Thank you Fjordman for publishing this, as usual, excellent and informative essay.
Surprisingly early copper tools such as axes from around 5500 BC have been found at Plocnik, near Prokuplje south of Belgrade in Serbia. Archaeologist Julka Kuzmanovic-Cvetkovic comments that “These people were not wild,” pointing to fine statuettes recovered from the site. “They had finely combed hair and adorned themselves with necklaces.”
Before 5000 BC the inhabitants of the Lower Danube Valley and the Balkan foothills farmed, built sizable towns and mastered large-scale copper smelting. At its peak by 4500 BC, says Professor David W. Anthony, “Old Europe was among the most sophisticated and technologically advanced places in the world.” Admiring their colorful ceramics, a specialist in Egyptian archaeology noted that during this early period “Egyptians were certainly not making pottery like this.” The Spondylus shell from the Aegean was a special item of trade.
Long-distance trade of certain materials existed in prehistoric times. Amber (fossilized tree resin) has been used for jewelry for many thousands of years and was exported from the shores of the Baltic Sea to other European regions quite far back into the Stone Age. During the Copper Age and Bronze Age in Europe and Near East, metals initially served prestige and decorative purposes, but gradually became employed for practical tools and weapons as well.
Bronze is an alloy of copper, usually in combination with tin. It had been made before 3000 BC but didn’t become widespread until somewhat later. The period prior to this is sometimes called the Copper Age or Chalcolithic (Copper-Stone) Age, referring to the limited initial use of pure copper along with stone tools. Bronze is harder than copper and easier to cast. Its eventual replacement by iron for tools or weapons before and primarily after 1000 BC happened mainly because iron is much more abundant in the Earth’s crust than copper and tin.
The Early Iron Age resulted temporarily in less international trade, precisely because iron was more common than tin. Tin mining in Erzgebirge between Saxony in present-day Germany and Bohemia in the Czech Republic existed by 2500 BC and was soon practiced in Brittany, France, the Iberian Peninsula and above all in Devon and Cornwall in southwestern England. Cornwall in particular was a key exporter of tin to Europe and the Mediterranean world throughout Roman Antiquity and the Middle Ages all the way up to modern times. It is conceivable that some peoples in the eastern Mediterranean also got tin from non-European sources such as Afghanistan; we know that the Egyptians and others traded with this distant region in order to gain access to the beautiful semiprecious blue stone known as lapis lazuli.
Early metallurgy spread from the Near East as well as southeastern Europe, where a limited use of copper was soon supplemented by more sophisticated bronze, occasionally gold and finally silver, but these innovations were initially more symbolic than practical; rare metal objects were prized as status symbols in this era. Materials such as obsidian (natural volcanic glass) and flint blades were still utilized during the Copper Age and the Early Bronze Age. With very few exceptions, swords do not appear in the archaeological record until after 2000-1500 BC. Only during the Late Bronze Age do we see a much more widespread use of bronze, and eventually iron, for practical agricultural tools as well as for different types of metal weapons. This change was caused by a greater mastery of fire (pyrotechnology) and the controlled use of high temperatures, which was also utilized in Europe to create glass beads.
Scholar Anthony Harding writes about Europe, ca. 1300-600 BC. Gold was worked in some quantity in areas like Scandinavia and Ireland. A few other metals such as lead were also used, although sparingly at this point, plus some silver for drinking vessels and decoration. The exploitation of major copper ores – Alpine, Carpathian, Balkan and Irish – continued.
In the case of gold, Irish and Carpathian sources continued to supply the increasingly skilled European smiths and their customers with surprisingly large quantities of the precious metal. Especially in Ireland, Scandinavia and northern Germany, quite a few high-quality gold objects (mainly ornaments) from this period have been recovered. From the mid-second millennium BC, multi-piece molds began to be used in addition to an increasing reliance on the lost-wax method. Examples of the latter would be the finely made figurines of Sweden and Sardinia; of the former, the horns of Ireland and the lurer of Denmark, fine bronze trumpets probably used in ritual performances of music. Although the inhabitants of far northern Europe learned the skills of metal-working comparatively late they quickly mastered them, as demonstrated in the technical mastery of the Trundholm Sun chariot (ca. 1400 BC).
There was a veritable explosion, quantitatively and qualitatively, in metallurgical skills in the second millennium. The most important processes at first involved copper and tin, alloyed to make bronze. Iron ores were apparently not exploited much before 2000 BC, and large-scale use expanded rapidly after 1000 BC. “By the middle of the second millennium BC, a new metal had been discovered – iron – that needed no alloying and was locally available in many parts of Europe. Iron seems to have been produced unintentionally at first, during the smelting of some sorts of copper ore that had a naturally high iron content. Production of iron, in both the northern Carpathians (the Tatra mountains of Slovakia) and the Caucasus mountains of Georgia, seems to have begun around 1700 BC,” towards the end of a period of tremendous innovation in metallurgy observable across northern Eurasia all the way to China. The Shang Dynasty produced many fine bronze pots and drinking vessels in addition to jade ornaments.
Low-lying regions, where iron occurs in carbonate ores in association with clays, or moorland regions with “bog iron,” now became much more important than before. Early iron metallurgy probably used the methods of bronzeworking. By 600 BC, “iron was the standard material for tools and weapons, though the highest quality art products were still made in bronze.” It seems more than a coincidence that the period from 600-200 BC also witnessed the birth of the first truly vast empires in human history, from Persia and Rome to India and China.
Late Bronze Age Europe was apparently a turbulent place where weaponry evolved fast. “The sword, for instance, which had been developed in the east Alpine area in the Middle Bronze Age, assumed a variety of forms whose rather rapid pace of change probably reflects the need constantly to update equipment if military success is to be maintained. It was at once a functional implement (as shown by the degree of wear and resharpening on some pieces) and an object important for display purposes.” Moreover, “Armour (shield, helmet, cuirass, greaves) played an increasing role in the mechanisms of Bronze Age warfare, but archaeologically it is those pieces that were made in metal that survive, and these were not the ones that were functionally most effective. It has been shown experimentally, for instance, that shields of sheet bronze can be cut by a slashing blow from a sword, whereas those of leather or wood are much tougher. Added to the difficulty of moving freely in sheet-metal armour, it is much more likely that leather was the normal material and that these metal pieces were for display – either in warlike ceremonies, or intended to strike fear into the hearts of opponents at the mere sight, much as happened with Homer’s heroes in the Iliad.”
Alexander the Great and his soldiers may have protected themselves with linothorax, which was something like an ancient equivalent of Kevlar armor. Gregory Aldrete, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in the USA, states that “this linen armor thrived as a form of body protection for nearly 1,000 years.” Modern reconstructions have resulted in several complete sets made from flax plants that were grown, processed, spun and woven by hand, using a glue made from the skins of rabbits and another from flax seeds. Tests included shooting the resulting patches with arrows and hitting them with swords. The material performed surprisingly well. It is only known through some descriptions in ancient literary sources and visual images in vase paintings and sculptures. The main visual evidence for Alexander wearing linothorax is the famous Alexander Mosaic found in Pompeii, Italy.
The use of armor in early historical times was relatively minor, focused on a helmet and leg plates plus a large shield, for example the hoplites of ancient Greece. The use of plate armor is mainly associated with the Middle Ages, and the weight always had to be balanced against mobility and flexibility. In late medieval and sixteenth century Europe, that is, the age of low velocity firearms, some metal armors were sufficiently strong to stop bullets. Following the Industrial Revolution, armored motorized vehicles and tanks were eventually developed, too.
Chivalry as a concept is closely associated with the knighthood and heavy cavalry of the European Middle Ages. It is derived through the French cheval from the Latin caballus, “horse.” The world “cavalry” comes via Italian from the Latin caballarius, “horseman.” Four peculiarities distinguished the late medieval professional warrior: his weapons, his horse, his attendants and his flag. Banners were attached to the lance. Aristocratic knights were expected to uphold virtues such as honor, courage, gallantry toward women and chivalrous conduct.
According to author Robert Friedel, the horse was put to even greater use than before during the Middle Ages. New forms of plow lent themselves to effective use of horses, which increasingly supplemented oxen for this purpose, as did the horse cart and the wagon for transport. In warfare, heavily armored mounted knights became the symbols of the medieval warrior of the feudal era. Different breeds were employed as pack horses or for long journeys:
“For battle use, however, the desired horse was the destrier, typically ridden by only the wealthiest knights and nobles. The properly trained destrier could move steadily from a walk to a canter to a full-fledged but controlled gallop while carrying a fully armored warrior. Their expense made them precious indeed, even at the height of chivalry. Chivalry itself, as a code of conduct and values, represented the ascendancy of the horse and its improvement to a central place in the European scheme of things.”
The use of iron continued to increase in medieval times. In Europe, it was applied to horseshoes, nails, spikes, sickles, in mills or as fittings for carts and harnesses. While there was a range of weaponry that was important to the medieval warrior, for instance longbows, crossbows, lances and pikes, the sword above all became a symbol of power. In the course of the Middle Ages the dependence of the warrior on iron increased, as the styles of battle and the growing resources available to support warfare led to an increase in the size of armor:
“Whereas the early medieval soldier was largely protected by thick pieces of leather and a shield made mostly of leather and wood, by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the mounted warrior was encased in an almost impenetrable shell of iron armor, and when it could be afforded, the iron protection was extended to the horse as well. A complete suit of armor in the late Middle Ages might consist of as much as a hundred pounds of iron plate, and plate was supplemented by chain mail, drawing even further on the skills of the smith/armorer. The fully armored knight and horse was a formidable but ponderous weapon, representing the heaviest and most expensive mobile implement of land warfare until the introduction of the tank in the early twentieth century. The medieval military uses of iron, which extended well beyond the arms and armor of the knight to include arrow and spear points, spurs and stirrups, and key parts of crossbows and siege machinery, made particular demands on the most precious forms of the metal, especially hardened steel.”