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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

Expert Contributor
Gretchen Graef

Gretchen has a Ph.D in Materials Science and Engineering. She has been an engineer, technical writer, and a teacher teaching physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics.

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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Additional Activities

Branches of Modern Metallurgy

Modern metallurgy has two branches. Chemical metallurgy deals with extraction of metals from ores. Physical metallurgy is the treatment of the metal by various means.

Physical Metallurgy

The first physical metallurgy process was probably hammering. Blacksmithing, the use of physical means to shape metal, usually ferrous metals, has existed since ancient times. Blacksmithing is referred to in the Old Testament. The oldest known example of casting of metal is a copper frog from Mesopotamia. Tempering a metal improves its physical properties. The oldest example of tempered steel in the ancient world is a pickaxe dated at 1200 to 1100 BCE.

Chemical Metallurgy

This type of metallurgy is called extractive metallurgy. Only copper, silver, and gold occur in nature uncombined with other elements. To produce pure iron, a process is necessary to extract it from ores. Refining of iron ushered in a new age of history, the Iron Age, which lasted from 1200 BCE to 600 BCE. The first extractive method applied to the ore was smelting by slagging , in which sand is added to the melted ore to "slag off" the impurities.

Importance of Archaeometallurgy

The study of ancient metal objects can help us understand the technology used to produce them. There are some ancient alloys that modern metallurgists have not been able to reproduce.

Project

Research the process by which Hittites extracted iron from rocks. Write a five-paragraph essay about this subject. The Hittites and the Philistines, both mentioned in the Old Testament, both used this technology to produce weapons. Be sure to include the following information.

  1. When and where did the Hittites and Philistines live?
  2. Briefly, how are they mentioned in the Bible?
  3. What type of objects did they produce? Include a graphic of an object produced by this civilization. Be sure to reference where you found the graphic.
  4. What do we know about the metallurgical processes they used?
  5. Include one "fun fact" about the Hittites.

Guideline for Assessment

Essays must contain the answers to the five questions posed. They must also follow George Orwell's six rules of writing. A rubric can be constructed for this task assigning value to all eleven required elements. The essay must include a graphic of a Hittite-produced metal object, of which there are many. One such artifact is shown below.

Students could draw the artifact if they like instead of importing a graphic.

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