Iron (Age) Men
A History of Mankind (40)
(This post is a sequel to this earlier post. To see all older posts in a list arranged by subject, click here)
Iron is the fourth most common element in Earth's crust, making up around 5% of the total mass of this very important part of the planet, the only one that humans can actually get resources from. Iron is not rare; almost all of the major ores of iron are very common. Ancient societies learned this relatively early, but treated iron as rare and precious for a long time for two reasons.
First, the earliest sources of iron were meteorites, where the metal is often encrusted in iron–nickel alloys, comprising about 6% of the mass of all meteorites that fall on the Earth. Obviously, something that fell from the sky was perceived as very valuable, probably more valuable than gold at the time; but meteoritic iron did provide many societies with a clear idea of what iron was and what it could do, and helped some to spot iron in underground deposits. A 5th millennium BC iron bead is testament to the fact that the metal was known in the Iranian plateau; iron spear tips and ornaments from around 4,000 BC have been found in Sumer and Egypt.
Second, the problem with iron is its high melting point, at over 1,500 degrees centigrade. To work it into useful shapes, and clean it up of impurities, foundries need to reach extremely high temperatures that were out of the question for early societies. Generally speaking, the bloomeries used to smelt iron were really capable of reaching the high temperatures required to actually melt iron and instead produced pure metallic iron through solid state reduction – that is, the bloomery process – along with, essentially, melting everything that wasn’t iron out of the bloom. Copper, on the other hand, can be melted at just over 1,000 degrees – a hard task, but a much easier one.
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In reality, copper is much rarer and valuable, and fitting an entire army with copper-based weapons and armor was extremely expensive, while an iron-based army is cheaper and easier to outfit with spare parts and replacement weapons. You just must find a way to work that iron.
It's likely that most advanced societies of the 2nd millennium BC – except for possibly China and those in the Americas – had an advanced knowledge of the superior properties and easier availability of iron, compared with copper. The Hittites, for example, certainly developed iron-working to some extent, and treated iron as an extremely valued metal, that they used for ceremonial purposes and decoration. After all, making a foundry reach higher and higher temperatures requires a degree of technology, but once you heat up to 1,000 degrees, making it even hotter is basically a question of adding more combustible to the fire.
In the period before the Hittite sack of Babylon, Hittites used iron especially for spears and scepters showed during religious ceremonies. Later, iron is also cast for ceremonial axes and jewelry. During the Hittite Empire under Suppiluliuma I and his successors, iron was also used for cult idols, knives, daggers, and swords. At the same time, its use for jewelry declined, suggesting the metal was not quite as rare and impressive as it had been, and was sometimes measured by the mina – a larger unit of weight, also used copper – rather than, as previously, by the shekel – like gold and silver.
Still, even late Hittite armies weren't outfitted with iron weapons en masse – perhaps, save for noblemen, king guards and the like – and iron is still referred in texts as a metal that comes “from heaven” – that is, meteoric. In fact, Hittites may have bought expensive iron from other peoples thinking that they got it from meteorites, when they extracted it from mines. And it's not clear that crude, unalloyed iron worked in crude foundries had a superior performance to well-purified bronze, an alloy that Fertile Crescent had used for centuries longer. Most likely, only proper, work-hardened, heat-treated iron weapons were better than the average bronze spear or axe wielded by a levy infantry-man.
To get good-quality iron, ores have to be smelted and processed to great expense in combustible materials. The most commonly used iron ore was hematite, with goethite and limonite close behind, and magnetite and siderite rarely used. All of these can occur in big rock deposits, but may also occur as ‘bog iron‘ where oxidation occurs in acidic environments (in swamps and bogs) leading to the formation of small clumps of iron-rich material, that people in the know can spot visually. Neither Anatolia nor anywhere else in the Fertile Crescent has many swamps or bogs; central Europe, the Balkans and the Ukraine have plenty.
Bog iron is formed when iron is oxidized under acidic conditions to form chunks of the aforementioned iron minerals, typically in smallish chunks. Bog iron is much easier to smelt because it contains fewer impurities than iron ore in rock deposits; the quantity of iron available from bogs is relatively low but renewable, unlike the case in mines: a bog can be harvested for iron again after a few decades as the processes which produce the bog iron continue.
Then again, even if one gets access to large quantities of bog iron from many overseas sources, as the late Hittite Empire may have done, there's the problem with the fuel for the foundries, which for a long time was mainly timber, since manure – used across the world to start and fuel fires – can't lead to high enough temperatures. Anatolia, with a relatively large density of advanced societies since at least the Çatalhoyuk culture in the 8th millennium BC, didn't have a lot of forest cover left by the 2nd millennium BC. Originally full of thick forests, a colder weather leading to less rainfall there and elsewhere contributed to a slower re-growth of trees cut down for millennia all over the plateau, with only some large forests surviving precisely in the areas less accessible to Hittite timber traders – the Kaskan-controlled Pontic Mountains and the southern Black Sea shore.
Similar timber shortages, for similar reasons, were evident all over the Fertile Crescent, with the possible exception of Lebanon – where valuable cedar trees were largely used for construction and ship-building. Neither the Hittites nor any society of the region had enough timber to manufacture good-quality iron in anything approaching large quantities, and probably used whichever timber it did have to fed more cost-effective copper foundries; but Europe had plenty of trees.
By the 13th century BC, southeastern Europe was in a great state of flux. Mycenaean Greeks had taken over Crete during the previous century, and turned the island into a base for raiding and piracy. Mycenaean warlords and their troops were recorded as persistent enemies of Hittite dominance of western Anatolia even at the height of the Hittite Empire's power and the region in fact remained largely independent from Hattusa to the very end of the empire.
Long-range raiding expeditions, later recorded and much embellished in Greek mythology, such as Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, were becoming a Mycenaean specialty, and these exploits reached the ears of fellow Indo-Europeans up north, including the Thracians of modern Bulgaria.
The Thracians, reputed as some of the fiercest warriors of antiquity, liked fighting and plunder as much as the next tribal confederacy. In the Iliad, Thracians are described as allies of the Trojans in the Trojan War against the Mycenaean Greeks, a clear sign that Greeks of the 1st millennium BC had a strong tradition of wariness and dislike for their northern neighbors, likely related to Thracian raiding of the southern lands, richer and easier to reach than the Dalmatian coast on the other side of the Shar Planina range that divides the Adriatic from the Aegean watersheds.
Thracian themselves were coming under pressure from their northern neighbors, in a process later to be mirrored at several points during classical times. Tribes earlier settled in Pannonia, that waiting room for tribal migrations in central Europe, had long been moving south and west, joining others from the Carpathian region that crossed the Danube into the Balkans.
One of the strongest threads running through the Iliad and the Odyssey is the understanding that warlords who go on long-distance raids, leaving their strongholds and families devoid of protection from enemies, may find their own lands much changed when they return, even if successful. Odysseus, having taken his sweet time to return to Ithaca, must fight his way back to the throne, with the help of his son; Agamemnon, king of Mycenae itself, is killed by Aegisthus, the lover of his wife Clytemnestra.
This clearly reflects the reality of intense Mycenaean plundering of the eastern (and parts of the western) Mediterranean in the 13th and 12th century BC, which opened up the space for northern tribes, and Mycenaean left-behind upstarts, to take over parts of relatively richer and more developed Greece.
A cooling climate, which made life in southern regions much more appealing than in the ever-colder steppes and Balkans, probably contributed to large-scale migrations that were nothing if not extremely violent: by 1250 BC, towns and strongholds across central Greece were burned to the ground, while others like Tiryns, Midea and Athens expanded their defenses with larger walls.
Given this situation, it's not striking that the first pitched battle known in European history was fought some 100 kilometers north of modern Berlin – in cold northern Germany, 2,000 kilometers away from Athens as the crow flies – right around this time. In the Tollense Valley, at least 4,000 warriors came together to settle their differences in a day of frenzied fighting that left well over 1,000 dead.
What is striking that no fighters carried iron implements or weapons, a clear sign that the iron-wielding raiders were a particularly central-southern European phenomenon, and that iron technology was developed right there. This squares perfectly with all the available evidence showing that iron weapons were first used en masse on the richer, warmer kingdoms of the Mediterranean basin.
 That source can often be identified with certainty because of the unique crystalline features (Widmanstätten patterns) of that material, preserved when the metal is worked cold or at low temperature.
 This is a view presented, for example, by Nathaniel L. Erb-Satullo in “The Innovation and Adoption of Iron in the Ancient Near East,” published in 2019 in the Journal of Archaeological Research 10.
 See Muhly, J.D., Maddin, R., Stech, T. and Özgen, E: “Iron in Anatolia and the nature of the Hittite iron industry. Anatolian Studies, 35” (1985), pp.67-84. Or Siegelová, Jana, and Hidetoshi Tsumoto. "Metals and metallurgy in Hittite Anatolia." Insights into Hittite History and Archaeology (2011): 275-300. Early Hittites are known to have bartered iron (meteoritic or smelted) for silver, at a rate of 40 times the iron's weight, with the Old Assyrian Empire in the first centuries of the 2nd millennium BC. They sometimes wrote about “black iron,” which probably refers to meteoric iron.
 For this section on the intricacies of iron-work, I rely heavily on Bret Deveraux's excellent posts in his blog “A collection of unmitigated pedantry,” accessed in 2020.
 As Deveraux notes, coal fires can reach high temperatures, but not before the coal is coked to be turned into pure masses of carbon called “coke.” Without the coking, the coal doesn't burn hot enough and releases lots of sulfur, which will ruin the metal being worked, as it makes it brittle and hard to bend and weld. It appears that effective coking for use in metallurgy was only available in Europe from the late 16th century AD, at the earliest.
 As iron production ramped up across Europe after 1000 BC, superficial iron veins were exhausted and mines became deeper, which created ventilation problems that become harder to resolve in the warmer climates of the Levant, especially in the summer. Abundant water was an additional advantage in Europe, as it might be used to aid in mining, by running it over a deposit and into a sluice box where the minerals were then separated out, although this appears to have been done mostly for mining gold and tin. But abundant timber was a true game-changer: at the primary iron-mining site for Roman Italy, Elba, the fires of the smelters were so continuous that the island ended up known as ‘the smokey island’ – Aethaleia – because it was always wreathed in smoke.
 In the mythological tale, Jason and his argonauts travel all the way to Colchis, modern Georgia, in search of plunder. This sounded implausible to scholars for a long time, but modern archeological evidence indicates that sort of raids almost certainly happened.
 The rebel slave Spartacus and the can-do Roman emperor Maximinus Thrax, both well-known for their ability to crush enemies with their bare hands, were both Thracians.
 This is somewhat supported by the archeological record. As F. Prendi writes in “The prehistory of Albania,” Chapter 5 of The Cambridge Ancient History III Part 1 (2008), iron objects only appear in Albania/Illyria during the 11th century BC; but they do appear much earlier in Thrace south of the Stara Planina/Balkan Range, north of that range in Moesia, and along the Marica River valley, where they probably were more or less commonplace (at least for high-end weaponry) by around 1200 BC. On the other hand, the picture is a bit muddled by indications that the so-called “North-west Geometric” style of pottery found, for example, in Laconia, southern Greece, and considered typically “Dorian” there originated in central Albania.
 This range, a sort of bastion in between modern Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, has two peaks of just over 2,700 meters and was known as Mount Scardus in antiquity. Its projection southwards divides the rainier but more rugged western regions of Epirus and Aetolia, relatively less developed than other parts of Greece during antiquity, from the drier but more heavily populated Thessaly and Boeotia in the eastern half of Greece. To the northwest, the lakelands of Albania were always fertile but extremely cold in winter, so little appealing to Mediterranean powers and thus a barrier to Greek influence to this day.
 M. Garasanin, in Chapter 14 (“The early Iron Age in the Central Balkan Era, c 1000-750 BC”) of the Cambridge Ancient History III, notes that Pannonian themselves were part of a massive domino effect, being pressed from the north by the bearers of the Middle European Huegelbraeber, or tumulus culture. In his views, this series of knock-on effects led to the formation of large ethnic entities later easily identifiable, such as Thracian themselves, as well as Daco-Mysians and Illyrians.
 The best evidence available indicates that global climate kept cooling until the Roman Climatic Optimum started in around 250 BC, leading to warmer trends across the globe, with temperatures very similar to those of 2000 AD, until around 400 AD. In fact, it's likely that a particularly cold snap occurred around the turn of the 13th-12th centuries BC, leading to particularly low rainfall in Africa and unusually weak flooding in Egypt, which contributed to troubles there.
 The construction of the impressive Lion Gate, perhaps the most famous Mycenaean monument, in Mycenae itself corresponds to this era.
 The battle may have been related to some tribal migration, but there is no way of knowing much about the circumstances, who won, or why.