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Bronze Age Part I: Intelligence versus Accumulated Knowledge

“If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton
It’s tempting to look at our modern world, with its space travel, medical miracles, and iPads, and conclude that we are a lot smarter than our forebears.  The truth, however, is that we are simply the beneficiaries of knowledge accumulated over the centuries.  Let me illustrate this for you with a brief stroll through the Bronze Age.
Ancient history is delineated in time periods based on what materials were being used to make tools – first stone, then tin, then copper, then bronze, then iron.  The transition from stone to metals was a significant one. Smelting of tin began in Turkey more than 8500 years ago.  Fashioning a tool from stone is relatively straight forward, requiring only some reshaping and perhaps the addition of a handle or shaft.  Making an article from metal is much more complex and involves locating a metal-containing ore, purifying by melting the ore and allowing the impurities to float to the top (smelting), and then forming the metal piece by pouring it into a mold and/or hammering it.  The smelting and metalworking abilities required to make good metal tools are sophisticated and require skills and intelligence. 
The advance which heralded the Bronze Age (approximately 3500 to 1500 BC) was learning that mixing copper and tin together, if done properly, results in an alloy, bronze, with properties significantly different from the two source metals.  Pure metals have consistent atomic structure, called a phase, throughout the entire metal piece which often results in them being soft or brittle.  Mixing two or more metals together can create an alloy which has a mixture of different atomic structure phases within it.  The presence and interplay of the various metal phases control the properties of the alloy.
The difference between the bronze alloy and the source metals is rather dramatic.  Pure copper is quite soft and is susceptible to corrosion.  The addition 10-15% tin to the copper, if coupled with the appropriate heat treatment, results in bronze, which is harder and more corrosion resistant than copper.  Bronze makes far, far better axes, swords, armor, and ship fittings than pure copper, thereby creating a significant and lucrative commercial market for bronze.
The Bronze Age gave rise to some of the most famous empires from all of history, including the Sumerians, the Babylonians, and the Hittites.  These were complex societies with castles, libraries, large-scale irrigation projects, mathematicians, accountants, engineers, astronomers and poets.  Any reasonable assessment of their accomplishments makes it clear that they were just as smart, if not smarter, than we are. Ironically, perhaps the most accomplished of the Bronze Age empires gets the least amount of attention in our standard history texts.
Meet the Minoans.  The Minoans get their name from the stories told by Homer in the Odyssey about the fabulous wealth of King Minos of Crete.  While King Minos is a mythological figure, the Minoans are not.  Their civilization arose between 2700 and 1500 BC on the islands of Crete and Thera (present day Santorini) in the Mediterranean.  In addition to building some of the most impressive palaces of the Bronze Age, they controlled the seas, and therefore the trade in copper and tin to make bronze which brought them incredible wealth.  Think of the Minoans as sort of the British Empire of the Bronze Age. 
The Minoans maintained a trading empire which spanned from the Orkney Islands north of Scotland to the west coast of India.  Of particular importance were mining operations in England, the largest source of tin for the European Bronze Age.  Compelling evidence suggests that the Minoans constructed Stonehenge in England, as well as a series of other similar structures throughout Europe used to make the astronomical observations they needed to navigate their ships over such great distances.
The Minoan civilization completely collapsed around1500 BC.  While there are a variety of competing theories regarding the reasons for this, one certain factor in the demise of the Minoans, and a contributing factor to why we lack information about them, was a massive volcanic eruption on Thera in 1540 BC which wiped out most of the structures on that island and then caused an enormous tsunami to devastate the island of Crete.  It has been suggested that the swamping of the Minoan civilization by a tidal wave has given rise to the myth of Atlantis.
As an engineer, I enjoy thinking through the types of challenges my Bronze Age predecessors faced and learning how they surmounted them using the science available the time.  It’s clear to me that technological progress was the same then as it is now, with a steady march of incremental improvements punctuated by the occasional breakthrough.  Their scientists and engineers were certainly the equal to or betters thanb ours, they just had less accumulated knowledge to work with.
I hope you sufficiently enjoyed our stroll through the Bronze Age such that you will return next week for part II, “The Case of the Missing Copper”.
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