In the early days of archaeology, even before it was generally called ‘archaeology’, antiquarians realised that the earliest humans had no idea of metals, but used stone for tools and weapons. The first metals were those requiring the most simple technology – copper, gold and bronze. Later on, it was discovered how to produce iron. The antiquarians were faced with the problem of how to organise and record their findings and theories, because they were quite literally working with a blank sheet. They ended up using terms like ‘Stone Age’ and ‘Iron Age’, named after the main materials used for tools and weapons.
This was the discovery of prehistory – ‘before history’ – when our ancestors talked with each other but wrote nothing down, as writing had not evolved. They would have had names for everything from a flint arrowhead to the location of Stonehenge, but these names did not survive and antiquarians had to devise their own terminology. In order to put the prehistoric archaeological artefacts in some sort of order, the ‘three-age system’ was developed by the Danish antiquarian Christian Jürgensen and used at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. The earliest period was the Stone Age, followed by the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age, and this still forms the basis of archaeological research today.
Chest of drawers
The three-age system was also known as the chest-of-drawers system, because museums stored artefacts in different drawers of their big wooden cabinets. Iron implements might be found in the top drawers, bronze artefacts in the ones below and stone tools at the bottom. This organisation provided a crude representation of the actual stratigraphy on an archaeological site, where you might expect to find stone tools at the very bottom of a trench and iron ones at the top.
The chest soon needed more drawers, as the three-age system was too simplistic. The ‘Stone Age’ could equally have been called the ‘Wooden Age’, because wood was actually a major material, along with bone and horn, as seen in some spectacular excavations of waterlogged sites. The Stone Age came to be divided into three parts – the Palaeolithic period (literally, ‘old stone age’), the Mesolithic period (‘middle stone age’) and the Neolithic period (‘new stone age’). It was recognised that not all bronze tools were made of bronze – some were made of copper without the addition of other metals such as tin and lead. A ‘Copper Age’ (also called Chalcolithic) was therefore inserted between the Stone Age and Bronze Age. Many other refinements have since taken place, such as the terms Early Iron Age, Middle Iron Age and so on, all trying to make the dating of prehistory more precise.
The division into distinct periods was in reality a fluid process, because the adoption of different materials and technologies would have been gradual. A population using stone tools might have encountered traders offering bronze tools, taking them straight into the Bronze Age with no transitional Copper Age. Britain was in the Late Iron Age when the Romans invaded in AD 43, so at a stroke moved from an illiterate prehistoric society into history. The advent of radiocarbon dating and recent developments in other forms of scientific dating have transformed archaeology, but the ‘three-age system’ in its expanded form is still frequently used as a short-hand way of giving a rough date reference for a site or object. It is likely to remain in use for some time to come.