Britain's first recession was 2,500 years agoS

In its simplest terms, European prehistory can be divided into three parts: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. But there's a mysterious 300 year gap in prehistoric Britain, created by one of humanity's first economic bubbles.

Between 800 and 500 BCE, the archaeological evidence tells a strange story. Ancient Britons weren't using bronze much anymore, but they hadn't yet really begun the switch to iron. They appear stuck between ages, and archaeologists suspect they were living through the prehistoric equivalent of an economic recession.

The problem probably began about two centuries earlier, as bronze became overvalued and started sowing the seeds of prehistoric economic collapse. Historian Neil Oliver explains:

"By 1000 BC the bronze axe had become almost a proto-currency. It was wealth that was divorced from its use as a metal. And, a little like economic bubbles that we see today, it spelt danger. Attitudes to bronze were about to change, with dramatic consequences not only for Bronze Age elite, but for all British society. By 800 BC, Britain - along with the rest of Europe - was heading for an economic meltdown."

Of course, we can't directly compare the overuse or overvaluing of bronze in prehistoric Europe to the economic turmoil of today. There's likely some larger force that sparked the region's decline, but the problem is that no one quite knows what happened, as University of Southampton archaeologist Timothy Champion explains:

"It's one of the big problems. There are all sorts of explanations that people have suggested, including climatic change, environmental destruction caused by over-exploitation or even internal revolution by the exploited peasantry. Alternatively, it could be external invasions - there is no generally agreed explanation for what looks like a major event."

Key to the mystery may have been bronze's use as a status symbol. Archaeologists have recovered tons of bronze and copper from sites all over Britain, many of these predating the emergence of actual tools. Instead, these metals were often used more as ornaments and as a sign of wealth and prestige. And, as Neil Oliver pointed out, the increasingly metaphorical conception of bronze's importance meant its social and economic value were drifting apart. When this unknown crisis hit, these bronze trinkets weren't particularly helpful, and the entire economy began to collapse.

But the story probably isn't that simple. Part of the problem is that Britain was technologically behind the Mediterranean, which had superior iron tools by 1,200 BCE and riding horses imported from Asia by 800 BCE. Because of Britain's geographic isolation, these crucial innovations didn't reach it until about 600 BCE. By then, the arrival of new prestige items and new sources of wealth could have thrown an already stagnant economy into even further upheaval.

Just to make things worse, Britain also had to endure about fifty years of brutally cold weather between around 600 and 550 BCE. Neil Oliver explains the dire consequences of this:

"As bronze economy was collapsing, Britain's population also fell - possibly for the first time since the Ice Age. This was a dual crisis that was driving Britain into a period of social turmoil… a crisis that would utterly reshape British society. What we're seeing in the early Iron Age is a changing belief. It's as if the people of Britain - hit by climate change in different ways - are having to reassess their lives and their place in the great scheme of things in new ways."

The climate stabilized around 550 and so too did Britain's prehistoric economy. Iron went from luxury item to common good, and its widespread introduction - many centuries after the rest of Europe started using it, it should be pointed out - created vast improvements in farming and food production, restoring Britain's population and economy. Unlike bronze, iron was common enough to be used by everyone, not just the elite, and its use supported an agricultural revolution that would soon make the centuries-long recession a distant memory.

Via BBC News. For more on Bronze Age Britain, check out BBC 2's upcoming series A History of Celtic Britain. Image via Archaeology UK.