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Axial Age and Time Axes


Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Hermann Parzinger (Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz; EC-Chronoi)

Dr. Anton Gass (EC-Chronoi) 

In his Axial Age theory, Karl Jaspers highlighted the period between 800 and 200 BCE, since during these centuries humanity had made fundamental intellectual progress almost simultaneously in several seemingly independent areas of the world. As an axis of world history, this progress into the universal, according to Jaspers, led to change in thinking about the human existence and was equally observed in ancient Greek philosophy, in Talmudic Judaism, in Zoroastrianism in Persia, in Buddhism in India, and in Confucianism in China.

In fact, there are numerous similarities between those religions and philosophical thought, which had sustained impact within their respective areas. Nevertheless, it is necessary to take a more differentiated view of this period encompassing large parts of the 1st millennium BCE, to dissect intellectual-religious as well as technical and other developments into finer temporal layers and, simultaneously, to adopt a global-historical perspective that reaches far beyond the cultural areas that Jaspers has focused on. 

Such a differentiated view will inevitably result at least partially in a deconstruction of the Axial Age, will allow a deeper understanding of the developments of the 1st millennium BCE in the diverse regions of the world, and will finally allow a new evaluation of the Axial Age, maybe even as one of a number of significant transformative Time Axes including, for instance, the turn from the 4th to the 3rd millennium BCE.


Fig. House Urn Culture (Saxony-Anhalt) and Etruscan (Reg. Latium, I)
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Antikensammlung. Photos: C. Plamp, K.Göken; photomontage: D. Greinert

During the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age (11th-8th century BCE), cremating the deceased and burying them in ceramic urns became custom in the Villanova culture of central and northern Italy. Some of these urns were shaped like houses or huts. Likely, they did not represent a house model and house building techniques, but an idealized conception of the Villanova culture about the transition from the present existence into the hereafter. In the 7th century BCE, similar urns are found also in the Harz foreland at the Elbe.

Does the idea to bury the remains of cremated dead in a house-shaped urn represent a conceptual transfer from Italy over 1000km to the north or did these customs in central/northern Italy and in the Harz foreland arise independently of each other?

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