Three period system

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Overview prehistory
Holocene (➚ early history )
Iron age
  late bronze age  
  middle bronze age
  early bronze age
Bronze age
    Copper Age  
Pleistocene     Upper Paleolithic  
    Middle Paleolithic
    Early Paleolithic
  Old Stone Age
Stone age

The three-period system is a scientific system of archeology that divides European prehistory into the three periods Stone Age , Bronze Age and Iron Age using characteristic materials for making tools, weapons and jewelry . The knowledge of such a structure helped prehistory to acquire a scientific structure in the first half of the 19th century. In principle, this structure has been retained to this day, even if, with the Stone Age, researchers only focused on the Neolithic . A definition of the Paleolithicwas not made until 1865 by John Lubbock , who divided the Stone Age into the "Period of the struck stone " ( Old Stone Age , Paleolithic ') and the "Period of the cut stone " ( New Stone Age , Neolithic').

Thomsen's three-period system

The system was largely developed by the Danish archaeologist Christian Jürgensen Thomsen . In 1807 Thomsen joined the "Commission for the Preservation of Antiquities" founded in the same year under the direction of Professor Rasmus Nyerup (1759–1829). In 1816, Nyerup resigned as head of the commission and Thomsen took over the post. In 1819 the collection of antiquities became the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen and Thomsen became the first custodian of the so-called "Old Norse Collection". When this collection was reorganized from 1821 to 1825, he realized that the found material can be chronologically divided into objects and weapons made of stone, bronze and iron. The narrowing of the phase in which Thomsen made the new division of time emerges from the posthumously published correspondence between Thomsen and Johann Gustav Gottlieb Büsching from the years 1823-1825.

Since there were no radiometric dates at the time of Thomsen , only stylistic observations helped him with this sorting, the context of which was mostly not known. As a result of the comparatively few finds in Denmark from the late glacial period ( Hamburg culture , Bromme culture ) and the Mesolithic , Thomsen mainly focused on stone objects from the Neolithic as grave goods . As examples of the earliest phase he called “pagan times” (today Neolithic) “grindstones”, “wedges”, “chisels”, “knives” and “lance tips” are mentioned, some of which consist of flint and, according to the illustrations, the funnel cup culture are to be assigned. Hammer axes with a round or angular shaft hole indicate the inclusion of end-Neolithic forms, such as those found in the dagger period or individual grave culture . Here, too, it was mostly finds from graves.

The threefold division of Danish prehistory, derived from the order of the holdings, was finally published (anonymously) by him in 1836 in the museum guide Ledetraad til nordisk Oldkyndighed . The German translation of the Guide to Nordic Antiquity was also published in Copenhagen in 1837.

Other explorers of the three period system

As early as 1835, the German Johann Friedrich Danneil had written a report on an excavation near Salzwedel , in which he also postulated the tripartite history based on observations on burial mounds. A year later, Georg Christian Friedrich Lisch published a study on the chronological and ethnological classification of the prehistory, which he finally expanded in 1839 - under the influence of Thomsen's findings - to a three-period system.

It can be assumed that at least Thomsen and Danneil developed the three-period system independently of each other. Nonetheless, the question of which of the two had the idea first sparked a heated debate between German and Danish archaeologists, which had mainly political motives and which therefore reached its climax during the German-Danish War of 1864. The German archaeologists Hugo Mötefindt (1893–1932) and Gustaf Kossinna , for example, pointed out that Danneil excavated himself, while Thomsen, as museum director, only evaluated the findings of colleagues. Nevertheless, the effect of the Copenhagen museum guide, which was based on a large number of materials, was far greater internationally than Danneil's regional excavation observation.


The first contemporary criticism of Thomsen's three-period system came from the German archaeologist Ludwig Lindenschmit , who referred to the temporal differences between the use of stone and bronze in northern and southern Germany. Furthermore, the idea that the transitions between the periods run smoothly - albeit only later - prevailed; especially between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, where today a transition period, the Copper Age, is inserted.

Already in the 19th century the three-period system proved to be too coarse in its division and was further subdivided as early as 1859-61 by Thomsen's student Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae . To this day, generations of prehistory and early historians have divided the three-period system into several dozen sections.

The three-period system was originally developed for Central Europe, but can be applied to all of Europe and large parts of Asia. In Africa, on the other hand, there is no Bronze Age, but a direct transition from the Stone Age to the Iron Age; and the system cannot be used on either of the American continents.


  • Manfred KH Eggert: Prehistoric Archeology. Concepts and Methods. Tübingen 2001, ISBN 3-8252-2092-3 , pp. 31-45.
  • Svend Hansen: From the beginnings of prehistoric archeology. Christian Jürgensen Thomsen and the three period system. In: Prehistoric Journal 76 (2001), pp. 10–23.
  • Jørn Street-Jensen (eds.): Christian Jürgensen Thomsen and Ludwig Lindenschmit, a scholarly correspondence from the early days of antiquity. Mainz 1985, ISBN 3-88467-014-X .
  • Gernot Jacob Friesenthree period system. In: Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde (RGA). 2nd Edition. Volume 6, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1986, ISBN 3-11-010468-7 , pp. 171-174.
  • Osmund Menghin: three period systems - three-stage theories. In: O. Menghin / HM Ölberg (Hrsg.): Festschrift Leonhard C. Franz for his 70th birthday. Innsbruck 1965, pp. 289-296.
  • Undine Stabrey: Archaeological Research. About temporality and things. transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2017, ISBN 978-3-839-4358-61 .

Individual evidence

  1. ^ John Lubbock: Prehistoric Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages. Williams and Norgate, London 1865 (German edition: The prehistoric times explained by the remains of antiquity and the manners and customs of today's savages. Costenoble, Jena 1874, 2 volumes).
  2. ^ A b Heinz-Jürgen Eggers: Introduction to the prehistory. 6th edition. Berlin 2010.
  3. a b Guide to Nordic Antiquity, ed. from the Royal Society for Nordic Antiquity. Copenhagen 1837.
  4. Ledetraad til nordisk Oldkyndighed . Det kongelige nordiske oldskriftselskab , Copenhagen 1836.