Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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steepholm steepholm
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When did the Iron Age end?
I've long known that the Iron Age began at different times in different places, due to the fact that iron-making technology took time to spread. But when did it end? The Romans used iron tools as much as the Ancient Britons for example, but no one ever seems to describe first-century Rome as an iron-age culture. Why not?

If we were following the naming practice which leads from stone to copper to bronze to iron, and distinguishing societies by their cutting-edge technologies (pun intended) then perhaps we might call Rome part of the Steel Age. Their military did after all use Noric steel for weaponry (though how widespread its use was I'm not sure). But steel of one description or another was being made long centuries before that, in Moravia, in Iberia, in East Africa: were they therefore more "advanced" than Rome? Besides, steel does not seem to have been as fundamentally transformative a technology as iron had been. In many ways we might say that the Iron Age was alive and kicking at the Battle of Hastings and even beyond. But we don't.

Besides, no one does talk about the Steel Age. With the Romans, we move to a different system entirely, based not on technology but taking classical culture itself as normative. The classical age, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, even the Modern (which was at first used as a point of contrast to the Ancients - i.e. Greece and Rome) all use classical Rome rather than any technology as their ultimate point of reference. Only since the industrial revolution have we begun to name ages after technology again, and then only in certain contexts: the railway age, the computer age, the internet age, etc. These may or may not stick: it's up to future archaeologists, I suppose.

Was I going somewhere with this? If I was, I forget. Anyway, feel free to leap in.

Dredging my memory of GCSE history a bit... isn't it about writing/recorded history? I'm not sure if people ever talk about Iron Age Egypt or China either- once you start being able to read what people say about themselves, you're not talking about Ages inferred from their archaeology?

You're probably right, but it seems a little arbitrary as a way of divvying up the past. It would presumably mean that illiterate societies such as that of the Inca would have to be classed as Iron Age, which doesn't "feel" right to me, presumably because these labels have become inextricably tangled with a Whiggish sense of progress.

The Americas are different anyway, though- Obsidian Age?

I quite agree.

And of course all ways of dividing the past are arbitrary in any case. We do tend to name them in retrospect for what seems salient to us: their material culture or their technology or their mass culture or what have you. I'd note, though, that a change in perspective or speciality often requires (or at least generates) a change of category or name. Much of the period of the Roman Republic and early Empire can be considered, by those taking a wide view, simply part of the post-Classical Hellenistic period; more strikingly, military historians, say, have, by way of example, the Gunpowder Age to set aside and the Age of Sail to demarcate within periods that general historians lump together.

Re: I quite agree.

I think that's the key - we name an age for what seems the most important thing about it. In Britain, the Roman invasion was pretty seminal. After that, we get 3 more invasions, Saxon and Norman, with a short Viking interlude, before you start naming by monarchies: Plantagenet, Tudor Stuart etc. The monarchies thing is a shame; I wish we'd gone on using other criteria - the Print Age, the Railway Age....

Yes - and (rather than, 'Yes, but')...

There's a sense as well that these 'ages' were also what seemed to those in them the most important thing. Agricultural and weapons technology did, in the Bronze and Iron Ages, matter to everyone: it was, even if they cd at best but dimly sense it, a matter of life and death. The Hellenistic period was, for its contemporaries, an important assertion of a Med-wide culture by the diadochs of the Classical states and Classical culture, the marker that said 'We - unlike that lot over there - are Not Barbarians'. And even in English - not really British before the 17th C: at most, English-and-Welsh - history, the dynasty was in fact important, a shorthand for, variously, being implicated in a Nordic empire (Cnut et al.); the involvement across the Channel (Norman, Angevin, and Plantagenet); the promise of an end to late Plantagenet factional instability and then the fight with Counter-Reformation Spain and its hegemonic plans (Tudor); the union of crowns and subsequent political union with the Kinrick of Scots (Stuart); the rejection of possible alliance with France as a new Continental hegemon; and the Protestant Succession (late Stuart to Hanoverian).... Whereas of course one can just as easily, if one shifts one's emphasis, regard the only important periods as being, say, the Neolithic Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution beginning in the UK, the Age of Fossil Fuels and power deriving therefrom, the Industrial Age (w the Information Age as a sub-age), and the Age of Borlaug and the Green Revolution: Wurzels history, as it were.

As a child, I was under the impression that Ages were officially designated, and mutually exclusive. Thus, I was taught that the Medieval Age gave way to the Modern Age in 1492, and, having heard about the Atomic Age, I presumed that therefore the Modern Age ended in 1945.

Then I heard about the Space Age which began in 1957, and concluded that the Atomic Age had lasted only twelve years, a sorry entry on a list most of whose members went on for centuries or millennia. I didn't hear about the Railway Age until after I'd been disillusioned of the whole notion.


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