If you’re reading these words, you already know that this is a series of blog posts about how metals have shaped our modern world. But, if you look closer, they’re about much more than that. These blogs are about us. “Us” as in, us humans.
It’s a fact that metals’ have inextricably changed our world. It’s also a fact that their discovery, followed by the science of metallurgy, have influenced or allowed practices in agriculture, building, early city planning and warfare that would never have been possible otherwise. But the bigger picture, the part we should pay extra attention to, is that we made it so. I’m in the business of mineral exploration, so I know first-hand the impact a single discovery can have in terms of its utilitarian purposes. But after all these years I see more than that. In my mind’s eye metals have shaped our modern world, but only by using our hands — serving as undeniable proof of the sheer determination and creativity of the human spirit.
In this series, I hope to tip my hat to both.
Copping to the Past
As far back as 9000 B.C., ancient humans had used gold for decorative purposes. Too rare and too soft a metal to serve a more functional purpose, not until the ancients began to experiment with copper were larger utilitarian needs met and exceeded.
Archaeologists tend to argue indefatigably about things like where and when copper was first used. But according to Arthur C. Reardon’s magnum opus, Metallurgy for the Non-Metallurgist, “The Chalcolithic period is the name that archaeologists give to the time period that immediately preceded the Bronze Age in which metals were first being mastered, and they date this period between approximately 5000 and 3000 B.C.” A little wishy-washy if you ask me, but for my purposes here it will do.
An Unfulfilling Destiny Gets a Makeover
In its pure form copper was known to the ancient civilizations of present-day Egypt, the Middle East, and North America. But like gold, copper in its pure form is relatively soft, which makes it of little use as a tool or weapon. The ancient Egyptians and those like them however, realized that by hammering copper you could made it substantially stronger; and so, began using it for knives to cut and clean fish and game. But still, its overall purpose was to be pounded and hammered into ornamental objects of desire. A rather unfulfilling destiny for such a capable metal.
Fast forward to about 2400 B.C., when the ancient Egyptians began using copper to sterilize water and wounds. A thousand years later they began to use it to treat burns and ease headache pain. That the ancient Egyptians figured out copper’s anti-bacterial properties is quite extraordinary when you consider that more than four millennia separate us, and yet today it is often used in airports and medical facilities for the exact same purposes.
You’ve probably heard the term ‘alloy’ before, but you might not know what it means. An alloy is a generic term for a metal that is made by combining two or more metals together. What makes alloys desirable is that they are almost always stronger when combined than either metal is on its own. Bronze, for example, is roughly a nine-to-one mixture of copper and tin. And while alloys in themselves may not be fascinating, what is fascinating is that humans ever conceived of their invention in the first place.
The Bronze Age was ushered in on the back of an alloy. From various items retrieved from ancient archaeological sites, we know that this 9 to 1 mixture holds approximately true even then. What’s most fascinating of all though, is that from what we understand of our ancient ancestors, the idea to combine metals to alter their properties and make them stronger or less corrosive appeared almost simultaneously among a variety of different geographic regions at the same time. The use of copper was widespread among regions known today as Turkey, Iran, Iraq, North America, China, even the Indian subcontinent and later on the Andes in South America. To state the obvious, it’s quite a coincidence.
The Bronze Effect
The effect of bronze on ancient civilizations cannot be understated. It allowed better quality weapons to be made in increasingly large numbers, which strengthened military power. Bronze wares became a major source of income, which in many cases caused migration by those people in search of opportunity. Areas rich in copper and tin deposits became wealthy, creating more trade (and interaction) between different cultures.
In many ways I find the discovery of bronze more interesting than that of pure copper. Mostly because I feel it marks a major milestone both in terms of the technological advances it ushered in, but also in our ability as human beings to make powerful observations and develop creative solutions. And that is something I am interested in as it applies to our world today.
Supply and Demand
As we set sail from the shores of the Copper and Bronze Ages, I will be the first to tell you that things are about to get a little bumpy. And is it any wonder? In a nutshell, supply and demand shortages of tin were more than likely largely responsible for the Bronze Age Collapse, not to mention massive trade disruptions in the Mediterranean. But let’s not dwell on what could have been. Instead let’s look ahead to the future, where things are about to get seriously interesting.