Iron Age

Iron was now gradually coming into use, but it did not displace bronze to any extent, so that the early"Iron Age" overlapped the later "Bronze Age"in the same way as with the Stone, Copper, and Bronze Ages.

Iron was used largely during the later period of Greek history for strengthening objects, such as bronze castings, handles of bronze shields, and as cramps in buildings, in the partial construction of ships, chariots, and agricultural implements; in fact it was put to much the same uses as at the present day.

Iron was also known to have been in use in Assyria about the ninth century B.C. and in India even earlier. The celebrated wootz, a species of iron and the material from which the famous Damascus swords were made, is of very great antiquity. In these early ages its rarity made iron of great value, and in accounts of the battles of the Egyptians, mention is made of its being taken as spoils of war; it was in long, wedge-shaped pieces with holes through to facilitate transport. Uzziah is spoken of in the Bible (2 Chron. xxv1. 14) as making shields, spears, helmets, and habergeons (coats of mail or breastplates). Also in Genesis (iv. 22) we read of Tubal-cain the son of Lamech and Zillah, who was an instructor in brass and iron;"brass was probably bronze of a light brown or yellow colour; the metal now called brass was not then known".

Tubal-cain was probably the mythological God known to Homer as Vulcan. There are many references to metals and metal-working in the Old Testament of the Bible, and these portions were written at least as early as 455 B.C.

Lead And Zinc

At the beginning of the Christian era lead was used largely by the Romans, and zinc first appears in Roman alloys, but it was also known as calamine to the Greeks who used it in the manufacture of brass by simply fusing the calamine with copper. It was not until about a.d. 1720 that zinc was procured in a metallic state by J. Henkle, a German chemist.


Steel of some kind was also known and used, being obtained from wootz. As it contained a large percentage of carbon it was very difficult to work. Gold, silver, and bronze were used largely for decorative purposes, and silver was known to the alchemists as luna. In their waitings it was represented by the figure of a crescent moon.

The Gauls were very skilful in the manipulation of metals, but the industry was only carried on by"Freemen,and when they died the implements of their craft were often buried with them. The skill of the Britons was evidently as great as that of the Gauls, and if we examine the objects in the cases Nos. 51-60 in the central saloon of the British Museum, which were made between the years 250 b.c. and the third century a.d., we can realize the degree of excellence craftsmanship had reached. Byzantium, or Constantinople as it is now called, was noted for its artistic metal-work.


Enamelling on metal is of very ancient origin, and is said to have been first practised by the early Egyptians. Many articles decorated in this manner have been found in Britain, in tombs and what are known as chariot burials, for with the warrior were often buried his chariot, horse trappings, weapons, jewellery, and some vessels of pottery. The work done in Britain at this period by the Gauls or Kelts, known as Keltic work, may be recognized by its graceful flowing curves, rounded surfaces, andinterlacing,as well as by a form of scroll believed to have been derived from the palmette of the Greeks.

Second and Third Centuries A.D.-Copper mines were worked by the Romans in Britain during the second and third centuries a.d., when they made water pipes and coffins from lead often richly cast in relief, and used iron grilles or cancelli in their churches to separate the choir from the body of the church.

Fourth Century A.D.-In the British Museum there are some cakes or ingots of pewter stamped with the early Christian symbol of the fourth century, also many lamps of bronze with the symbols worked into the design. These were used for lighting the Catacombs, and there are some finger rings of bronze gilt of the same period.

During the reign of Constantine altars were made for use in the many churches then being built. They were made of wood covered with silver plates elaborately worked in relief.

Fifth and Sixth Centuries A.D.-Silver spoons inlaid with niello were used during the fifth century, and Byzantine weights of bronze, with their denominations inlaid with silver, were in use during the sixth century. Dagobert King of the Franks possessed a throne of gilt bronze 628-638, a copy of which is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Eighth and Ninth Centuries A.D.-Inlaying of gold with niello was characteristic of the eighth and ninth centuries, and during the tenth century cloisonne enamelling on gold reached a high degree of excellence.

Tenth and Eleventh Centuries A.D.-The tenth and eleventh centuries were the great age of bronze founding, and many of the doors for various cathedrals were made about this time in Constantinople, and exported to various countries. Some were inlaid with silver or niello. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, 925-988, was an English metal-worker of great skill. It is interesting to note that the sculptors were usually their own founders.

Twelfth Century A.D.-The Pala d' Ora or altar front at St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice was made in the above city during the twelfth century, and is of gold and silver plate, embossed, enamelled, and encrusted with precious stones. A fine example of English craftsmanship where metal is used to special advantage is the beautiful monument to Queen Eleanor in Westminster Abbey, made by Thomas of Leighton Buzzard in 1294. It consists of a finely modelled bronze figure, with a wrought-iron cresting above, the cresting being an early example of decorative punch-work. It was during the twelfth century that machines, some of which were worked by water-power, were first used, and there are still in existence drawings of drilling, sawing, and stamping machines, screw-cutting lathes, and many jigs, that were drawn by Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian craftsman of the fifteenth century.

Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries A.D.-Cast Iron.-Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries Spain produced some exceedingly rich ironwork in the form of rejas or screens; but very little decorative ironwork was done in England owing to the scarcity of skilled smiths. About the fourteenth century cast iron came into use, and was smelted with charcoal in Sussex, a large quantity of cast iron being produced in that county.