The Bronze Age: Mining, Smelting, Casting & Metallurgy

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson focuses on the subject that give the Bronze Age its name, metalwork and the making of bronze. Within, you learn about the discovery of metal use, mining, and the process of making bronze then casting it into shapes.

The Discovery of Metallurgy

Imagine you lived during the late Stone Age, a time known as the Neolithic. One day, you find a shiny chunk of rock. You pick it up and take it home where you try to figure out what it is. You hit it with a hammer, expecting it to break like most of the rocks you know, but instead, you dent it. Well, that's something special!

You hit it a few more times and find you can shape it into something else, maybe into a knife. You find the edge is sharper than the stone tools you use, but it's only really good for cutting softer things because it bends. That's because your metal knife is made of copper, one of the softer metals.

Later on, your knife ends up in a fire. Maybe it got there as part of a ritual where you gave it to the gods or maybe you just forgot and left it by the cooking fire. Either way, you see that it heats up and glows brighter than any rock you've ever seen in a fire. At its brightest, it starts to melt and drip away like an icicle. When you look at it later, when the fire is out and the coals are cold, you see your shiny metal solidified into a lump, but took the shape of the small depression where it cooled. You can definitely do something with this discovery! Thus metallurgy was born.

Discovering Bronze

With the newfound interest in metals, people began to experiment with different ways to shape it, melt it, and identify different kinds of metal. Some metals needed more heat to melt. Some were harder than others. Finally, through accident or intentional experimentation, someone discovered that adding tin to copper made a harder metal. The combination of two metals into a new substance is called an alloy. With the ratio of 90% copper and 10% tin, a whole new age came to life, the Bronze Age.

Early Mining

At first, most metal used came from rocks found on the surface of the earth, in creek beds, and prying out visible rocks from the face of cliffs. As demand for bronze grew, however, people had to start finding copper and tin ore, metal in its raw and natural form, deeper in the earth.

Copper ore
copper ore

The earliest evidence for mining comes from around 4000 BCE where mine shafts were cut into hills in the Balkans. In the Sinai peninsula, we find evidence from 3800 BCE of on-site smelting in crucibles at copper mines.

Archaeologist exploring an ancient copper mine in Timna, Israel
ancient mine

Smelting

Smelting is a vital step between the raw ore mined from the ground and the casting of objects from the metal. In its raw form, most metals are not found in a pure state. Often, there are veins of other rock running through it or the metal appears as flecks and flakes embedded in other rock. To separate out the desired metal, the ore is placed in a furnace. For copper, that furnace must reach temperatures nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the copper melts and drips out of the surrounding rock. However, if the surrounding rock or other metals in the ore have a lower melting point, they will melt out first. Bronze Age miners and metalworkers quickly learned how to separate out the different metals and what use they each had, from jewelry to tools.

Modern day smelting
smelting

Casting

Once the copper was purified, it was ready to combine with tin to make bronze. Sometimes, this was also done at the mine site. However, it was often sent to other places where they would work the metal locally. Recent excavations in Jordan uncovered one of the largest workshops for copper and bronze in the Bronze Age.

Molten metal pouring out of a crucible
crucible

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