Three Age System

This is the scheme for dividing prehistory into a Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. It was first formulated by Thomsen 1816-19 as a means of classifying the collections in the National Museum of Denmark. The ages, he argued, must have followed each other in that order as stone would not have been used if bronze were available for tools and weapons, nor bronze after the introduction of iron. The scheme became progressively elaborated by dividing the stone age into old and new, the Palaeolithic and Neolithic. A Middle Stone Age or Mesolithic was later added. The further subdivisions Early, Middle and Late (of the Palaeolithic Lower, Middle and Upper) were introduced, and a copper age was inserted on the continent between Neolithic and Bronze Age.


As a system it was vastly superior to the undifferentiated prehistory, which had gone before. The subdivisions have progressively greater refinement; all other cultural traits could be brought into the scheme by association with the major tools and weapons; stratigraphy soon gave welcome confirmation that the system was a valid one. But its drawbacks became apparent as well as its advantages. It was soon realised that the ages were only developmental stages and gave no dates – the Palaeolithic still survived in Australia, the Neolithic in South America. Further, some areas had skipped one or more of the stages. The earliest copper trinkets may precede full metal technology by centuries, and tools of flint continued to be used long after metal was introduced. Despite all these difiiculties, its usefulness as a labelling system has guaranteed its survival.