Three Age System - Categorizing European Prehistory

What is the Three Age System, and How Did it Effect Archaeology?

The Trundholm Sun Chariot (Bronze Age,
Sun-chariot from Trundholm Bog in north west Zealand, Denmark. It is made of bronze and gold leaf, and is the best evidence for sun worship in the early bronze age. Now from the National Museum's collection in Copenhagen. C.M. Dixon / Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Three Age System is widely considered archaeology's first paradigm: a convention established in the early 19th century that said prehistory could be subdivided into three parts, based on technological advances in weaponry and tools: in chronological order, they are Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age. Although much elaborated today, the simple system is still important to archaeologists because it allowed scholars to organize material without the benefit (or detriment) of ancient history texts.

CJ Thomsen and the Danish Museum

The Three Age system was first fully introduced in 1837, when Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, the director of the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities in Copenhagen, published an essay called "Kortfattet Udsigt over Mindesmærker og Oldsager fra Nordens Fortid" ("Brief outlook on monuments and antiquities from the Nordic past") in a collected volume called Guideline to Knowledge of Nordic Antiquity. It was published simultaneously in German and Danish, and translated into English in 1848. Archaeology has never fully recovered.

Thomsen's ideas grew out of his role as voluntary curator of the Royal Commission for the Preservation of Antiquities' unorganized collection of runic stones and other artifacts from ruins and ancient graves in Denmark.

An Immense Unsorted Collection

This collection was immense, combining both royal and university collections into one national collection.

It was Thomsen who transformed that unordered collection of artifacts into the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities, which opened to the public in 1819. By 1820, he had begun to organize the exhibits in terms of materials and function, as a visual narrative of prehistory. Thomsen had displays that illustrated the advancement of ancient Nordic weaponry and craftsmanship, beginning with flint stone tools and progressing to iron and gold ornaments.

According to Eskildsen (2012), Thomsen's Three Age division of prehistory created a "language of objects" as an alternative to ancient texts and historical disciplines of the day. By using an object-oriented slant, Thomsen moved archaeology away from history and closer to other museum sciences, such as geology and comparative anatomy. While the scholars of the Enlightenment sought to develop a human history based primarily on ancient scripts, Thomsen instead focused on gathering information about prehistory, evidence that had no texts to support (or hinder) it.

Predecessors

Heizer (1962) points out that CJ Thomsen was not the first to propose such a division of prehistory. Thomsen's predecessors can be found as early as the 16th-century curator of the Vatican Botanical Gardens Michele Mercati [1541-1593], who explained in 1593 that stone axes had to be tools made by ancient Europeans unacquainted with bronze or iron. In A New Voyage Round the World (1697), world traveler William Dampier [1651-1715] called attention to the fact that Native Americans who did not have access to metal working made stone tools. Earlier still, the first century BC Roman poet Lucretius [98-55 BC] argued that there must have been a time before men knew about metal when weapons consisted of stones and the branches of trees.

By the early 19th century, the division of prehistory into categories Stone, Bronze and Iron was more or less current among European antiquarians, and the topic was discussed in a surviving letter between Thomsen and University of Copenhagen historian Vedel Simonsen in 1813. Some credit must also be given to Thomsen's mentor at the museum, Rasmus Nyerup: but it was Thomsen who put the division to work in the museum, and published his results in an essay that was widely distributed.

The Three Age division in Denmark was confirmed by a series of excavations in Danish burial mounds carried out between 1839 and 1841 by Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae [1821-1885], often considered the first professional archaeologist and, I might point out, was only 18 in 1839.

Sources

Read more about the creation of the Three Age System in the History of Archaeology, Part 4, The Astounding Effects of Orderly Men.

Eskildsen KR. 2012. The Language of Objects: Christian Jürgensen Thomsen's Science of the Past. Isis 103(1):24-53.

Heizer RF. 1962. The Background of Thomsen's Three-Age System. Technology and Culture 3(3):259-266.

Kelley DR. 2003. The Rise of Prehistory. Journal of World History 14(1):17-36.

Rowe JH 1962. Worsaae's Law and the Use of Grave Lots for Archaeological Dating. American Antiquity 28(2):129-137.

Rowley-Conwy P. 2004. The Three Age system in English: New translations of the founding documents. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology 14(1):4-15.