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History of the ANE: Chronography, the Big Picture

[This is a lecture written for the course 'HIST 262: History of the Ancient Near East,' taught Fall 2023 at God's Bible School and College, a regionally accredited College in Cincinnati, Ohio. Bibliographical material will be posted under Research on this site.]


The final section to be examined under Geographical Time involves resources and is that of the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age separations, commonly referred to as the Three Age System. This system was first published in 1836 by Christian Jürgensen Thomsen of the Copenhagen-Lund academics (Rowley-Conwy 2007: 22) and has been used, with variations, ever since, though not in every region of the world. 

Overview and Problems

Each of these Ages has been divided into their respective subcategories, which are divided further still. The Stone Age is divided into the Paleolithic, or old stone Age, Mesolithic, or middle stone Age, and finally the Neolithic, or new stone Age. 

 The Bronze Age is divided into Early, Middle, and Late, for example Middle Bronze Age, and each of these are then subdivided by giving them a number, for example Early Bronze Age III. Of note, in the Levant, Middle Bronze Age I is not typically used any longer as it has been merged into the Early Bronze Age to form the Early Bronze Age IV.

The Iron Age in the Levant is divided into Iron Age I, II, and III, rather than early, middle, and late. Iron III is sometimes not used, instead moving directly into the historical periods of the Babylonian and Persian Empires. Since numbers are used in place of early, middle, and late, the third category uses letters, for example Iron IIB. 

As is evident by the inconsistency in the nomenclatures of the subdivisions, much of this system is still highly debated, many scholars opting for at a minimum differing date ranges but also different terminology. Additionally, it should be pointed out that although this system is used all over the world, the Age of one region may or may not correspond to the others. For example, when the Levant was beginning its Iron Age, Italy was only just beginning its Late Bronze Age. 

It should also be pointed out that although the types of resources used are within the names of these Ages, the use of these resources do not necessarily correspond to the starting point of each. Iron was used in Mesopotamia and Egypt quite a while before the Iron Age began, though merely in small quantities. Also, Bronze was not consistently utilized in the Levant until well into the Bronze Age.

Finally, the question of Near Eastern dating is problematic as much of the dates are relative to other dates. Very few absolute dates have been determined in the ancient Near East, for example the recording of a solar eclipse that has been mathematically calculated to have occurred on June 15, 763 B.C. (Mieroop 2015: 60). From that absolute date, relative dating techniques are then utilized both forward and backward to determine points on the timeline when events most likely occurred. Unfortunately, sometimes even these absolute dates are not absolute. In 1912 A.D., a scholar believed that he had found astronomical records of both the appearance and disappearance of Venus in the night sky, an event that mathematically fits multiple points in the Assyrian chronology. Because these multiple possibilities exist, Assyrian dates now fall into three potentialities, referred to as the long, middle, and short chronologies, but these are still highly debated. Most texts today simply refer to dates given in the Middle Chronology and avoid the debate altogether (Mieroop 2015: 60).

Stone Age

Although the Stone Age begins with the Paleolithic, with a scientific date of ca. 1.4 Ma, for the purpose of this study, the starting point is that of the Neolithic, very often associated with the move from hunting and gathering to that of farming (Twiss 2007: 24). Although not sudden, this radical change in subsistence patterns is sometimes referred to as the Neolithic Revolution (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 34) as it begins several innovative phases in history. In the Near East, the Neolithic is broken down into Pre-Pottery and Pottery Neolithic, with a scientific date for Pre-Pottery Neolithic A at ca. 8000 B.C. Pre-Pottery Neolithic B in the Southern Levant, often associated with Jericho, has a date at ca. 7000 B.C. In Upper Mesopotamia, this begins a transitional period into an Initial Pottery Neolithic; in the Northern Levant, this is called simply Early Pottery Neolithic, and in Anatolia, simply Pottery Neolithic (Nieuwenhuyse, Cruells, and Mateiciucová 2017: 3).

With the rise of agriculture came other advancements, including the need to be nearer one’s crops and herds in order to protect them. Thus, in the Neolithic is seen the development of households, base-camps, and villages (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 39). Additionally, uses for the agricultural resources lead to the development of textiles (Breniquet 2013: 7), often from wool and linen. A third advancement also began in the Neolithic, one that allowed for the preservation of these agricultural resources, which, as the nomenclature of these periods describes, is the beginnings of pottery (Nieuwenhuyse, Cruells, and Mateiciucová 2017: 3).

Between the Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age is the Chalcolithic, also known as the Copper Age or Eneolithic (Pearce 2019: 229). It is here that urban settlements develop further, one scholar even calling these settlements the first “cities” (Price 2020: 4). The Chalcolithic shifts from the Half culture of the Neolithic to the Ubaid Culture (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 50) in Mesopotamia and the Levant, one of the many, small cultures developing in the Neolithic-Chalcolithic period, and the Chalcolithic eventually gives way to the Bronze Age.

Bronze Age

Early Bronze Age.

The Bronze Age extends from ca. 3300 B.C. to ca. 1200 B.C., and as noted before is split into three periods: early, middle, and late.

The Early Bronze Age is split into Early Bronze I-IV (EB I, EB II, EB III, and EB IV), though this last period has been highly controversial. The following period, Middle Bronze, is also cut into chunks, but now everything gets confusing. MB is divided into Middle Bronze IIA-C (MB IIA and MB IIB/C), Middle Bronze I (MBI) now being obsolete as that period has been merged into the Early Bronze age in the form of EB IV. 

The history of Palestine is that of growth, collapse, and growth—ups and downs and ups again. The Early Bronze Age is a perfect example of the “up” aspect, followed by the “down” at the end. This rise and fall of social complexity in Palestine is seen at the very beginning of the Early Bronze Age — change from one culture in the Chalcolithic to a completely different culture in EB I (Hoerth, et. al. 1998: xvii), though the Levant is still a very poor place, filled with small unwalled villages and many farmsteads. 

EB II brought a small bit of change as the villages become walled, a Mose toward urbanism, though there were still farmsteads. EB III stood as a time of richness; very few, but large walled cities could be found along with a few farmsteads, the people having gathered together for both ease of life and protection. At this point in the Bronze Age, the Levant is bubbling over with life. There is some destructive behavior, but these are most likely internal conflicts rather than outside invaders. This is not the time of the Patriarchs; instead, this is the Levant before Abraham.

EB IV brings a collapse. The large walled cities are no longer in use; in their place, many small (unwalled) villages appear and, once again, many farmsteads. EB IV was a time not of richness but of poverty (Mazar 1990: 151). It is here that Abraham enters Canaan.

Middle Bronze Age.

MB IIA (note that MB I is the same as EB IV) is a time of cosmopolitan revival. The decline of EB IV enters MB IIA with expansion. There are now over four hundred sites in Canaan. Many walled cities are found, but they fight against one another. About 65% of the inhabitants of Canaan now, once again, live in walled cities (Dever 2006: 153). This revival coincides with the Semitic Amorite dynasties in the east, and the second half of the revival in MB II coincides with the Hyksos in Egypt. These two great “empires” both having Semitic roots.

During MB IIA, Canaan distinguishes itself in material culture from EB IV in its settlement patterns, urbanization, architecture, metallurgy, pottery, and even burial customs (Mazar 1990: 175). There appears to have been a wave of northern coastal settlements that extended to other northern valleys, including large fortified cities, forts, and rural sedentary settlements (Mazar 1990: 178).

Concerning pottery, the new fast wheel brought new shapes. Characteristic are the globular jars/jugs, carinated thin bowls, flat large bowls, piriform juglets, and large dipper jugglets. Red burnished ware appears on many of the small vessels (Mazar 1990: 182). 

In metals, bronze now replaced copper, and the MB IIB-C developed from the MB IIA types. The duckbill axe disappeared, and a smaller and narrower chisel-shaped axe prevailed. Daggers had a multi-ridged blade, and spearheads were elongated. 

Evidence for an immigration from the north is seen in the absence of any gradual changes between EB IV and MB IIA (Mazar 1990: 188). As cultures collide, concepts spread and eventually became what we now call the MB II societies. In MB II B-C, developed miniature artifacts of figurines, jewelry, and more are found, and the few written documents are in cuneiform Akkadian. 

Late Bronze.

The Late Bronze Age in Canaan existed in the shadow of Egyptian domination (Mazar 1990: 232). Population and density of settlement declined. The fringe areas were left, and some important sites are now left empty (Mazar 1990: 239). Just as the greatness of EB III met the demise of EB IV, so the greatness of MB IIB-C met the demise of the Late Bronze age. City against city, and outside Ḫabiru brought destruction throughout the land. 

The Late Bronze Age, like EB IV, contained a lack of fortifications. At most, none have been found, though some continued in use from Middle Bronze defenses (Mazar 1990: 243). Hazor is one of those sites with the double casemate wall being continually rebuilt through the Late Bronze Age (Mazar 1990: 243). 

Town planning of Canaanite cities is almost all unknown, as only limited areas have been excavated. At Hazor and Meggido, Middle Bronze plans continued. The Megiddo palace shows a gradual development, and several large buildings are defined as local patrician houses (Mazar 1990: 246). 

Late Bronze Temples provide data on some aspects of Canaanite religion. Some were erected during the previous age, and although some underwent severe changes, others basically remained the same. 

International trade was an important part of the Late Bronze Age, including Cypriot, Mycenaean, Syrian, and Egyptian pottery, and this extended from the Middle Bronze Age as there is no distinct break in material culture between the two periods (Mazar 1990: 257). Pottery included bichrome ware, Cypriot ware, Mycenaean ware, etc., and Cyprus was the main source of copper during this period (Mazar 1990: 264).

Just as EB IV was the end of the greatness of times before, so LB was the end of the greatness of times gone by, but this was not limited to Canaan. The known world itself seems to have been turned upside down by the time of the “Great Migration” that introduced the Iron Age.

Iron Age

The dawn of the Iron Age ended the city-state period of multi-ethnic Canaanite culture and introduced the enthno-political/regional structure of the Israelites, Sea Peoples, and the remaining indigenous Canaanites. Across the Jordan there were Israelites, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Arameans (Mazar 1990: 295). 

With the founding of the different Philistine cities along the coastal plains, comes Philistine bichrome pottery which was developed from the locally produced Mycenaean IIIC1b Ware (Mazar 1990: 313), which also borrowed from local Canaanite traditions, mainly in the use of red and black ink (Mazar 1990: 314).


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