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Archaeometallurgy: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Archaeometallurgy is the study of metal produced by people in ancient times. Metal is very durable and lasts when other artifacts have disappeared, so archaeometallurgy can tell us a lot about the past.

What is Archaeometallurgy?

Thousands of years ago, a hunter sits by a fire sharpening his bronze knife with a special sharpening stone he always carries with him. Suddenly, he hears a noise in the forest behind him and jumps up, dropping his knife to the ground by the fire. He never comes back to pick up the knife, and slowly, it becomes covered with leaves and dirt until the entire culture he was a part of is forgotten.

Many, many years later, an archaeologist working in the same area finds some evidence of an ancient village and begins to investigate the site more thoroughly. While digging on the outskirts of the village site, he uncovers the hunter's knife. It is old and tarnished, but still easily recognizable as something made by human hands. The archaeologist is excited because he knows that this knife has the potential to reveal many clues about the people who lived in this mysterious ancient village.

Archaeologists look for artifacts that can reveal what life was like long ago.
Archaeologists look for artifacts that can reveal what life was like long ago.

Metal artifacts, like the hunter's knife, can survive long after organic material has decayed and disappeared from history. The hunter has been gone for thousands of years, but by studying his knife, scientists can learn a lot about him and the culture he came from. This scientific study of metal and metal artifacts produced by ancient people is called archaeometallurgy.

Archaeometallurgy is the study of metal and metal artifacts, like these tools, that were produced by people long ago.
Archaeometallurgy is the study of metal and metal artifacts, like these tools, that were produced by people long ago.

Tools Used in Archaeometallurgy

Archaeometallurgists study metal artifacts, but that's not all! They also study how those artifacts were made. This includes determining the chemical composition of the metal, the technologies used to create different metals, and even how ancient people acquired the different types of ore used to make the artifacts.

To answer these questions, archaeometallurgy uses tools from many other sciences, like chemistry, geology, and materials science. Chemical analyses can be performed to determine the chemical composition of a piece of metal found at an archaeological site. Most of the time, the methods used are completely non-destructive and only require a small sample of the material. When studying ancient artifacts, it is important to be careful not to cause damage to the artifacts in the process. This is something that archaeometallurgists must always be aware of.

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