As we said in Lesson #3, in the years surrounding 1,200 BC, every major ruling group in the Near East was wiped out. Egypt was the only exception, and just barely at that.
For most people this was a significant change, but not a horrific one. People who lived in cities had to flee; a certain number of farmers and traders had to flee as well, but it was almost entirely rulers and soldiers who died. Still, the ripping away of rulership, in a very short period of time, was difficult for people.
Over centuries, people get used to ruling arrangements and come to rely upon them. Then, as now, people find it easy and comforting to lean upon rights and privileges promised by rulers. Even when the rulers fail to deliver on their promises, people prefer to imagine that their promises will be good next time.
And so, once rulership was simply wiped away, these people – these very many people – were left with nothing to lean upon. It was an emotional shock to them.
It’s also the case that centuries of subjection to the same ruling system creates a deep association. Most people keep their ruling system as a point of reference in their minds: something they refer to, such as, What do important people think of this? Or, Can I get in trouble for this? The more common such thoughts become, the more losing the power above makes people feel anxious and unsafe.
So, after the old rulers were gone, and after the fighters who defeated them also left, people were left alone with themselves, and it took them some time to get used to it. We can’t say precisely how long that was, but it was probably two or three generations before people got over the old ways and found it normal to rely upon themselves.
But regardless of their emotional discomfort, farmers kept farming and traders kept trading: they needed to live and that’s what they knew. They no longer had to send their grain to a king, and they were no longer hounded by sacrifice and tax collectors, but they had to cooperate with their neighbors more than they had before, and they had to rely upon themselves more than they had before. As a result, they organized themselves into family groups, and seldom anything much larger than that.
Historians used to call periods like this “dark ages,” mainly because there were very few kings, and so very few records from kings. Historians rely upon such records, and having none made the era seem “dark” to them. But for the people who lived through this era, it wasn’t dark. They knew how to grow food and raise animals very well, there were trade networks, they knew how to sail, to produce metals and tools, they knew basic arithmetic and they knew how to write.
And that brings us to something you should remember:
Rulership cycles, but technology accretes.
Rulerships of all sorts come and go. Even major ways of life – civilizations – come and go. But scientific and technical advances are very seldom lost: they build-up… they accrete, layer upon layer.
One other thing people did during this time was to find opportunities elsewhere. A large number of people left where they had been living and found better lands to the West. For example, we know that the people we think of as early Italians came from the east, at precisely this time. And the same happened all across the region. No longer tied to their places and ways, they found better places and started over, creating new ways as they went.
The Coming of Iron
The most useful metal of the old era was bronze, which was an alloy (a mixture) of copper and tin. It was fairly hard, easy to work, and long-lasting. But at just this moment, iron began to appear all through the Near East, and then beyond. In other words, the Iron Age began at 1,200 BC.
Iron is much stronger and more durable than bronze, and so it makes far better tools. It also allows us to built things we couldn’t with bronze.
The process of making iron was similar to the process of making copper; it was made by forcing a lot of air through a charcoal-burning oven, which looked like this:
Once iron ore was melted properly, it was removed from the oven. But at that point it would be covered with a material called slag (a sort of stone), which was pounded off with hammers:
Once that was done, fairly pure pieces of iron would remain, and people quickly learned to make all sorts of things with them.
Also during this period, people developed faster potter’s wheels to create better vases, better glazes for their pots, and compasses (drawing compasses, not magnetic compasses) that allowed them to draw perfect circles.
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