In one of the earliest commentaries on world history (c700 BC), the Greek writer, Hesiod, placed the “Age of Bronze” mid-way between the “Age of Gold” and the impoverished “Age of Iron,” in which he considered himself unfortunate enough to live. More than two and a half millennia later, the Danish archaeologist, Christian Jurgensen Thomsen, reinstated the idea of a “Bronze Age,” albeit within a very different conceptual paradigm. Thomsen’s “Three Age System” (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age) remains the basis for the chronological understanding of European prehistory to this day and, in the British Isles, the Bronze Age can be dated between c2400 BC and c750 BC. I have written, in my biography of Sir John Lubbock (www.mark-patton.co.uk/id1.html), of the process by which this framework was refined and popularised.
The Bronze exhibition currently showing at London’s Royal Academy of Arts (until 9th December) explores the aesthetic value of bronze as a material from earliest times down to the present day, displaying Bronze Age objects alongside some of the masterpieces of classical antiquity, and sculptures by artists including Cellini, Rodin and Picasso.
Recent works of historical fiction, including J.P. Reedman’s Stone Lord and J.S. Dunn’s Bending the Boyne, as well as my own Undreamed Shores, have set out to imagine the culture and motivations of the very first bronze workers in this part of the world. Those early bronze-smiths could surely not have conceived of a work on the scale of Cellini’s Perseus, which is one of the centrepieces of the exhibition, yet, in a very real sense, their efforts paved the way for this extraordinary grandeur.
I was naturally attracted to two of the earliest pieces in the exhibition, which I think have much to say about the real “Age of Bronze.”
The first of these objects is a figurine, believed to be of a tribal chief, from Late Bronze Age Sardinia (7th or 8th Century BC). Wherever bronze was first introduced, perhaps especially in communities that did not already have iron, it seems to have been accompanied by fundamental changes in social structure, with the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few individuals. Unlike iron, copper and tin (the components of bronze) are relatively rare elements, and often need to be obtained by trade: those trade routes can be monopolised and defended by a combination of charisma, diplomacy and, where necessary, warfare. Though separated both by hundreds of years and by hundreds of miles, this Bronze Age Sardinian belongs recognisably to the same social milieu as Reedman’s Arthu, Dunn’s Elcmar and my Gwalchmai.
The second object is a model chariot, with a gilded disc usually assumed to represent the sun, found at Trundholm in Denmark, and dated to around 1400 BC. Sun worship may not have begun in the 3rd Millenium BC, and may not have been universal in the European Bronze Age, but the period certainly provides some striking testaments of it, and this is surely one of them. There are two other points of interest here. The world of Undreamed Shores (set around 2400 BC) includes neither domesticated horses nor wheeled transport; that of Stone Lord (set around five centuries later) includes both. Exactly when either was introduced is difficult to determine, but both seem to have made their appearance during the Bronze Age, and to have been well-established in most parts of Europe by the end of it. The trade and exchange that enabled the first bronze-smiths to obtain their raw materials almost certainly facilitated the spread of other ideas and technologies as well.