The Three Ages of Human Antiquity

One of the longest standing and most basic classification tools archaeologists have is the Three-Age System. This system is the demarcation of the stone, bronze and iron ages as a definition of artifact type and a reference to time frame. In its history the system has seen some refinement, but its basic features remain valid. Through an examination of its inception and evolution I will present a clear description of the three age concept. I hope to put it in proper historical context, as well as give insight into its current role in archaeological studies.

The notion of ages of humanity is a very old one, dating back at least to the time of the ancient Greeks and their five ages of man. Whether the Greek myth, which includes a bronze and iron age, harkens back to a half-remembered prehistory is not known, but it certainly influenced thinkers to come. The Roman Titus Lucretius Carus, in particular, had thoughts on the subject. He argued that the first tools used by men were “hands, nails, and teeth, as well as stones and pieces of wood.” His statement, although in agreement with other writings of the time, was not based on any evidence or observation and was to remain mere speculation until much later.

It wasn’t until the 16th and 17th centuries that the idea was revived with a connection to prehistoric stone tools. At this time prehistoric stone tools were explained away as “thunderbolts,” or the physical remnant of a lightning strike. Writers such as Michele Mercati and Issac de la Peyrere of Bordeaux, seeing similar stone items used by natives of the recently re-discovered Americas, theorized that thunderbolts were, indeed, “weapons of war used before metal was known.” However, the idea of a prehistoric era of humanity was not widely accepted at this time and it wasn’t until the 18th century that a need to classify prehistoric artifacts arose. Nicolas Mauhdel argued in 1734 for stone, bronze and iron as plausible successive ages of humanity. Antoine-Yves Gouget was also in favor of this three-age scheme and wrote about it in 1758. However, at this time prehistoric artifacts had been primarily the concern of Antiquarians and much debate was focused not on relative dating techniques, but on more theological concerns such as whether iron artifacts were from pre or post-biblical flood times.

The system then at this time found a home in Denmark, which is often cited as its true birth place. This is due in part to the work of Danish historian P.F. Suhm and antiquarian Skulli Thorlacius in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, who popularized the system for use with weapon and tool artifacts, along with other writers such as L.S. Vedel Simonsen, who included the three-age framework in his 1813 textbook. At this point, however, the system was still a matter of unproven conjecture. As Rasmus Nyerup had remarked, “everything that comes down to us from heathendom is wrapped in a thick fog,” and it wasn’t until archaeology truly advanced as a field in its own right that this fog began to be lifted.

Nyerup spoke as the secretary of the Danish Commission on the Preservation and Collection of National Antiquities, and was the predecessor of Christian Jurgensen Thomsen, who became secretary of the commission in 1816. Thomsen was also the first curator of the National Museum in Copenhagen, which is where he used the idea of three technological ages to classify and present collections of artifacts. He published a treatise on this system of museum arrangement in 1836, and it was translated into English in 1848. During this time a friend and colleague of C.J. Thomsen, Jens Jacob Amussen Worsaae, contributed some of the earliest Archaeological evidence to support the correctness of the three-age model. Worsaae’s work, The Primeval Antiquities of Denmark in 1843 showed an empirical stratigraphic succession of the stone, bronze and iron tool industries in Danish bogs and barrows. Thomsen and Worsaae are generally credited with finally bringing real proof to what was previously just conjecture.

The Three-Age System now became more than just a tool for museum presentation, it became a way to date and place artifacts in time, albeit crudely, and spread to the whole of Europe quickly, thanks to the work of those such as Scottish antiquarian Daniel Wilson. Of course, it was not considered perfect or even useful outside of European archaeology. The system required some modification before it would become more applicable. One of the questions that quickly arose was how treat different Stone Age occupations from a single site. It was realized that there were two distinct periods represented by stone artifacts, one being earlier and consisting of tools chipped from stone, and a later one of stone tools that had been further worked. It was John Lubbock, an English banker and naturalist, who broke the stone age up into two different periods and coined the terms Paleolithic and Neolithic in his 1865 book Prehistoric Times.

After Lubbock’s work the study of Paleolithic archaeology continued to advance, especially in France. Edouard Lartet, a lawyer-turned-paleontologist, helped to further refine the three-age system. During his experiences investigating cave sites in the 1860’s, he found that the Paleolithic did not represent one type of artifact, but rather a succession of phases and advances through time. Thus, the age was subdivided into the Upper, Middle and Lower Paleolithic. Lartet also suggested that these artifacts be classified according to corresponding paleontological markers, such as “The Cave Bear Period” and “The Reindeer period.” Although the classification of artifacts by means outside of the archaeological record was revolutionary, the paleontological system did not hold. Gabriel Mortillet continued Lartet’s tradition of breaking down the Paleolithic, but focused on the remains themselves, and came up with a culturally-based system of classification. It was Mortillet that named the Upper Paleolithic cultures Aurignacian and Magdalenian.

By the late 19th century the Three-Age System was in place as it primarily stands at present. Even in today’s archaeological climate it remains a fundamental part of classification and terminology. It has remained this way due to its inherent compliance with modern chronology and dating methods. The boundaries of the Paleolithic match closely with the boundaries of the Pleistocene. Similarly, different hominid groups seem to fit within the boundaries of the system’s subdivisions. Neanderthals and the Mousterian tradition generally fit into the Middle Paleolithic, and Cro-Magnons exemplify the Upper Paleolithic. This is because the Three-Age System has been tailored by the artifacts themselves, so it should come to no surprise that the various people’s and cultures should find a place within it’s structure.

One exception to this is transition between the Upper Paleolithic and the Neolithic. There began to be some question as to whether certain artifacts fit into which subdivision, as they were clearly Post-Magdalenian but Pre-Neolithic. It became apparent that another, transitional, subdivision was needed between the periods. This came to be known as the Mesolithic, or middle stone age. The term itself first appeared in 1866’s Prehistoric Phases, written by Hodder Westropp. The term was not picked up at the time but again used in 1892 by J. Allen Brown, who remarked in a paper that “it is to these forms which appear to be of a transitional age, that I would apply the term Mesolithic.” Whoever may be credited with the term, it was in wide use by the end of the 19th century, and signified the last major modification to the Three-Age System used today.

The Three-Age System is an archaeological tool that, like the artifacts it organizes, shows a slow evolution of advancements and improvements over time. Indeed, it can be used as a mile-maker in its own right in illustrating the history of Archaeology. Through the application of excavation evidence and logical assumptions, a working system was born that is the framework of most relative dating techniques used today. By exploring its history, one is indeed examining the history of archaeology, as well as the scientific process. From Roman times to today, it represents not one system, but a succession of ideas and concepts, much like the succession of the Three Ages themselves.


Daniel, Glyn. A Short History of Archaeology. London: Thames and Hudson. 1981.

Fagan, Brian. A Brief History of Archaeology. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. 2005.

Trigger, B.G. A History of Archaeological Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1989.