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The Three Age System

The Three Age system is a methodological concept developed by Danish scholar C. J. Thomsen in 1836. He published a book where he proposed that prehistoric and early historic artefacts in museum collections could be divided into one of three ages based on the materials that were used to create human material culture.

Like most 19th century schools of thought, it mostly only reflects the developmental structure in regards to the chronology of Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as the Middle East. It does not correspond to the timelines and development of most of Asia or Africa as material use and development in these regions was drastically different. Either way, the terms are still widely used for general frames of reference and should be noted.

The Three Age System is a version of what is called a relative chronology, meaning that the events are placed in order to when they happened in relation to the other. There are no definitive dates in this system, as one age simply did not end overnight, nor did one pop up immediately.

To put it simply, the Three Ages are: Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. As time went on, and our knowledge of history developed, these ages have been further subdivided, but the message still remains the same. The concept of classifying history into “ages” is also not one that we have given up. Over the past century, we have seen the Industrial Age, the Atomic Age, and we are now living in the Information Age. As we develop as a species, these ages seem to develop and progress at an exponential rate, and we have our globalization and willingness to share information to thank for this.

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Looking to Find Out More?

Act for Libraries, About the Three Age System of Prehistory Archaeology

Heizer RF. 1962. The Background of Thomsen's Three-Age System. Technology and Culture3(3):259-266.


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