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Metal History



Archaeometallurgy is, essentially, metal history: the study of the historic and prehistoric discovery, use and modification of metals. It is, like many archaeological fields, an interdisciplinary endeavor in which soft science scholars such as archaeologists, historians, numismatists, and philologists find themselves consorting with hard scientists such as geologists, materials scientists, chemists, physicists, botanists and toxicologists, as well as mining engineers, blacksmiths, and goldsmiths. Archaeometallurgy investigates the origins and dispersal of metals, reconstructs ancient metallurgic techniques, and traces metal objects back to their geological sources by using the metal's chemical and isotopic fingerprints.

The pioneer metallurgist Cyril Stanley Smith argued that the first properties of metals which were most relevant to their users were color, luster, ductility and tonality; it was not until the metals were treated (cast, alloyed and/or exposed to heat) that metals became suitable as tools and weapons. Metals are rare materials in the earth's crust that originally were held only by the elites of a society and, there is no doubt that elite attraction for metals such as gold and silver directly fed into human exploration, long-distance trade, colonialism, and imperialism.

Trade and Metallurgy

The first real economic impact of the ability to work metals was when long distance trade in copper began, sometime before ~4000 BC. By 2,000 years ago, metal working had expanded enormously: production of silver from lead during the Roman period is recorded in Greenland ice cores as spikes in ambient lead and copper concentrations, spikes only matched again after the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

Such trade networks reverberate much later: Killick and Fenn (2012) credit the expansion of the Swahili Coast trade networks to the influence of expanded exploitation of gold by Islamic sheiks and their artisans. African gold was traded for technologies from India (porcelain, wootz steel, zinc, cotton and silk textiles), and China (gunpowder, paper, magnetic compass), and passed along to the Mediterranean and western Europe.

In addition, the exploitation of gold and silver was the main driving force for the European colonization of the Americas in the 16th century. All of that: and we haven't come close to the Industrial Revolution.


Greenfield HJ. 1999. The origins of metallurgy: Distinguishing stone from metal cut-marks on bones from archaeological sites. Journal of Archaeological Science 26(7):797-808.

Killick D, and Fenn T. 2012. Archaeometallurgy: The Study of Preindustrial Mining and Metallurgy. Annual Review of Anthropology 41(1):559-575.

Thornton C, and Roberts B. 2009. Introduction: The Beginnings of Metallurgy in Global Perspective. Journal of World Prehistory 22(3):181-184.

Hematite, 300,000 Years Ago, East Africa

100,000 Year-Old Abalone Shell Ochre Paint Pot from Toolkit 2 at Blombos Cave
Image © Science/AAAS
The very first metal ore used by humans was hematite, an iron oxide, which was crushed and used for pigments by our hominid ancestors beginning at least 300,000 years ago. While not used for its metallic properties until iron working was discovered, ochre's vivid coloration is the result of its ferrous content.

Copper (hammered), 9,000 years ago, Anatolia

The earliest occurrence of true metal-working we know of is that of native copper, at the Anatolian site of Cayönü Tepesi, in what is today Turkey. At this site, copper was alternately hammered and heated (annealed) into ornaments, approximately 9,000 years ago.

Lead, 8,500 years ago, Anatolia

Although the earliest known use of lead is from a 15,700 year old cave in Spain, the first worked objects of lead are from Çatalhöyük in Turkey about 6500 BC. The first mass producers of lead objects were the Roman Empire, who polluted the air and water long before the Environmental Protection Agency was created.

Copper (smelted), Late 6th millennium BC, Serbia and Iran

Copper (smelted), Late 6th millennium BC, Serbia and Iran Smelting copper was the first true metallurgy: it is an extractive process, meaning the craftsperson needs to heat the raw ore to extract the metal. The length of time (~3000 years) between the first use of copper to its smelting was likely the result of the complexity of the process required.

Copper (smelted), Late 6th millennium BC, China

The jury is still out concerning the independence of the invention of smelted copper in China: the earliest smelted copper is in the central Plains, but the surrounding areas havea a different type. Current theory is that areas in northern and western China may have had contact with western Asia, while central China invented its own process.

Silver (native), Mid-6th millennium BC

Copper (native), Mid-5th millennium BC, North America

Copper working was independently invented in North America about 4500 BC in the region of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Here heavy-duty tools including socket axes were made; axes, decorative materials and raw ore made their way into Late Archaic graves.

Silver (smelted), Early 4th millennium BC

Gold (native), 5th millennium BC, Black Sea region

While gold is much less abundant than copper, it may be found in streams, called "placer gold", tiny flakes which can be consolidated by melting.

Tin (Copper-Tin alloy), 4th millennium BC

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