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In my world, only 2 cultures (who share a common ancestor, but are rivals) regularly use Iron, which they have for hundreds of years now, the rest of the many, many cultures have naught but bronze, save for some cases of Meteoric Iron or trade with the aforementioned Iron-smelters.

One culture is a giant theocratic Assyrian-style empire, and the other consists of tribal confederacies, both talented in smithing, run by elected Chiefs and sometimes Kings (or Khagans, if you prefer)

Their Iron smelting technologies give them an edge and serve to illustrate what makes them different from the rest of the world, but since these peoples are very not-isolationist, and trade with other peoples often.

I can't wrap my brain around why the other cultures wouldn't just learn how to make Iron tools and weapons from the people who know how to smelt it.

Can you guys come up with anything? Should I just let my Bronze-age cultures become Iron-age cultures for realism's sake?

The more practically the answer, rather than the simple "religion says no", the better.

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    $\begingroup$ "religion says no" is a real-world reason for this. such advanced technology was often considered a gift of the gods in earlier cultures, and a well-protected secret. alternatively, you can use "khagan says no" or "ironworkers guild says no". or simply put the other countries in regions where iron ore isn't accessible. $\endgroup$ Jan 12 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ ??? Isn't this what one would expect? Some culture discovers how to smelt iron. At this point in time it has a monopoly. Yes, as time goes on, other cultures will also learn how to smelt iron. But this will take time. Historically, the iron age did not begin at the same time everywhere. For example, cultures in the Ancient Near East had iron metallurgy from the 12th century BCE onwards, whereas cultures in western Europe only began smelting iron in the 8th century BCE or thereabouts. That's four centuries for the technology to travel 2500 km. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 12 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP I mean, they had Iron for a looong time. hundreds of years. $\endgroup$ Jan 12 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ And I gave an example of 4 centuries difference in the beginning of the iron age for cultures about 2500 km apart. For another example, in southern Asia the iron age begins in the 12th century BCE, whereas east Asian cultures only began smelting iron in the 6th century BCE or so. Three thousand years ago, they didn't have technical journals. (And note that iron is not better than bronze; what it is, is both lighter and very much cheaper. The army of the iron-age civilization will simply have a lot more metal than the army of their bronze-using target.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 12 at 17:10
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    $\begingroup$ "Their Iron smelting technologies give them an edge" - nice. $\endgroup$
    – Qami
    Jan 12 at 20:51

9 Answers 9

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A little frame challenge here - your advanced cultures have a steel monopoly rather than iron monopoly.

All cultures can make iron, but it is a very crude iron which is inferior to bronze. And, unlike many real history cultures which had trouble maintaining their bronze supply, the cultures of this world can make as much bronze as they like. So, they have little incentive to smelt iron.

Your more advanced cultures, on the other hand, had mustered steel making on a substantial scale, and this secret is closely guarded. In real history, Damascus steel was a secret that remained a secret for centuries.

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    $\begingroup$ As a side note about Damascus steel. The technique for making a Damascus blade was historically not that secrete and is not that different than other crucible steels. What makes it different is the ore. Damascus steel could only be made from an ore that you find in India. 18th and 19th century metallurgy research papers show that Western metal workers using this ore could reproduce the pattern without problem, but the big reason the "secret" was lost is that it turns out it was a sub-standard quality of steel. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 13 at 6:39
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    $\begingroup$ High levels of phosphorous and vanadium contamination made this steel very hard meaning it could hold a very sharp and ridged edge. However, it proved too fragile for most practical purposes. So, Western civilization just forgot about the stuff for a while because it was not worth reproducing. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 13 at 6:39
  • $\begingroup$ Vanadium is often used in modern steels, especially moderately hard stainless tool steels. Phosphorus is usually considered something you totally do NOT want in steel :) But then, steels with very little other than iron and carbon in them can work brilliantly - IF they are very pure of other contamination (think of Shirogami #1). $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ See also wootz steel -- combination of the specifics of natural ore deposits and local crucible steel production techniques gave rise to Damascus steel. Without the wootz ore, Damascus steel production ceased. $\endgroup$ Jan 14 at 0:07
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Because they have a Tradition of Iron Making.

This question is essentially the same as the commonly asked, "Why did most of Europe use crossbows if British Longbows were so much better?" Certain technologies are better if and ONLY if you have a culture that really values that technology and puts in the time and effort to study and master it. A well trained longbowman is worth 3 crossbowmen, but a poorly trained longbowman is useless. So cultures that did not value that extensive training used crossbows instead.

What does this have to do with an Iron Monopoly?

In our own history, iron and bronze making were actually discovered at about the same time. Iron artifacts date all the way back to the early bronze age. The evidence suggests that the Bronze Age was actually a choice, because the peoples of that time period had a preference for bronze over iron, not because they did not know about it

One major reason bronze was likely preferred over iron for over 2000 years was because making good iron is a lot harder than making good bronze. When you look at blacksmiths from the iron age, they were normally people who spent over a decade studying thier craft from a master before they could perform the job proficiently on thier own. And that master could only do what he does because of the generations of experience that were taught to him.

Bronze has certain advantages over iron that matter a lot where skill and experience are premium commodities. It can be smelted with cheaper more readily available fuels. It is easier to make field repairs on (there are accounts of soldiers completely recasting thier damaged bronze weapons while on campaign) It requires far less maintenance because it does not rust nearly as easily. And most importantly, it is much easier to achieve an exact hardness/toughness with bronze because you just need to adjust the tin to copper ratio vs iron which relies on unpredictable carburization and tempering techniques. Iron is very easy to ruin because the carbon is not something you can just measure and put in. You have to control the whole process of how heat and carbon interchange with the steel without the use of modern thermometers, and that requires very specialized labor.

The Iron age did not begin with the discovery of iron working, but with the collapse of the tin trade which made bronze possible. Those civilizations that adopted iron as a serious option did so because it was what they had to work with. It was only after a few centuries that these civilizations got good enough with iron for it to be be comparable to bronze.

So to answer your question, thier monopoly exists because hundreds of years ago, something happened to cut these two cultures off from the bronze age forcing them to use iron instead of bronze. After a few hundred years, a bronze smith could talk to an iron smith to find out how steel is made (in theory), but without years of tutorage under a master, the foreign bronze smiths will not be able to themselves figure out how to make an even remotely good steel weapon or tool. And once they see how hard it is, they will turn back to bronze because it is what THEY can make better gear out of.

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Even though they can learn the process, the other cultures simply do not have access to decent quality iron ores, resulting in either extremely poor quality iron (because of impurities in the ores) or completely uneconomical manufacturing (because of either the low content of iron, the cost of removing the impurities, the cost for extracting the ore).

Consider that up until chemistry and material science understood the metallurgic process, producing good metal of any type was a sort of craftsmanship.

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  • $\begingroup$ A good example of this being ancient Egypt, which only began to use iron weapons towards the end of the 8th century BCE, and never had enough of them to avoid being beaten and conquered by Achaemenid Persia. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 12 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ As a side note to this: yes, there are different qualities of iron ore, but low quality ore alone is not enough to stop a civilization from using iron at all. In Japan for example, they would turn sands containing as little 3% actual iron into high quality steel... it's not as cheap as when you have better ores, but it's not a hard cap either. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 13 at 21:03
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Bronze economy

The places that use bronze have bronze integrated into their economies. Getting and using bronze is familiar and a lot of other aspects of the economy are dependent on the bronze economy. They are comfortable trading for it from their trading partners. This was a real thing.

Bronze Economy and Mode of Production:: The Role of Comparative Advantages in Temperate Europe during the Bronze Age

bronze age europe

We thus envisage a bronze economy as a general praxis and structure pertaining to specific historical processes, in this case temperate Europe between 1500 and 1100 BC.,, ... which, put simply, implies that every region in Europe was able to enter the Bronze Age metal trade by providing goods that they controlled but others needed or valued, such as amber from the Baltic, tin from Cornwall, salt and silver from the Carpathians, wool from Hungary and the Po Delta, etc... It illuminates how mechanisms of value differences worked as an economic mechanism of growth and wealth accumulation. Thus, the universal need for copper and tin stimulated the development of new needs and values in other fields, which in turn supported an economic division of labor in Europe. It granted some regions specific economic opportunities, at times unexpectedly, but in the long term it stimulated a large number of regions to specialize in providing products that other regions craved, which over time would also include warriors, slaves, and horses.

The folks with iron are crashing this party. Iron is not part of the economy or trade networks. It is tricky to get and use on a regular basis. Not only that, but persons who understand and profit from the economic status quo (conservatives, in the original sense) frown on iron (and local iron users) because they know iron means change- the same as persons vested in the petrochemical economy in the first world look dimly on windmills and solar panels. Persons in these ecomonies who buy and use iron will meet with unexpected trouble from unforeseen quarters.

The ease with which bronze can be obtained and used and the easy integration of bronze with local economies mean bronze will continue to be used.

The bronze age in our world ended not because iron was so good, but because something very bad happened and civilization entered a dark age.

https://www.history.com/topics/pre-history/bronze-age

The Bronze Age ended abruptly around 1200 B.C. in the Middle East, North Africa and Mediterranean Europe. Historians don’t know for sure what caused the Bronze Age collapse, but many believe the transition was sudden, violent and culturally disruptive.

Major Bronze Age civilizations, including Mycenaean Greece, the Hittite Empire in Turkey and Ancient Egypt fell within a short period of time. Ancient cities were abandoned, trade routes were lost and literacy declined throughout the region.

It is like the Cretaceous extinction wiping out dinosaurs and making room for mammals. Without the socioeconomic pressures favoring continued use of bronze, iron could make inroads and when civilization recovered iron was dominant.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't know what happened either; but 1200BC is pretty close to the time of the Exodus; yet the Exodus could not have caused it. But I give you this line "Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." Possible incidental link? $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Jan 13 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ Shame this isn't upvoted more. Iron didn't replace Bronze in real history because it was better, but because it was far, far easier to get large quantities of. Any society with ample access to tin and copper are going to be far less inclined to shift their entire economy for minimal gains. $\endgroup$
    – Michael W.
    Jan 13 at 16:12
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Widespread Iron Adoption Would Threaten Bronze Age Elites

The Iron Age in the Mediterranean Basin and Southwest Asia began after a widespread social collapse in the 12th century BC to various invasions, droughts and trade network disruptions that toppled every major empire save for Egypt. Bronze was not only a utilitarian metal, but a prestige one as well as it required long distance trade and gift exchange networks due to how rare easily accessible tin deposits were (the two major sites for Bronze Age were in Cornwall and Afghanistan).

Elites would not want to adopt iron, which although more abundant would not be substantially better for making armor or weapons for several centuries of development as iron would not be a prestige good as it would be commonplace and therefore not a class signifier.

Bronze Age armies were based around a core warrior elite that was rich enough to equip themselves and their retinues with the prestige metal and fight in elite roles such as charioteers or heavy infantry while they had commoners simply fight as skirmishers who were plenty effective with weapons like slings and bows which require no metals at all to be effective

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The technology of producing iron is more easily monopolized than iron ore is, at least on an Earth-like planet.

Bronzework doesn't necessarily make it easier to do iron, even if you know iron exists. For instance, it is my understanding that quenching bronze has the opposite effect, at least compare to iron. And I'm sure others who are more familiar with it could find another dozen similar points.

This means that it can be difficult to transition from one metallurgy to another. You can't just pick it up and figure it out yourself.

However, human knowledge is highly transmissible, sometimes even unintentionally. Often what we think of as human intelligence isn't even our best quality... we're actually pretty bad at figuring things out. It's just that if 1 in a million does figure it out, he quickly teaches many people, who quickly teach many more. Until everyone knows it.

So, that's how you attack this... you figure out how to interrupt that transmission. In a medieval society, ironsmithing tends to be the sort of trade where masters teach apprentices who eventually come to be masters themselves, often after a multi-year period of training.

This empire merely has to impose a simple policy:

  1. Only those approved to become apprentices can do so.
  2. Kidnapped ironsmiths are to be killed if they can't be rescued (and maybe even if they could be rescued). Like, arrowing them from 150 yards away by the best archers sent on the chase.
  3. Villages/tribes/peoples who show evidence of (or even are rumored to have) attempted ironsmithing are to be genocided. No expenses spared, down to the last infant, everyone is smited.

If this policy is adopted, and if it is zealously pursued, they can keep iron to themselves for centuries.

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  • $\begingroup$ #2 and #3 could easily backfire on you. When you go around slaughtering your own people, anyone who is an iron worker: legally or illegibly lives with the threat of death over thier heads. This gives them a strong incentive to flee and try to find asylum somewhere else much like how Nazi Germany lost a lot of thier top scientists to people fleeing the holocaust. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 13 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki There is some truth in what you say, but if we liken this to the Roman Republic/Empire, what good Roman citizen would want to flee and go live with the barbarians? And if there were some, how would they lie low, exactly, when the only means available to them to make a living is at the forge? Assuming that this empire keeps a handle on it initially, they can spin that plate indefinitely. In other places and times technology has been monopolized, and eventually smuggled to rivals, but the rivals need to be somewhat comparable for that to happen. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Jan 13 at 21:28
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The ironworkers simply aren't allowed to teach what they know. And, this being the ancient era, the consequences of teaching people anyway are probably rather unpleasant.

A trade secret like "how do you work usable metal out of this rock" is worth a lot to the people who know it. It might make them wealthy, if they live in a cash economy. It might set them up in cushy positions with the local lords or be parleyed into the power and prestige of a trade guild. But it can't do any of those things for them if some blabbermouth tells everyone else how to do it.

Of course their neighbors will want to find out, and probably offer great rewards to anyone who breaks faith with the ironworkers, presumably balanced by great consequences if the smiths find them. In other words, pretty much a normal industrial espionage situation.

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Your world could be a very warm and wet world with very little volcanic activity.

With abundant shallow seas, numerous islands and vast lowlands and basin areas. Due to very high evaporation rates, you have very high amounts of rainfall on the continents. This would produce tropical islands, vast swamps and dense jungles or temperate rain forests in which iron extraction is very problematic for a low tech society (such as an Assyrian level civilization.) This heavy and constant rain fall would heavily erode any igneous rock formation/mountains, making much of any high quality ore be washed away, leaving very poor ore behind.

Any area not inundated by the rain are covered in vast, inhospitable desert. In areas not covered by sand or sedimentary/metamorphic rock could have high quality ore, but surviving in such areas is impossible due to lack of water resources and vegetation.

in the transitional areas between the wet, dense vegetated areas and the bone dry, lifeless areas is land that could host decent mines to extract ore. This is where your two cultures exist. They can occupy different areas and compete for the markets of the cultures between them that cannot mine their own iron.

Any other resource rich area that the two countries do not or cannot maintain control, they have agreed to work together to promote a religious movement that make such areas holy, and thus mining in these areas is heresy.

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    $\begingroup$ Swamps are a great place to get iron ore. They form something called bog iron which was the principle source of iron ore in Europe throughout most of history. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 13 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ Im picturing something akin to the swamps of SE US. Your not extracting iron easily in the Everglades. Especially not with ancient tech $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Jan 14 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ The everglades specifically may not be the right kind of swamps for bog iron, but you can find significant laterite & bog iron deposits all along the Gulf Coast. Chiefland Florida for example is very rich in bog iron. Laterite is not quite as good of an ore, but still good enough to be economically viable, and it can be found much closer to the wetlands. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 14 at 16:29
  • $\begingroup$ To my understanding, the big problem with the Everglades is that they are very young swamps. They have not had time to sediment into distinct layers. Your world will by necessity have a mix of both young and old swamps. The older ones should have viable iron sources. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 14 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ Had to read up on Bog iron, never heard of it. However, it seems that it was developed in the early Roman times and began to be extensively in the later first millennia. Base on the OPs scenario, that may be a too late of a time frame. But its up to the OP. $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Jan 18 at 19:03
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The other cultures don't want iron.

Iron rusts. Iron weapons break where bronze ones would bend. Iron's more expensive to manufacture and work than bronze.

If your culture has access to a good source of bronze, the downsides of iron might feel like they outweigh the upsides. Copper, tin, and arsenic are all easily smelted out of their ores (though your culture may not know these as separate metals, if the ores are usually found mixed up), and if you have a source of native bismuth then all the better.

Iron, meanwhile, needs higher temperatures than you can achieve in an open flame, meaning that you need to invest money into making high-tech furnaces--and then, you need to work it right or it gets really hard and brittle. If you put too much fuel in the furnace, or have too much air getting into the furnace, or have angered the moon god or what-have-you, you end up with iron that's either too soft or too brittle to be useful as a weapon.

They may hear stories of this big culture who use iron in all their weapons, but surely that can't be true--they'd never be as successful as they are if their swords shattered as soon as they hit someone's shield, and their breastplates fell apart as soon as it rained.


Depending on what the culture of the ironworking people is like, and how cunning their leaders can be, they may deliberately encourage this view of iron among other peoples, too. Here's a couple thoughts on ways they could do that:

All their soldiers also carry bronze weapons (either a full second spear or sword or what-have-you, or just a dagger for backup use) in addition to their normal iron ones. Someone who gets a glimpse of what seems to be a hidden bronze weapon during a military parade, or someone looting a battlefield coming across one of their fallen soldiers, might see that they carry bronze weapons as well, and feel like they've discovered some great secret, perhaps thinking the iron is just for show.

They could export some iron tools and weapons, but make them deliberately poor quality iron--even teach ironworking to others, but make sure they teach it wrongly, so that the iron comes out exceptionally brittle.

They could ensure that poor-quality iron (and deliberately poorly made weapons!) gets used in public displays, while the good stuff is reserved for use in actual warfare, so that the average person in their society, whose main experience with iron is seeing it used by gladiators (bronze is still the metal of choice for tools, of course), would develop an idea that iron weapons break frequently.

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