Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.
Between Stone and Iron
When studying the distant past, including the early formation of ancient civilizations, you likely heard about the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. However, there is an age missing. Has anyone ever told you about the Copper Age? Most likely not, since it didn't last long in any location, and only recently did scholars designate a separate age for this technology rather than lump it in as an early part of the Bronze Age. Let's find out what this unusual age was all about and what kinds of instruments the people of the Copper Age created.
The Copper Age, also known as the Chalcolithic Age, was a short period of time between the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. While it generally lasted for only 1,000 years in any place, its importance cannot be understated. Humans had previously worked with gold and, in a few isolated areas, some copper, the Chalcolithic Age saw the first large-scale production of copper tools. Copper offered people a great advantage over stone. The metal was far more durable than the stone tools they had previously used, which could shatter if hit too hard. Metal tools could also hold a sharper edge. Gold was far too soft for anything but ornamentation, but copper made metal tools possible for the first time.
Originally, metallurgy, the science and craft of metalworking, was quite simple and involved forming tools from copper by hammering the metal. Around 4500 BCE, someone discovered that copper hardened if it was melted down and allowed to resolidify. This process, called smelting, became an integral part of metalwork. This also allowed coppersmiths to separate the metal from impurities found in the rock, as well as pour the liquid metal into molds for mass production.
When and Where
The Copper Age occurred at different times in different places. Some regions developed copper metallurgy independent of other cultures, but many gained the technology through contact with people who were already using copper.
Mesopotamia and Anatolia
As we've noted, small-scale production of copper tools occurred prior to the Chalcolithic in some places, including ancient Turkey and Mesopotamia, where archaeologists found copper axes dating back to 7500 BCE. Large-scale production, however, first appeared in the Middle East as early as 6500 BCE, with clear evidence showing up in the archaeological record by 5500 BCE. The earliest known sites for copper production come from northern Mesopotamia, with many of the sites located in present-day Syria. In other parts of the Middle East, archaeologists have discovered copper axes, nails, roofing tiles, crowns, and even weapons like the head of a mace, a bludgeoning weapon with a rounded, metal or stone head attached to a short handle.
The Egyptians quickly adopted the use of copper from their contact with Mesopotamians, applying the new substance to tools for household use, farming equipment, craftsmanship, and cosmetic implements. On the farm, copper hoes surpassed stone hoes in durability, resistant to shattering when striking rocky soil. Copper sickles, a curved blade for harvesting grains, held a sharper edge than stone or bone sickles. In the home, the Egyptians used copper cookware, a practice still common throughout the world today. Craftsman used the substance to make knives, chisels, and even saws for woodworking. And in personal care, the Egyptians developed some of the more ingenious uses of copper to create the first mirrors and high-quality razors.
Another center where the use of copper developed independently was ancient China. Around 2500 BCE, the Chinese began to use copper for tools and currency. Interestingly, they began using bronze at nearly the same time, reserving the stronger bronze material for elaborate vessels and ritual objects.
While many more regions adopted the use of copper, spurring the science and craft of metallurgy, we can be certain that the ancient Middle East and China are the two regions where the innovation of copper tools and weapons appeared independently. This development ushered in the Copper Age, better known as the Chalcolithic Age among archaeologists. The technology of this age quickly moved from simple, hammered implements to creating a harder form of copper through smelting. The new, copper tools were far superior to the stone tools used in the past, resistant to shattering and able to hold a sharper edge. In agriculture, farmers rapidly increased the speed of their harvest by fashioning sickles from copper. In warfare, however, metal knives, axes, and maces increased the deadly force of warriors.
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