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Ancient Technologies 101: The Foundation of Civilization


The spirit of human curiosity and vision for a better world has long been the driving force behind technological advancements that have propelled civilizations toward progress and innovation. The relationship between technology, people, events, and social systems is a continuous, interwoven cycle of dependence and influence. People of the ancient world heavily relied on their environment and its resources, prompting them to develop technologies as a means to control and shape their surroundings. These earliest technologies were based on observable natural phenomena, to which they adapted to accordingly. Over time, humanity's growing understanding of nature's technology enabled the harnessing and control of the environment around them. 

The making of such complex technology in a seemingly simple world was the result of dedicated focus on detail, alongside observation, trial and error, and ingenuity from the early individuals who crafted techniques and technologies, many of which continue to be used today. Tool and technologies that were developed in the ancient world came to impact the development of culture, economy, politics, and religion shaped the very fabric of their societies and laid the groundwork for future civilizations. From the earliest tools fashioned by our ancestors to the monumental achievements of classical antiquity, ancient technologies defy the constraints of space and time, leaving an indelible mark on the course of history. Fuelled by necessity, curiosity, and at times, conflict, these innovations served as a testament to the symbiotic relationship between human creativity, innovation, and the environment. 

This 101 Series is divided into seven articles including:

  1. Ancient Technologies 101: The Foundation of Civilization

  2. Ancient Technologies 101: Hellenistic Temple and Theater Constructions

  3. Ancient Technologies 101: The Environment of Ancient Italy

  4. Ancient Technologies 101: Connecting the Empire with Streets, Roads, and Bridges

  5. Ancient Technologies 101: The Hydraulic Genius of Ancient Rome

  6. Ancient Technologies 101: Architectural Marvels of Roman Bathhouses

  7. Ancient Technologies 101: Engineering the Roman Spectacle

From Stone to Iron: Technological Evolution in the Ancient Near East and Aegean World

Throughout ancient history, a multitude of technologies were developed that have profoundly contributed to the development of the social, cultural, and economic landscapes that were fundamental to the establishment of civilizations. In the ancient world, the definition of technology can be applied at its most basic level: it is ​​the means through which humans learned to harness and control the natural environment in order to better their living conditions (Humphrey, 2006). Through trial and error, ancient societies collected knowledge of techniques and methodologies that could be applied to the creation of tools, weapons, and everyday devices that would advance human existence. These technological developments allowed ancient societies to significantly improve their standard of living by securing more plentiful and reliable food sources through agriculture, the construction of superior shelters, developing defense strategies, and facilitating transportation (Sherwood, et. al., 2020). Technology was ultimately the bridge between humanity and the natural world that enabled early humans to transform their environment into one that allowed for the emergence of socially and economically developed civilizations. Similar technologies appear in diverse geographical strata that suggest such tools were created in multiple places simultaneously, though technologies were largely developed as people came into contact with one another. Technology was also developed based on necessity; the need for shelter required primitive people to employ materials at hand, while the development of agriculture called for new tools for harvesting and prompted the development of pottery to store food (Humphrey, 2006). As civilization and technology advanced through time, people continued to build upon the knowledge provided by those who came before them. Technology and society are inextricably woven; society would not have developed without it, and technology would not have developed without society. From the primitive humans of the Stone Age to the developed civilizations of the Iron Age, human vision for a better world stimulated many technological advances that improved standards of living by utilizing resources within their environment. 

It is believed by some ancient philosophers that the first tools available to man were not created, but rather innate. In a passage in History (1.8.1-6), Diodorus of Sicily makes it clear that the greatest advantage to man is our ability to learn step-by-step. He references the social habits of humans and the use of common signs and terms that would subsequently become speech and the ability to communicate with language. Anaxagoras and Aristotle, rather, believed hands are the reason the human race has thrived, as “the hand is the tool that makes and uses tools” (Aristotle, c. 250 B.C.E./2006). Human progress is also attributed to the intimate relationship between humanity and the natural world, where observation and imitation of natural phenomena have played a pivotal role in technological innovation (Sherwood et. al., 2020). The unique ability to learn, especially from nature, and to observe its patterns and processes, has been fundamental to human ingenuity and technological evolution. For example, the discovery of fire. The only mammal to overcome their fear of it, early humans learned to control fire, harnessing this elemental force for warmth, protection, cooking, and perhaps as a weapon (Hough, 1932). The observation of fire's behavior such as burning wood and its by-products led to the development of technological processes essential for future civilizations, such as pottery and metalwork, beginning on a large scale in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages. Among the most important discoveries of the prehistoric world, the domestication of fire is the instrument that enabled human curiosity and sparked technological advancement (Sherwood, et. al., 2020). However, the material that gives its name and a sense of technological unity to the earliest period of prehistory is stone.

Beginning ca. 2.6 million years ago, the Stone Age is divided into three eras, the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic. The Paleolithic era takes its name from the Greek words paleo for old and lithic for stone, meaning “Old Stone Age” and lasted for almost all of human existence. It is divided into three eras–the Lower Paleolithic, Middle Paleolithic, and Upper Paleolithic—that are essentially based on changes in the ways people made and used stone tool technology as seen by archaeologists (Childe, 1944). During this age of human existence, primitive people were mostly living in small, nomadic communities dependent upon hunting, gathering, and avoidance of predators. They mostly encountered their environments, following their food sources and migrating according to seasons and weather patterns (Baker, 2018). As a result, they were in need of tools for hunting, gathering, and preparation. Thus, tool-making is one of the earliest indications that humans began to manipulate their environments rather than letting the environment shape their behavior. Stone tools ultimately came to indicate more than where people were, but reflected the passage of time and human progress. Though, the ability to identify tools used within the history of human activity does not necessarily identify an exact point for the origins of technology; it is likely that for millions of years prior, basic tools were determined by the materials at the disposal of prehistoric people. It may be assumed that primitive humans used wood, leaves, grasses, bone fragments, and other natural objects as needed, but these tools would have been subject to decomposition and subsequently lost over time (Kuhn, 2020). There is no evidence of these, as we would not recognize such objects as tools. They were not manipulated and lacked traditional form; sticks and sharp or broken rocks could have been picked up and used as needed and then discarded as they were found (Hodges, 1970). Stone, rather, is incredibly durable and well preserved, and has been unearthed in abundance throughout the Mediterranean region, often appearing exactly as it did in its original form. 

Illustration of Prehistoric Life in a Cave (n.d.)
Figure 1: Illustration of Prehistoric Life in a Cave (n.d.)

Stone only became recognized as a tool when it had been deliberately shaped and manipulated to serve a specific purpose, and in the Paleolithic era, essentially the same tools were used for over two million years before humans had a sense of advanced technology. The basic stone tools of the prehistoric people were determined by the materials available to them within their particular geosphere, and in order to make effective stone tools, people needed to have access to stone suitable for flaking, such as flint, chert, or obsidian (Shea, 2013). The emergence of the Oldowan chopper marked the beginning of Stone Age technology. The chopper is made by flaking, or striking the rock with another rock or hammerstone, to create a stone with a sharp edge. The remaining material of the stone is known as a core or flake-tool, and the fractured products are called flakes (Shea, 2013). The core is typically large enough to hold securely in one hand, and the natural features of sharp stone flakes produced by the hard hammer percussion provided a unifacial edge that could have been used for scraping, scavenging, or cutting plants and animals (Kuhn, 2020). Following the Oldowan industry, the Acheulean technology emerged approximately 700,000 years later, or 1.7 million years ago. This era of stone tool technology is characterized by the biface hand axe, which represented a significant leap in tool-making function and sophistication, and exhibited a more deliberate process that reflected increased cognitive function (Baker, 2018). Acheulean toolmakers also used the flake tool method of the Oldowan industry but proved to yield more control over the shape of the finished tool (Kuhn, 2020). Acheulean hand axes were worked on both sides, creating a symmetrical tool with two faces, rather than one, that could later be resharpened by flaking off more of the material, a process known as retouching (Shea, 2013). Acheulean technology has been discovered throughout Europe, Africa, and East Asia, indicating the migration of nomadic communities who traveled through the Levantine Corridor, bringing Acheulean technology with them. Like the Oldowan chopper, the Acheulean hand axe could be used for butchering, though the latter was typically larger in size. The dominance of Acheulean technology eventually succumbed to the rise of Levallois Technology about 300,000 years ago, most notably exploited by the Mousterian Industry in the Middle Paleolithic (Baker, 2018). The essence of the Levallois technique lies in its methodical approach to knapping, involving the preparation of a stone core in such a way that subsequent flakes can be removed predictably, producing tools of a desired shape and size from the prepared core (Shea, 2013). This preparation involved creating a convexly shaped core with a specific striking platform. The knapper could then strike the core in a way that a flake of predetermined size and shape would detach, and could be used as a tool itself or further refined. This preparatory work produced tools with a uniform and predictable shape, and allowed for more efficient use of the raw material (Kuhn, 2020). This was a considerable advancement over previous methods that demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of lithic raw material properties, and a high level of planning and skill in stone tool production. The resulting technologies of the Mousterian Industry were much finer, knife-like tools or scrapers that could be shaped to a point that developed as primitive people outgrew the Acheulean hand-axe and exhibited behaviors of forethought and planning.  

During the Upper Paleolithic Era, beginning about 40,000 years ago, the Aurignacian culture emerged, characterized by blades, rather than flakes, typical of the Acheulean and Mousterian industries, usually associated with both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals throughout Europe and Africa (Kuhn, 2020). As seen throughout the Paleolithic, there is an advanced degree of tool sophistication and standardization. The blades produced exhibit much finer edges, and are typically twice as long as they are wide evidence of skill, expertise, and technique gained through thousands of years of practice and experimentation (Baker, 2018). Blades served as versatile blanks for the production of a wide range of tools that were uniform, and served a broad range of tasks such as butchering, engraving, and scraping. The final stone tool technology of the Paleolithic era to develop were Projectile Points, which are highly refined, specialized tools designed for throwing or launching. The Upper Paleolithic projectile points required microliths, or small stone tools, used as the tips of projectile weapons, either as hand-cast spears, spearthrower darts, or arrows (Shea, 2013). These points were typically made from high-quality lithic materials such as flint, obsidian, or chert and were carefully crafted to optimize their aerodynamic properties and penetrating power. The bottom of the microlith exhibits grooves, where projectile points to be securely attached to spears or arrows for hunting and warfare, while other hafting techniques may have involved the use of adhesive substances such as resin, or binding made from plant fibers or animal sinew (Baker, 2018). At this time, composite tools—tools that are constructed from multiple materials or components— have become commonplace in the tool making industry. This involved the hafting, or mounting, of a stone artifact to a handle with an environmentally available binding material. The making of a composite tool requires a keen understanding of flintknapping, but also demonstrates knowledge of material in knowing what would make for a strong handle, and how to bind the materials so that the weapon will penetrate game without breaking under pressure. In other words, composite tools require coordination and the integration of knowledge on a much larger scale than previously seen (Kuhn, 2020). They also offered many advantages: the handle allows the operator to exert more force, while providing a spatial separation between the tool and the user, lessening risk of injury and allowing for freedom of movement. Also during the Upper Paleolithic was the development of the atlatl. Once projectile points and weapons were created, it was only natural for early humans to find a way to increase their range and power. Also known as a spear-thrower or dart thrower, the atlatl is a tool that was used to extend the arm's length, effectively increasing the leverage and force with which a spear or dart could be thrown (Baugh, 1998). This ancient weapon system was used by various cultures around the world until the arrival of more advanced technologies like the bow and arrow. An atlatl typically consists of a shaft of wood, bone, or antler, with a hook or socket at one end where the rear end of the blade or tool is placed. The other end is held and manipulated by the thrower. When the atlatl is swung forward in a throwing motion, it effectively lengthens the thrower's arm, allowing the spear or dart to be propelled with greater speed and force than could be achieved by the arm alone (Howard, 1974). This technology significantly increased the range and killing power of hunters, enabling them to take down larger game and engage targets at a safer distance. The atlatl was an important advancement in prehistoric weaponry that reflects early human innovation and adaptability. 

Illustration of an early human landscape depicting a variety of stone tool technologies (n.d.)
Figure 2: Illustration of an early human landscape depicting a variety of stone tool technologies (n.d.)

Tools of the Paleolithic Era did not develop uniformly, as each primitvie community needed to develop technologies that served specific purposes, but all of them were in use by the Neolithic Age. With the onset of the Neolithic Age, humans were no longer passive agents. Rather than encountering and reacting to their environments, man became proactive, and manipulated their environment to accommodate their needs (Baker, 2018). They intentionally sought out the best materials, and in doing so, living conditions improved, and daily life was less dependent on survival but rather on settlement. The people of the Neolithic age developed a sedentary, agriculturally-based lifestyle that created a specialized need for tools and technologies. This period of transition proved a remarkable increase in technological innovation and marked the beginnings of settled communities, and the domestication of animals. Many Neolithic stone tools appear to have been modified on a much greater scale than their Paleolithic counterparts that suggests an increased dependance on tools. However, once agriculture had been established in the Neolithic Age, new stone tools such as plough-blades and sickles were developed to harvest crops and grains, that required groundstone tools—tools shaped by cycles of percussions and abrasion (Kuhn, 2021). Two crucial groundstone tools include the quern and the handstone, both of which were used to grind grain. 

A handstone, also known as a hand-held grinding stone, is a portable tool typically made of stone or other hard materials such as basalt, granite, or sandstone, that is relatively small and can be held comfortably in one hand. Handstones have a flat or slightly concave surface on one side, where grains or seeds are placed for grinding, and a rounded or pointed shape on the opposite side, which is used to grip the tool during use (Kuhn, 2020). To grind grains or seeds, the user would place them on the grinding surface of the handstone and then rub or grind them against a stationary surface, such as a larger stone slab or a quern, using a back-and-forth or circular motion. A quern is a larger grinding tool consisting of two stones: a stationary base stone and a smaller, handheld stone (Kuhn, 2020). The lower quern is typically a flat or slightly concave stone slab with a smooth grinding surface, while the upper quern, or handstone, is a smaller stone with a flat or convex bottom surface and a handle or grip on the top for ease of use. To grind grains or seeds using a quern, the user would place the grains or seeds on the grinding surface of the lower quern and then use the upper quern to grind them into flour or meal by rubbing or grinding them back and forth or in a circular motion (Baker, 2020). These tools were essential as they allowed early farmers to transform raw grains into flour which could then be used to make bread or cereal. However, they also required increased time and energy, perhaps even hours or days of focused labor, which highlights the increasing dependence on stone tool technologies during this time. These two technologies facilitated the transition from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to agricultural communities and highlight the important technological advancements that contributed to the development of settled civilization. With the development of agriculture, primitive communities needed to be close to their food sources in order to grow and harvest, leading to the establishment of settled villages and communities. The advent of sedentary living also prompted the construction of more permanent structures, such as the first tombs, burial grounds, and domestic housing, rather than searching for natural shelter, such as caves and rocky outcrops (Baker, 2018). Neolithic housing typically employed stone foundations that supported a fieldstone frame, or a mud-brick frame which solidified through the heat from the sun. Typically, these structures were small, singular rectangular or circular rooms equipped with features like clay storage bins and stone (Kuhn, 2021). These dwellings occurred in clusters, possibly representing familial relationships, though it is likely some were used for food storage or as animal pens, reflecting the evolving needs and lifestyles of early agricultural societies (Hitchcock, 2010). If chosen, fieldstones were collected from the surrounding landscape, and selected based on size, shape, and durability. These stones were not shaped, but nonetheless, they were fit together to produce a solid wall or structure that displays a random course of pattern (Baker, 2018). If this was done properly, the stones did not require mortar to hold in place. Stone masons had eventually learned how to shape stones before construction, which would in turn produce a more systematic pattern. 

Illustration of Neolithic farming and harvesting grain (n.d.)
Figure 3: Illustration of Neolithic farming and harvesting grain (n.d.)

The Stone Age witnessed a gradual progression in the efficiency of cutting edge in the production of tools, as evidenced by the transition from rudimentary technologies like the Oldowan chopper to more sophisticated techniques such as the Aurignacian Blades, that reflect the increasing sophistication and adaptive capabilities of ancient societies over time. As communities embraced sedentary living during the Neolithic era, the need for specialized professionals like merchants and craftspeople emerged, driven by the demands of an agriculturally-based lifestyle. This shift led to the development of more formalized leadership structures and organized infrastructures, fostering rapid technological advancements, population growth, and the emergence of advanced civilizations (Baker, 2018). The transition to sedentary agriculture also necessitated the creation of specialized tools and crafts to meet the new demands of food production, and subsequently pottery, for storage and transportation. This resulted in a surplus of food and accumulation of wealth, granting power to those who controlled the surplus and contributing to the socio-economic complexity of Neolithic society. These developments laid the groundwork for the transition to the Early Bronze Age, marking a new chapter in human history characterized by unprecedented innovation and societal organization.

With the advent of the Bronze Age, there were significant advancements in technology, culture, and trade, as societies began to harness the properties of metals such as copper, tin, bronze, silver, and gold. The rise of metallurgy signified a fundamental change in the relationship between man and technology that set the stage for the establishment of sophisticated civilizations and intricate trade networks. Beginning in about 4000 B.C., it was copper that allowed humans to extend the techniques of metallurgy (“Metallurgy through the Ages,” 2001). Copper had been utilized for various purposes for thousands of years prior to the Bronze Age, as it was highly malleable, unlike stone, and in abundance. Though, it was the revolutionary discovery of bronze—an alloy of copper with ten percent tin—that truly marked the onset of the Bronze Age. The amalgamation of these two metals resulted in a material far superior to copper alone, possessing greater strength, durability, and versatility (Forbes, 1950). However, copper was more abundant than tin in the Mediterranean region; it was found as a metal in lumps of native copper, or it could be found as an ore—natural rocks or minerals containing valuable metals and minerals— which must be heated in order to extract the metal. The tin of Cornwall in the midlands of Britain was one of the few locations where it could be collected, and as a result much of the tin was exported from there, and many merchants traveled to Britain to acquire it, making it a highly valued commodity (Sherwood et al., 2020). To make bronze, one must mine copper and tin ores from the various locations in which they could be naturally found. After collecting them, the ores must be purified so the metal could be extracted from them. This is accomplished through a process called smelting, in which the ore was heated to high temperatures in the presence of a reducing agent. The reducing agent reacts with the metal ore, reducing it to its elemental form and separating the metal, which can then be collected (Maddin et al., 1977). In the case of copper, the ore was heated in a furnace with charcoal or another reducing agent, which separated the copper from the surrounding rock and impurities. In the ancient world, furnaces used for smelting were typically constructed from clay, brick, or stone and fueled by charcoal or other organic materials (Forbes, 1950). These furnaces varied in design depending on the specific metals being extracted and the available resources, but they generally consisted of a chamber for holding the ore and fuel, as well as openings for air flow to regulate the temperature. The first metalworkers blew through a metal tube to make fires hotter, which eventually gave way to the bellow: a handheld device that could pump much more air and dramatically increase the heat of a fire (“Tools,” 2000). Once the copper had been smelted, tin was added to create the bronze alloy. The molten bronze was then poured into moulds made of stone, terra-cotta, clay, or wax to create various objects such as tools, weapons, utensils, ornaments, and statues (Sherwood et al., 2020).  As agricultural skills had been acquired during the Neolithic Age, there was an increased need for the products of specialized craftsmen, which included a large number of metalworkers. This substantially contributed to the emergence of urban societies that relied heavily open trade and manufacturing industries, and thus the subsequent establishment of the first trade economies. This breakthrough in metallurgy not only elevated the quality of tools and weapons but also catalyzed advancements in various aspects of society, including agriculture, warfare, and establishing the first civilizations. 

The Bronze Age in Greece began in 3200 B.C.E., with the Cycladic civilization, a culture that had emerged on the southeast of the Greek mainland on the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean sea (“Crete,” 1998). By 3000 B.C.E., only a couple hundred years later, the Minoan civilization had settled on the Island of Crete, the largest and southernmost island of Greece (Watrous, 2021). The Minoans were named after the mythical king Minos, a legendary ruler of the island. However, their culture did not flourish until after 2200 B.C.E, and reached its peak around 1600 B.C.E, during the late Bronze Age (Small, 2004). They were an island people and seafarers who traded widely in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, establishing intricate and interconnected economic systems. They came into contact with cultures of the Near East and Egypt, and came to establish trade routes from the Levantine coast in the east through Cyprus and western Anatolia, to the Aegean, Italy, and Sardinia. This route even extended as far west as Spain (Knapp, 2004). These developments occurred as vocational groups or leaders came to control access to various items that were increasingly in widespread demand on the Mediterranean islands and in the surrounding countries. Raw materials such as copper, gold, silver and tin, as well as precious goods like ivory or precious stones, and a collection of perishable goods were all transported regularly. By the end of the third millennium B.C., the trading of metals had become central in creating social change and organization, and copper from Cyprus was a particularly important component of the economy (Knapp, 2004). It is in this need to acquire critical supplies of copper and tin, as well as the distribution of materials such as silver and gold, that Bronze Age civilization saw the rise of long-distance trading networks. People no longer happened upon trade routes. Instead, materials and goods circulated along established paths.

Bronze Age fresco of a ship procession from Akrotiri on the Aegean island of Thera (n.d.)
Figure 4: Bronze Age fresco of a ship procession from Akrotiri on the Aegean island of Thera (n.d.)

Utilizing a diverse array of controllable characteristics, bronze became instrumental in crafting increasingly efficient tools and weaponry. Prior to the Bronze Age, warfare lacked formality and structure. With the advent of bronze, artisans began to create weapons and defensive armaments, including swords, the first specialized tool for combat, and shields. Bronze was so versatile and central to economies that, even iron had been discovered, it took centuries for the new metal to replace bronze (“Metallurgy through the Ages,” 2001). Smiths were advanced in bronze weapon technology developing important weapons like long swords and spearheads in Crete, that were exported to various regions. Battle scenes in Minoan art and warrior burials indicate that the Minoans used the weapons they produced, suggesting a militaristic aspect to Minoan society despite their peaceful nature (Lobell, 2015). Though, people quickly realized that metal could be used for more than function, but as artistic expression. The Minoans, who thrived on the island of Crete during the Bronze Age, are often portrayed as a relatively peaceful society, especially in comparison to their contemporaries. This perception is largely based on archaeological findings that suggest a society with a strong emphasis on art, commerce, and complex architectural developments, such as palaces and administrative centers, rather than on militaristic power or fortifications (Niemeier, 2004). However, the lack of militaristic artifacts and fortifications might also reflect a period of peace and stability within the island, or their dominance in the region, which would have reduced the need for military expressions. It's also possible that their strategic location and naval prowess allowed them to control trade routes effectively, diminishing the necessity for aggressive military expansion or defense structures.

Their mastery of metal is predominant in the jewelry made by the Minoans. Both men and women wore a variety of jewelry make of metals such as gold, silver, copper, bronze, and semi-precious stones. The jewelers were remarkably skillful, and had the technical expertise to make filigree work—​​delicate ornamental designs that requires the soldering of  gold or silver wires (“Fashion in the Minoan Period,” 2005). Additionally, they crafted intricate granulated artwork, wherein tiny grains of gold were meticulously soldered onto a gold or silver backing. Proficient in the art of inlaying with stones or paste, they also excelled in repoussé work, a technique involving the embossing of designs onto thin metal sheets by applying pressure from behind. This process resulted in the design being raised in relief on one side of the sheet and replicated from the underside (Watrous, 2021). Discovered within the tomb of Mallia on the northern coast of Crete is on of the most remarkable examples of Minoan jeweler’s artistic prowess. This pendant takes the form of a bee and was designed and executed with expertise that could only reflect the sophisticated craftsmanship of Minoan civilization (“Fashion in the Minoan Period,” 2005). Greek women adorned themselves with rings, necklaces, bracelets, armlets, earrings, and hair ornaments made of precious metals and decorated with gemstones to complement their intricately draped attire and carefully styled hair. Men also wore rings,  and used decorative fibulae (pins) to clasp their cloaks and chitons (tunics) (“Fashion in the Minoan Period,” 2005). The fibulae were responsible for securing the large panels of fabric that Greeks draped around their bodies. Although they had originally been developed for function, the fibulae later became a decorative fashion accessory. The earliest metal fibulae date back to about 1000 B.C.E. These unadorned fibulae were made of bronze or gold and looked very similar to modern safety pins (“Greek Body Decorations,” 2013). Minoans also employed girdles, which, in the context of antiquity, was a form of belt or sash that is tied or wrapped around the waist. The girdle was a very useful in holding together both the long draped fabrics and shorter pieces that may become loose, but they were also used for decorative purposes as a form of jewelry around the waist (Lee, 2015). They were often made of cloth, though girdles were also made of made of metal, decorated with precious stones and beads. Minoan art indicated that the Minoans found a small waist attractive, and in order to seemingly enlarge the shoulders and chest to appear stronger, men and women pulled their waists in with tight belts often made of metals such as copper, silver, and gold (“Fashion in the Minoan Period,” 2005). These belts were typically rolled at the edges, and decorated with designs of ridges, spirals, rosettes, and flowers (Lee, 2015). It is also believed that in many cases, these decorated metal belts were welded permanently around the waists of small children to keep it from growing as the child matured. It could also have held religious significance, as metal girdles that are designed as snakes have been found in Minoan temples. Nonetheless, the incorporation of metal into their body adornments underscores the significance they placed on metals to serve symbolic and social functions, as well as for practical needs. 

Fresco of a Minoan maiden with prayer beads (n.d.)
Figure 5: Fresco of a Minoan maiden with prayer beads (n.d.)

The heart of Minoan civilization lies within the several enormous palaces build around the island that were built and rebuilt with ever-increasing splendor. The largest and most famous of these palaces was at Knossos, on the northern coast of Crete. The royal complex was built over about six acres of land, and served as the religious, social, and commercial center of Minoan civilization (Watrous, 2021). Like other palaces of small kingdom, the palace of Knossos is where the king lives and carried out his administrative and religious duties, aided by a staff of workmen, scribes, officials, and artisans (Graham, 1960). Frequently, administrators were sent out from the palace at Knossos to oversee economic activities on different parts of the island. Long column porticoes and galleries were essential to Minoan palaces, as well as finely carved architectural ornaments.  Surrounding a large, central courtyard were dozens of rooms, chambers, small courts, halls, storage, and arrangements for workers of the palace. There is a seeing lack of organization as the rooms are constructed in a maze-like arrangement, but were often impressive nonetheless. The palace is several stories high, with the upper floors supported by columns. Royal residences were equipped with advanced features such as elaborate staircases, drainage systems, plumbing, and light wells to provide air and circulation (Lobell, 2015). Alabaster walls were ornamented with fresco paintings of the sea, sky, and flowers, as well as molded plaster reliefs. It is in the complexity and colorful decoration of the palace that attests to the highly developed Minoan civilization, with considerable wealth and material resources at hand (Graham, 1960). The art of fortification was not as prevalent in the Minoan culture, as the nature of island life provided natural protection. They instead focused on maritime trade routes, and built carefully planned towns and cities on the island, as well as road networks to connect them (Watrous, 2021). City planning determined the locations of government offices, religious, business, and residential areas to ensure an organized city that enables control over the movement of the people within it. This ensured that residential areas would remain private, and public areas were suited to accommodate visitors and tradesmen (Baker, 2018). The Minoans were excellent builders with well-paved roads and elegant masonry walls that highlight their technological skills and infrastructure that could facilitate trade. The architectural layout of the city ultimately became a technology in and of itself as it increased the efficiency of metal production and trade while enabling the growth of Minoan civilization. The palaces, such as that of Knossos, were not just administrative centers but also autonomous entities used for food processing, storage, communal rituals, and ceremonies. Palace culture of the Minoans in Crete created urban centers that were not only administrative but also economic hubs where trade and commerce flourished. The presence of large celebrations at the palaces as evidenced by hundreds of ceramic cups found in one room suggests that these centers were hubs for social and cultural exchange potentially attracting traders and visitors from other regions (Lobell, 2015).

In order to keep track of social and economic happenings, the Minoans needed to develop a system of writing—one of the most significant technological advancements not only in the ancient world, but in all of history. The increasingly complex administrations of Minoan cultures required diligent and detailed record keeping for general bookkeeping and taxes. Farmers, merchants, craftspeople, traders, and rulers all needed accurate and efficient methods for keeping records. Writing facilitated successful business practices and a strong economy; merchants, tradespeople, and palace and temple administrators depended on this skill. Writing was a technology that not only enabled accumulated wisdom and permanent knowledge, but facilitated the intellectual process (Baker, 2018). The Minoans had developed a form of writing known as Linear A that has been discovered in archeological sites throughout Crete. However, it is largely undeciphered and is generally inferred (Warren, 1985). In the 1400s, after the Mycenean Greeks invaded Crete, this was replaced by Linear B, an early form of the Greek language. 

Fresco from the palace of Knossos depicting Minoan architecture (n.d.)
Figure 6: Fresco from the palace of Knossos depicting Minoan architecture (n.d.)

Around 2000 B.C., the Myceneans invaded Greece from the north, and developed  Bronze Age culture centered in the Peloponnese, the large peninsula that forms the southern most part of Greece. By 1600 B.C.E., Mycenean civilization—named after Mycenea, the most prominent city on mainland Greece—had spread throughout Greece and the coastal regions of Asia Minor (“Bronze Age, Greek,” 1998). Between 1600 B.C.E. and 1400 B.C.E., the Myceneans competed with the Minoans for trade dominance in the Mediterranean, which may have contributed to the development of Mycenean culture. The peaceful and prosperous nature of Cretan coastal cities soon grew accustomed to both traders and raiders from the mainland until Knossos was raided in the fifteenth century B.C. Many members of the staff of the Cretan king likely continued to work for foreign rulers, turning out fine metalwork and art. Mycenean successors seized Minoan knowledge of maritime trade utilized established foreign bases with enthusiasm and pushed the areas of contact to more far distant places (Stanislawski, 1973). They also reinvented their system of writing, Linear B, to represent the language of the new rulers in Mycenean Greek (Graham 1960). The decipherment of the Linear B script used in palace records and inventories revealed that the Mycenaeans spoke an early form of Greek and engaged in trade not only with the East but also in the Central Mediterranean including Sicily and the Aeolian island of Lipari (Immerwahr, 1960). Around 1400 B.C., the Minoan culture was near its end. In a blow from which Minoan culture would never recover, Cretan palaces and cities were destroyed, and the remanence of cultural tradition was transferred to the Myceneans. 

Mycenean civilization was notable for its massive stone architecture and heavily fortified cities with walls of huge stones, with palaces built on hilltops where they could be strongly guided and fortified by walls or natural landscapes. Unlike the Minoans, the Myceneans had a warlike territory and extended their power through military might. Mycenean warrior kings collected taxes and crops from their subjects, and with it they built great palaces and royal tombs, a central feature of mycenean architecture.. Typically located within the citadel, the palaces were well planned and usually located near the city gate and temples, occupying a considerable amount of public space. (Baker 2018). Unlike the Minoans, Myceneans included the megaron, essentially a large hall, a core element of the Mycenean palace. They were not typically very large, and could easily fit within the central court at Knossos (Hitchcock, 2010). The megaron consists of at the hall, and four columns to hold up the roof, which likely had a hole in it for ventilation (Graham, 1960). At this point, the megaron was the only way to enclose a substantial amount of interior space, though it was also predetermined by available resources. The timber used to frame the house must be determined by its strength, though the length of timber available determines the distance between the posts and the wall, and therefore the size of the room. This general form is thought to have been the basis for later Greek temple designs (Graham, 1960). All megarons frequently employed rear chambers, with side corridors giving access to smaller service rooms, as well as two shallow porches that would shield habitants from cold or unsavory weather. The outer porch opened on the court through a portico, supported by two columns (Hitchcock, 2010). The roof was presumed to have a hole not only for ventilation, but also for light. Since the light reaching the megaron through a single doorway would have been significantly reduced by the two porches, it is assumed that an opening existed above the hearth (Graham, 1960). Located approximately on the axis of the central court, the megaron proves a tendency toward symmetrical planning that had not been seen in Minoan architecture. 

However, the grandeur of Mycenaean architecture extends beyond the confines of the palace walls, exemplified by monumental structures such as the Lion's Gate and the imposing fortifications surrounding the citadels. The most powerful of the Bronze Age was the citadel at Mycenea, perched on an isolated rocky edge that controlled a pass between two rocky hills (Hitchcock, 2012). Encircling the hill was a massive wall composed of enormous stones that have not been shaped, but were fit together seamlessly, and the crevices were filled with clay and small stones. This type of stonework is what is referred to as Cyclopean Masonry; later Greeks could not comprehend how these were built, and attributed its construction to the mythical giants known as the Cyclopes (Graham, 1960). Near the entrance of the fortress, the stones were more carefully laid to create a fairly regular coursing. At the famous Lion gate at the entrance to the citadel, two megaliths form the posts of the doorway, and above them sits a twenty-ton lintel block embellished with two lions. Tool marks preserved on the sculpture also indicate the role of tubular drills and saws, including a large pendulum saw, and a smaller convex blade in the making of the lintel, technologies that were previously unknown (Blackwell, 2014). In a heraldic fashion and with their forepaws raised on a pedestal, the lions serve as symbolic guardians of the Mycenean kingdom. The other significant architectural feature of Mycenean architecture were the tholos tombs, the greek word for ‘beehive’ of which they resembled. The earliest tholoi were built as free standing monuments, and as a result, subject to roof collapse. To solve this, Myceneans began to build them into hillsides in order to support this vaulted dome (Hitchcock, 2010).  While Mycenean families were buried in irregular chambers, the steep-sided domes for were lined with stone and serve as markers of wealth and power. The circular chamber of a tholos tomb typically features a single entrance passage or doorway, which may be approached through the dromos— a long corridor or pathway (Graham, 1960). To build the dome, the Myceneans adopted the corbeled arch technique. A corbelled arch, also known as a corbelled vault, is a structural element used in architecture to create an arched opening or ceiling without the use of a traditional keystone that can be extended on its horizontal axis to create a vault or hallway (Sherwood et al., 2020). It is constructed by gradually offsetting successive layers of stone or masonry inward until they meet at the apex, forming a curved or pointed arch shape. Each layer of stone or masonry projects slightly beyond the layer below it, providing support and gradually closing the gap until the arch is complete. To build the tholos tomb, ashlar block—stone that is shaped to be the same size and shape—is built in a circular course progressively extending inward and upward to a central, round capstone (Cavanagh & Laxton, 1981). Many tholoi tombs had been ornamented with stone or metal, and decorative carving. Burials would have taken place inside the corbeled dome, and although robbed in antiquity, ornaments and funerary offerings were vital to the ritual. At one royal grave in Mycenea, a bronze dagger has been unearthed portraying a lion hunt on its blade, inlaid in gold (“Fashion in the Minoan Period,” 2005). The extrordinary size of these stones, and in particular that of the Lion Gate lintel, indicates a level of experience, expertise, and organizational ability that made it possible to shape, move, and handle massive construction elements.

Mycenaean megaron reconstruction  (n.d.)
Figure 7: Mycenaean megaron reconstruction (n.d.)

As civilization developed and prosperity increased, the Myceneans began to build more elaborate structures not only to satisfy utilitarian needs, but for aesthetic purposes as well. The Myceneans were more than architectural pioneers, they maintained a commercial supremacy through trade and conducting commerce within the limits of their seagoing ships' capabilities (Immerwahr, 1960). The Mycenaeans learned about seafaring from the earlier Aegean peoples they conquered, and representations on Early Bronze Age artifacts from Crete and other Aegean islands depict knowledge of ships with sails and oars (Stanislawski, 1973). Having developed sophisticated trade networks, they exchanged goods such as pottery, textiles, olive oil, metals, and luxury items with neighboring civilizations across the Mediterranean. The palace served as a redistributive center and regulated access to prestige goods and imported commodities such as bronze, ivory, and gold (Baker, 2018). These activities would have made it possible for craftsmen to obtain needed staples in exchange for their wares. Due to the demands of their occupations, laborers lacked the time and resources to cultivate their own food, necessitating its availability through local markets—particularly accessible to those who could offer services or trade precious metals or gemstones for goods in a pre-coinage economy (Kuhn, 2021). However, for priests, kings, and officials whose methods of wealth acquisition differed, purchasing food presented challenges. In response, kings implemented taxes, while temples enforced offerings and sacrifices, often paid in processed or raw food to ensure provisions for the king, their families, administrative staff, and priests (Baker, 2018).

For about two millennium, the civilizations of the ancient world had satisfied their needs for tools, weapons, armour, and other durable technologies with Bronze. Although iron was a known metal during most of the Bronze Age, it was not known as a workable metal. Replacing Bronze in about 1200 B.C.E, iron proved a stronger and harder metal. Early metalworkers produced iron from ores through a smelting process that is much like the one used for copper. However, iron does not melt at a temperature below 1,537 degrees Celsius, and at that time, smelters could only achieve about 1200 degrees (Stanislawski, 1973). As a result, smelting iron at that temperature would have yielded a spongey mass of iron and slag (impurities) called a “bloom” (Sherwood et. al., 2020). This bloom became the metalworker’s raw material; articles of iron were made by elating and hammering the bloom further. Though, this bloomery iron is a soft metal and inferior to bronze. As it melted at a lower temperature, it was suited for casting, whereas iron could not. Bloomery iron was also much weaker than Bronze, and corroded quicker. Though, if treated properly through a process called steeling, bloomery iron can be transformed into an alloy that is far superior to bronze. To do this, the metalworker would heat the bloom in direct contact with white-hot charcoal, and carbon monoxide evolved by its combustion. The carbon from both sources would then diffuse into the iron, and effectively converting it to carbon steel (Maddin et al., 1977). However, controlling the carbon content to produce steel deliberately was a complex process that took centuries to perfect. Early steel-making likely occurred somewhat accidentally as a byproduct of the iron smelting and blooming processes. The final step involved was quenching: rapidly cooling a hot piece of metal by plunging it into water (Sherwood et. al., 2020). If an article of steel iron is left by itself to cool, it develops a weakened microstructure, a problem which quenching negates. It is unknown as to when the quenching process was invented. Like steeling, it could have been discovered accidentally, though there is evidence that clearly indicates the process was well known to metalworkers by the eigth or seventh centuries.  

At the beginning of the 8th century B.C.E., several mining centers had been developed. With the exception of gold, the main metals known to the Greeks were found as ores on the surface of the earth, though when these sources became exhausted, the Greeks had to turn to underground mining (Economopolous, 1996). The earliest technique known to miners involved cutting horizontally from the surface, coming to form open-cast pits and working space of considerable volume. Chambers of considerable size were formed, and required a large column or pillar of natural rock to support the ceiling. Despite the absence of explosives, excavation was incredibly difficult and dangerous work. Ventilation, drainage, and lighting became significant obstacles. As the depths of the mines increased, ventilation problems became inevitable, forcing the workers to create vertical shafts. It was possible that mine workers would run out of oxygen before they were aware they were running out. Further, in the event they were mining down, the workers would have encountered water. It was not until the third century, with the invention of the Archimedes screw, that this could be resolved (Sherwood, et. al., 2020). To provide a source of light, workers had torches and oil lamps, though they were also known to carry a tallow candle in their mouth while they worked (Economopolous, 1996). For excavation, miners were equipped with a range of hand tools: hammers with iron heads, chisels, and shovels that were mostly wooden. The collected ore was held in leather sacks or baskets of woven grass, and loaded into baskets and carried on the shoulders of the workers who would then climb the ladder that was attached to the shaft, and carry them out. Mining ultimately became a significant industry in the Iron Age, most notably the silver mines at Laurion. The mines at Laurion belonged to the state, who could sell or auction them off to any free man who is willing to pay the proper fees to lease the mine. These operators could have even owners of smelting furnaces or other metal operations, but they were also subject to contract. If they had abandoned their mine or did not pay dues, then the mine would be given to someone else (Sherwood, et. al., 2020). Some workers lived near the mine in rooms that had bathing facilities, though as this a difficult and dangerous job, many of the workers were slaves. However, The silver mines at Laurion did not reached their zenith until the 5th century BCE, coinciding with the golden age of Athens (Sherwood et al., 2020). The immense wealth generated from these mines played a pivotal role in Athens' rise to power and prosperity. With the revenue from silver extraction, Athens was able to finance the construction of a formidable naval fleet that defeated the Persians in the Battle of Salamis 480 BCE. This naval victory secured Athens' dominance in the Aegean and facilitated its emergence as a leading maritime power. The riches from the Laurion mines later provided the financial means to embark on ambitious building projects, including the Temple of Pella in Macedonia, and the Athenian Acropolis. 

Vulcan’s Forge (Velázquez, 1630)
Figure 8: Vulcan’s Forge (Velázquez, 1630)

The Iron Age also saw significant development in maritime trade. From about the early tenth century B.C.E. to the late ninth century B.C.E, the Phoenecians sailed the ways of the earlier Minoans and Myceneans, but extended their trade routes much further and became renown for their expertise in shipbuilding and maritime prowess. They established an early ‘city’ in the Ultima Thule of the Mediterranean due to the importance of metal in their trade, tempting foreigners to trade with wine wherever they may land. The Phoenecians excelled as astute merchants, skillfully transporting goods across the Mediterranean to distant lands, while also proving formidable in naval warfare. For these purposes, the Phoenicians are known to have utilized at least two types of ships: one designed for the transportation of goods and passengers, and another specifically tailored for military purposes. New types of ships contributed to the extensive trade routes, as for the first time, ships were built with a precision only made possible by iron tools (Stanislawski, 1973). The Phoenecians were a peaceful and friendly people who were not interested in war, and as such, saw the opportunity to utilize iron to improve on cargo vessels. Additional bracing allowed for the Phoenecians to build another deck for rowers, which converted the ship into a bireme: a ship that held twice as many rowers without increasing in length (Foley & Soedel, 1981). Especially large vessels that were built for long voyages could reach the Western extreme of the Mediterranean Sea, and bring back bulk cargo such as metals and smelted ore (Stanislawski, 1973). 

By the 8th century B.C.E., the Greek economy had become effective for expansion and colonization, and borrowed the idea of the Phoenician bireme for both war and trade, later developing the pentekonter—the ship of fifty oars—for troop transportation as well as cargo (Stanislawski, 1973). Iron also facilitated the development of the ram, which ultimately turned the ship into a weapon in and of itself. Warships would maneuver to ram their opponents' vessels with force, aiming to puncture their hulls or cause damage to their structure, thereby disabling or sinking them. Though, the most important military development of the Iron Age is the organization of the phalanx—a tightly packed formation of heavily armed infantry soldiers—marking the beginning of an organized fighting force that moves forward as a mass while pushing the enemy back (Baker, 2018). The phalanx was a fundamental change in military tactic at the end of the Iron age, but also one that cause significant social changes with regional differences–in Sparta it led to absolutism, and according to Aristotle, democracy in Athens (Stanislawski, 1973). With it, new weapons came to use. The iron spear had come from Assyria, and the slashing sword was changed into an iron blade that was characteristically was shorter and stouter than its Bronze Age prototype. Eventually, iron replaced wood, stone, and bronze, as its use was wider and more intensive. Its introduction revolutionized agriculture and provided high-quality weaponry to large masses of individuals. While bronze swords primarily served as stabbing implement, iron swords functioned as slashing tools, facilitating equestrian warfare and enabling prolonged, large-scale battles. Additionally, iron enhanced the functionality and resilience of wheels, enabling the use of chariots in combat. The first tires consisted of hot bands of iron wrapped around wood that would contract upon cooling and secure a tight fit (“Metallurgy through the Ages,” 2001). This era, marked by the widespread use of iron tools and weapons, laid the foundation for the flourishing of Greek civilization in subsequent centuries. Settlements became more permanent, and required new roles to fulfill the needs of an increasing population and need for defense. For the first time, there is evidence of significant social stratification across various cultures, distinguishing a well-nourished class exempt from rigorous labor, and those of a modest diet who were employed with the strenuous work (Baker, 2018). The end of the Iron Age ultimately saw the emergence of city-states, such as Athens and Sparta, each with its own unique political, social, and cultural characteristics. Greek mythology, literature, and philosophy also began to take shape during this period, influencing not only the Greeks themselves but also later civilizations throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. The legacy of the Iron Age of Greece endures today in the form of its enduring cultural contributions and its profound impact on the development of Western civilization. It was an age of kings and heroes, a sentiment that is reflected in the architecture and technology of these civilizations.

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Alex Timothy
Alex Timothy
4 days ago

Quite interesting topic about BC history quordle


Be strategic to create special candies and trigger powerful combos. Candy Crush


Maritime trade advanced significantly during the Iron Age. doodle jump

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