Bronze is a term of art. Copper, although not the most common metallic element in the Earth's crust, has one of the best combinations of low smelting temperature and usefulness. It is quite dense, very ductile, and hard enough to hold an edge. No-one would make it their first choice as a tool, but an axe (say), of copper will cut something, even if it has to be hammered back into shape after every blow. Not only that, but it often appears in nuggets that can be worked right out of the ground. And it doesn't rust away, but rather remains to be found in the archaeological record.
No wonder that the classic division of prehistory has a "Chalcolithic" stage following the Neolithic (Copper Age, following the New Stone Age.) Starting about 3000BC in the Old World and 1000BC in the New, ornaments and some tools of copper become more and more common in the archaeological record.
But it is not that useful. To get the most out of a lump of copper, you want to alloy it with any one of a number of related metals. Arsenic is widely avaiable, and, although toxic, adds some hardness and toughness to copper. So does zinc. But there is nothing to match the improvements you get by adding tin in proportion of about 1 to 10. Unfortunately, tin is much less evenly distributed around the world than copper. There's lots of tin in Bolivia and in a broad stretch of land stretching from Malaysia north into China, but virtually no exploitable sources of tin west of the Pamirs and in North America. At least now. There was a mine in Anatolia at which tin was extracted sometime shortly after 3000BC, and probably an economical vein of co-occuring tin and copper in the hills on the Iran-Iraq frontier, and placer deposits of cassiterite ore are lost to us forever if they were mined out in this early period. Probably by no coincidence, this era of Middle Eastern history is known as the Early Bronze Age. Tools and weapons were made of bronze, but not many. That would take the exploitation of genuinely rich sources.
Of these, we know of mines in Spain, in Cornwall in southwestern England, in the Erzgebirge mountains on the border between the Czech Republic and Germany, and in Afghanistan. All of these were a long way from the Middle East. Yet by the Late Bronze Age, there was so much bronze in circulation in the Middle East that it is logically implausible that it was not being brought into the region from these mines. A whole ton of tin was found in a single LBA shipwreck off the coast of Turkey in 1986. That's a huge amount of material to bring such a long distance. It's not even clear that bronze is such an improvement over stone, and usually long range trade requires an elaborate system of finance and credit. In modern times, there is a crazy ideologue here and there who thinks long range trade happens because of "the markets," but, generally, massive state intervention implicitly underwrites these things. Empires. That's what I'm talking about.
If bronze wasn't the only material that people made tools out of, what made it so valuable? The obvious answer is that it was crucial military technology. Which is true. That said, just how crucial was it? Most of the bronze age weapons recovered are swords. Now, swords are useful weapons, but large armies beat small armies, and if there is a limiting resource, you use if efficiently. And spears, by and large, beat swords. If bronze was the limiting resource in a naked era of total warfare, we wouldn't find swords. We'd find spearheads. Bronze did limit the capacity of states to make war. But weapons were not the issue.
That's not necessarily crazy. Until military historians began obscuring the issues a century ago, it was pretty widely agreed that cavalry was a vital, even decisive military arm. I refer you to my babbling about armoured warfare for an explanation. We don't have to talk about whether cavalry really charged, or whether pikes beat knights, or whether horse archers were the ultimate military arm. Because it is much simpler than that. Speed gives intelligence, and intelligence wins battles. Without cavalry, without screening and information gathering, armies lose. Cavalry, as far as we can tell, gets its start in the Middle East with the horse chariot, and the Hittites were its earliest proponents. Some historians want to push the domestication of the horse, the invention of the chariot, and the beginning of cavalry warfare back into the misty past of the Indo-European homeland. I go with this guy, and this guy. Chariots were invented, and horses (practically) domesticated, in the Middle East, shortly after about 2000BC. Because it was only with the development of bronze tools and nails that it became possible to make chariots. Far from being crude, early inventions, the LBA Bronze Age chariot was an exceedingly complex machine made by highly skilled carpenters. Faced with difficult terrain, LBA generals were perfectly capable of having their chariots broken down into wagon or porter loads and carried across. a noble chariot driver in the Egyptian army was expected to maintain 5 retainers, and on the evidence, one or several of them would have been highly skilled riggers capable of assembling and disassembling the structure, and making new parts as needed. This would imply both the precision fabrication of wooden parts and the smelting of metal components --a torn sleeve bearing (for example) can hardly be repaired, short of welding it, after all.
Now, just throwing it out there, what would you expect to happen if there was a single limiting resource that's vitally necessary for military purposes, being brought in to the centre by a trade that is pumping out value? First, you would expect the outward flow of prestigious skills and military technology, as middlemen tried to get into the business.
So let us imagine a chariot rider and his retainers getting off the boat in, say, Marseilles. Clearly, he is a military asset, but he would be far more of a military asset if he were to train new crews. t look at what he needs to teach! He needs to teach horse care, a life time of study in itself. He needs to teach bronze carpentry. He needs to show people how to fight on chariots. Military advisory groups are no new thing in the world, but we happen to know more about how they work in recent times, and one of the things we know that they do not do is learn the native language in every place that they bring Phantoms and T-54s. They teach English or Russian, instead. It's one of the reasons that English, in particular, has become the international language of technology.
Why should it have been any different in the LBA?
Second, you would expect supply to gradually accumulate at the centre. In a perfectly rational market, you would expect prices to fall. But in a real market, you expect information lag and "animal spirits," and all those things that go to create a bubble. When the bubble collapses --well, I guess we have a possible explanation for the end of the LBA. Perhaps significantly, archaeologists at Ugarit, one of the towns that did worst out of the end of the LBA, have found bronze hoards, deposited around 1150BC, all over the place. The explanation that Robert Drews gave for this in 1997 was that it was some kind of dysfunctional response to a gathering barbarian storm. Everyone was hiding weapons and weapons materials, and couldn't recover them in time. I think it's more likely that they've found the equivalent of new Scottsdale residential subdivisions, and that the ruin above is the work of a LBA Tea Party. (If bronze has lost its value, there's not much point in living in crowded cities and putting up with wealthy elites telling us what to do. It's time to refudiate them with a good knock on the head, and head out onto the land to farm with cheap, reliable iron!)
Now, about those Hittites. My aunt and uncle did a spell as medical missionaries in India back in the good old, idealistic hippy days of the early 1970s. When they were done, of course they did some travelling, taking their VW van all the way back from India to England, where they put it on a boat and shipped it back to Canada. One of the things that bothered me as a kid was that they went through Turkey on the way. What the heck? Isn't the road through Russia the best way? That's how the Indo-Europeans went!
Well, no. From the times of the Persian Empire through the Roman to the crusades, a lot of armies have marched from near Iran/India to Europe and reverse. The most common route goes up along the Euphrates river, ovr the Syrian Gates into Cilicia, via the Cilician Gates into the Anatolian plateau, then up to the system of straits that divide the Aegean from the Black Sea. These narrow at two places, the Dardanelles between the Troad and the Gallipoli peninsula, and at the Bosphorus between Bithynia and Thrace. It's pretty easy to cross at either place. The Troad has easier access to the greater Middle East since you don't have to cross the Mysian mountains, and the traditional great road follows the western slopes of the Anatolian peninsula. Cutting off a drainage like this means that you cross lots of rivers, but if your pack animals can swim, you care a great deal more about the fact that there's grass for them to eat, which means water. Conversely, once you're across the Bosphorus, you are in striking distance of the flood plain of the Danube, and there will be grass all the way to Italy or Germany. The road across the Troad just leads to Greece.
Grass. That's the key thing here. Everywhere else in the Middle East, it gets a little short in high summer. Anatolia is the exception. (Well, so is Iran, but that's on the other side!) It's probably why the Hittite chariots kicked butt. They had their pick of horses.
Either way, though, we probably want to backtrack to the point where these two roads divide if we want to build a truckstop, or find the ancient founders of European civilisation, one or the other. And that would be the country between the Syrian and Cilician Gates --Cilicia.
And who do we find there? Hittites. So why the Hittites? They're on the tin-for-technology road. Hittites are going up the road to teach seminars in "Technical Hittite and chariotmaking," and tin is coming back. And they have the horses, which explains why this one time, there was a Hittite empire.
And all I had to do to get here was to throw out this whole idea that there were "Proto-Indo-European" barbarians vigorously falling upon Middle Eastern civilisation with their Sanskrit-like language and their bronze battleaxes.
I had to get rid of Conan! Now there's a tragedy of doing professional history.
I've also not explained the Phrygians or the Lydians. And we are no closer to explaining why the Hittites aren't in the Iliad. I do have some ideas though.
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- Postblogging Technology, April 1944, I: Ancestral Voices
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- From Now On, No Defeats: Alamein, III: "Look for me at dawn on the third day."
- Postblogging Technology, September, 1945 II: Praying for a Good Victory