Bronze Age Materials

Copper

Initially copper was used without any additives to create tools, in a phase before metallurgists discovered that adding elements like tin to copper formed the harder bronze; this period after the Neolithic and before the Bronze Age is known as Chalcolithic (or Copper Age), roughly between about 4500 and 3500 BCE.

Copper is a ductile metal that is soft and malleable; a freshly exposed surface has a reddish-orange colour. It is the eighth most abundant metal in the Earth's crust, and is found all over the world.

It is one of the few that can appear in pure or native state (right) and was easily available during prehistoric times; in Cyprus or Crete, it was simply picked it up from the ground.

Copper ore can be found in over 160 different minerals, such as malachite (below), azurite, chalcopyrite, cuprite, chrysocolla and tennantite. Once obtained, the copper ore must be processed by separated from the gangue (worthless material that surrounds) through smelting in a furnace that is able to reach at least 1,089 °C (1,992 °F).

copper ore

Copper is a chemical element with the symbol Cu (from Latin: cuprum) and atomic number 29

native copper

Native Copper

Discovered in 1987 on the Great Orme (a prominent limestone headland on the north coast of Wales), is a mine that was used to extract copper until around 600BCE.

Great Orme mine

A view across the open mine at Great Orme

Other prehistoric copper mines have been identified at Mitterberg (Austria), Kargaly (Russia), Rudna Glava (Serbia) and at Ai Bunar mine (Bulgaria), Mount Gabriel (Ireland), Alderley Edge (UK), Neuchâtel (Switzerland), Cabrierés (France), Mola Alta de Serelles (Spain).

Tin

At first, arsenic was added to native copper to create Bronze, however the toxic fumes emitted by arsenic during smelting affected the eyes, lungs and skin. The earliest artefacts known have been found on the Iranian plateau in the 5th BCE. Sometime during the early Bronze Age, metal workers started using Tin-Bronze (a composition of 90% copper and 10% tin) which was stronger and far easier to cast than copper alone. The addition of tin meant the copper had a lower melting point and is slower to set, so that filling moulds is easier.

Unlike copper, tin is much rarer and was only really available in large quantities during prehistory in a few areas, such as Cornwall, north-east Iberia and German/Czech border. There was a significant production of tin before 2000 BCE from the Kestel mine in the Taurus Mountains (Turkey), however this oldest mine stopped producing tin just as the Bronze Age started to boom.

The Southwest was one of the few parts of UK to escape the Ice Age, this meant that alluvial tin ore was available in the gravels of streams and rivers. Although Tin mining in Cornwall and Devon is believed to have existed from around 2500 BCE, evidence from sites like Wendron Valley, River Cober and Carn Euny is rare. Human remains found in the tin-bearing sediments below a small prehistoric cairn at Perran-ar-Worthal suggests early Bronze Age mining activity.

Bronze Age Tools

There were a variety of tools that were made including flanged axes, daggers and halberds. Later in the Middle and Late Bronze Age swords appeared along with developments in axe design, razors, personal adornments in metal and shields. The metal composition in the later Bronze Age (1000 BC) often included lead which made the Bronze alloy even stronger.

Bronze age tool

Various Bronze Age tools and implements

As well as metal, other crafts continued on from the Stone Age including flintknapping, basketry, bone working, woodworking leather tanning and more. The use of stone tools was more common in the early Bronze Age as not everyone could afford metal objects, but this did not compromise the quality of the flint work from the Bronze Age. Specialist flintknappers were able to produce high quality arrowheads and beaker daggers that would have still be considered high status goods. Most flint found by archaeologists dating to the Bronze Age has been made by inexperienced hands but the basic tools and flakes produced would still be useful. Flint work generally starts to disappear towards the end of the middle Bronze Age as metal becomes more affordable.

>> Click here for Bronze Age casting <<

Bronze Age Innovations

Astronomy and Mathematics

Based on evidence from Denmark where a bronze chariot figurine with horses was discovered in 1902 in a peat bog on the Trundholm moor, it likely that sun worshipping would have been key within Bronze Age belief systems. The small metal chariot (cast in the lost wax method) is carrying an upright metal disc coated with a thin sheet of gold pressed onto one side, which probably represents the sun and the chariot pulling it across the sky.

The Nebra Sky Disc (right) was discovered by Henry Westphal and Mario Renner while illegally treasure hunting with a metal detector near the summit of  Mittelberg ("central hill"), 60 km west of Leipzig in the summer of 1999.

The disc has a blue-green patina and inlaid with gold symbols which are generally interpreted as a sun, a lunar crescent and stars. A cluster of seven dots has been interpreted as the Pleiades constellation (also known as the Seven Sisters or M45) as it appeared 3,600 years ago, along with the major planets of Mars, Venus and Mercury.

It is thought that the purpose of the Sky Disc was to help determine when to sow grain or harvest crops. At sunset, a point on the Sky Disc was aligned with the Brocken, a mountain visible for many miles in the Nebra area.

Boats

By the middle Bronze Age, a new type of sea-going boat had evolved, made of cut oak planks tightly stitched together with yew withies into a watertight keeled hull.

Curragh

  • The remains of three planked boats (known as the Ferriby Boats), dating from between 2020 and 1680 BCE and up to 16m long, were found on the north bank of the Humber at Ferriby. The first boat, known as Ferriby Boat 1, was found by Ted and Will Wright, on the shore of the Humber in 1937. Three years later Ted Wright came across the end of a second boat-plank and in 1963, part of a third boat was discovered, again by Ted Wright and his son - Roderick.
  • The Dover Bronze Age Boat, about 9.5 metres long with space for at least 18 paddlers, dates from about 1550 BCE.
  • A fleet of eight Bronze Age boats was discovered near Peterborough in 2013. It is believed that all had been deliberately sunk; one was around 9m long, another had decorative carvings on the inside and outside; one had oak handles for lifting; one had traces of a fire that was lit on the wide deck.

coracle

Organised Societies, Centralised Government and Laws

It is thought that Sargon of Akkad (also known as Sargon the Great "the Great King") built the first empire in the world and reigned for 56 years from around 2300-2200 B.C. His vast empire included large parts of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Elam (western Iran) and Syria. Sargon's legacy is known from his reputation through 2,000 years of cuneiform Mesopotamian history and not from documents that were written during his lifetime.

After Sargon seized power by conquering nearby kingdoms beginning with Uruk, he placed his most trusted men in positions of power in various cities. These "Citizens of Akkad", as a later Babylonian text referred to them, were the governors in over 65 different cities. The empire came to be known for their contributions to architecture and the sciences, including:

  • The construction of roads
  • Improved irrigation
  • A wider sphere of influence in trade
  • Standardised weights and measures for use in daily commerce
  • The first postal system (clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform Akkadian script that were wrapped in outer clay envelopes marked with the name and address of the recipient and the seal of the sender)

Hammurabi was the sixth Amorite king of Babylon from 1792 BC to 1750 BC, becoming the first king of the Babylonian Empire following the abdication of his father. Hammurabi is known for the set of laws and a legal structure for his subjects called Hammurabi's Code - one of the first codes of law inscribed on a stele (stone or wooden slab)  and placed in a public place so that all could see it.

Writing

Writing numbers for the purpose of record keeping began long before the writing of language. During the Bronze Age, language writing systems were developed, to help manage the increasing population and communities, as spoken instructions and basic symbols became less effective. Around 20 different categories and sub-categories of writing systems have been identified, including:

  • Anatolian hieroglyphs 
  • Egyptian hieroglyphs
  • Byblos syllabary
  • Cuneiforms
  • Cascajal Block
  • Linear A
  • Linear B
  • Chinese logographs

Wheeled carts

Wheeled vehicles appear from around 4,000 BCE in Mesopotamia, Central Europe and Northern Caucasus, with the earliest well-dated depiction of a cart (with four wheels and two axles) on the Bronocice pot, excavated in a Funnelbeaker culture settlement in southern Poland and from around 3500 – 3350 BC. Horses and oxen were domesticated during the Bronze Age in Britain and evidence for pulling carts include trappings (such as snaffle bits) have been found at  Flag Fen and Blair Drummond.

The Trundholm Sun Chariot discovered in 1902 is a small bronze chariot figurine with horses, carrying an upright metal disc coated with gold which probably represents the sun. The horse stands on a bronze rod supported by four wheels; the rod below the horse is connected to the disk, which is supported by two wheels (The six wheels have four spokes).

Wood Lathe

Typically associated with the Iron Age, the lathe was used to turn wood, bone and amber into a variety of objects. Evidence from the Dartmoor Princess cist (four lathe turned ear studs) suggests that wood turning was performed during the Bronze Age or even earlier (read Stuart King's account of the reconstruction of the ear studs).


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