The developement of social complexicity in central Europe

Flanged Axe (17 x 4x 1,5cm); Southern Germany 1600 BC.

For only 2% of the human evolution, Europa could be considered as the “center of the world”(*) . During the Bronze Age, the continent was clearly at the periphery.

In nature, metals are hardly ever pure. Almost all copper ores contain some small proportion of arsenic, tin, zinc, antimony, or nickel, which mixes with the copper during smelting. These alloys are still dominated by copper, but all alloys have a lower melting point than pure copper.

“Bronze” is any alloy that is 85-95% copper, with the other 5-15% made up of mainly of tin or arsenic. It remains somewhat unclear when and how the mechanical properties of different bronzes were fully recognized and deliberately produced.  Bronze is easier to work, especially to cast, than pure copper. It has a lower melting point and is less prone to subsequent fragmentation due to blistering during casting.

In the earliest phase of bronze metallurgy, bronze was rarely used to produce weapons and tools; rather, it was used for prestige goods. This suggests the value placed on other qualities of the metal: possibly its texture and color, since the addition of tin gave copper a golden-brownish shine similar to that of gold.

In the Middle East, Arsenic ores were more common than tin ores which are virtually unknown in this region before 3000 BC. After this date, Cretan and Western Mediterranean bronzes were largely made with arsenic, Egyptian bronzes almost exclusively with arsenic, but Anatolian bronzes were made with tin and arsenic.

The earliest bronze artifacts known so far have been found on the Iranian plateau and are dated to the 5th millennium BC.  The “Bronze Age” begins in the last centuries of the fourth millennium BC in the Near East and the Aegean, when far-ranging trade networks were created. Such networks imported tin and charcoal to Cyprus, where copper was mined and alloyed with the tin to produce bronze. Bronze objects were then exported. Isotopic analysis of the tin in selected Mediterranean bronze objects indicates it came from as far away as Great Britain.

The Early Bronze Age of central Europe was up into an early phase from about 2300 to 2000 BC and a later phase from about 2000 to 1600 B.C. The Middle Bronze Age spanned the time between about 1600 and 1350 BC. Although central Europe was  at the periphery of the “Bronze Age World”, it was clearly involved into the technological, economic and ideological networks, which connected Europe with the Civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Aegean. The societies of central Europe were also deeply involved into a process of accelerated specialization and social stratification.  In addition central Europe offered important commodities and prestigious goods for the rest of the world:

Central Europe is rich in different copper sources: the eastern Alpine area, the Harz Mountains in central Germany, the northern Carpathians in eastern Slovakia, and the eastern Carpathians in Transylvania. This latter area probably provided most of the gold used in the Bronze Age of central Europe as well.

On the other hand, Europe has very few sources of tin. Sources already of importance during the Bronze Age were mined in the Erzgebirge along the border between Germany and Czech Republic, the Iberian Peninsula, the Bretagne in France, and Devon and Cornwall in southwestern England, roughly beginning at 2500 BC.

Salt became a highly valued commodity from the Bronze Age, if not earlier, as its uses expanded to food preservation, leather tanning, cloth dyeing and medicine. The number and size of confirmed salt production sites in Western Europe increased in the Bronze Age from 1800 BC onwards. Production for domestic needs was replaced by commercial production at this time. In Central Europe the famous salt mines at Hallein and Hallstadt in the Austrian Alps and the salt mines at Halle / Saale in central Germany began operating sometime between the 13th and 14th Centuries BC.

Baltic amber was traded following several roots over Europe and into the Middle East. Glob  pointed to a find of over 2 kg of amber in a Bronze Age pot on the shore between Saeby and Frederikshavn (Jutland) as a possible collection for export. At Qatna (Syria) baltic amber was  used for making  prestige artifacts found in a Royal tomb of c. 1340 BC.

Although central Europe played only a marginal role in the economic world system of the “Bronze Age”, several  links with “core areas” in the Middle East were clearly a significant factor in the development of its social and economic complexity.

(*) In reality there is nothing like a „center“ and a “periphery” of the world. For this post I use the term “center” to describe a region with high economic power, a place of maximal flow of commodities coordinated by of a group of individuals exerting the ideological and intellectual “hegemony” (in Antonio Gramscis sense).
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