The late Bronze Age industrial revolution

The introduction of iron technology might be regarded as evidence enough for an industrial revolution, though in fact its introduction and progressive adoption in Europe were protracted over more than a millennium. Iron tools were in circulation in South-Eastern Europe in the mid-second millennium bc, and by the later Urnfield (Hallstatt B) phase, some swords were being made and embellished in iron in eastern Central Europe, and occasionally much further west (Gomez and Mohen, 1981; Pleiner, 1981b; Shramko, 1981). Bronze technology itself at the outset of the Urnfield period underwent a step-change of no less significance. Casting techniques developed the use of multiple-piece moulds, and in due course the cireperdue or lost-wax technique, which permitted hollow casting by the use of plugs within the mould. Alloys too were increasingly deployed in a more sophisticated fashion depending upon the method of construction or the requirements of different parts of the artefact in question; so, for example, the body, base and handles of a bronze bucket might require the use of alloys of different composition. The use of sheet bronze was an important innovation. Used variously for the different components of the feasting or drinking service, buckets for mixing drink, strainers and cups for serving and consuming it, beaten bronze was also used for high-status parade armour, including breast armour and greaves by the later Bronze Age. Embossing techniques not only added ornament and doubtless symbolism to these prestigious possessions, but lent strength to the sheet bronze construction. Specialist techniques, like the use of rivets to link panels of sheet bronze or wiredrawing to reinforce the rims of beaten bronze vessels, were the natural concomitant of these developments. But the crucial point about these innovations for the understanding of the cultural milieu that saw the genesis of early Celtic art is that these technical skills were deployed for the aristocratic pursuits of feasting and drinking and the conflict of arms, or the ceremonial and symbolic associated with these activities.

It is not simply the extension of technical capacity and therefore of the range of types that makes the late Bronze Age a period of dynamic change, it is also the scale of production. Hoards of the period are not infrequently substantial in quantity, prompting questions regarding the reasons for their burial and non-recovery. Ritual deposition and the conspicuous destruction of wealth as a demonstration of social status have both been invoked as possible motives for hoards, but the probability must also be considered that there was some serious disruption of the political and social order in Central and South-Eastern Europe, perhaps not unrelated to the apparent collapse of Mycenaean civilization at the end of Late Helladic IIIB in the thirteenth century. Climatic deterioration is sometimes suggested as a cause for economic and political turmoil, bringing pressures upon land marginal for settlement and agriculture, and prompting strife between advantaged and displaced communities. At the same time industrial production on this scale itself requires a degree of political stability, not least because the sources of supply, the twin mineral deposits of copper and tin, are widely dispersed, and stable political relationships would be required to ensure a continuing supply of raw material across the trade routes of north-alpine Europe.

Sources of raw materials for metal-workers in the Bronze Age were doubtless already those that were later to be exploited by Iron Age bronze-workers and their patrons. Copper was available in plentiful supply in the eastern Alps, in the Balkans, the Carpathians and in Ireland; tin was not so widely available, but Cornish and Breton tin was doubtless in demand, together with supplies from Spain, Italy and the Ore Mountains of Eastern Europe. Gold had been exploited from the early Bronze Age, with Irish and Carpathian sources being worked from an early period. The industrial infrastructure plainly involved long-distance connections, and affords one obvious mechanism for the transmission of foreign fashions in artefact types and ornamental styles.

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