Most of us take a lot of things about the world around us for granted. The same way most of us usually only begin to pay attention to something once it’s dangled in front of us like a giant carrot. This is the way I feel about metals. For a long time I took them for granted; but today, now that I’m paying attention, I cannot imagine my life without them. Nor would I want to. And I’m confident that if you give it some thought, you wouldn’t either.
Let’s Begin at the Beginning (Or Roundabout There)
To say that metals have shaped our modern world is an understatement; an understatement of, ‘the Grand Canyon is kind of big’ variety. The truth is that aside from wood and stone, no materials have made more significant contributions to human civilization than metals.
One of the very first metals to be used by humans was copper. But, if we look at artifacts (some of which date back further than 5000 B.C.) copper was to earlier societies what Pottery Barn is to ours: meaning that it was primarily used for decorative rather than utilitarian purposes. Anthropologists and other experts assure us however, that somewhere around 4500 B.C. in Mesopotamia, experimentation with copper gave way to bronze; and that changed things. A lot.
Unlike copper, bronze could be cast, molded, hammered, or otherwise manipulated to create much more than a living room accent piece. Bronze brought with it weapons such as spearheads and arrows, as well as containers for food and water storage and multitudes of instruments. But all good things must come to an end, as they say, and by way of humanity’s fickleness, our love affair with bronze would soon give way to a new companion – iron.
The Iron Age, or, Humanity’s Ancient Version of Black Friday
Long before the Crusades of the Middle Ages were underway, we humans entered a period called the Iron Age; and if you happened to be around at this time, it’s more than a little likely you would have spent a good deal of your waking hours contemplating the changes it brought about.
Depending on the region, the Iron Age began somewhere between 1200 B.C. and 600 B.C. (I am taking some liberties here with timelines, both because I am neither a scientist nor a scholar; but mostly because I’m not sure how to smelt thousands of years down into two or three paragraphs) and, it was in great part characterized by the type of weapons it allowed us to produce.
Superior to their bronze counterparts and able to be cast instead of forged by hand, weapons made from iron could be mass-produced in numbers never before seen. Strengthening those who had access to its technology, it greatly empowered infantry in warfare, which allowed those who were in its possession a significant advantage. What happened next is another chapter of human history that brought conquerors and the conquered, dismantling much of Asia Minor (AKA: Anatolia) and surrounding regions.
Ironing Out Change
As ironworking made its way around, (mostly Anatolia, the Southern Levant and Aegean, North Africa, Egypt and the like) it brought about great change. So much so, in fact, that it led to a period known as the Bronze Age Collapse, which wreaked havoc with trade all over the Mediterranean and, as described by Wikipedia, “forced metalworkers to seek an alternative to bronze.” But that’s not all it did.
While many societies continued to use copper and bronze (notably the Romans continued to use copper in building and maintaining their aqueducts), the Iron Age tipped the balance of power. It instilled overconfidence in those eager and ambitious to invade and attack, and as a result it was, in essence, in large part responsible for the destruction of the Mycenaean kingdoms, the Hittite Empire, and the Egyptian Empire. You could say that the Iron Age packed a punch, both literally and figuratively.
While many scholars believe that there were other forces at play during this time – reports of drought, climate change, and even volcanic eruptions are thought to have occurred simultaneously – there is no denying that despite whatever advances the widespread use of ironworking brought with it, so too did the Iron Age bring calamity.
They say the best way to get over an old love is to find a new one, and after this tumultuous jog through the Iron Age we could probably use a break about now. But before we go, consider this: the discovery of a single metal was responsible, at least in part, for obliterating some of the greatest empires our world has ever known. Might another discovery, the discovery of how to use energy metals as sources of renewable energy, say, have the opposite effect? I’d like to think so.