How the Iron Age Changed the World

Each Monday, this column turns a page in history to explore the discoveries, events and people that continue to affect the history being made today.

A thousand years before the age of empires in Rome and Greece, the Iron Age was ushered into the world with the clank and clatter of the blacksmith's anvil.

The transition from the Bronze Age occurred at different times in different spots on the globe, but when and where it did, the distinctive dark metal brought with it significant changes to daily life in ancient society, from the way people grew crops to the way they fought wars.

Iron has remained an essential element for more than 3,000 years, through the Industrial Revolution – helping Britain become the foremost industrial power – and into today in its more sophisticated form, steel.

Accidental metal

People in parts of western Africa and southwestern Asia were the first to realize that the dark-silvery rocks poking out of the earth could be worked into tools and weapons, sometime around 1500 B.C., evidence shows. The metal was probably discovered there by accident when some ore was dropped into a fire and cooled into wrought iron, historians think.

The eureka moment didn't reach Europe for another 500 years, traveling slowly north and west through Greece, Italy, central Europe and finally to the British Isles with the spread of the famous Celtic tribes. The Celts diffused iron technology over much of the continent through warfare, where their victory was assured due to the strength of iron weapons.

Perhaps not the most peaceful of cultural exchanges, but where the technology did travel, it caught on fast.

Iron made life a lot easier in those days, when just living to the age of 45 was a feat. By that time, much of Europe had settled into small village life, toiling the soil with bronze and stone tools. Iron farming tools, such as sickles and plough tips, made the process more efficient and allowed farmers to exploit tougher soils, try new crops and have more time for other activities.

Some families spent their new free time making salt, sewing clothes and crafting luxuries such as jewelry, many of which were traded over long distances.

Iron goes industrial

Iron tools and the way they were made changed little from the early Iron Age to the early 20th-century, when the Industrial Revolution changed nearly everything. As a material, iron was so important to the new factories and their machinery that it almost single-handedly propelled Britain, which had generous deposits of the mineral, to the forefront of industrial powerhouses.

But savvy industrialists quickly realize that basic wrought iron wasn't durable enough to keep up with the hard wear and tear its byproducts were experiencing, such as the relentless clickety-clack of the trains over its rails.

The answer was steel, an alloy made mostly of iron and some carbon or other metals. It was and mass-produced for the first time in the late 1800s, and today it is the world's most important building material, 3,000 years after iron ore was first plucked from the ground with curiosity.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.