Copper metallurgy, who discovered it?

Archived by, but not written by, me.


Extensive research by eastern European scholars has reshaped our understanding of early copper ore mining techniques that were used during the Late Neolithic and Early Copper Age in the Balkans. Since the late 1960s, archaeological investigations at two copper mines—Rudna Glava and Ai Bunar—have revealed the complexity of early copper metallurgical techniques and revised our understanding of early copper exploitation strategies and their relationship to other socioeconomic processes.

 One of the most well-known prehistoric copper mines is the site of Rudna Glava in eastern Serbia. The site, located 140 kilometers east of Belgrade on the Romanian border, was a magnetite mine until the late 1960s. Archaeological excavations by Borislav Jovanović in the 1970s revealed over twenty prehistoric mine shafts that followed veins of copper ore throughout the limestone massif.

The mine was excavated in antiquity using techniques that had been employed for thousands of years to exploit lithic resources, such as chert. Armed with stone mauls and antler picks, the prehistoric miners followed the vertical veins of copper ore into the hillside. They employed a method of heating and cooling to break up the ore and facilitate quarrying. First they would light fires along the wall face. Then they would throw water onto the hot rock, causing it to crack and thus making it easier to chip apart. Some of the veins were followed 15 to 20 meters into the center of the hill, with small horizontal access platforms extending off the main shaft. In those cases where the shaft appeared to be in danger of collapsing the miners built stone supporting walls out of the debris they excavated.

The mine at Rudna Glava is well dated to the Late Neolithic and Early Copper Age, a period also known as the Chalcolithic, which took place during the second half of the fifth and the first half of the fourth millennium B.C. This dating is based on pottery from the Vinča culture that was found in the mine shafts. Jovanović recorded three different accumulations of pottery in the shafts. The oldest, which was found on an access platform in the mine along with a damaged antler tool and a large stone maul, dates to the transitional phase, known as the Gradac phase, between Early and Late Vinča, during the fifth millennium B.C. The two other pottery concentrations are characteristic of Late Vinča culture and date to the early fourth millennium B.C.

Another early copper mine was excavated at the site of Ai Bunar in northern Bulgaria in the Sredna Gora Mountains of central Bulgaria. The mine at Ai Bunar is roughly contemporary with the mine at Rudna Glava, and the miners used similar techniques. They excavated narrow open trenches to follow the veins of copper carbonates into the hills. As at Rudna Glava, archaeologists found antler picks and stone mauls in the mine shafts, in addition to two shaft-hole copper tools and the remains of three human individuals.

The ceramics found at Ai Bunar are characteristic of the ceramics found in the sixth layer at the Karanovo tell (Karanovo VI) and date to the late fifth millennium B.C. While this discovery demonstrates that the mines at Ai Bunar were in use during the later fifth millennium B.C., other evidence suggests the mines probably were in use somewhat earlier, possibly as early as the end of the sixth millennium B.C. Copper objects and ore that have been demonstrated chemically to have derived from the sources at Ai Bunar were found at several sites in south-central Bulgaria that are contemporary with Karanovo V, a phase that dates to the beginning of the fifth millennium B.C.

Chemical analyses, primarily lead isotope analyses, carried out by E. N. Chernykh, Noël H. Gale, and several Bulgarian specialists have demonstrated that Ai Bunar and Rudna Glava were not the only sources for copper ore in prehistory. The analysis of copper artifacts from several sites in south-central Bulgaria suggests that at least four other copper sources were exploited, though they remain unidentified.

A handful of other copper mines have been located in northern Thrace, one of which contained Karanovo V and VI pottery, and another prehistoric mine also is known to have existed at Mali Sturac, a site in the Rudnik mountain range in central Serbia. Unfortunately, none of these sites has been extensively explored, and little has been published about them

As I understand it,  fairly complex copper forges dating back to about 5,500 BC have been found  in Serbia. Interestingly, the oldest recognised smelted copper object (a mace head from Can Hasan, Turkey) only dates to about 5,000 BC, according to the text books. This older age for the copper smelting forges at  Plocnik  and the mine at Ai Bunar than the Turkish find does rather put a big question mark on the ancient Turks inventing it. If the forges at Plocknik were simple, it might still be a coin toss, but apparently the forges were not ‘entry level’, and showed signs of a well developed metallurgy even 7,500 years ago.

Also, according to this news item, the Can Hassan mace head may have lost its crown as the oldest smelted copper object..

According to National Museum archaeologist Dušan Šljivar, experts found a “copper chisel and stone axe at a location near Prokuplje in which the foundation has proven to be 7,500 years old, leading us to believe that it was one of the first places in which metal weapons and tools were made in prehistoric times.”

It’s looking like the Anatolians weren’t the discoverers, after all.

3 responses to “Copper metallurgy, who discovered it?

  1. Mathilda,

    I live in Oconto WI USA which is a home to the Copper Culture People and have been dated to 5,500 BC and were known metealsmiths using copper. Are you aware of these Copper Culture People,



  2. Nice post early copper mines. Thanks for the information given.

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