Modern archaeological evidence identifies the start of iron production as taking place in Anatolia around 1200 BC, though some contemporary archaeological evidence points to earlier dates. Around 3000 BC, iron was a scarce and precious metal in the Near East. Iron's qualities, in contrast to those of bronze, were not understood. Between 1200 BC and 1000 BC, diffusion in the understanding of iron metallurgy and utilization of iron objects was fast and far-flung. In the history of ferrous metallurgy, iron smelting — the extraction of usable metal from oxidized iron ores — is more difficult than tin and copper smelting. These other metals and their alloys can be cold-worked, or melted in simple pottery kilns and cast in molds; but smelted iron requires hot-working and can be melted only in specially designed furnaces. It is therefore not surprising that humans only mastered iron smelting after several millennia of bronze metallurgy.
Lack of archaeological evidence of iron production made it seem unlikely that it had begun earlier elsewhere, and the Iron Age was seen as a case of simple diffusion of a new and superior technology from an invention point in the Near East to other regions. It is now known that meteoric iron, or iron-nickel alloy, was used by various ancient peoples thousands of years before the Iron Age. Such iron, being in its native metallic state, required no smelting of ores. By the Middle Bronze Age, increasing numbers of smelted iron objects (distinguishable from meteoric iron by the lack of nickel in the product) appeared in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia.
Iron in its natural form is barely harder than bronze, and is not useful for tools unless combined with carbon to make steel. The percentage of carbon determines important characteristics of the final product: the more carbon, the harder the steel. The systematic production and use of iron implements in Anatolia began around 2000 BC. Recent archaeological research in the Ganges Valley, India showed early iron working by 1800 BC. However, this metal was expensive, perhaps because of the complications of steel-making. It is attested in both documents and archaeology as a material for precious items such as jewellery.
Snodgrass suggests that a shortage of tin, as a part of the Bronze Age Collapse and trade disruptions in the Mediterranean around 1300 BC, forced metalworkers to seek an alternative to bronze. As evidence, many bronze implements were recycled into weapons during this time. More widespread use of iron led to improved steel-making technology at lower cost. Thus, even when tin became available again, iron was cheaper, stronger, and lighter, and forged iron implements superseded cast bronze tools permanently.
Recent archaeological work has modified not only the above chronology, but also the causes of the transition from bronze to iron. New dates from India suggest that iron was being worked there as early as 1800 BC, and African sites are turning up dates as early as 1200 BC, confounding the idea that there was a simple discovery and diffusion model. Increasingly, the Iron Age in Europe is being seen as a part of the Bronze Age collapse in the ancient Near East, in ancient India (with the post-Rigvedic Vedic civilization), ancient Iran, and ancient Greece (with the Greek Dark Ages). In other regions of Europe, the Iron Age began in the 8th century BC in Central Europe and the 6th century BC in Northern Europe. The Near Eastern Iron Age is divided into two subsections, Iron I and Iron II. Iron I (1200–1000 BC) illustrates both continuity and discontinuity with the previous Late Bronze Age. There is no definitive cultural break between the 13th and 12th century BC throughout the entire region, although certain new features in the hill country, Transjordan, and coastal region may suggest the appearance of the Aramaean and Sea People groups. There is evidence, however, that shows strong continuity with Bronze Age culture, although as one moves later into Iron I the culture begins to diverge more significantly from that of the late 2nd millennium.
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