The terms stone age, bronze age, and iron age are three classic divisions of history based on the chief material used for tools and weapons at different stages in the history of man.

These ages were first used as classifications for dating artifacts found in Europe. They are not referred to quite as often as they used to be because, as it turned out, dates varied drastically for the uses of these metals around the world and even among the various parts of Europe more than was first thought. Some civilizations skipped a period – Sub-Saharan Africa went straight from stone to iron skipping Bronze Age altogether. American natives never got out of stone age – until the era of European exploration.

I. Stone Age

All tools and weapons were made of stone. Axes, spear points, etc.
During the later years of the Stone Age (sometimes called the Neolithic Period), copper was smelted (“melted” out of ore by heating it in a fire) Copper, along with silver and gold, was used mostly for ornamental purposes (it is a softer metal compared to stone tools and not as suitable for tools/weapons). Sometimes a separate Copper Age (or Chalcolithic Age) is referred to as separate from the Stone Age. But, basically, the use of copper was a good supplement to stone tools and also acted in some civilizations as a transition to the Bronze Age. However, copper tools and ornaments were used in the Americas without the people ever discovering how to produce bronze.

II. Bronze Age

Bronze tools and weapons were used during this “age”  (alongside still-useful stone and copper).
Bronze is “one of the most innovative alloys of man.”

Bronze is produced by the combining of copper + tin   (an earlier bronze was actually copper+arsenic which was not quite as strong)
Bronze is much stronger than pure copper.

Though the Bronze Age came before the Iron Age, bronze is actually superior to iron in many ways:
Bronze is —

  • less brittle
  • has a lower casting temperature
  • it resists corrosion and rust
  • is stronger

However, other factors came into play:

1. A few groups of people learned how to add carbon to iron and make steel. Steel is superior to everything. (The Hittites are an example of early steel wielding tribes).

2. Iron implements can be sharpened — a huge advantage. Bronze weapons had to be melted and re-molded.

3. The tin that was needed to make the bronze became hard to find and often unavailable to some cultures. Both copper and tin are relatively common, but they are rarely found in the same area.  The production of bronze therefore depended on the ability to trade for the part you were lacking. Most historians think that the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age chiefly due to trade problems and the inability to obtain whichever component one was lacking.

III. Iron Age

Iron, like copper and tin, must be extracted through a process called smelting to get it out of the rock or ore. Iron is never found in its pure elemental state. However, it is one of the most common elements on earth and therefore cheap and available.
One of iron’s great advantages was that it could be sharpened. A bronze knife, for instance, had to be melted and re-cast.
Also, iron, unlike bronze, did not have to be alloyed (combined) with another metal. However, until it was discovered that iron could be alloyed with carbon to make steel, iron remained only equivalent to bronze, if not inferior.

It is believed that the Hittites were one of the earliest people to first discover how to make steel by combining iron with carbon. This discovery gave the Hittites superior weapons and shields and is regarded as the key factor in their success as conquerors during the 14th-13th century BC .

A Little About Smelting—

There is continuous debate to understand how the ancient people learned how to smelt.
Probably the first smelting was done by accident by making a campfire on top of tin or lead ores. That may accidentally have produced metallic tin and lead at the bottom of the campfire because the temperatures to smelt tin and lead are easily achieved in a campfire. These metals can then be re-melted and cast into the form of ornaments, tools or weapons.

Copper created some impact on the ancient world, as it produces good blunt weapons and reasonable armor, but it is still too soft to produce useful blade weapons. Therefore, the smelting of copper did not replace the manufacture of stone weapons, which still produced superior blades.

Bronze is made from either copper+arsenic or copper+tin. The presence of arsenic and tin dramatically increased the hardness of copper, producing war-winning weapons and armor. A noble wearing bronze armor was basically impervious to the stone tools of the times, and his bronze sword kept its edge and shattered the older stone-based weapons. The knowledge of how to produce bronze allowed kings to overcome their enemies, and caused such a revolution that it marked the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age. It would be millennia, though, until bronze could be used by common soldiers and townsfolk, and for a long time they were luxury items used by nobility.