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19 April 2014
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Notepads to Laptops: Archaeology Grows Up

By Julian Richards
Three-age system

Image of Stonehenge
Stonehenge, dating from the late Stone Age (5000 to 3000 BC)  
The intellectual climate of the mid 19th century had a huge effect on archaeology, particularly on the study of prehistory. A system was developed by means of which ancient artefacts could be ordered and some concept of chronology could be recognised. This was the Three-Age System, which demonstrated that different materials could represent different periods of time and that prehistory could be divided into successive ages of stone, bronze and iron.

This type of sequence is known as a ‘relative chronology’ - it puts things in order but will not indicate how old the individual components are. Today, while the basic principle of the Three-Age System remains, we can subdivide the most ancient, the Stone Age into old (Palaeolithic), middle (Mesolithic) and new (Neolithic). The ages of bronze and iron are comparatively much shorter and have their own internal divisions, often based on differing styles of pottery or metalwork.

'Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution suggested that man’s origins lay within the animal kingdom.'

There were also great advances in associated sciences, with the work of Charles Lyell in geology and Charles Darwin in biology. Together these debunked traditional views that man was entirely separate from the rest of creation, absent until comparatively recent times. The association of stone tools with the bones of extinct animals demonstrated that prehistory was of a considerable duration, while Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution suggested that man’s origins lay within the animal kingdom.

Published: 2005-01-24



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