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Early Metallurgy in Southeastern Europe



Early Copper Mines at Rudna Glava and Ai Bunar . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 322

The earliest technologies employed by humans and their hominid ancestors, such as stone tool manufacture, were developed nearly two million years ago by reducing raw materials that occur in nature to a specific form or shape (e.g., a nodule of chert was reduced to a flake). Later, humans began to develop more complex composite technologies that required the combination of separate naturally occurring raw materials to create something new and different (e.g., clay, fire, and water were combined to create ceramics). The developments of these techniques mark important moments in the prehistory of humanity, but the innovators were limited by their inability to produce durable artifacts that could be reused and refashioned when they were worn-out or broken. Once the pot broke, it had to be thrown away. When the stone tool was resharpened so many times that it no longer fit into its haft, it had to be discarded.

It was not until human societies learned to develop technologies that would let them turn rock into metal that they would be able to create artifacts that could be used to the point of exhaustion and then re-created into something new. With the advent of metallurgy, the products manufactured by a human technology could be reused and recycled several times, thus making both the products themselves and the knowledge involved in their production more precious and valuable to their makers. Unfortunately, these very characteristics—reusability and recyclability—of metal artifacts make the study of early metallurgy extremely difficult for archaeologists. Simply because the tools were so valuable, they seldom were left behind in their original forms for archaeologists to find.


Metallurgy, like several other early technologies, developed independently across the world in several different cultural contexts—in North America, Central America, Southeast Asia, the Near East, Mesopotamia, and southeastern Europe. As a result, the precise timing of the advent of early metallurgy and its spread throughout the world has been a topic of much discussion.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, archaeologists have uncovered evidence for copper production during the Neolithic and the Copper Age in the Balkan region of southeastern Europe, the Near East, and Mesopotamia. The prevalent theoretical paradigm during the early 1900s assumed that most cultural innovations occurred earliest in the Near East and spread by processes of cultural diffusion and migration throughout Eurasia. This ex oriente lux (light from the east) framework was encouraged by relative dating methods that forced archaeologists to establish regional chronological sequences based upon typological similarities in artifact types found in stratigraphic sequences—or corresponding layers—at different sites. It was not until the advent of absolute dating methods, such as radiocarbon dating, that archaeologists were able to establish independent absolute chronological sequences for specific regions that then could be related to absolute sequences in other areas.

In a seminal article entitled "The Autonomy of the South-East European Copper Age," Colin Renfrew convincingly demonstrated, using both absolute and relative dating methods, that the development of copper smelting technology occurred earlier in the Balkans than in the Near East and Mesopotamia. In addition, Renfrew argued, metallurgy was not "a single invention, but a number of distinct and separate discoveries." He noted that in most areas the first stage would have been the hammering and drilling of native—or naturally pure—copper to produce beads. This stage would have been followed by annealing—a process of heating and cooling to facilitate shaping—and hammering the metal into a desired form. This procedure naturally would have led to forming the melted metal in casts. Finally, he suggested, the process of melting and casting would have led to the addition of other rocks, including ores, which would have led to smelting—extracting the metal from rocks—and eventually to alloying—or mixing—copper with other metals, such as tin and arsenic, to produce bronze.

While the precise chronological relationship between early metalworking technology in southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia remains unclear, by the fifth millennium b.c. copper production in southeastern Europe was more sophisticated than its Asian counterpart and dramatically influenced trade networks and socioeconomic organization.


A few native copper artifacts dated to the eighth millennium b.c. have been identified at Çayönü in eastern Anatolia and to the seventh millennium b.c. at Çatal Hüyük in southwestern Anatolia. At the beginning of the sixth millennium b.c., the Hassuna and Halaf cultures in Mesopotamia boasted modest assemblages containing copper and lead ornaments, all cold-hammered from native materials.

The earliest copper artifacts in southeastern Europe appeared late in the sixth millennium b.c. at such sites as Lepenski Vir. Archaeologists, including Henrietta Todorova, have suggested that, in addition to being used to produce artifacts, colorful azurite and malachite ores (both copper carbonates) may also have been used for body decoration. At Lepenski Vir, malachite and azurite beads were found in Early Neolithic contexts. And small ornamental copper artifacts, such as awls, beads, rings, and armbands, were found on settlements and in cemeteries throughout the Balkans.

By the middle of the fifth millennium b.c., much larger copper tools were being produced, initially in the form of flat copper axes and later in the form of "hammer-axes" with a hole for hafting, called a shaft-hole. By the end of the fifth millennium b.c., toolmakers were producing ax-adzes and large chisels. Interestingly, at the beginning of the fourth millennium b.c., the variability in copper tool types decreased considerably, suggesting a shift in the organization of production that was perhaps related to the exhaustion of productive ore sources in the area of modern-day Bulgaria and Serbia and to the discovery of more remote sources, possibly in the Transylvania region.


One of the biggest stumbling blocks archaeologists encounter when trying to understand the organization of prehistoric copper production is the fact that, unlike most other early technologies, such as ceramic and chipped-stone manufacture, the production of copper artifacts leaves behind almost no traces. Chipped-stone production, a reductive technology, leaves behind flakes and debitage each time an artifact is modified. Similarly, pots frequently break when they are being fired or at some point during their use, leaving behind fragments that cannot be efficiently reused for the archaeologist to find.

Not only does copper production leave little residue, the copper products themselves can be reused to the point of exhaustion and then reincorporated—or recycled—into new products. As a result, the current understanding of copper production techniques is based only upon the very sparse evidence that remains behind in those areas where copper was initially exploited, where the artifacts themselves were produced, and where the artifacts finally came to be deposited in the ground.


The earliest copper artifacts found in Neolithic contexts in southeastern Europe were produced from native copper sources that easily could be manipulated by cold-hammering techniques. These techniques were no more complex than those that had been used to produce stone tools for ages: once identified and acquired from the source, the raw materials were drilled and pounded into the desired shape. Similarly, annealing would have built on well-known techniques, such as heat treating lithic raw materials to promote their flaking characteristics.

The extraction of metals from ores, however, is a process that requires extensive knowledge of both the chemical properties of the raw materials themselves and the atmospheric conditions necessary for manipulating the raw materials to produce and modify the metals. As a result, metalworkers in several ethnographic societies are treated like shamans—respected individuals who have restricted access to specific knowledge. Frequently, metalworkers establish guilds or secret societies into which novices are inducted through elaborate rites of passage and long apprenticeships.

Native copper, which occurs naturally but is rare, requires a temperature of 1,083°C (1,981°F) to reach a molten state. The smelting of copper metal from ores, such as malachite and azurite, does not require as high a temperature, but it must occur in an oxygen-deprived atmosphere, also called an oxygen-reduced environment. Both of these conditions can be achieved, with substantial effort, in an open fire with a crucible or in a furnace or kiln. Normally, additional geological materials, called fluxes, must be added to the ore at high temperatures in the reducing atmosphere to remove impurities from the metal. The fluxes fuse with the impurities during the melting process to create a waste product, called slag, that separates from the remaining crude copper.

Renfrew noted that the conditions necessary for smelting copper had already been achieved in the fifth millennium b.c. by craftspeople who produced the graphite-decorated pottery that became common throughout the southern Balkans during that time. Like smelting, the graphite decoration was created in an oxygen-reduced, heated environment. The widespread use of graphite decoration indicates not only that potters knew how to create the atmospheric environments necessary for smelting copper but also that they were experimenting with different rare minerals while producing pots.


Unlike the raw material sources for producing stone tools and ceramics, which occur in several different types of environments throughout southeastern Europe, sources of copper ore occur only in very specific microenvironments. The copper ore sources in southeastern Europe are concentrated in veins that run through limestone massifs in the Balkans, particularly in Bulgaria and Serbia, where mines dating to the Copper Age have been discovered. Copper sources also occur in Transylvania, but so far there is no evidence to suggest these sources were exploited in prehistory.


Extensive research since the 1970s has helped develop an understanding of the nature of copper ore exploitation and mining. Unfortunately, the elusive nature of metallurgical technology, which leaves behind very little evidence, prevents a good understanding of where the remaining steps of copper production occurred.

Scant evidence from contemporary settlements throughout the region suggests that access to the ore sources was unrestricted throughout the end of the Neolithic and during most of the Copper Age. Most steps of copper production—including smelting, annealing, casting, molding, and recycling—probably occurred on regular habitation sites and not at special-purpose sites, as seems to have been the case at the end of the Copper Age. There were several contemporary settlements within a short distance of the mines at Ai Bunar that produced copper oxide fragments that derived from the mines themselves. But there is no evidence to suggest that these settlements were special-purpose settlements that were responsible for smelting the copper from the ore. No contemporary settlements have been identified in the vicinity of the mines at Rudna Glava.

The vast majority of evidence for copperworking derives from infrequent finds of copper slag and ore fragments at settlement sites. At the site of Selevac in Serbia, Ruth Tringham and Peter Glumac reported finding a single piece of copper slag and several small fragments of ore that they suggest indicate on-site processing. Copper slag traced to the source at Rudna Glava has been found at the site of Slatino in southwestern Bulgaria. Slag has also been discovered at the sites of Vadastra in Bulgaria, Anza in Yugoslavia, and Sitagroi and Mandalo in northern Greece.

The presence of copper slag at these settlement sites suggests that copper processing occurred as part of the normal economic activities carried out by people living in southeastern Europe during the late fifth and early fourth millennia b.c. There is no evidence to suggest that access to the copper sources was restricted during this time, and the absence of specific settlements or specific parts of settlements dedicated to copper processing suggests that each individual household most likely was responsible for producing its own copper artifacts, just as each most likely was responsible for producing its own ceramics.

By the end of the Copper Age, c. 3000 b.c., some settlements were probably divided into areas that were specifically dedicated to copper processing. Evidence at the site of Vučedol in Croatia demonstrates this development. Located on the right bank of the Danube River, about 5 kilometers east of Vukovar, on a loess terrace about 30 meters above the river, the site comprises 4 flat-topped mounds that were occupied at various times throughout the Neolithic and the Copper Age. During the Copper Age, the settlement extended across most of the site, covering an area of approximately 3 hectares (7.4 acres). The site is considerably larger than contemporary sites in the vicinity and may have been a regional economic and social center.

The highest part of the site at Vučedol was separated from the rest of the settlement by two parallel ditches. These ditches enclosed a large rectangular structure that was considerably larger than the houses located in surrounding residential areas, and this area also produced the only evidence of copper smelting on the site. Stašo Forenbaher has argued that this part of the settlement may have been occupied by a local elite that exercised control not only over Vučedol but also over the production and exchange of precious goods and that dominated the smaller settlements in the area. Unfortunately, there is little convincing evidence for the presence of an elite class within that or any other settlement of the Late Copper Age in the area. Thus, while the settlement may have been an economic and ideological center where copper processing occurred, it seems unlikely that it would have been the center of a chiefdom.

Sometime during the Copper Age, however, there seems to have been a shift in the methods of copper production. Whereas it had been a task carried out by individual households at the beginning of the period, by the end of the period it had become a task carried out by a specific subset of the population. But this general pattern of increasing specialization does not seem to have been associated exclusively with metalworking. Timothy Kaiser and Barbara Voytek have argued that there was a general trend toward increasing specialization and more intensive production in households during this time in southeastern Europe. The trend extends to various aspects of economic organization, including ceramic and textile production and subsistence practices.


A great deal can be learned about the economic organization of prehistoric societies by studying how and where they exploited and processed copper ores, but it is considerably more difficult to understand how copper tools themselves were used and perceived by the people who produced them. To approach this question, it is necessary to study those contexts where copper objects came to be deposited in the ground, either intentionally or accidentally.

The vast majority of copper artifacts from the Neolithic period, until about 4500 b.c., have been discovered in burials or as random finds in settlement deposits. With the exception of a fishhook at the Early Vinča site of Gornea, nearly all copper artifacts from this period are small and associated with body decoration, including beads, rings, and armbands. However, copper artifacts from the Copper Age, after about 4500 b.c., are found in three different types of depositional contexts: in settlements, in burials, and as stray finds (which means that their provenience is uncertain or unknown). The artifacts found in settlements tend to be small and fragmentary and related either to body decoration, such as beads, pendants, and rings, or to domestic tasks, such as awls used in sewing and textile production. The copper artifacts found in burials tend to be either small ornaments associated with body decoration or much larger, more functional tools, including hammer-axes, adzes, and chisels. Several of these large tools are reported as stray finds.

Although nearly half of the smaller objects exhibit evidence of use, few of the larger artifacts, whether found in burial contexts or as stray finds, appear to have been used at all. This leads some authors, such as Douglass W. Bailey, to suggest that the larger, more extravagant copper artifacts were intended primarily for display and not for functional uses. It is equally likely that used large artifacts are found less frequently than used small artifacts because the large artifacts were continually being recycled and small artifacts were not or because large artifacts were not considered appropriate as burial goods if they had been used. Indeed, the wide variety of artifact types and their occurrence in several different social contexts suggests they filled diverse social roles—as functional tools, items of prestige, and items of display.


About the same time copper began to be extensively exploited in the region, artifacts of gold also began to circulate and be deposited in the ground, primarily in mortuary contexts. Compared with the complex technological processes necessary to process copper, little smelting is required to work gold. Since the raw material is itself very soft, it easily can be beaten and hammered without being heated. Gold is available in streams in Bulgaria, and nuggets may have been mined there in prehistory.

The vast majority of gold in southeastern Europe comes from the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. Most of the gold artifacts are small ornaments of body or clothing decoration found in burials. Over three thousand gold objects were recovered from the fifth millennium b.c. cemetery near the site of Varna. Gold artifact types in the Varna cemetery include cinched beads, thin sheets, spirals, diadems, earrings, lip covers, lip plugs, bracelets, and a penis sheath. Other gold artifacts have been found in fifth millennium b.c. contexts on the Great Hungarian Plain and at other sites in northern and eastern Bulgaria.

As Alasdair Whittle has noted, it may seem counterintuitive, but the paucity of gold in burials during this period in southeastern Europe may be a reflection not of gold's high social value but rather of its low social value, perhaps because of the ease with which it could be worked. Given this interpretation, the preponderance of gold in the cemetery at Varna may therefore be explained as having been a substitute for copper.


Throughout the Neolithic period, until about 5000 b.c., the farmers and herders of southeastern Europe exploited the rich deposits of nearly pure native copper located in the Balkan mountains to make trinkets—beads and other small artifacts—that were used primarily for ornamentation and body decoration. During this time, they used techniques of manufacture that did not differ considerably from the techniques they used to exploit lithic raw materials, such as chert.

About 5000 b.c., the early metalworkers learned to adapt techniques they had developed to make graphite ceramics to smelt copper from carbonate ores, such as malachite and azurite. This innovation probably occurred independently in southeastern Europe, and by the middle of the fifth millennium b.c., metalworkers there had far surpassed the quantity and quality of work being carried out in the Near East and Mesopotamia. Much larger artifacts, including axes, adzes, and chisels, were being produced from ores that were excavated at complex mining sites, such as Ai Bunar and Rudna Glava. There was a general increase across the region in the quantity and variety of types of artifacts that were produced throughout the fifth millennium b.c.

By the end of the fourth millennium b.c., copper production decreased considerably in the Balkans, perhaps because of the overexploitation of local resources. Some authors, such as E. N. Chernykh, suggest that metalworking became more primitive during this time, when the mines at Rudna Glava and Ai Bunar also fell into disuse. Once again, objects made of copper became smaller types associated with ornamentation and body decoration.

Beginning in the middle of the fourth millennium b.c., metalworkers in the northern Balkans began to experiment with different alloys. They mixed copper with other metals, such as arsenic, which in some cases occurred as a natural impurity in copper ores. They quickly learned that these "arsenic bronzes" improved the quality of the final product by making the material harder and generally easier to work. By the second millennium b.c., probably via diffusion from Anatolia, the metalworkers learned that one of the best alloys for copper was tin. The combination of these two metals created a new material that was much harder and much more durable than copper but that could be recycled and reused in a similar fashion. That material was bronze.

See alsoWarfare and Conquest (vol. 1, part 1); Early Copper Mines at Rudna Glava and Ai Bunar (vol. 1, part 4); Varna (vol. 1, part 4).


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William A. Parkinson

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