze, iron ores are widely available and this enabled the spread of cheap, durable metal tools. The Iron Age saw the development of hierarchical systems, with tribes and chiefs, and the strengthening of defences, such as hill forts and enclosures. Complex trade routes were established between the Mediterranean and northern Europe, especially using rivers. Conspicuous consumption increased among chiefs, particularly of alcohol, and intense competition increased the output of prestige goods. Ritual behaviour is evidenced by depositions in pits and water, or bogland; and skeletal remains suggest the practice of disarticulation (separation of joints), possibly as part of ritual process. Celtic beliefs and practices became significant, and were written about by classical authors, such as Tacitus and Julius Caesar.
Hallstatt culture The salt industry played a major part in the economy of the Halstatt peoples, the earliest Iron Age culture in central Europe. An exceptionally rich cemetery was excavated at Hallstatt in the 19th century, revealing graves that spanned the transition period from Bronze to Iron Age. Objects of both metals were recovered, and stages in the evolution of the sword in both metals provided a relative chronology. Late Hallstatt chiefdoms are regarded as precursors of the Celtic hierarchical systems.
La Tène culture This culture is named after a type site on Lake Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The various La Tène cultures, regarded as Celtic, grew from trading contacts made between the advanced urban civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Hallstatt farming communities north of the Alps. They used iron extensively for military and general metalware, and bronze and gold mainly for ornaments. In Britain, examples of their highly skilled metalwork include the Battersea shield, Witham shield, and Thames helmet (all in the British Museum, London). Identification of material culture as Celtic in graves and deposition sites, such as lakes and springs, can help map the spread of this diverse group. Objects decorated in the La Tène style, often found as grave objects, appear throughout Europe, from Greece and Asia Minor to Ireland, and from Denmark to southern Italy, indicating the great expansion of the Celts of central Europe in the later 1st millennium BC. The source of the Celts is an unanswered question in archaeology, as their migrations drew together peoples from a number of areas. Attempts have been made to distinguish them linguistically; otherwise they are known as the ‘barbarians’ to the classical world of the Romans.
End of the Iron Age In areas that became part of the Roman Empire, the Iron Age is succeeded in archaeological terminology by a Roman period, but elsewhere the Iron Age continues until some other literate culture, often Christianity, becomes dominant. In Scandinavia, the Roman Iron Age and the periods of migrations and Vikings are considered to be Iron Age by Scandinavian scholars, since they are essentially prehistoric (or protohistoric) rather than historic periods. In Britain, the Iron Age dates from about 700 BC until the Roman invasion of AD 43, although Iron Age culture lingered beyond this date, particularly in Cornwall.
Iron Age funerary urn
Iron Age weaving comb
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