I'll start with the title. I know that we're supposed to click on all the hotlinks for sources and to be self-promoted at, but this only means that I am a bad Internet person and I'm probably not the only one. The Ver sacrum is a an "ancient rite of the Italic peoples" in which
. . . [A] vow (votum) to the god Mars of the generation of offspring born in the spring of the following year to humans or cattle [is made] . . . [Those] devoted were required to leave the community in early adulthood, at 20 or 21 years of age. They were entrusted to a god for protection, and led to the border with a veiled face. Often they were led by an animal under the auspices of the god. As a group, the youth were called sacrani and were supposed to enjoy the protection of Mars until they had reached their destination, expelled the inhabitants or forced them into submission, and founded their own settlement.
George Dumezil sees this as one of those Indo-European myths that he's always on about, this one referring back to the ancient migrations that preceded their domestication. Me, I just like the phrase. I'm not sure that the gruesome subtext of human sacrifice is necessarily warranted. It is licensed by the ancient Roman authors, but they were about as far from actual Early Iron Age conditions as we are. Let's face it: "Sacred spring" sounds cool, and, at least to my ears, is inherently optimistic, and we could all do with some more optimism in this day and age.
I usually append "the Early Iron Age Revival of the State" to posts under the "Sacred Spring" label, referring to the collapse of the archaic states of the Late Bronze Age that was, naturally enough, followed by a revival of the state in the early Iron Age. Politics therefore comes first. In the Marxian analysis that appeals more the older I get, politics is the art of extracting surplus value and showering it on the dominant class. Marxism has its limits, and seems to have missed the role of sacrifice as the core of Ancient political economy until it collapsed of its own absurdity at . . . well, at the end of Classical Antiquity. Talking about the role of sacrifice in Antique politics implies a conversation that is not going to be able to escape technological praxis, ritual and even the history of ideas, so a political discussion more-or-less demands a parallel discussion of bronze-casting, horses, and cosmology. Even in a recap post this seems like a lot of material for a short summary, so I'll get to it below the jump.
That said, the actual examples that interest me are all new states, where there is less to say about ideas and rituals because most of our information is archaeological. One of the most striking facts of the Early Iron Age is that urban civilisation spread rapidly through the Western Mediterranean basin in the Early Iron Age, after having been present in Egypt for above two thousand years without inspiring an earlier wave of urbanisation. Similar episodes of urbanisation on virgin ground occurred in Cyrenaica, the Gangetic Plain. In the case of proto-states like Venetia and Seville that do not come into focus until well into the Roman Empire, we really are at the mercy of the archaeologist; but even early Rome and Carthage escape capture by the historians of Antiquity, for all that they pretend otherwise. Perversely, the most influential book ever covers the rise of the Judaean state Jerusalem. Similar claims, which I do not believe are warranted, are made for the early states of the Gangetic plain, while China is perhaps somewhere in the middle.
Having conjured with Rome, Confucius and the Bible, the case would be made that the Early Iron Age was a watershed moment in human history. However, while preparing for writing this post, I happened to crack open Barry Cunliffe's magnum opus/beautiful coffee table book, Europe Between Two Oceans, and was reminded that he has an entire chapter on the Early Iron Age enttitled "The Three Hundred Years That Changed the World, 800--500BC." While Cunliffe for just this moment avoids the issue, this is perhaps the most clearly defined programmatic claim for technology mattering before the modern age. It's the Iron Age, after all.
As a history of technology blogger, I could hardly ignore it even if the programme around here weren't the restoration of the cavalry to its roll as an exogenous driver of technological change. Although the history of equestrianship is controversial, perhaps more so than it needs to be, this is quite clearly the era in which cavalry first appeared. More than that, there are some related technologies that are profoundly important, if poorly covered in mainstream historical sources. iI debated reviewing the highlights of technological change in the Early Iron Age before the jump, but found myself leaking mush all over the page as I tried to deal with what I've learned from antiquarians meandering through the pages of Engineering. So I'll leave it for below where I don't have to strive so hard for brevity.
Beyond that, a case can be made for the Early Iron Age as an episode in the history of ideas, and particularly religious ideas. As I have already said, this brings us back to politics forthrightly, but there is material here that cannot be reduced to ideologies of domination. Spreading technology requires teaching, and pedagogy emerges as the central concern of the earliest recorded thinkers. Whether that is accidental or not, it is important. Beyond that, many of the great founding sages of modern religion and philosophy appear at the end of the Early Iron Age. Some of the most important, such as Jeremiah and Zoroaster, appear in the role of prophets, and while the prophet is arguably a universal, psychological type, we need to remember that the earliest intellectual projects were efforts to put prophecy on a rigorous and scientific basis, and that the Iraqi solution to this stands at the origin of the Antique political economy of sacrifice. As debatable as the actual historicity and interests of the teachers of the Axial Age might be, the traditions that place their activities in this period are insistent and formative.
Circling around Athens and Jerusalem, it might seem that this has much to due with yet another new technology, the alphabet. The alphabet and coinage are both important new inventions of the era and symbolic systems with a great future ahead of them, but the changes of the Early Iron Age clearly predate them, and the Chinese parallel makes the case that they are not necessary to the full unfolding of the social changes of the Early Iron Age. Lacking the powerful new symbolic system of the alphabet, the Chinese improvised their cumbersome writing system into a tool that could memorialise Confucius. It is the impulse to memorialise, not the method adopted, that matters.
Lastly, religion is not the only window through which we can observe the past that pivots around Iraq, the still centre about which the world history of the Iron Age revolves. Zoroaster stands sui generis as the sage of the ancient Iranians, while the Buddha is located in a longer Vedic tradition, both seeming to Nineteenth Century historical linguists as something close to primordial sources of the great family of Indo-European languages. Whether one is using this as a point of departure for a racist or quasi-racist larger story of wandering "Indo-Europeans," or as a scientific fact to put at the centre of historical linguistic scholarship, the Early Iron Age is a seminal moment. Seminal! Primordial! Centres of world history revolving! As you can see, I'm going for Significant with a capital "S" here, somehow avoiding the Holocaust, and in general drawing the kind of premature Big Picture that cries out to be tested against the facts. Language stands apart from the technological pretensions to detachment that I managed above. It appears that you cannot talk about the historian of equestrianship without taking a stand on "the Indo-European" question, and the question also comes barreling into politics. We are in the absurd situation of having dates for the Zoroastrian moment ranging from 6000BC to 600AD (with the actual, historical Zoroaster most likely a figure of 600BC). One might think that the foundations of a science that relies on the dates of the Zoroastrian scriptures are therefore built on shifting sands indeed --but no! (To be fair, historical linguistics as actually practiced does a pretty good job of quarantining the Indo-European arguments methodologically, but there's still the question of whether Indo-European is a good model for language family development or not.)
A final question for the historian of technology concerns their place as citizens of the modern world. Did all of this happen on its own, or do we need some kind of explanation? If the latter, what does it say about technology policy in the modern world?
If the Early Iron Age begins, it is because the Late Bronze Age dies to make way for it. This is, above all, a political point. Archaic states seem to have been short-lived and unstable entities, with the glaring exception of Old Kingdom Egypt. The great powers of the Late Bronze Age are the best-documented archaic states we will ever study and their collapse might or might not have much to tell us about political stability in modern times. This is certainly the claim of those prehistorians who, like Niall Sharples, see the Late Bronze Age collapse as prefiguring the 2008 global meltdown, with bronze serving in the role of collateralised securities --vast stores of wealth that turn out to not really exist when put to the test.
The reason that the Late Bronze Age states are so intimately familiar to us is that, above all, we have a working diplomatic archive --something we certainly cannot say of the Roman Empire! Sometime in the 1340s, the Pharaoh Akhenaten, of whom with this enough said or we'd be here all day, moved his capital to a virgin site not far from Deir Miwas. It proved to be an absolutely terrible location for a royal residence city and was not built over, leaving a deposit of letters on clay tablets for modern historians to be astonished by.
I've perhaps not made the case for just how astonishing this collection is, so I'll expand. The Nineteenth Century historian is profoundly at home in a diplomatic archive because the profession is virtually a subset of diplomacy, which as then and still now practiced, involved training a class of cosmopolitan intellectual workers into a kind of middle-ground multiculturalism. The translator is a liminal figure, able (ideally) to think as a citizen of either country, in either language --and, of course, they valued their own skills very highly indeed. Given the recondite nature of ancient scripts compared with moderns, the Amarna writers were even more accomplished, and even if we moderns might think that the old Rankeans were putting on airs a bit, it is still astonishing in quite another way that this ancient economy was able to produce such skill sets and share them out well enough for Egypt to have enough for its needs.
Beyond that, cosmopolitanism implies shared values to be cosmopolitan about. At this point, if we do not allow ourselves to be distracted by Akhenaten's eccentricities in this regard, we're left at something of an impasse, because the tools do not yet exist for this archaic clerisy to articulate its shared, rootless cosmopolitan values. The script isn't up to it, and the requisite literary genres evidently do not yet exist. (We're still in the process of reconstructing ancient Iraqi literature, so that might be overstating things, but probably not.)
Fear not, for where the literary scholar fears to tread, the archaeologically-minded prehistorian is bold, and the "Greek bearing gifts" (to Chinese scholarship) even bolder. The former uses the vast sweep of Bronze Age burial practice as evidence of increasing hierarchy and individualism, or, rather elitism; As against the egalitarianism or communalism implied by collective burial and excarnation practices. (Because excarnation leaves anonymous bones.) At this point it seems to me that I have established what can be said that is politically important without diving into the realm of ideas, and will move on to bronze.
The Chinese case is a bit of a joke about G. E. R. Lloyd's Adversaries and Authorities: Investigations into ancient Greek and Chinese Science. Do we really dare pretend that we can master the classical and the Chinese traditions both so well as to be able to write this kind of thing? On the other hand, there are these deposits of bronze ritual vessels, found right across Eurasia. Bronze pots, vases, tripods, pans, "casseroles," "bath tubs" are found in some quantity in Europe; are well-attested in the Middle Eastern written record, and are hallowed relics found in vast profusion in the Yellow River plains region at the core of the traditional Chinese state. The Assyrian chronicles inventory tributes of bronze vessels with relish, while the ancient Greek texts talk about dedications of bronze tripods to great sanctuaries with an air of numinosity. We're supposed to grasp that these are significant as well as expensive, but as to why, is beyond our ken. The Chinese authorities (well, really, the Confucians) tell us. Sets of ritual vessels proper to the social status of given lineages are among those lineages' most precious possessions. They are to be used in a thorough calendar of ritual sacrifices in very carefully specified ways. Not much, perhaps, and of questionable relevance to Olympia as opposed to Mount Tai, but more than Homer can tell us!
Taking a strictly utilitarian view of them, the existence of vessel-producing centres in the Ural foothills and the Danish islands tells us just how astonishingly widespread must have been the very considerable technical skills required to make these vessels. As a historian of technology who cut his teeth on Bert Hall's seminar on early modern gunfounding practices and the associated literature, I am astonished (that word again!) by the resources this very early society put into making bronze ritual vessels. It clearly ranks along with cosmopolitan literacy as one of the highest priorities of the archaic states, which is what leaves me so desperate to apply the Chinese interpretation of what is going on. As a final note, leaving off for a discussion of technology, the study of gunfounding underlines that the most important aspect of this technological praxis is not metallurgy, but ceramics. Given good quality metal, the difficult parts like in making the molds, and supervising the pours.
The collapse of the Late Bronze Age international order comes well after the closing of the Amarna archive. On its face, we have a counterpart, a massive collection of some thirty thousand tablets containing Hittite texts, found at the ancient city of Hattusa, residence city of several Hittite kings, ending with Suppiluliuma II. On closer inspection, however, the collection appears more on the order of a library than a working archive. Open correspondence files, like the ones at Amarna, are lacking. Rather, the texts found seem more like reference works that the King and other notables would use to compose letters and such other texts as royal chancelleries used to publish. The distinction bears on the question of whether or not Suppiluliuma's reign was brought to a close when foreign enemies or social revolutionaries overran Hattusa and destroyed the Hittite state from the core out. Because if Suppiliuma or his successor simply left Hattusa for another residence city, taking the working archive with him, the absence of any material from after his reign in the Hattusa collection simply reflects the city's loss of status. The discovery of parallel, if much smaller collections in other Hittite regional centres gives this a patina of plausibility.
What our cavilling about the end of Hattusa is intended to suggest is that the apocalyptic story of the end of the Late Bronze age system might be overdrawn. It was first authorised by Pharaoh Ramesses III's claim to have vanquished, in 1175BC, an international revolutionary conspiracy of invading peoples, pirates, bandits and assorted other malefactors, which had previously brought down the kingdoms of Anatolia. As the only surviving witness, it is bad form to doubt Pharaoh, but, pragmatically, states get "cut down" only to rise again, all the time. It is a fact of the historical record that the catastrophe of 1175BC did not bring about the end of the core states of the Middle East. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Elam muddled on through the "Dark Ages" between Late Bronze Age and Early Iron. They were much reduced shadows of themselves, and Egypt in particular fractured into several competing regional states, but these civilisations certainly didn't disappear, even if the historical record is somewhat reduced, in part because for a long time the rulers of the great powers stopped depositing sacrificial materials and associated texts at the holy city of Nippur, and in part because subsequent Hittite or "neo-Hittite" rulers did not create the kinds of libraries seen at Hattusa.
So what did happen? On the one hand, a system of "palace states" proliferated across Greece and Crete during the Late Bronze Age. This most definitely and thoroughly did collapse. Second, there is good reason to think that the kind of intensive international relations that characterised the Late Bronze Age, became less necessary in the "Dark Ages." Here we are a bit handicapped by scholarship's refusal to come down on the side of either of two competing hypotheses, the first explaining this system in terms of long distance trade in luxuries; the second characterising the evidence as showing the materially indistinguishable practice of elite gift exchange. Finally, we have the "post-2008" model, in which the collapse of the international bronze standard inevitably causes the collapse of the bronze trade that underpins it. This seems plausible given the prevalence of bronze hoarding in the last stages before the collapse (which occurred in very different periods in very different places) and the paucity of bronze deposits in the Dark Ages afterwards. The very different Chinese case is then elegantly explained by the wide distribution of rich tin deposits in China, which greatly reduce the information hazards related to a long range trade in tin and bronze.
Since it is very, very hard to generalise archaeological evidence across vast expanses of time and space, it is probably safer to draw the discussion closer around Athens and Jerusalem at this point as we move on to the realms of technology and ideals/rituals. That's not to say that the vast expanses of the Pontic steppe aren't going to weigh on the discussion, but they're not really a place here, so much as an idea. (Which is definitely a point worth considering, since the lived space of the Pontic steppes is river valley bottoms with good fishing, whereas in our imagination it is the wind-whipped, horseridden high plains, where actual Pontic peasants mainly went in search of dry pasture in the flood season and a place for barrows.)
As a practical matter the Standard of Ur predates the Sintashta Culture, but unfortunately we cannot call the Second Dynasty of Ur an Indo-Iranian culture because they had writing, and wrote Sumerian. It might be argued that since the Maikop, Andronovo, Sintashta and many other steppe cultures didn't have writing, that we do not, and cannot, know what language they might have spoken. But, what the hell, they have "characteristic inhumation practices."
Leaving chariots aside, horsemanship emerges pretty clearly in the Neo-Assyrian Chronicles as a military practice at first auxiliary to the chariot arm, but gradually rising to the ascendancy as the Neo-Assyrian Empire waxes towards its culmination and violent disappearance, wiped from the face of the Earth like no great power before or after in 608BC. In the most exhilarating version of the argument, the rise of the cavalry and the horse nomad is narrowed in time and space to the borderlands between Assyria and their highland rival of Urartu. Conflict between Urartu and Assyria for hegemony in Mannaea, a kingdom in Iranian Azerbaijan, led to the Urartans and Assyrians erecting rival fortresses in the region of Gimru within Mannaea, and also to unrest in the Assyrian heartland that ended with some kind of social revolution and the B745 usurpation of Tiglath-Pileser III. Tiglath-Pileser embraced both widespread deportations of subject peoples and a more professionalised army in which native Assyrians formed a core of charioteers and cavalry. He also deported subject peoples. Further unrest led to Sargon II emerging from as king in 722, perhaps as a son of Tiglath-Pileser restoring the usurping dynasty after a legitimist revanche. Quickly terminating his predecessor, Shalmaneser V's, two-year siege of Samaria with a glorious victory, Sargon deports 28,000 Israelites across his empire, including to the fortresses of Manaea. In 715, the Urartans are reported heavily defeated in a campaign against the Gimmeru/Cimmerians, an army/rampaging horde of horse pastoralists who also overthrew the Phrygian state at this time. Sargon responds with an opportunistic invasion of Urartu which is successful, but which embroils him in a war with the Cimmerians in which he dies in battle in 705, a death that his son, Shalmaneser V, characterises as an appalling event brought on by Sargon's unpardonable sins. (Although why Shalmaneser might have taken this tack is not obvious.)
Bringing it back to the Assyrians, I pause for a second to note the campaigns of Assurbanipal because of his starring role below under ideas, but also because he is the first of several Iraqi rulers to embroil himself with "the Arabs" leading into the Achaemenid monarchy. To again stake out a wildly speculative position, it might well be that the fall and disappearance of the Neo-Assyrian state is to be explained by the southward shift of the trans-Middle Eastern caravan routes thanks to the domestication of the camel. Thus, the rise of the Arabs, and their cavalry, is an ominous sign for the Neo-Assyrian state, a generation before its fall, which would be less important were it not for a bit of a scientific revolution that we may or may not be able to trace in the sources, in the form of geocentrism.
If this is about the Iron Age, why focus on horses? Because horses are prestigious! There was a time when iron was, too. Leaving aside nonsense about "meteoric iron" that supposedly shows that the ancients were aware that meteors were made of iron and thought that iron finds signified thunder god throwing things at them to express his displeasure, which I mention mainly because I get a bit of Darcy Lewis to the conversation.