Iron use in the Bronze Age

Jun 2018
8
Mexico City
I've a question about iron in the Bronze Age.

I'm plotting a novel set in the late stage of the Trojan War (kind of alternate mythology). As part of my research, I'm re-reading the Iliad. Part of what I'm doing involves a character developing/discovering iron. However, in the translation I'm reading, by Samuel Butler, there is much mention of iron.

At first it's by the gods, which wouldn't affect my plot. But later the list of gifts Agamemnon offers Achilles includes iron cauldrons. Still later, a Trojan noble begging Agamemnon to take him alive, says his father would pay a very rich ransom, which would include wrought iron. This would definitely affect an aspect of my plot.

I know iron existed in the Bronze Age, but I though til now it was mostly in the from of meteoric iron in elemental form, which could be worked without refining any ores first.

So two questions: 1) Was iron, whether derived from ores or meteoric, in common use in some form in the Bronze Age? and 2) If it was, why wouldn't the Achaeans or Trojans make weapons or armor from it, as it is far superior to Bronze for such use?

I'm guessing maybe it's a translation artifact, or maybe Homer (whoever he/they was/were) inadvertently introduced an anachronism in the poem.

Thanks in advance for any help.
 

Todd Feinman

Ad Honorem
Oct 2013
6,583
Planet Nine, Oregon
Iron was around, and mentioned in the Iliad only in connection with tools! Bronze is still the metal for weapons, the "pitiless bronze". Initially iron swords were not of high quality, and the work-hardened bronze sword was superior. Later more weapons such as the Naue II swords and spearheads were made of iron or low-grade steel, for a variety of reasons, until iron use eclipsed bronze for weapons, though much armour continued to be made of bronze. The Hittites had iron fairly early.
 
May 2017
219
Italy
There's evidence of iron working in early/middle bronze age central Anatolia. There is also evidence for iron smelting in Cyprus and some parts of the Levant during the late bronze age, in Cyprus it had become common practice even if bronze was still predominant.
There is also some potential evidence for iron working in South Italy during the late bronze age:
Metallurgy in Italy between the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age: the Coming of Iron | Claudio Giardino - Academia.edu
In the last two years some very interesting articles written in Italian were published about finds of iron slags and other remnants of iron working in late bronze age Sardinia proving the practice of iron working on the island during the late bronze age, where it might have arrived through Cyprus:
La siderurgia quale indicatore di contatti tra la Sardegna e Cipro: il caso del settore nuragico di Via Monastir di San Sperate (CA) | Mossa | Quaderni
Testimonianze di siderurgia in un?area del Campidano centro-meridionale tra la seconda metà del XII e gli inizi del X sec a.C. | Alberto Mossa - Academia.edu
By the late 12th century bc iron weapons were really common in both the Phoenician and in the Philistine city states, and they became predominant over bronze weapons by the 10th century bc.
 
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Jun 2018
8
Mexico City
Thank you both. That's a big help.

It's a minor point in the novel, but I think I know what to do now.

Thanks again.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,996
Australia
I think the earliest evidence of iron smelting dates to the early second millenium BC. Some slag from a smelter was apparently found at a Hittite site dating to this period. I'll try and find the cite.
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,008
MD, USA
Just to reinforce, iron was *not* superior to bronze for weapons or armor, until higher carbon steels were being quench-hardened and tempered, in the post-Roman era. The first iron weapons appear to be perfectly capable, though they only show up in royal tombs and contexts.

It took even longer for iron to be made into armor, possibly because it is very tricky working wrought iron out thin enough for armor. At that point it won't be as strong and resistant as a good high-tin bronze, given the same thickness. But again, the first appearance of iron armor is in royal tombs (Thrace and Macedonia, 4th century BC).

Of course, the reason we say "Bronze Age" and "Iron Age" is that once iron comes into more common use, one is over the other begins! Certainly there was some overlap, but with the dating system so badly messed up it's hard to tell if that was centuries or weeks...

Oh, just to muddy things up, I have read that archeologists tend to use "Bronze Age" and "Iron Age" as *pottery* stages, having nothing to do with what metals were around at all.

Hadn't heard of iron *cauldrons* in the Iliad, but I've only read one translation and it's been a while. Got a citation?

Matthew
 
Jun 2018
8
Mexico City
Hadn't heard of iron *cauldrons* in the Iliad, but I've only read one translation and it's been a while. Got a citation?

I hope so. The file is at: The Internet Classics Archive | The Iliad by Homer

The passage in question is when Agamemnon lists what he'll offer to give to Achilles in atonement: "I will give him seven tripods that have never yet been on the fire, and ten talents of gold. I will give him twenty iron cauldrons and
twelve strong horses that have won races and carried off prizes."
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,996
Australia
I hope so. The file is at: The Internet Classics Archive | The Iliad by Homer

The passage in question is when Agamemnon lists what he'll offer to give to Achilles in atonement: "I will give him seven tripods that have never yet been on the fire, and ten talents of gold. I will give him twenty iron cauldrons and
twelve strong horses that have won races and carried off prizes."
A translation doesn't help. We need the book and line number so we can check the original Greek.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,996
Australia
Found it: 9.265

αἴθωνας δὲ λέβητας ἐείκοσι

Lattimore translates it as "twenty shining cauldrons" but IMO a more literal translation would be "twenty fiery cauldrons".

In any case, there are no iron cauldrons in the Iliad.

Get rid of Butlers translation and read Lattimore or Murray. Butler is easier to read but it isn't very accurate.
 
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