On the three ages (of stone, bronze and iron) of the distant past, progress, technology, and cultural superiority

… in happier days … food was plentifully available without the drudgery of farming: it only required gathering and eating. This idealised picture still plays a part in our view of the past and of ‘simple societies’, be it the concept of the ‘noble savage’ or …

The opposite view of society is embodied in words such as ‘progress’ and ‘technological advance’, popularised in Christian Thomsen’s Three Age System. Who, Thomsen argued, would make axes of stone if they knew of bronze and iron? What started as a classification of objects in the National Museum in Copenhagen rapidly became the basis for the chronological division of European man’s prehistory. Thomsen’s idea, coupled later with the concepts of evolution and ‘survival of the fittest’, reflected, if not originated, the self-satisfaction of late nineteenth-century West European society – the belief that it was technologically superior and therefore superior in all other respects to ‘less advanced’ societies both past and present.

– Exerpted from chapter 1 of ‘The European Iron Age’ by John Collis, 1984.

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