The Three Age System

The Three Age System – Is still relevant?

 In 1836 a Danish gentleman called Christian Jurgensen Thomsen worked on a new way of classifying prehistory into three distinct periods – The Stone Age, The Bronze Age and The Iron Age. This would go on to be known as the ‘The Three Age System’ and remains with us to this day, with some modifications here and there.

However, how is still relevant? It is becoming more apparent to archaeologists that defining periods based on technological material makes little sense, it does little to explain what happened in the past and tell us about the people and societies in which they live, and how they were organised. A good example of this was the need to further divide the Stone Age into the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age). The Palaeolithic is often subdivided as well. Although stone was the major technology available) in this period (that survives, evidence of wood and bone use in these periods also survives in the right conditions) does little to explain the periods and how the differ, the progression from scavenger, to hunter, to hunter gatherers exploiting seasonal changes and finally to farmers. Just looking at the technological material does not examine the complex evolutionary journey we have embarked upon during that long journey.

There is also considerable continuity across the later prehistoric periods, between the Neolithic into Early Bronze Age, Late Bronze Age into early Iron Age. The main way that Archaeologists tend to use these terms now is as shorthand to refer to a span of time. Increasing evidence has shown that that metals are found in Late Neolithic contexts and stone tools are used throughout the prehistoric periods. Archaeologist now find it more useful to define these periods by what is actually happening and looking at the continuity, as the three-age system almost predisposes us to view these in insolation.

What are your thoughts?


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