The start of metal-working

Native copperJust as there has been a bias towards early riverine civilizations in thinking about the origins of agriculture, so we find a tendency to assume that new technologies, such as the potter's wheel, wheeled vehicles and metallurgy had their origins there. The cities of Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt and Elam were advanced in their organisation. They had writing and bureaucracy. What they did not have, though, were the raw materials with which to experiment with new technology. The cities of the plains had to import timber and metal.

So attention has turned to the forest-steppe zone in the search for the earliest wheeled vehicles, and mountain copper-belts for the beginnings of the age of metal. Man and magpie love to collect shiny objects. Millennia before true metallurgy people were attracted to blue and green copper ores and naturally-occurring (native) copper. In the cradle of the Neolithic, people used them for personal adornment. Copper belts run through the Taurus Mountains of Anatolia to the Zagros Mountains of Iran. In the core of this area - what is now eastern Turkey and Northern Iraq - people began to cold-work native copper. As early as c. 8000 BC there is evidence from sites such as Cayonu Tepesi in eastern Turkey of some application of heat to ease the production process.1B. W. Roberts, C.P. Thornton and V.C. Pigott, Development of metallurgy in Eurasia, Antiquity, vol. 83 (2009), pp. 1012–1022.

The spread of copper smeltingWhere did copper smelting start? Bewilderingly, the technique crops up at around 5,000 BC in places far from the cradle of the Neolithic, but equally blessed with seams of copper ore. Early copper smelting sites have been found at Tal-i Iblis in south-eastern Iran and at Belovode in eastern Serbia. Given the difficulty of acquiring the technology, and its arrival in multiple places at roughly the same time, it seems likely that the knowledge of copper-working was passed on within a family or clan. We may picture them initially trading the worked objects that appear quite widely, and then members of the clan perhaps settling in societies wealthy enough to support specialists. The home of smelting was probably in Anatolia, where copper had already been exploited for so long. But in Iran copper alloys were gradually developed. The Zagros Mountains are rich in mineral resources, so metal-workers could mix copper with arsenic or iron to harden it. The technique of making arsenical copper bronze spread to the copper-rich Caucasus by 3,700 BC. True bronze (a copper-tin alloy) did not appear until around 3000 BC.2B. W. Roberts, C.P. Thornton and V.C. Pigott, Development of metallurgy in Eurasia, Antiquity, vol. 83 (2009), pp. 1012–1022; C. P. Thornton, The Emergence of Complex Metallurgy on the Iranian Plateau: Escaping the Levantine Paradigm, Journal of World Prehistory, vol. 22, no. 3 (September 2009), pp. 301-327; M. Radivojević et al., On the Origins of Extractive Metallurgy: New evidence from Europe, Journal of Archaeological Science (published online ahead of print June 2010).

Experimentation with iron-working took place quite early in the story of metallurgy. Iron deposits are more common than those of copper and tin, but iron had no other advantage. It is softer than bronze, does not take or keep a good edge, and is more difficult to work. So it was only when the first steel, or carburized iron, appeared that iron gained a lead over bronze. For weaponry and tools, steel is superior to the finest bronze.3J.D. Muhly, Metalworking/Mining in the Levant, pp. 174-183 in Near Eastern Archaeology ed. Suzanne Richard (2003), pp. 179-180.

From one small corner of Western Eurasia came agriculture, alcohol and metallurgy. Rice-based agriculture developed independently in China, along with rice-wine. But there is no evidence for the independent discovery of metal-working anywhere else in Eurasia. Despite its origin in the Near East, it seems that the knowledge of smelting was carried far and wide by Indo-European speakers in their wanderings.

Notes

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  1. B. W. Roberts, C.P. Thornton and V.C. Pigott, Development of metallurgy in Eurasia, Antiquity, vol. 83 (2009), pp. 1012–1022.
  2. B. W. Roberts, C.P. Thornton and V.C. Pigott, Development of metallurgy in Eurasia, Antiquity, vol. 83 (2009), pp. 1012–1022; C. P. Thornton, The Emergence of Complex Metallurgy on the Iranian Plateau: Escaping the Levantine Paradigm, Journal of World Prehistory, vol. 22, no. 3 (September 2009), pp. 301-327; M. Radivojević et al., On the Origins of Extractive Metallurgy: New evidence from Europe, Journal of Archaeological Science (published online ahead of print June 2010).
  3. J.D. Muhly, Metalworking/Mining in the Levant, pp. 174-183 in Near Eastern Archaeology ed. Suzanne Richard (2003), pp. 179-180.