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.