Three-age system  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
three ages

The three-age system is the periodization of human prehistory into three consecutive time periods, named for their respective predominant tool-making technologies:

The system is most apt in describing the progression of European and Mediterranean societies, although it has been used to describe other histories as well. The system has been criticised for being too technologically determinist.



Its formal introduction is attributed to the Danish archaeologist Christian Jürgensen Thomsen in the 1820s in order to classify artifacts in the collection which later became the National Museum of Denmark. Thomsen was not the first to use tool-making materials as a basis for classifying prehistoric cultures; the French antiquary Nicholas Mahudel had proposed a similar system in the early eighteenth century and the idea gathered supporters in the intervening hundred years. Such a system was revolutionary and a vast improvement on the disorganised nature of previous prehistoric archaeology.

Stone Age subdivisions

In 1865 the Stone Age in Eurasia was first divided into the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic after John Lubbock's use of the terms in his book, Prehistoric Times and further subdivisions were introduced to divide all the ages into early, mid or late (or lower, middle and upper in the case of the Palaeolithic) sections. Amongst African archaeologists, the terms Old Stone Age, Middle Stone Age and Late Stone Age are preferred. In some cultures, archaeological evidence has made it necessary to add a Copper Age period between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. The term Megalithic does not refer to a period of time and merely describes the use of large stones by ancient peoples from any period.


Advances made in the fields of seriation, typology, stratification and the associative dating of artefacts and features permitted even greater refinement of the system. However, because no precise numerical date could be given to finds using the three-age system, they could only be placed in a relative sequence. Elaborate efforts were often made to align European and Near Eastern sequences with the datable chronology of Ancient Egypt; but more direct and convincing scientific dating methods such as carbon dating were not developed until the mid twentieth century.

Difficulties in application

The three-age system has been difficult to apply fully outside Europe and the Mediterranean for which it was devised. Some societies skipped some of the stages or never developed them when their societies did not need them. Some Amazonian tribes in South America remain to date in the Neolithic for example, and there was no Bronze Age in Sub-Saharan Africa-- technological innovation there progressed directly from stone to iron working, with no intermediate Bronze Age.

It also soon became apparent that the switches from one age to another did not happen quickly or decisively. Flint tools remained in use in a limited fashion into the Iron Age in Europe and early metal items often appear in what should technically be the Neolithic.

Using the three-age system to measure the advancement of societies is often quite inaccurate, as some developments have appeared in different societies at vastly differing stages of their development. For example, Classic Period Maya society had mathematics and astronomy that rivaled early renaissance Europe, but were still technically a stone age culture. Some pre-Inca cultures had metalworking starting in 1500 BC. The Japanese had pottery as early as 10,000 BC but did not begin bronze work or rice farming until 1000 to 500 BC.

Example: prehistory of the Korean peninsula

The difficulty of applying this system outside of Europe is illustrated by the case of Korean prehistory. The three age system was applied during the post-Japanese colonisation period (1945– ) as a way to counter the erroneous claims of Japanese colonial archaeologists who insisted that, unlike Japan, Korea had no 'Bronze Age'. Instead, Japanese archaeologists such as Fujita Ryosaku incorrectly hypothesized that the Korean peninsula changed abruptly from a 'stone age' culture to a Chalcolithic or Eneolithic culture. The three-age system was used widely in Korea by scholars and the general public from the 1950s until the 1990s despite the fact that it does not fit with the unique intricacies of prehistoric Korea. For example, until recently the periodisation scheme used by Korean archaeologists proposed that the 'Neolithic' began in 8000 BC and lasted until 1500 BC. This is despite the fact that palaeoethnobotanical studies clearly indicate that the first bona fide cultivation did not begin until circa 3500 BC.

Furthermore, archaeologists used to claim that the 'Bronze Age' began in 1500 or 1000 BC and lasted until 300 BC. This idea has been repudiated, however, because although bronze may have been exchanged into Korea before 700 BC, bronze technology was not adopted in the southern Korean Peninsula until circa 700 BC. The archaeological record clearly indicates that bronze objects were not consumed in relatively large numbers until after 400 BC. Despite the obviously poor fit with Korean prehistory, some historians who are experts in early Korean history (c. 300 B.C.–AD 668) continue to use the unsuitable Neolithic-Bronze-Iron monikers. On the other hand, most prehistoric archaeologists recognize the problems with the three-age system and have adopted a periodisation scheme based on changes in pottery design and technology, i.e. the Jeulmun (c. 8000–1500 BC) and Mumun Pottery Periods (1500–300 BC).

Contemporary application

Although the three-age system has been rendered less and less accurate and usable by modern archaeological discoveries, today, it still remains an enduring concept of prehistoric archaeology as the terms have become ingrained in people's minds, including those of archaeologists. General familiarity with the long periods of time involved in prehistoric archaeology better enables archaeological information to be conveyed to the public.

Three-age system resumptive table

Age Period Tools Economy Dwelling Sites Society Religion
Stone age Palaeolithic Handmade tools and objects found in nature – cudgel, club, sharpened stone, chopper, handaxe, scraper, spear, harpoon, needle, scratch awl Hunting and gathering Mobile lifestyle – caves, huts, tooth or skin hovels, mostly by rivers and lakes A band of edible-plant gatherers and hunters (25–100 people) Evidence for belief in the afterlife first appears in the Upper Palaeolithic, marked by the appearance of burial rituals and ancestor worship. Priests and sanctuary servants appear in the prehistory.
Mesolithic (other name epipalaeolithic) Handmade tools and objects found in nature – bow and arrow, fish – basket, boats Tribes and bands
Neolithic Handmade tools and objects found in nature – chisel, hoe, plough, yoke, reaping-hook, grain pourer, barley, loom, earthenware (pottery) and weapons Neolithic Revolution - transition to agriculture. Gathering, hunting, fishing and domestication Farmsteads Tribes and formation of chiefdoms in some Neolithic societies the end of the period
Bronze Age Copper and bronze tools, potter's wheel Agriculturecattle – breeding, agriculture, craft, trade
Iron Age Iron tools Formation of cities Formation of states*
  • Formation of states starts during the Early Bronze Age in Egypt and Mesopotamia and during the Late Bronze Age first empires are founded.

See also

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