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        Metallurgy: (Prehistoric Evidence of...)

Metallurgy has been practiced for thousands of years... with discoveries of mines and furnaces dating back as far as 5,000 BC.





   A Chronology of Prehistoric Metallurgy:

Metallurgy in Europe.

The Earliest Copper Mining Europe: (Vinca Culture, c. 5,000 BC).

The early  Neolithic mine of Rudna Glava near Majdanpek is an example of the oldest known technology of Vinca copper working. The developed skills of the Rudna Glava miners are indicated by the ore-emptied shafts no less than 20m deep.

Stone mallets, made from river stones of volcanic rock, gives evidence  of the higher specialization of primitive tools for different and various productive purposes. As for the chopping of the pieces different types of wedges were used, while the tools made from deer horns were used for gathering the ore already chopped.

When an ore vein was discovered,  the access platform was built round its flooding canal. Afterwards the hard ore mass was broken into pieces by circular hits with stone mallets, hanged either on a rope or leather belt. In the depths, the technique of heating then cooling suddenly was used. Large ceramic dishes were used for pouring the water over the hot ore blocks. Cracked blocks were further smashed and broken into pieces.

The ore obtained was taken to the surface in bags, and it was distributed to the settlements near by. Further metallurgic processes are considered to be a part of technological circle of handworks in that early period of metal usage.

(Full Article: http://www.muzej-mpek.org.yu/e_rglava.htm)




(Bulgaria - c. 3,000 BC) - Thousands of uniformly 'pressed' gold 'beads' were discovered in a Thracian horde in the Bulgarian 'Valley of the Kings'. The beads, which are only millimetres in diameter, have the appearance of minute 'washers', which show evidence of 'pressing' on both sides. The amount discovered, and their uniformity, have led to the suggestion that they were mass-manufactured, or machine made.

(Ref: UK Ch4 News 31.8.2005)


The first Metalworkers in the UK - (4,000 BC - 2,000 BC) The New Scientist.

The following article questions the origin of the raw materials and science used for the 'Copper-age' and 'Bronze-age' in ancient Britain. Copper-arsenic alloys were used throughout mainland Europe and the Middle East during the 'Copper Age', the slow transition from the late Neolithic to the Bronze Age between about 4000 and 2500 BC. These prehistoric 'arsenical coppers' span the period between the first smelting of copper and the development of bronze, which is an alloy of copper and tin.

'Until recently most archaeologists assumed that arsenical coppers were the first intentionally produced alloys. Various arguments were put forward in favour of this idea, stressing the advantages of arsenical copper over pure copper as a material for making tools and weapons. The arguments were based on some well-known facts about arsenic. For example, it could act as a deoxidant in casting, preventing the metal becoming too brittle, and it increased the hardness of edges formed on tools and weapons by hammering.

There are various opinions about which methods were used to introduce the arsenic, but by the 1970s most researchers believed that the arsenic was there because Bronze Age metalworkers had selected copper ores that were naturally rich in the element. Copper ore deposits are usually laid down in rock fissures or veins as primary copper sulphide minerals. Exposed areas of such deposits are converted to secondary minerals such as oxides and carbonates. Within some primary copper deposits are the 'fahlerz' ores, which contain arsenic and the metal antimony. The metalworkers had apparently discovered that these ores yielded a superior produc't.

When archaeologists put metal artefacts in chronological order, they have always assumed that as metals technology evolved, simple designs and materials would gradually be replaced by more sophisticated and specialised ones. Comparisons between such metalwork typologies for various parts of Europe supported the diffusion hypothesis. They revealed that the pace of metallurgical development varied greatly. Metals appeared later in the archaeological record of north-western Europe than in the south and east, for instance, and southern metal artefacts appeared to be more advanced than northern European forms of the same age.

'While some archaeologists were classifying metal artefacts by their physical appearance others began to analyse their composition, especially after spectrographic methods became widely available in the 1930s. This approach, pioneered by the German chemists Helmut Witter and Wilhelm Otto and the Austrian scientist Richard Pittioni, culminated in a massive programme, based in Stuttgart, which was responsible for more than 16 000 analyses of Early Bronze Age metalwork by the mid-1970s'.

By then, metalwork typologies for Britain were already well developed as were ideas, partly based on them, about the origins of British metallurgy. The appearance of metals in the archaeological record of the British Isles was associated with other changes, particularly a shift in burial practices and the appearance in graves of a new form of pottery, shaped like a small cup or beaker. Archaeologists had found evidence for similar changes in central Europe and Iberia at the beginning of the Bronze Age, and it seemed likely that Britain was invaded and settled by a new population from elsewhere in Europe, possibly the Rhineland. It was these 'Beaker Culture' settlers who were thought to have brought a knowledge of metals to Britain. Not only that, but axes, by far the most common Early Bronze Age artefact, were unevenly distributed across the British Isles: there are heavy concentrations in Ireland, most of the earliest forms in the south-western region of Munster. It seemed clear that metallurgy was introduced to Britain via Ireland.

'Confirmation that the earliest Irish Bronze Age tools were high in arsenic  was supported by findings of the same impurity pattern in the few artefacts of this period found elsewhere in the British Isles. This led him to the proposition that an Irish metal industry had existed, supplying England, Scotland and Wales with copper during the earliest Bronze Age, based on the exploitation of fahlerz ores from southwest Ireland. The high levels of arsenic in early bronzes in Ireland and the rest of the British Isles indicated that the early Irish industry had continued well into the Early Bronze Age. Only later did centres of production develop outside Ireland; these made more developed forms of flat axe in which the metal had different impurity patterns, including relatively high levels of nickel'.

Although the significance of arsenical copper in the earliest part of the Bronze Age is still disputed, it does seem that arsenical copper was not intentionally produced in order to make better tools. On the contrary, there is now a large body of evidence, including the compositions of copper artefacts, to suggest that the processes used to smelt the metal were very primitive, and may have restricted early metalworkers to the use of particular types of ore deposit.

Clearly, the technology was not well developed and there is no reason why it should have been introduced as a result of population movement. The fact that accessible deposits of suitable minerals are far more widespread in other parts of the British Isles than they are in Ireland makes one suspicious of any suggestion that Britain's earliest metal production was based exclusively there.

The article ends with the following words...again raising more questions than answers...

'Of course, we can never be sure of the sequence of events more than four thousand years ago which led to the production of the first metal artefact in the British Isles. But I am sure that Beaker Culture metallurgists from the Rhineland never stalked the Munster (Irish) countryside in search of fahlerz ores to make it'.

(Ref: http://www.newscientist.com/article/)


Metallurgy in the Middle-east.

Having already mentioned that metals appeared later in the archaeological record of north-western Europe than in the south and east, and that southern metal artefacts appeared to be more advanced than northern European forms of the same age, we can now support this with earlier discoveries from the middle-east, as the following examples demonstrate. It is a reasonable conclusion that European metallurgy had a Middle-eastern origin...


Metsamor, Turkey.Metsamor (Medzamor), Armenia - Metsamor has revealed foundries that were processing metal as far back as 5,000 BC. The site contains the oldest large-scale metallurgical factory in the world (2,500 BC). Discovered by Dr Koriun Megatchian, in Soviet Armenia (20Km from Ararat). It contained over 200 furnaces, producing an assortment of vases, knives, spearheads, rings, bracelets, etc.

The Metsamor craftsmen wore mouth-filters and gloves while they laboured and fashioned their wares of copper, lead, zinc, iron, gold, tin, manganese and fourteen kinds of bronze. The smelters also produced an assortment of metal paints, ceramics and glass. But the most out-of-place discovery was several pairs of tweezers made of steel, taken from layers dating back before the first millennium BC. The steel was later found to be of exceptionally high grade, and the discovery was verified by scientific organizations in the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, France and Germany. (9).

(Click here for more about Metsamor)


Metallurgy in Africa.

Egypt: The Great pyramid of Giza: Iron plate found in 'star-passage'. (See below)

Tanzania - 1,500 AD - The discovery of steel-smelting ovens (producing carbon steel), achieving temperatures of 1,800 centigrade (3)

 The South African spheres - 'The Klerksdorp Spheres':

Quote from (1) - 'Over the past several decades, South African miners have found hundreds of metallic spheres, at least one of which has three parallel grooves running around its equator. The spheres are of two types - "one of solid bluish metal with white flecks, and another which is a hollow ball filled with a white spongy centre" (Jimison, 1982). The sphere in the photos (below), was found in a Precambrian mineral deposit, making it an unlikely 4,500 Million years years old. Some of the spheres can be seen in the Museum at Klerksdorp, South Africa. (3)

At least 200 have been found, and extracted out of deep rock at the Wonderstone Silver Mine in South Africa, averaging 1-4 inches in diam. and composed of a nickel-steel alloy that doesn't occur naturally. Some have a thin shell about a quarter inch thick, when broken open are filled with a strange spongy material that disintegrates into dust upon contact with air.

(More about the 'Klerksdorp Spheres')



Metallurgy in the America's.

Peru - Pre Inca ornaments and other objects made of Platinum have been discovered. (The Melting Point of platinum is 1,755 degrees Celcius). (9)

(More about ancient Peru)


Metallurgy in Asia.

China - An aluminium belt fastener with open-work ornamentation was found in the grave of General Chou Chu of the Chin dynasty, who lived from 256-316 AD. The fastener was examined by the Institute of Applied Physics of the Chinese academy of Sciences and by the Dubai Polytechnic. The process of extracting aluminium from Bauxite today involves the use of a 'Reverbier' oven, refraction chamber and regenerator, as well as electrolysis and temperatures exceeding 950° Celcius. (9)


Meteoric Iron - Also recorded from China are 'two puzzling ancient iron axes' dated c. 1000 B.C. - almost half a millennium before iron working began in China - which were finally identified as meteoric nickel-iron. In ancient Mexico, Indian ploughshares were made of meteoric iron, and the Greenland Eskimos had a long tradition of using meteoric iron for harpoons. (2)




   Metal in the Great Pyramid:

There were several metal items found in the Great pyramid of Ghiza:

The Iron Plate - On Friday, 26 May 1837, after a few days of blasting and clearing, J. R. Hill (working for Vyse), discovered a flat iron plate about 26 cm (10.2") long, 8.6 cm (3.4") wide, with a thickness ranging from .4 cm (.2") to nearly zero, from a joint in the masonry at the point where the southern airshaft from the King's chamber exits the pyramid. Engineers agree that this plate was left in the joint during the building of the pyramid and could not have been inserted afterwards. Colonel Vyse sent the plate to the British Museum.

Hill affirmed that his find was legitimate:

This is to certify, that the piece of iron found by me near the mouth of the air-passage, in the southern side of the Great Pyramid at Gizeh, on Friday, May 26th, was taken out by me from an inner joint, after having removed by blasting the two outer tiers of the stones of the present surface of the Pyramid; and that no joint or opening of any sort was connected with the above-mentioned joint, by which the iron could have been placed in it after the original building of the Pyramid. I also shewed the exact point to Mr. Perring, on Saturday, June 24th. (Vyse, Pyramids of Gizeh, I, p. 276)

The plate was examined by the famous Sir Flinders Petrie in 1881. He felt it was genuine and stated that...

 "no reasonable doubt can therefore exist about its being a really genuine piece".

Extract from Petrie -

That sheet iron was employed we know, from the fragment found by Howard Vyse in the masonry of the south air channel; and though some doubt has been thrown on the piece, merely from its rarity, yet the vouchers for it are very precise; and it has a cast of a nummulite on the rust of it, proving it to have been buried for ages beside a block of nummulitic limestone, and therefore to be certainly ancient. No reasonable doubt can therefore exist about its being really a genuine piece used by the Pyramid masons; and probably such pieces were required to prevent crowbars biting into the stones, and to ease the action of the rollers.

H.R. Hall wrote of the plate in "Note on the Early Use of Iron in Egypt" (Man 3, 1903):

Now that Professor Petrie has discovered iron in deposits of VIth Dynasty date at Abydos, the contentions of those Egyptologists who have always maintained that iron was known to the Egyptians from the earliest times must be acknowledged to be correct. The fact that iron was known to, and used by, the Egyptians over 2,000 years before it came into use in Europe is very remarkable, and it is hard to square with current theories, but it is a fact. Professor Petrie's find is a lump of worked (?) iron, perhaps a wedge, which is rusted on to a bent piece of copper...

This is the third find of iron which can be attributed to the Old Kingdom. In 1837 a fragment of wrought-iron was discovered in an inner joint of the stone blocks in one of the air-passages which pass upwards from the interior of the Great Pyramid to the outer air [Vyse, Pyramids of Gizeh, I., 276; Beck, Geschichte des Eisens, I., 85]. This is now in the British Museum, Egyptian Department, No. 2433 (3rd Egyptian Room, Case K, 29). In 1882 Professor Maspero found iron in the pyramid of a Vth Dynasty king at Abūsīr. Professor Petrie has now found iron in a VIth Dynasty deposit at Abydos... The presumption now is that the iron fragments from Abūsīr and from the Great Pyramid are of a Vth and IVth Dynasty date respectively. The Gīza fragment will be about 150 years older than the piece from Abydos. (pp. 147-49)

Tests were actually made in the British Museum Laboratory, and since it seems desirable that the matter should be cleared up, Dr. J.H. Plenderleith reported the following:

The Pyramid piece was found to consist 'of a thin film of metallic iron with a more or less thick coating of its oxides.' Samples were examined and 'no nickel could be detected.' This was in November 1926; in April 1932 it was examined again, and the results 'completely bear out the findings of the previous analytical report as regards to the absence of nickel;' separate tests were applied to the exterior scale and to the surface of the metallic iron itself, and nowhere could nickel be detected. As Dr. Plenderleith was advised that 'all known meteoric iron contains some nickel, about 4-30 per cent,' he considered it 'unnecessary to go any further in the matter of chemical investigation.' The account of the result quoted from Man (cf. also Dr. Rickard's Man and Metals 1932, II, 834) seems therefore to have mislead Mr Wainwright. The pyramid piece contains no detectable 'traces' of nickel.

In 1989, an analysis of the iron plate was made by El Sayed El Gayar and M.P. Jones, published in their article "Metallurgical investigation of an iron plate found in 1837 in the Great Pyramid at Gizeh, Egypt" (Journal of Historical Metallurgy Society, Vol. 23 No. 2, 1989, pp. 75-83). El Gayar and Jones, using a hacksaw, carefully cut off a small corner of the plate for analysis. This fragment was triangular in shape with an area of 1 cm and a weight of 1.7g. After again determining that the iron contained "only a trace of nickel", thus confirming a terrestrial origin (p. 81), the authors found that the plate consists of numerous laminates of wrought iron and that these laminates have been inexpertly welded together by hammering. The various layers differ from each other in their grain sizes, carbon contents, the nature of their non-metallic inclusions, and in their thicknesses... None of the iron layers contains siliceous, slaggy inclusions. Furthermore, none of the other phases within the iron laminates shows any metallic copper globules, nor do they show more than small traces of the element copper. These features suggest that the Gizeh iron plate had not been produced as a by-product of copper smelting operations. The outer layers of the iron have been badly corroded and now exist as complex banded iron oxides. Small, but significant, proportions of gold were found in one of the oxidised layers and it is thought possible that the plate may, originally, have been gold-plated.

Drs. Jones and Gayer concluded the following: "It is concluded, on the basis of the present investigation, that the iron plate is very ancient. Furthermore, the metallurgical evidence supports the archaeological evidence which suggests that the plate was incorporated within the pyramid at the time that structure was being built".

A more recent analysis of the plate, however, has cast doubt on the findings and conclusions of the study by El Gayar and Jones. In their article "Gizeh Iron Revisited" (Journal of the Historical Metallurgy Society, Vol. 27 No. 2, 1993, pp. 57-59), Paul Craddock and Janet Lang of the British Museum reported that they were at first unable to obtain the section cut by El Gayar and Jones, consequently the initial study was confined to the larger portion of the plate. A new section was cut adjacent to the original section, and it was examined under a scanning electron microscope both at the British Museum and independently at the Ancient Monuments Laboratory, English Heritage (the work was carried out there by Dr. G. McDonnell). It was also analyzed by x-ray fluorescence. Surprisingly, no gold was detected in the metal or in the corrosion. Craddock and Lang further wrote:

Since the last report the original section has been returned to the Museum and we have been able to carry out a thorough investigation. Once again we must report that despite extensive searches no trace of gold could be detected, and it is our firm opinion that the original report of gold is incorrect.

The authors agreed with El Gayar and Jones regarding the structure of the iron plate, but they did not agree on the interpretation. They conclude the following - 'The structure of the plate is consistent with iron-making in the post-medieval Islamic era'.

Comment - The plate has been determined of terrestrial origin. It was declared of ancient origin because of the numulite imprints in it. This was a specific observation, as was the determination that it could not have fallen in at a later date. Other contemporary findings of iron support the idea that this could at least be genuine.

The royal funerary Pyramid Text §907 reads: The doors of bA-kA [an unknown region of the sky] which is in the firmament are opened for me, the doors of iron which are in the starry sky are thrown open for me, and I go through them ...

And finally, this extract from Miracle in Stone. (It does seem strange that none of the learned professors above ever noticed it):

'The Siniatic Mountains and hills are known to be full of iron of the most excellent kind. A Mr. Hartland some years ago, established himself in that region for mining purposes, and there, near Surabit-el-Khadem ,and not far from Wady Meghara, he found, not traces merely, but colossal remains, of iron works and furnaces, belonging to the earliest kings of ancient Egypt, and on a scale so vast as to be testified to by almost mountainous heaps of genuine iron slag and veritable iron furnace refuse (see proceedings Soc. Antiq., Vol V, 2d series, June 1873). Nay. What is more remarkable, here also, is a tablet containing the cartouches of Shufu (Cheops) and Nem-Shufu, the same as the quarry-marks discovered by Colonel Howard Vyse on the hidden stones in the Great Pyramid! These records are engraved in a soffit in the face of the natural rock, where they directly overlook the scene of the furnaces. They begin with the name of Soris, the immediate predecessor to Cheops, under whom the Egyptians seem to have been put through an apprenticeship of working in iron. One of Egypt's ancient kings also appears on the monuments with a name which means "A lover of Iron".'

Apart from the obvious implications of an Iron works with the cartouches of fourth dynasty kings on it, it is interesting that the name 'Soris' is mentioned, as this seems to confirm Manetho's chronology. It also implies that Iron was understood and forged before the pyramid was built. Just how big is this mine and where is the Iron?

There is also some Copper in the Great pyramid.

 Queens Northern Shaft.                   Queens Southern Shaft.

Both the shafts leading from the queens chamber have copper 'handles' at their ends. Their significance is yet to be determined but their presence in such a hidden and inaccessible internal part of the structure is an absolute proof that metal-working was present at the time of the 4th dynasty.

(More about the Great pyramid)


Bronze Chisel from the Cairo Museum. c. 2,000 BC.



The metallic ‘tubes’ from Saint-Jean de Livet (France)

In 1968, Y Druet and H Salfati claimed to have discovered a number of semi-ovoid metallic tubes they believed to be artificial in Cretaceous (Aptian) chalk at a quarry in St-Jean de Livet (France), which they announced in a letter to the editors of Plančte, a French magazine devoted to unsolved mysteries. The tubes were shaped identically, but their sizes varied between 30 and 90 mm in length, and 10 and 40 mm in width. According to the authors of the letter (dated 30 September 1968), the objects were currently being studied by the Geomorphology Laboratory of the Université de Caen, but nothing further seems to be known about them.




   The Iron Pillars:


The Ashoka pillar - Delhi.


India - The Iron Pillar of Delhi (Photo, left), in the courtyard of Qutub Minar in Delhi. It is a column of Cast Iron weighing approx. 6 tons and standing 23ft 8 inches high, with a diameter of 16inches. The column had stood in the temple of Mutra, capped with 'Garuda', an image of a bird incarnation of the God Vishnu. Muslim invaders later destroyed the 'Garuda' and tore the column from its original setting, re-erecting it in Delhi in the 11th century AD. It bears an inscription of an epitaph to King Chandragupta II, who died in 413AD. The bar shows some weathering, but unusually little rust. (9)

(Prehistoric India)




Der Eiserne Mann The 'Iron Man of Kottenforst', Bonn

The pillar has the appearance of a squared metal bar, about 1.47 m above ground and approximately 2.7 m below ground. It was first mentioned in a document in 1625 as part of the border line between Alfter and Heimerzheim along the Roman aqueduct.

Associated with the Iron man are an ancient stone walkway and the remains of an aqueduct which runs straight towards the pillar. The 'Iron-man' also shows very little sign of rust, and its actual origin is unknown. Although the origin of this pillar is unknown, the technique and the style point to a date of manufacture in the late Middle Ages. (4)

(Prehistoric Germany)



Other Eigmatic Metal Discoveries:

1968 - Semi-ovoid metallic tubes of identical shape but varying size found in Cretaceous chalk. The chalk-bed was exposed in a quarry at St. Jean de Livet, France, and is estimated to be at least 65 million years old. (3)

Mechanically manufactured gold thread found in sandstone rock, Rutherford-Mills, England. It was found embedded in naked rock, at a depth of about 8 feet. 60m yrs. (The Times, June 22nd 1844) (8).

1881 - An 'iron nail' from gold bearing quartzite from Kingoodie, Nr Dundee, 387m yrs. (The Times, Dec 1881).

1891 - Morrisonville, Illinois, USA. An 8 carrot (alloy), gold chain found embedded in coal by Mrs S. W. Culp. As she undertook to take the chain from the coal, the middle of the chain became loosened while each end remained fastened. (estimated at 260-232 million years old). (9).

1942 - Iron chain still embedded in sandstone, California. Extant photo but object lost.

(Other Examples of Oopart's)




   Prehistoric Mining:

Copper Mining in Rudna Glava, Serbia (Vinca Culture):

The early  Neolithic Vinca mine of Rudna Glava near Majdanpek (5,000 B.C.) is an example of the oldest known technology of copper working. The developed skills of the Rudna Glava miners are indicated by the ore-emptied shafts no less than 20m deep.

Stone mallets, made from river stones of volcanic rock, gives evidence  of the higher specialization of primitive tools for different and various productive purposes. As for the chopping of the pieces different types of wedges were used, while the tools made from deer horns were used for gathering the ore already chopped.

When an ore vein was discovered,  the access platform was built round its flooding canal. Afterwards the hard ore mass was broken into pieces by circular hits with stone mallets, hanged either on a rope or leather belt. In the depths, the technique of heating then cooling suddenly was used. Large ceramic dishes were used for pouring the water over the hot ore blocks. Cracked blocks were further smashed and broken into pieces.

The ore obtained was taken to the surface in bags, and it was distributed to the settlements near by. Further metallurgic processes are considered to be a part of technological circle of handworks in that early period of metal usage.

(Full Article: http://www.muzej-mpek.org.yu/e_rglava.htm)


Mining for copper in Wales: (Extract...)

In July 1993, a Research Steering Committee was set up to co-ordinate research on the Great Orme, North Wales, a precipitous headland rising 220 metres above the Irish Sea. The extensive copper mineralization hosted by this isolated outcrop of Carboniferous limestone was exploited in prehistory.

In their search for copper, the prehistoric miners produced a labyrinthine complex of rifts and galleries within the headland, which date primarily to the Bronze Age (the second millennium BC) and cover an area of at least 240 metres by 130 metres, with vertical depths of up to 70m (Lewis 1997: 106, 158). The extent and unparalleled degree of preservation of these workings render the Great Orme copper mine one of the most important sites in Britain and Europe for research into prehistoric copper metal production.

(Article: http://www.assemblage.group.shef.ac.uk/4/4wager.html )


Mining in Ancient Britain: (Extract...)

For more than half a century archaeologists have grappled with the enigma of Britain's first use of metals. It appears to have taken the art of metallurgy more than 2,000 years to travel from the ancient Near East and Balkans to Britain, and its dramatic arrival in about 2500 BC prompted early scholars to suggest direct contact between Britain and the great metal-using civilisations of the Mediterranean. The images evoked were of roaming metal prospectors searching savage lands for raw materials. The reality may be more prosaic, but is no less interesting.

In fact, the long history of metallurgy was not just a Mediterranean affair. For its origins we have to look several thousand years before the Castell Coch artefacts were deposited in their shallow sanctuary. The very earliest copper objects come from settlements and graves of the late 8th/early 7th millennium BC in Mesopotamia and Anatolia, and these are thought to be the products of rare outcrops of copper metal (not copper ore) found in some parts of this copper-rich area.

The momentous discovery of smelting came later, in the mid-5th millennium, seemingly independently in Anatolia, Mesopotamia and the Balkans. By this time copper miners were hard at work at places such as Aibunar in Bulgaria and Rudna Glava in Serbia, where rich veins of copper oxide and carbonate minerals were being emptied to make what must have seemed an entirely new kind of material. Hard enough to sharpen to a cutting edge, yet tough enough not to shatter. Infinitely re-meltable and re-useable.

After perhaps a thousand years of Balkan copper production, the deposition of copper in hoards and graves faded away. The technology was not lost though. As dramatically as it appeared to decline, metallurgy was back, but this time in a different location and with a new sort of metal. In the mid-4th millennium, arsenical copper was now taking centre stage with a new focus on Alpine and sub-Alpine Europe. A similar copper-arsenic alloy was developed in the old copper-producing centres of the Near East, although there the transition took place without the production hiatus apparently experienced in Europe.

Exploitation of the rich Alpine copper required the development of a new technology. Unlike the Balkan ores, the Alpine deposits were mostly of copper sulphide minerals. Unusable as mined, these had to be roasted before smelting to convert the sulphide minerals to the oxides that would have been familiar to the Balkan smelters. In practice, lumps of sulphide ore were placed on a hot wood fire and stirred round, to introduce plenty of oxygen and convert the ore to copper oxide. The oxide ore was then smelted in an enclosed furnace heated by charcoal with as little oxygen as possible to reduce the ore to metal. Such roasting beds and smelting furnaces dating from the later Bronze Age have been found in the Mitterberg region south of Salzburg.

Recent research suggests that early metal workers knew exactly what they were doing in using these ores. A significant addition of arsenic to copper produces better mechanical properties, and higher levels produce a metal of striking silvery appearance. Artefacts with higher levels tended to be `high status' objects such as knives and daggers, while everyday tools, such as the 4th millennium BC Iceman's axe, contained less. The proportion of arsenic in artefacts ranges from less than 1 to 7 per cent - never more than that - while ores can contain up to 30 per cent, suggesting that arsenic quantities were being controlled.

The evidence for such mixing comes from slightly later periods, but might apply equally to the 4th millennium. At the mine site at Ross Island in Ireland, for example, dating from the mid-3rd millennium, the ores are varied, containing anything from a few to about 30 per cent arsenic. However, the metal produced was much more consistent, suggesting that the ores were mixed. Later still, in the 2nd millennium, the Great Orme mines in North Wales produced perhaps hundreds of tonnes of copper at a time when most artefacts contained some degree of arsenic, and yet the Great Orme ores contained no arsenic whatsoever. The Great Orme metal was clearly not used without some degree of adaptation.

Whatever the truth of central Europe's arsenical copper in the 4th millennium, Britain remained literally in the Stone Age. It would be a thousand years before the island periphery of north-western Europe was to experience metallurgy at all. And yet when it came, the metals revolution took off with explosive technological pace. Within a few hundred years not only was a Continental-style arsenical copper industry thriving here, but by about 2000 BC the harder, tougher alloy of copper and tin known as bronze had also been invented. It replaced arsenical copper across Europe and dominated the European metals scene until the coming of iron more than 1,000 years later.

It is perhaps not strictly true to say that bronze was invented in Britain. The very earliest combination of tin and copper is found in Anatolia, but Near Eastern bronze contained less tin, in less standardised quantities, than was found in British bronze. Put simply, it was inferior bronze. In Britain, bronze was produced from the outset with an almost standard composition of 8 to 12 per cent tin, ensuring the optimum mix of qualities. For archaeologists the rapid establishment and spectacular success of metallurgy in the British Early Bronze Age, from 2500-2000 BC, is something of a quandary. How did metallurgy arrive in an apparently advanced state? Who brought it and why did it take off here so well?

In fact, the region where early tools and weapons suddenly appear in large numbers is south-west Ireland, predominantly in the form of simple `flat' axes. Wherever it was made and traded, more of it was left behind in the rugged Atlantic coastal landscape of Munster than anywhere else. This Irish metal was not inferior stuff either. What was being made and deposited was not the simple copper of the earliest European metallurgy, but arsenical copper, the superior material pioneered in Alpine Europe and, by this time, also commonplace throughout the Mediterranean as far west as Spain and Portugal.

So how did this advanced technology suddenly come to Ireland, and why? Who were these metal makers? To a previous generation of archaeologists such developments could only be explained by the invasion and settlement of new, technologically advanced, people. If not Greeks prospecting for precious ores, perhaps Iberian settlers made their way north along the Atlantic coast seeking out sources of the arsenic-bearing copper ores with which they were familiar.

This notion of a mass movement of people, even an invasion, found support elsewhere in the archaeological record. The arrival of metallurgy was not the only big change taking place in the middle of the 3rd millennium, but the period also saw the appearance of beaker pottery in the British Isles. These highly distinctive vessels, often buried with the dead, were widespread in central Europe and Iberia before they were used in Ireland. Was there a link?

(Article: http://www.britarch.ac.uk/BA/ba56/ba56feat.html )


Egyptian copper mining: (Extract...)

Copper was the first metal to see extensive use in Egypt. Copper tools, weapons, and ornaments are found beginning approximately 4000 BCE. Conditions for miners were described as “wretched,” and for most of the years of Egyptian history, the work seems to have been done by teams of slaves.

Smelting to extract metal from the ore was almost always done on-site, no matter what was being mined. Copper ore was extracted and broken into small pieces and mixed with charcoal fuel in a fire on the ground or in a shallow pit. This method produced temperatures of between 700 and 800 degrees Celsius, enough to separate the metal from the rock, but not hot enough to reduce it to a truly molten state.

Estimates made from slag heaps found at these copper mining operations indicate that an average of five tons of copper were produced annually in Egypt during the Bronze Age, which was not enough to supply the kingdom with its metal needs, necessitating importation of copper as well as tin for Egypt's bronze production. This harder, easier to cast metal eclipsed copper as the major material for tools in Egypt after its introduction from western Asia.

Egypt's history as a metal-using culture extends deep into the past. Copper and gold tools and ornaments date back to the Pre-Dynastic period and its craftsmen have produced a myriad of beautiful treasures and practical tools during Egypt's time as a power and a living culture. Although Egypt was not the originator of metalworking, the exploitation of the mineral resources under its control assisted in its rise to power and craftsmanship.

(Article:  http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/egypt/dailylife/mining.htm )


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