The Bronze Age

Art of the Bronze Age

The Bronze Age saw the birth of civilization and the development of advanced cultures in Europe, the Near East, and East Asia.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the art of the Bronze age found in the Ancient Near East, East Asia, and Western Europe

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Bronze Age is characterized by the use of copper and bronze as the chief hard materials in the manufacturing of implements and weapons.
  • The Bronze Age is the earliest period for which we have direct written accounts, since the invention of writing coincides with its early beginnings.
  • Cultures in the Near East and China developed the first systems of writing.
  • Burials in the British Isles shifted from the communal interments of the Neolithic Age to more individual burials in barrows and cists .
  • The Bronze Age is marked by widespread migrations and trade, especially across Europe and in the Mediterranean region.

Key Terms

  • barrow:A mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves.
  • cist:A small stone-built coffin-like box used to hold the bodies of the dead.
  • cairn:A human-made pile of stones.
  • smelt:Production of metal—especially iron—from ore in a process that involves the chemical reduction of melted metal compounds into purified metal.
  • metallurgy:The science of metals: their extraction from ores, purification and alloying, heat treatment, and working.
  • civilization:An organized culture encompassing many communities, often on the scale of a nation or a people; a stage or system of social, political, or technical development.

The Bronze Age is part of the three-age system of archaeology that divides human technological prehistory into three periods: the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age . The Bronze Age spanned from 3,300 to 1,200 BCE and is characterized by the use of copper and its alloy bronze as the chief hard materials in the manufacturing of implements and weapons. This period ended with further advancements in metallurgy , such as the ability to smelt iron ore.

Photo depicts a pile of discarded bronze castings.

Bronze castings: Assorted bronze Celtic castings dating from the Bronze Age, found as part of a cache, probably intended for recycling. Somerset County Museum, Taunton, UK.

The Bronze Age is the earliest period for which we have direct written accounts, since the invention of writing coincides with its early beginnings. Bronze Age cultures differed in development of the first writing. According to archaeological evidence, cultures in Egypt (hieroglyphs), the Near East (cuneiform), and the Mediterranean, with the Mycenaean culture (Linear B), had viable writing systems.

Photograph of a clay tablet broken into three pieces, covered with script.

Linear B inscription: This fragment from the Mycenaean palace of Pylos contains information on the distribution of bovine, pig, and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers. Linear B was the earliest Greek writing, dating from 1450 BCE, an adaptation of the earlier Minoan Linear A script. The script is made up of 90 syllabic signs, ideograms, and numbers. This and other tablets were fortuitously preserved when they were baked in the fire that destroyed the palace around 1200 BCE. It is on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

The Art of the Ancient Near East

Cultures in the ancient Near East (often called the Cradle of Civilization ) practiced intensive year-round agriculture, developed a writing system, invented the potter's wheel, created a centralized government, law codes , and empires, and introduced social stratification, slavery, and organized warfare. Societies in the region laid the foundations for astronomy and mathematics.

From Mesopotamia came the empires of Sumeria, Babylon, and Assyria. From the fertile floodplains of the Nile emerged the Egyptians, with their great monuments and sophisticated society. From the Iranian Plateau came the Medes and then the Persians, who nearly succeeded in uniting the entire civilized world under one empire.

In Mesopotamian Babylonia, an abundance of clay and lack of stone led to greater use of mud brick. Babylonian temples were massive structures of crude brick supported by buttresses , with drains to remove rain. The use of brick led to the early development of the pilaster , column , frescoes , and enameled tiles. Walls were brilliantly colored and sometimes plated with zinc or gold, as well as with tiles. Painted terra cotta cones for torches were also embedded in the plaster. In Babylonia, three-dimensional figures often replaced bas-relief—the earliest examples being the Statues of Gudea, which are realistic if somewhat clumsy. The paucity of stone in Babylonia made every pebble precious and led to perfection in the art of gem cutting.

Photo depicting statue of the temple's ruler. He is sitting wearing a long dress and a headpiece with his hands clasped in his lap. His visible feet are bare.

Statue of Gudea: Neo-Sumerian period, circa 2,090 BCE.

In Ancient Egypt , the Bronze Age began in the Protodynastic period circa 3,150 BCE. The hallmarks of ancient Egyptian civilization, such as art, architecture, and many aspects of religion, took shape during the Early Dynastic period and lasted until about 2,686 BCE. During this period, the pantheon of the gods was established and the illustrations and proportions of their human figures developed; and Egyptian imagery , symbolism , and basic hieroglyphic writing were created. During the Old Kingdom, from 2686-2181 BCE, the Egyptian pyramids and other more natural sculptures were built. The first-known portraits were also completed. At the end of the Old Kingdom, the Egyptian style moved toward formalized seminude figures with long bodies and large eyes.

Photo that depicts front and back view of Narmer Palette, carved from soft dark gray-green siltstone. The scene on the front features large Narmer wielding a mace wearing a flower crown. On the left of the king is a man bearing the king's sandals. To the right of the king is a kneeling prisoner, who is about to be struck by the king. The scene on the back features a procession with King Narmer at the top. Below the procession, two men are holding ropes tied to the outstretched, intertwining necks of a mythical serpoard (serpent/leopard).

Reverse and obverse sides of Narmer Palette, this facsimile on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada: The Narmer Palette, named after Egyptian King Narmer, is a significant Egyptian archeological relic dating from about the 3,100 BCE, containing some of the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found.

The Art of East Asia

In the East, civilization emerged in the Indus River valley, and from the Yellow River came the beginnings of Chinese civilization. Chinese bronze artifacts are generally either utilitarian , like spear points or adze heads, or " ritual bronzes," more elaborate versions of everyday vessels in precious materials of everyday vessels, tools, and weapons. In addition to numerous large sacrificial tripods known as dings in Chinese, there are many other distinct shapes. Ritual bronzes were highly decorated with taotie motifs , including highly stylized animal faces, in three main types: demons, symbolic animals, and abstract symbols. Many large bronzes also bear cast inscriptions that comprise the bulk of surviving early Chinese writing and have helped historians and archaeologists piece together the history of China.

Photograph of a cooking pot that stands upright on three legs. It is covered with intricate carvings.

Ritual cooking vessel: China, Shang or Zhou dynasty bronze, c. 1000 BCE. Taotie - a mask of an imaginary animal with eyes, horns, snout, and jaw. Motif common in Shang and early Zhou dynasties.

The Art of Western Europe

The Atlantic Bronze Age is the period of approximately 1300 to 700 BCE that includes different cultures in Portugal, Andalusia, Galicia, and the British Isles. It is marked by economic and cultural exchange. Commercial contacts extended to Denmark and the Mediterranean. The Atlantic Bronze Age was defined by a number of distinct regional centers of metal production, unified by a regular maritime exchange of products.

Photo depicts the blade of a sword made from bronze.

Bronze sword blade (c. 800 BCE): Museum of National Antiques, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France.

In Great Britain, the Bronze Age is dated from around 2,100 to 750 BCE. Migration brought new people to the islands from the continent. Recent tooth enamel isotope research on bodies found in early Bronze Age graves indicate that some of the migrants came from the area of modern Switzerland. Burial of the dead, previously communal, became individual as bodies were interred in barrows and cists covered with cairns.

The greatest quantities of bronze objects in England were discovered in East Cambridgeshire—especially in Isleham, where more than 6,500 pieces were found. Alloying of copper with zinc or tin to make brass or bronze was practiced soon after the discovery of copper. The earliest identified metalworking site (Sigwells, Somerset) is much later, dated by Globular Urn style pottery to approximately the 12th century BCE.

The Bronze Age in Ireland commenced around 2,000 BCE, when copper was alloyed with tin and used primarily in the field of metallurgy. One of the characteristic types of artifact of the Early Bronze Age in Ireland is the flat axe, notably the Ballybeg-type flat axe. Ireland is also known for a large number of Early Bronze Age burials.

Bronze Age Rock Carvings

Petroglyphs, or rock engravings, exist around the world and range in purpose from ritual to communication to narration.

Learning Objectives

Define and describe the different kinds of petroglyphs found around the world

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Rock carvings are found worldwide, with the highest concentrations in Africa, Scandinavia, Siberia, southwestern North America and Australia dating between the late Upper Paleolithic and the Neolithic periods, although some date to the Bronze Age .
  • The majority of rock carvings were produced in caves or canyons by hunter-gatherers who inhabited the area and typically depicted animals and humans as well as some narrative scenes.
  • Traditionally, individual markings are called motifs , while groups of motifs are known as panels.
  • Some petroglyphs are thought to be astronomical markers, maps, or other such forms of communication. Carvings in Sweden seem to communicate land boundaries occupied by a specific tribe or clan.
  • Common symbols such as the cup-and-ring mark have been found in various locations across Europe. Scholarly theories range from mere coincidence to migration to a common origin of the artists.

Key Terms

  • logogram:A character or symbol that represents a word or phrase (e.g., a character of the Chinese writing system).
  • motifs:Individual rock carvings.
  • panels:Groups of rock carving motifs.
  • geocontourglyph:A petroglyph that represents land form or surrounding terrain.

Petroglyphs (rock engravings ) are images containing pictograms and logograms created by removing part of a rock surface via incising, picking, carving, and/or abrading. Rock carvings are found worldwide, with the highest concentrations in Africa, Scandinavia, Siberia, southwestern North America, and Australia dating between the late Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, approximately 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. However, some carvings date to the Bronze Age. Many rock carvings were produced by hunter-gatherers who inhabited the area and typically depicted animals and humans as well as some narrative scenes.

Photograph depicts a rock carving with human figures and a flock of birds.

Petroglyphs in Tanum, Sweden (c. 1700–500 BCE).: Rock carving with the shape of a flock of birds.


Traditionally, individual markings are called motifs, while groups of motifs are known as panels. Rock carvings are found across a wide geographical and temporal scope of cultures . Scholars have devised numerous theories to explain their purpose, depending on location, age, and image type.

Some petroglyphs are thought to be astronomical markers, maps, or other such forms of communication. A petroglyph that represents a land form or the surrounding terrain is known as a geocontourglyph. Glyphs from the Nordic Bronze Age (c. 1700-500 BCE) seem to refer to a territorial boundary between tribes, in addition to possible religious meaning. It also appears that local or regional dialects from similar or neighboring peoples existed.

Collage of photographs that depict various scenes from a petroglyph.

Composite photograph of petroglyphs from Häljesta, Sweden (c. 1700–500 BCE): The glyphs have been painted to make them more visible. They have been identified as (top to bottom, left to right): Plowing with oxen (the branch in the farmer's hand is assumed to be part of a fertility ritual), archer/hunter with bow, fishing from a small boat, (middle row) a procession of unknown nature, foot prints, (bottom row) man with dog, typical Scandinavian rock carving ship symbol.

Many researchers have noticed the notable resemblance of different styles of petroglyphs across different continents. This could be mere coincidence, an indication that certain groups of people migrated widely from some initial common area, or indication of a common origin.

One common symbol called the cup-and-ring mark has been found on petroglyphs in the British Isles as well as on the European continent in locations as diverse as Spain, Scandinavia, and Greece. This symbol consists of a concave depression, no more than a few centimeters in diameter, pecked into a rock surface and often surrounded by concentric circles also etched into the stone. Sometimes a linear channel called a gutter protrudes from the middle.

Photo depicting large flat rock with depressions that illustrate a large deer.

Laxe dos carballos (fourth-second millennium BCE): Cup-and-ring mark and deer hunting scenes. (The cup-and-ring mark lies to the right of the deer.) Campo Lameiro, Galicia, Spain.

Some scholars have suggested that the cup-and-ring mark was symbolically linked to water, having sacred associations in late prehistoric society. As evidence, they note that a number of the larger cups, referred to as basins, would have collected rain water. They believe that cup-and-ring marks look like the ripples produced when raindrops hit water.

Bronze Age Advancements in Metallurgy

The discovery of bronze through existing metallurgical techniques revolutionized the production of weapons and works of art.

Learning Objectives

Describe the development of metallurgy and how it impacted art

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The discovery of bronze , produced by combining copper and tin, was a major advancement in metallurgy during the Bronze Age . A stronger material than its stone and copper predecessors, bronze allowed for the production of more durable weapons, armor, artistic media , and luxury objects.
  • Bronze is divided into "classic" and "mild," consisting of ten percent and six percent tin, respectively. Classic bronze is better suited for casting , while mild bronze is better suited for hammered objects.
  • Bronze was originally used in the production of weapons, but artisans soon discovered its use as an artistic medium. Both product categories were highly valued, with hoards of axe blades discovered across Europe.
  • Lost wax casting is the oldest method of producing bronze sculptures. Dancing Girl from Mohenjodaro is believed to be the oldest cast bronze sculpture.
  • The Únětice culture of Central Europe was highly advanced in its metallurgical techniques. Among its most interesting artifacts is the Nebra Sky Disk, a hammered object consisting of bronze and gold. It has been interpreted as an astronomical instrument as well as an item of religious significance.

Key Terms

  • metallurgy:The science and extraction of metals from ores, purification and alloying, heat treatment, and working.

An important development of the Bronze Age was the evolution of metallurgy, which resulted in the discovery of bronze. Certain metals, notably tin, lead and (at a higher temperature) copper, can be recovered from their ores by heating the rocks in a fire or blast furnace, a process known as smelting. The first evidence of this extractive metallurgy dates to Serbian sites from the fifth and sixth millennia BCE.

In approximately the fourth millennium BCE in Sumer, India, and China, it was discovered that combining copper and tin creates a superior metal, an alloy called bronze. This discovery represented the beginning of the Bronze Age, enabling people to create metal objects that were harder than previously possible. Bronze tools, weapons, armor, and building materials such as decorative tiles were more durable than their stone and copper predecessors.

Initially, bronze was made out of copper and arsenic, forming arsenic bronze, or from naturally or artificially mixed ores of copper and arsenic, with the earliest known artifacts coming from the Iranian plateau in the fifth millennium BCE. It was only later, approximately in 3500 BCE, that tin became the major non-copper ingredient of bronze. Tin bronze was superior to arsenic bronze in that the alloying process could be more easily controlled and the resulting alloy was stronger and easier to cast. Furthermore, unlike arsenic, metallic tin and fumes from tin refining are not toxic. In the Bronze Age, two forms of bronze were commonly used. "Classic bronze," about ten percent tin, was used in casting. "Mild bronze," about six percent tin, was hammered from ingots to make sheets. Bladed weapons were mostly cast from classic bronze, while helmets and armor were hammered from mild bronze. The flag pictured below was also likely hammered from mild bronze.

Photo depicts a flag and staff made from bronze.

Bronze flag (third millennium BCE): Found in Shahdad, Kerman, (now Iran).

In many parts of the world, large hoards of bronze artifacts have been discovered, suggesting that bronze also represented a store of value and an indicator of social status. In Europe large hoards of bronze tools, typically socketed axes with little to no signs of wear, have been found. Axes were the most valued tools of the period.

Photo depicts several bronze axe blades arranged in rows.

Socketed axe blades.: A hoard of axes from the Bronze Age found in modern Germany. Archaeological Museum of the state of Brandenburg.

Although bronze was originally used for producing weapons, metal workers soon applied the alloy to the production of art. Among the oldest and most common method of producing bronze sculptures is through the lost wax process, which creates hollow one-of-a-kind sculptures in whatever form the artist chooses. Dancing Girl (c. 2500 BCE), from Mohenjodaro in the Indus Valley, is perhaps the first bronze statue of the world. Although it is in a standing position, it was named Dancing Girl with an assumption of her profession. This is one of two bronze art works found at Mohenjodaro that show more flexible features when compared to other more formal poses. The girl is naked, wears a number of bangles and a necklace, stands in a naturalistic position with her right hand on her hip, and holds an object in her left hand, which rests against her thigh.

Photo depicts a bronze statuette of a nude woman standing with her hand on her hip.

Dancing Girl (c. 2500 BCE): Bronze. 4 1/8 in × 2 in. National Museum, New Delhi.

The Únětice culture arose at the beginning of the Central European Bronze Age (2300-1600 BCE). The culture is distinguished by its characteristic metal objects including ingot torques, flat axes, flat triangular daggers, bracelets with spiral-ends, disk- and paddle-headed pins, and curl rings, which are distributed over a wide area of Central Europe and beyond. An interesting mixed media object from this culture is the Nebra Sky Disk (c. 1600 BCE), which consists of a blue-green patina inlaid with gold symbols. These symbols have been interpreted generally as a sun or full moon, a lunar crescent , and stars (including a cluster interpreted as the Pleiades). Two golden arcs along the sides, marking the angle between the solstices, were added later. A final addition was another arc at the bottom surrounded with multiple strokes (of uncertain meaning, variously interpreted as a solar barge with numerous oars, as the Milky Way, or as a rainbow). Likely produced through hammering, the disk is possibly an astronomical instrument as well as an item of religious significance.

Photo depicts bronze disc decorated with a moon, sun, and starscape.

Nebra Sky Disk (c. 1600 BCE): Bronze and gold. 30 cm diameter. Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

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