The discovery of metals revolutionised civilisations. Making up around 25 percent of Earth’s crust, they have shaped the way we live and governed our development and progress as a society. Join us as we go back to the very beginnings of metallurgy, looking at the eight most influential metals that were harnessed in ancient times and some of the most notable uses of these metals.
AROUND 9,000 BCE
Found in Nature in vast quantities, copper is mostly locked away in Earth’s crust, occurring in oxidised states and in combination with other metals. But copper also occurs naturally in an uncombined form, and this native metallic copper, with its unmistakable reddish-orange hue, became the first metal used widely by ancient cultures, with the oldest artefacts dating back to around 9,000 BCE in the Middle East. It would take thousands of years before the first copper was extracted from ore, the oldest archaeological evidence of copper making by this method from around 5,500 BCE in Serbia.
The discovery of copper allowed humans to step out of the Stone Age and into the Copper Age, otherwise known as the Chalcolithic or Eneolithic, beginning in the late fifth millennium BC and lasting at least 1,000 years. By around 4,000 BCE, copper was predominately used in metalworking technology, as it was malleable and held a sharp edge. Metalworkers were able to manipulate the metal however they wanted, hammering it into sheets and casting it into moulds to be worked into different shapes, which was quicker and easier than working with stone. Copper was fashioned into tools, fishhooks, ornaments, sculptures, and weapons, amongst many other things.
In Roman times, the Latin aes cyprium referred to copper from Cyprus, where the metal was extensively mined. The term was later corrupted to cuprum, the English word being derived from this.
FAMOUS USES OF COPPER
Much of the copper used in Mesopotamia was used to create “foundation figures”. These figures were cast in copper and placed beneath the foundation of a building (often a temple), and were never meant to be found; they were only intended for the Gods. The most well-known figure excavated from this time is the “Foundation Figure of King Ur-Nammu” (ca. 2112–2004 BCE).
Mining copper from Sinai, the Egyptians used the to make agricultural tools such as sickles and hoes, as well as cookware, dishes, saws, chisels and knives. Additionally, known for their fondness for personal beautification, they made mirrors and razors from copper
In India, copper was often used in the making of tools and weapons, as well as in the creation of religious statues, with the most well-known being a copper statue of Buddha found in Sultanganj in the district of Bhagalpur in Bihar. It is 2.3 metres tall, a metre wide and weighs over half a tonne.
AROUND 4,000 BCE
First discovered in the ancient world in its most basic and natural state in streams and in the ground, gold became mankind’s first precious metal. Civilisations used it in the making of jewellery and other artefacts due to its brilliance and resistance to tarnishing. The rarity and beauty of gold quickly made it the symbol of royalty and glamour in nearly every culture, with many civilisations associating it with deities and immortality. Gold became one of the most valuable and sought-after metals, and during prehistoric times, was seen as being a viable currency in certain countries.
A material that was widely distributed around the world, gold was believed to be a symbol of wealth among ordinary people. Mankind intuitively placed a high value on its name, associating the metal with power, royalty and cultural elite. Ever since its use throughout ancient civilisations until now, the cultural thinking and association people have with gold in society has not changed, and it still remains a highly sought-after material.
FAMOUS USES OF GOLD
Egypt was known as a land of bountiful gold, but the commodity was often controlled by the king, and those of a higher royal status were often the individuals with a large collection of gold objects. Gold was used commonly to make jewellery, ornaments, death masks, diadems, ornamental weapons, among many other objects.
The most famous discovery of gold from Egypt was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the only Egyptian burial tomb that has remained in a relatively intact state at the point of discovery. King Tutankhamun had three different coffins laid on top of one another. The first two that were unearthed were made from wood and covered with gold sheet but the innermost coffin was found to have been made from thick sheets of pure beaten gold. A death mask was also found which was constructed out of two sheets of gold that were hammered together and weighed over 10 kilograms
Mined throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East by 550 BCE, gold was mainly used in Greece as money. Along with the characteristics that gold possessed such as being durable, stable and noncorrosive, it was difficult to counterfeit hence making it an ideal currency in these civilisations. The Greeks also believed that gold was made from a dense combination of water and sunlight because tthe metal was usually found in streams
In 2007, in a town called Prohear in the Prey Veng province of Southeastern Cambodia, achaeologists observed looting of gold and silver ornaments from prehistoric burial sites. While much was lost, dozens of gold and silver rings, bracelets, and the like, were recovered. The finds are believed to be concrete evidence showing the beginning of goldsmiths’ handicrafts in Southeast Asia
DID YOU KNOW
In China, unlike many other countries, gold was not used as a symbol of wealth or status. Rather, it was used for its aesthetic value instead, yet it was still highly appreciated. Historians have been unable to find evidence of an abundance of gold in China and it is believed that during the collapse of the Han dynasty, all the riches of gold in the country were buried and hidden away, or alternatively that there simply was not much of it to begin with. The first documented use of gold was during the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 BCE–c. 1046 BCE), where archaeological evidence suggests that gold was hammered into a thin foil and applied to objects for decorative purposes
AROUND 3,000 BCE
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