The Bronze Age marked the first time humans started to work with metal. Bronze tools and weapons soon replaced earlier stone versions. Ancient Sumerians in the Middle East may have been the first people to enter the Bronze Age.
Humans made many technological advances during the Bronze Age, including the first writing systems and the invention of the wheel. In the Middle East and parts of Asia, the Bronze Age lasted from roughly 3300 to 1200 B.C., ending abruptly with the near-simultaneous collapse of several prominent Bronze Age civilizations.
Bronze Age Tools
Humans may have started smelting copper as early as 6,000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent, a region often called “the cradle of civilization” and a historical area of the Middle East where agriculture and the world’s first cities emerged.
Ancient Sumer may have been the first civilization to start adding tin to copper to make bronze. Bronze was harder and more durable than copper, which made bronze a better metal for tools and weapons.
Archaeological evidence suggests the transition from copper to bronze took place around 3300 B.C. The invention of bronze brought an end to the Stone Age, the prehistoric period dominated by the use of stone tools and weaponry.
Different human societies entered the Bronze Age at different times. Civilizations in Greece began working with bronze before 3000 B.C., while the British Isles and China entered the Bronze Age much later—around 1900 B.C. and 1600 B.C., respectively.
The Bronze Age was marked by the rise of states or kingdoms—large-scale societies joined under a central government by a powerful ruler. Bronze Age states interacted with each other through trade, warfare, migration and the spread of ideas. Prominent Bronze Age kingdoms included Sumer and Babylonia in Mesopotamia and Athens in Ancient Greece.
The Bronze Age ended around 1200 B.C. when humans began to forge an even stronger metal: iron.
Bronze Age Civilizations
Sumer: By the fourth millennium BCE, Sumerians had established roughly a dozen city-states throughout ancient Mesopotamia, including Eridu and Uruk in what is now southern Iraq.
Sumerians called themselves the Sag-giga, the “black-headed ones.” They were among the first to use bronze. They also pioneered the use of levees and canals for irrigation. Sumerians invented cuneiform script, one of the earliest forms of writing and built large stepped pyramid temples called ziggurats.
Sumerians celebrated art and literature. The 3,000-line poem “Epic of Gilgamesh” follows the adventures of a Sumerian king as he battles a forest monster and quests after the secrets of eternal life.
Babylonia: Babylonia rose to prominence in the Bronze Age around 1900 B.C., in present-day Iraq. Its capital, the city of Babylon, was first occupied by people known as the Amorites.
The Amorite King Hammurabi created one of the world’s earliest and most-complete written legal codes. The Code of Hammurabi helped Babylon surpass the Sumerian City of Ur as the region’s most powerful city.
Assyria: Assyria was a major political and military power in ancient Mesopotamia. At its peak, the Assyrian Empire stretched from modern-day Iraq in the east to Turkey in the west and Egypt in the south. The Assyrians frequently warred against the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt and the Hittite Empire of Turkey.
Assyria is named after its original capital, the ancient city of Assur, situated on the west bank of the Tigris River in modern-day Iraq.
Bronze Age China
In China, Bronze Age civilizations centered around the Yellow River during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C) and Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.). Chariots, weapons and vessels were fashioned in bronze using piece-mold casting as opposed to the lost-wax method used in other Bronze Age cultures. This meant a model had to be made of the desired object, and then covered in a clay mold. The clay mold would then be cut into sections that were re-fired to create a single mold.
Bronze Age Greece
Greece became a major hub of activity on the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age in Greece started with the Cycladic civilization, an early Bronze Age culture that arose southeast of the Greek mainland on the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea around 3200 B.C.
A few hundred years later, the Minoan civilization emerged on the island of Crete. The Minoans are considered the first advanced civilization in Europe.
The Minoans were traders who exported timber, olive oil, wine and dye to nearby Egypt, Syria, Cyprus and the Greek mainland. They imported metals and other raw materials, including copper, tin, ivory and precious stones.
Around 1600 B.C., the Mycenaean civilization rose on the Greek mainland, and their culture flourished during the late Bronze Age. Major Mycenaean power centers included Mycenae, Thebes, Sparta and Athens.
Many Greek myths are tied to Mycenae. In Greek mythology, the city of Mycenae was founded by Perseus, the Greek hero who beheaded Medusa. The Mycenaean king Agamemnon invaded Troy during the Trojan War of Homer’s “Iliad,” though there are no historical records of a Mycenaean king of that name.
Bronze Age Collapse
The Bronze Age ended abruptly around 1200 B.C. in the Middle East, North Africa and Mediterranean Europe. Historians don’t know for sure what caused the Bronze Age collapse, but many believe the transition was sudden, violent and culturally disruptive.
Major Bronze Age civilizations, including Mycenaean Greece, the Hittite Empire in Turkey and Ancient Egypt fell within a short period of time. Ancient cities were abandoned, trade routes were lost and literacy declined throughout the region.
Scholars believe a combination of natural catastrophes may have brought down several Bronze Age empires. Archaeological evidence suggests a succession of severe droughts in the eastern Mediterranean region over a 150-year period from 1250 to 1100 B.C. likely figured prominently in the collapse. Earthquakes, famine, sociopolitical unrest and invasion by nomadic tribes may also have played a role.