A discussion of copper, lead, gold and silver artefacts in the Old World, their origins and distribution from the Neolithic up to the time of the earliest smelting in the Chalcolithic or Copper age… and a discussion of where copper and lead smelting originated?

(originally written mid 2010 – completely revised August 29th 2015)

The expansion of metal use in Europe and the Middle East. Brown is native copper, green is smelted copper. Arrows indicate probable sources of metals.

The expansion of metal use in Europe and the Middle East. Brown is native copper, green is smelted copper. Arrows indicate probable sources of metals.

While this article discusses four different metals, its major focus is on copper. This is because copper has been recovered from sites which span the whole of the Neolithic, as well as later ages. The other metals are rarely or never found in sites dating before the advent of the Copper Age and, in the case of gold and silver, only late in the Copper Age.

The article concentrates on Europe and the Middle East because evidence for metal use occurs here from the late ninth millennium BC, much earlier than in other parts of the Old World. Only in the Great Lakes of North America does evidence for independent native copper use go back to the end of this period (around 5000 BC).

(All quoted dates below are meant to be calibrated.)

Sources of Copper

Copper comes in several natural forms from ‘veins’ in the ore bodies of the Earth. These occur across much of Europe and the Middle East (though notably not along the North African Maghreb). Concentrations occur in Turkey, the Balkans, Iran, Spain, Sardinia, Cyprus and the western British Isles, with local occurrences in the Levant, the Sinai Peninsula, Arabia and east of the Nile.

Native copper – fibrous, red and shiny, this is copper in its metallic form. It occurs both at the surface and sometimes deeper in the ore body. Although now scarce it was once more common. This kind of copper is very pure, occasionally containing small quantities of other metals like silver.

In the top, or the weathering zone, within ten or so metres from the surface of the ore body, rocks are exposed to air and variable amounts of oxygenated water, and are generally weaker and more porous here. As well as native copper, ores in this zone are oxidised to form various minerals, including:

1 – Copper oxide e.g. cuprite, an attractive red mineral, but generally too soft for use as ornament.

2 – Copper carbonates – produced in the presence of limestone or other carbonates. The best known minerals are malachite, which is green, and the more unstable azurite. Azurite is a deep blue (not to be confused with lapis lazuli). However, it is only stable in alkaline conditions, normally breaking down to malachite on exposure to air. Malachite was often used as an ornament for beads. Both minerals were frequently ground to use as pigments.

3 – Copper silicates – such as the blue-green chrysocolla.

4 – Turquoise – a rare, blue copper aluminium phosphate mineral prized in itself.

(NB, in mountainous, glaciated areas, well developed weathering zones could have been either partially or wholly removed by ice movement, so concentrations of these minerals are likely to be rarer in mountainous parts of Europe subject to glaciation, such as the north and west of the British Isles and Scandinavia, and the higher mountains of the Alps, Pyrenees, Balkans, Turkey and the Caucasus.)

Below this is the airless, wet base of the weathering zone, known as the enrichment zone. Here, and in the drier, main ore body below, copper occurs mainly in copper sulphide ores. Amongst others, minerals include chalcocite, chalcopyrite and bornite. Although these are now the major source of copper, they are much more difficult to mine.

Processing into copper

The first stage is to dig or break the ore or copper out of the ground, using whatever tools are available. Historically, these appear to be a mixture of stones, bone or horn/antler picks. This could be supplemented if necessary by shattering the rock, achieved by heating the rock using fire then rapidly cooling it with water.

Early working of native copper usually involved hammering the copper into a sheet, then rolling the sheet copper up to make beads, hooks or awls (points). Copper is best heated (annealed) to make it less brittle after it’s been hammered.

All ores need breaking up to give them the maximum surface area possible and get rid of any obvious waste (‘gangue’). Carbonate and sulphide ores are then roasted in air to drive off volatiles (e.g. water, sulphur dioxide or carbon dioxide) and leave copper oxide. This oxide ‘charge’ can then be ‘smelted’ at high temperatures (at least 700ºC and in reality much higher) in a crucible to produce impure copper. This requires a lack of oxygen and the presence of carbon (charcoal) to remove the oxide (reduction).

An alternative method has recently been argued for early smelting, however. This involves the use of both oxide ores and sulphide ores in a mix. Given enough sulphide ore, the oxide ores are both roasted and reduced without the need for the deliberate creation of a complex reduction atmosphere using charcoal. This makes the process simpler (if messier) but uses smaller charges and will therefore produce smaller quantites of copper.

Whilst pottery only came into existence in Europe and the Middle East after the seventh millennium BC, people were able to fire clay objects even before they could make pots, as well as make lime plaster. These required temperatures greater than 700ºC. It was therefore perfectly possible to produce small dots of copper in clay firing ovens from copper ores, perhaps used as paints on pottery. Whatever, copper extraction from ore was not likely to have happened by chance.

Properties of copper

Copper keeps its shiny red appearance quite effectively and would have been a prized object in the Neolithic. Being quite soft, it also has the advantage of being able to make larger bits out of small bits by hammering and heating. Therefore (like other metals but unlike stone) its value would always have been proportional to its volume or weight. However, its softness made it less useful for practical purposes so, with exceptions, pure copper tended to be for ornaments.

Copper can be alloyed with many other elements, but two are significant historically. The first is arsenic, which, when added to copper in small percentages makes it much easier to work initially, gives an interesting sheen to the copper and may give it a harder cutting edge for tools or weapons. Adding tin to copper is, however, much more effective in giving a hard edge, and 10% tin is about ideal. It was not until the discovery of such alloys around or shortly before 4000 BC, as well as how to make them, that copper became a practical metal for tools or weapons. Whatever, this is not in the scope of this article.

Copper beads from Aşıklı Höyük, highly oxidised and fused together.

Copper beads from Aşıklı Höyük, highly oxidised and fused together.

Copper artefacts buried in the ground for several thousand years can oxidise or reduce slightly, and small artefacts can be difficult to tell from ore minerals. Chemical analysis is helpful, making it increasingly easy to tell what type of copper is in an object (mineral ore, native or smelted, alloy or not).

For example, native copper is very pure, with small amounts of silver and other trace elements, whereas smelted copper contains oxides in small concentrations (not until the third millennium BC does iron content rise significantly). However, due to the extensive reuse and mixing of copper from different sources, finding where the copper in an item came from originally is often difficult.

Lead, gold & silver sources and processing

Lead occurs naturally in the ground as lead sulphide ores such as galena or as carbonate ore such as cerrusite. It is very rare to find native lead. Galena, having a metallic look, was collected and polished early on for use as beads or ground up for cosmetics. Whilst lead ores still need temperatures of about 800ºC to roast or smelt into pure lead, it needs only mildly reducing conditions and lead melts at just 330ºC. Therefore it should be easier to extract lead from ores than copper.

Lead is malleable and heavy. However, it is poisonous and oxidises easily to a dull tarnish so in the small quantities that it would have been recovered by early peoples it had very limited uses. Lead sources occur in Turkey and Iran.

Gold is unreactive, occurring only in its native form, so does not need to be smelted. It can be found in streams (as ‘placer’ deposits) or in veins in rock. It was probably always prized but only for ornaments as it is quite soft. Gold often occurs alloyed with native silver, when it is known as ‘electrum’. Gold, like copper, can be hammered into sheets and rolled. Alternatively, it can be melted and cast at around 1050ºC.

While gold is found in many parts Europe and the Middle East, relevant locations for the probable sources of the first gold are placer deposits in Bulgaria and Turkey.

Native silver occurs in pure form, but more often as an alloy, mixed with other metals such as gold and mercury, or together with native copper. It is often found in this state near the surface in the upper weathering zone. These would have been the sources for ancient silver. Silver also occurs in many minerals (which need smelting) in small quantities within ores of lead, zinc or copper below the weathering zone.

Earliest evidence for ore use

Shaped pieces of copper ore date back to before the beginning of agriculture. Beads of malachite, turquoise and, possibly, chrysocolla have been found from Natufian culture settings in Israel. More have been found from early agricultural settings.§ As later sites often contain beads of copper ore or ore fragments I won’t discuss these further here.

The oldest piece of worked copper is often quoted as being a copper pendant from the burial site of Zawi Chemi / Shanidar Cave, northern Iraq, dated to the middle of the ninth millennium BC. However, this is not worked copper but ground and polished copper ore, probably from Turkey to the north. It is made up of malachite and chrysocolla but happens to contain a fair amount of native copper*.

Neolithic metal finds


Cayönü copper awl

A copper awl from Cayönü

The earliest known copper artefacts are from Çayönü Tepesi, an early agricultural settlement in the SE, from the late 9th millennium BC to early eighth millennium BC. The collection of around 200 fragments, from perhaps 100 original items, weighs just 140 grammes and consists of small, worked, native copper items such as drilled beads, hooks, discs, awls and reamers (points), some of which have been ground to sharpness, suggesting a practical use, perhaps in clothing making.

Most of these items were found in two areas of a single courtyard and date to the period of most activity in the site (levels I and II). Earlier evidence at Çayönü shows extensive working of malachite into beads. Çayönü happened to be near copper ores containing malachite and native copper (although apparently not those of Ergani mine).

Copper bead from Aşıklı Höyük, Turkey.

Copper bead from Aşıklı Höyük

Other early sites are Aşıklı Höyük, further west, which has drilled around 40 native copper beads in burials (levels ?) probably from the early 8th millennium BC. Small copper beads at Nevalı Çori, thought to date around 7500 BC, are considered by some to be suspect, due to chemical impurities indicative of smelting (does this mean an excess of iron? I can’t say at the moment). However, they appear genuine in form.

After a gap in evidence of about a thousand years, native copper reappears in a number of sites across Turkey. Awls, tubes, rings, pins, awls and beads been found at Çatal Höyük, dating from the mid seventh millennium BC onward (levels VII and above). Early to mid seventh millennium BC (level IX) beads (?and a pendant) from the site were originally thought to be of smelted lead, but are now known to be of shaped galena.

Copper mace head from Can Hasan, Turkey, probably dated around 5000BC

Copper mace head from Can Hasan (on display in Ankara’s Museum of Archaeology)

Hacılar (?level VI) has corroded copper pins or beads dating to ?also to the late 7th millennium BC. At Can Hasan (level 2B) a round copper mace-head several centimetres wide, made of hammered native copper, was found in a burial (lost in a fire, according to James Mellaart). This mace-head has been dated to a little after 6000 BC (I think that the 5000 BC sometimes quoted is an uncalibrated radiocarbon age). At Yümüktepe / Mersin (levels XXII-XXI) small ornaments and pins date ? to around the same time.


A rolled native copper bead, from the late eighth or early seventh millennium BC, has been found in a burial at Tepe Ali Kosh, SW Iran. It has been argued to be an imported item from eastern Turkey. Other examples of native copper date to the sixth and fifth millennia (e.g. awls from Tepe Zagheh, fragments from Chogha Sefid, pins, projectile points, awls and spiral coils from Tepe Sialk and two awls from Tepe Yahya). Chemical analysis of finds from Tepe Sialk suggest a possible source of native copper in the Talmessi Mine near Anarak, Isfahan.


A cold worked copper awl (according to Charles Maisels more like a chisel) was found on the floor of a house in seventh millennium BC Tell Maghzaliyah. From the ?late seventh millennium BC site of Tell Sotto come two highly corroded beads which may be either malachite or copper. At Tell es-Sawwan, from the late seventh to early sixth millennium BC, three possibly copper beads and a piece of ore were found on a floor surface (level II), as well as a very small, perforated knife in a burial (level I).

From early to mid sixth millennium Yarim Tepe I two copper rings (in levels XI and X (Mellaart says IX) and a copper sheet bead (in level VII) have been found. In nearby Yarim Tepe II a possible copper bead and seal from the mid sixth millennium BC are reported. However, both are corroded and could well be malachite. Telul eth-Thalathat II, another sixth millennium BC site, has two possible copper fragments.

However, the most significant finds from the early sixth millennium BC are of what is reported to be metallic lead: From Yarim Tepe I comes a lead bracelet (underneath a wall of a level XII building) dating to around 6000 BC. From Jarmo, at about the same date, comes a tiny lead bead. And from the ‘Burnt House’ (TT6) at Tell Arpachiyah, of early sixth millennium BC date, comes conical lead ‘lump’.


A native copper nugget (called by some a pendant), made into a bead, from Tell Ramad (level I) is dated to the ?first half of the seventh millennium BC (apparently within the thousand year gap in the evidence from Turkey). Objects of copper such as rings, pins and rolled sheet come from Sabi Abyad, dated to the late seventh millennium BC. Tell Kurdu, from the early sixth millennium BC, has a bead of either malachite or copper. On the other hand, Chagar Bazar has a bead of pure native copper of about the same date.


Copper beads, dating from the end of the seventh into the sixth millennium BC, have been found at Mehrgarh.


The first evidence of native copper here is an awl over 14 cm long. This comes from the (presumably late) seventh millennium BC site of Balomir, Romania, at a time shortly after farming was adopted in the Balkans. Other Balkan sites such as Belovode, Vinca, Selevac, Coka, Cernica, Ovcharovo I, Usoe II have evidence for rolled native copper beads and Gornea for simple hooks.


A copper ring-shaped bead from Aruchlo I, Georgia, dated to the mid sixth millennium BC, has a surprising amount of tin, but is still thought to be of native copper.


A copper awl from a burial at Tel Tsaf has been dated to around or just after 5000 BC. Due to a high tin content is thought to be of non-local origin.


An anomaly in this catalogue is the reported occurrence of native copper artefacts in Banpo, China, dated to around 6000 BC.

Evidence of smelting


It has been argued that corroded copper from Tell is Sawwan and at Yarim Tepe I shows a notable content of iron, making it possible that the copper is derived from smelting around the early sixth millennium BC. This is currently disputed.

However, three occurrences of lead dating to the beginning of the sixth millennium BC at Yarim Tepe, Jarmo and Tell Arpachiyah are potentially more significant. Unless they came from a rare source of native lead then they are likely to be sourced from the roasting or smelting of galena. This galena is likely to have come from Turkey or Iran. Either way, while the technology needed is not as complex as that for copper smelting, it is still significant.


The earliest disputed evidence for copper smelting is from Çatal Höyük (level VIA) (late seventh millennium BC). Original reports suggested broken crucibles, semi-melted ore fragments and a slag (unwanted material from molten copper). However, doubts have been raised by Miljana Radivojevic and others, who suggest that this may be simply the result of uncontrolled fire (something certainly seen at this level) in association either with native copper or ore. Whatever, copper was melted, meaning that high temperatures were achieved.

Additionally, there is the chemical signature of smelted copper in mid eighth millennium BC Nevalı Çori. However, this date seems so anomalous as to be currently discounted.

Chisels and axes from Yümüktepe.

Chisels and axes from Yümüktepe.

Good evidence for smelted copper artefacts, is found at Yümüktepe / Mersin (level XVII), where cast copper axes and chisels with chemical signatures of smelting date from around 5000-4900 BC. Subsequent levels even show evidence of alloying with small quantities tin and arsenic.

Evidence of actual smelting in Turkey dates only to the late late fifth millennium BC at Değirmentepe and various other sites (Noršuntepe, Tepeçik, Tülintepe). The earliest evidence of copper ore mining in Turkey comes from Kozlu Eski Gümüşlük. This is dated as around 4000 BC, based on radiocarbon dating of wood from the mine.³


Clear evidence of smelting technology, in the form of slag and crucibles, comes from Belovode, Serbia, at around 5000 BC (Vinca B2). Additionally, discoveries at Pločnik, Serbia have revealed 34 large, cast copper implements, dating to the early fifth millennium BC, contemporary with those at Mersin (an additional claim of tin bronze foil from this site, dated to around 4500 BC, needs further work as it is of rather early date). Further evidence of smelting technology comes from mid fifth millennium BC Vinča-Belo Brdo, Serbia and perhaps also from Gornja Tuzla, Bosnia.

In Macedonia, possible evidence for smelting of copper comes from Dikili, together with objects and a needle, dating around the beginning of the fifth millennium BC. Copper beads and other objects are also found in Sitagroi, northern Greece (end level II), from around 4800 BC. A copper artefact with a high iron content is also found at Usoe (level II), Bulgaria, dating to around 5000 BC. Lastly, a possible fragment of slag from Anza IV, Yugoslavia, dates to the same time.

Evidence of the use of two early copper mines in the Balkans, Ai Bunar, Bulgaria and Rudna Glava, Serbia, comes from the late sixth millennium to early fourth millennium BC, based on evidence in the mines and matching chemical signatures of copper artefacts. Chemical signatures indicate that perhaps four other mines were operating somewhere in the Balkans during this period. (It is probably important to mention that mining, probably for malachite, was not not necessarily to smelt ores).

There is little evidence for copper smelting in other parts of Europe until the late fifth millennium BC, the earliest being from Brixlegg, in Austria. Copper smelting seems to be relatively widespread in central Europe by the mid fourth millennium BC.5


The earliest clear evidence for copper smelting on the Iranian Plateau is from Tal-i Iblis (between levels I and II). The dating of this evidence is poor and can currently only be limited to the range 5200-4400BC.  However, there also is good evidence for copper smelting at other places such as Tepe Ghabristan and Tepe Sialk from the mid to late fifth millennium BC. 4


Evidence of local copper smelting comes from the second half of the fifth millennium BC. Sites such  in sites such as Shiqmim and Abu Matar contain evidence of smelting ores.


Crucibles from Mehrgarh, Pakistan date from the first half of the fourth millennium BC, a little later again.


At Khvalynsk, on the Volga, 320 copper beads and other ornaments have been found in a cemetery dated to around 4700 BC. Analyses show that most of these are imports from the Balkans.

The first gold & silver

As far as I can tell, there is no Neolithic gold. The most spectacular find of gold artefacts comes from the Varna (I) cemetery in Bulgaria, but there are also various other finds of worked gold in Bulgaria, as well as in Macedonia, Romania and the Ukrainian steppe. These all date to the later fifth millennium, none being earlier than about 4500 BC. Sources for these are thought to be placer deposits in western Bulgaria.

The oldest occurrence of silver, two native silver beads, is slightly earlier, occuring in a rather macabre ‘Death Pit’ in Domuztepe, south-central Turkey, probably around the middle sixth millennium BC. Later occurrences include a hoard in Alepotrypa, in southern Greece dated to the mid 5th to early 4th millennium BC. However, there is also evidence of actual silver smelting from Sardinia by the end of the fifth millennium BC or the beginning of the 4th millennium.5


The overall picture presented above suggests the following:

1) Native copper was first extracted in south eastern Turkey around the middle of the 9th millennium BC, or shortly after the beginning of the PPNB (pre-pottery Neolithic B).

2) After 7500 BC copper becomes extremely rare in the archaeological record for a thousand years, perhaps indicating either a lack of sources, a lack of mining or extreme care in preventing its deposition.

3) From 6500 BC native copper again became increasingly available, with its use being more extensive, occurring from the Balkans to Pakistan, and profligate, being used in burials.

4) The first smelting of lead was perhaps achieved in the mid to late 6th millennium, perhaps in either south eastern Turkey or western Iran (this may await further analysis of the evidence).

5) Sometime around or just before 5000 BC the first smelting of carbonate ores for copper was achieved. This could have been in the Balkans and, possibly simultaneously, in Turkey (see discussion below).

6) By the second half of the fifth millennium BC the technology of smelting carbonate ores had spread west into central Europe, east onto the Iranian plateau, and south into the Levant.

7) The expansion of copper usage around the middle of the fifth millennium BC appears to have promoted the use of other metals, notably gold and silver, in the Balkans and beyond, as well as experimentation with alloying.

Many origins or one origin for copper smelting?

The smelting of copper has long been assumed to have started in one place, either in Turkey, Iran, Iraq or the Levant. However, recent evidence of early mining and early smelting in the Balkans has caused a reassessment.

Most archaeologists now argue for multiple origins for copper smelting, with one origin in the west, in the Balkans, and one in the east, perhaps in Turkey or Iran (currently the favoured view of Miljana Radivojevic). On the other hand some still argue for a single origin, perhaps in Turkey (e.g. Ben Roberts and Chris Thornton).

If the evidence of lead smelting is taken into account then the most parsimonious explanation would be an origin for all smelting in Turkey, as Roberts and Thornton argue. However, lead smelting needs a simpler technology than copper smelting and is not necessarily linked. If this were not taken into account, then it’s perfectly arguable that the Balkans (including perhaps NW Turkey) is earlier in its smelting of copper.

What if the chisels found in Mersin/Yümüktepe, Turkey were, in fact, imports from the Balkans? While very unlikely, the recent discovery in Israel of a copper awl with a high tin content, which appeared to be from somewhere beyond Anatolia, suggests that copper objects could move over considerable distances at this time, so makes it not impossible. More than this, the occurrence of Balkan copper on the Volga, 700 miles from its source in Bulgaria, indicates that Balkan copper could be exported the distance to Yümüktepe and further.

What’s probably needed to  prove this wrong is an analysis of the copper implements from Yümüktepe. If they were found to be sourced from ores that do not match those of the Balkans then such an argument would be difficult to justify. Whatever, only further finds and increasing refinements to the dating will answer all of these questions.


Akkermans, P. M. M. G. &  Schwartz, G.M. 2004 The archaeology of Syria: from complex hunter-gatherers to early urban, Cambridge, pp486.

Anthony, D. 2007 The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, Princeton, pp568.

Antonović, D. 2000 Malachite finds in Vinča Culture: evidence of early copper metallurgy in Serbia, Metallurgija – Journal of Metallurgy, p85-92.

²Archaeology Daily News 2010 Belovode site in Serbia may have hosted first copper makers, Website

§Bar-Yosef Mayer, D.E & Porat, N. 2008 Green stone beads at the dawn of agriculture. PNAS 105, p8548-8551.

Bastert-Lamprichs K. et al. 2012 Der Beginn der Landwirtschaftim Südkaukasus. Die Ausgrabungen in Aruchlo in Georgien. Berlin: DAI Eurasien Abteilung. pp48.Betancourt, P. 2006 The Chrysokamino Metallurgy Workshop and its territory, Oxbow, pp462.

Carter E. et al 2003 Elusive complexity: new data from late Halaf Domuztepe in south central Turkey. Paléorient 29, p117-34.  Source of data on silver beads from Domuztepe.

Craddock, P.T. 2000 From Hearth to Furnace: Evidences for the Earliest Metal Smelting Technologies in the Eastern Mediterranean. Paléorient 26, p151-165.

Föll, H. (date unknown) Iron, Steel and Swords (website). A brilliantly ideosyncratic overview of the history of metals by a retired academic from Kiel University. Full of life and picture, some of which I’ve borrowed.

Frame, L. 2004 Investigations at Tal-i Iblis : evidence for copper smelting during the Chalcolithic period, PhD Thesis, MIT. This provides the evidence for copper smelting in Iran at Tal-i Iblis Level I (5290-4420BC calibrated), both in crucibles and in copper ornaments.

Gale, N.H. 1992 Metals and Metallurgy in the Chalcolithic Period, In: Flannigan, J.W. (ed) Chalcolithic Cyprus. Oxford UP, p37-61.

Garfinkel, Y. et al. 2014 The Beginning of Metallurgy in the Southern Levant: A Late 6th Millennium CalBC Copper Awl from Tel Tsaf, Israel. PLoS One. 9.

Golden, J. 2009 New Light on the Development of Chalcolithic Metal Technology in the Southern Levant, Journal of World Prehistory 22, p283-300.

^Hauptmann, A. 2007, The Archaeometallurgy of Copper, Evidence from Faynan, Jordan, Springer pp388.

Heskel, D.L. 1983 A Model for the adoption of Metallurgy in the Ancient Near East. Current Anthropology 24, p362-366.

Jovanović, B. 2009 Beginning of the Metal Age in the Central Balkans according to the results of archaeometallurgy, Journal of Mining and Metallurgy 45, 143-148.

³Kaptan, E. 1980 New Findings on the Mining History of Turkey around Tokat Region, Mineral Research and Exploration Institute of Turkey p65-76.

Maisels, C. K. 1999 Early Civilizations of the Old World, Routledge, pp479.

Moorey, P.R.S. 1999 Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence, Eisenbrauns, pp415.

Morteani, G. & Northover, J.P. (eds) 2013 Prehistoric Gold In Europe: Mines, Metallurgy and Manufacture, Springer, pp618.

Some of this looks interesting with some good maps.

O’Brien W. 2015 Prehistoric Copper Mining in Europe: 5500-500 BC, Oxford, pp416.

What a book this appears to be, only discovered after I rewrote this post, but at £75 I’m not quite sure that I can afford it. Ho hum.

Özbal, H. 2014 (revision) Ancient Anatolian Metallurgy – powerpoint

Parkinson, W.A. 2004 Early copper mines at Rudna Glava and Ai Bunar, Novel Guide website.

Pigott, V.C. 1996 Near Eastern Archaeometallurgy: Modern Research and Future Directions. In: The Study of the Ancient Near East in the 21st Century, Eisenbrauns, p139-176.

Pigott, V.C. 1999 The archaeometallurgy of the Asian old world, Pennysylvania University, pp206.

Potts, D.T., 1997 Mesopotamian Civilization: the Material Foundations, Cornell, pp377.

Rapp, G.R. 2002 Archaeomineralogy, Springer, pp326. Reports occurrence of native copper in China, as well as possibly in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

Radivojević, M. et al. 2010, On the Origins of Extractive Metallurgy: New Evidence from Europe, Journal of Archaeological Science 37, p2775–2787.

Radivojevic, M. & Kuzmanović-Cvetoković 2014 Copper minerals and archaeometallurgical materials from the Vinča culture sites of Belovoce and Pločnik: overview of the evidence and new data. Starinar 64, p7-30

Radivojević, M. et al. 2013, Tainted ores and the rise of tin bronzes in Eurasia, c. 6500 years ago, Antiquity 87, p1030-1045. Comment by Duško Šljivar & Dušan Borić 2013 Context is everything (and reply). Arguing the case for mid-fifth millennium BC alloying to make bronze in the Balkans.

Radivojevic, M. & Rehren, T. 2015 Paint It Black: The Rise of Metallurgy in the Balkans, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (online)

Roberts, B.W. et al. 2009 Development of metallurgy in Eurasia, Antiquity 83, p1012-1022.

Roberts, B.W. ?2010 Metallurgical Networks and Technological Choice: understanding early metal in Western Europe, (online)

5 Roberts, B.W. 2009 Production Networks and Consumer Choice in the Earliest Metal of Western Europe, Journal of World Prehistory 22, p461-481.

Sagona, A. & Zimansky, P.E. 2009 Ancient Turkey, Routeledge, pp408.

Shrivastva, R. 1999 The mining of copper in Ancient India, Indian Journal of History of Science 34, 173-180.

Šjlivar, D. 2006 The Earliest Copper Metallurgy in the Central Balkans, Assoc. Metallurgical Engs. Serbia 12, 93-104.

*Solecki, R.S, Solecki, R.L., Agelaraki, A.P. 2004 The proto-neolithic cemetery in Shanidar Cave. Texas A & M University, pp256.

Steadman, S.R. & McMahon, G. 2011 Earliest Anatolian Metals and Metallurgy: The Neolithic and Chalcolithic. In: The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia, Oxford, p861-876.

Thornton, C.P. 2009 The Emergence of Complex Metallurgy on the Iranian Plateau: Escaping the Levantine Paradigm, Journal of World Prehistory 22, p301–327.

Thornton, C.P. et al. 2010 A Chalcolithic error: rebuttal to Amzallag 2009, American Journal of Archaeology 114, p305-315.

Other useful reference page by Chris Thornton

Yalçın, Ü 1998 Der Keulenkopf von Can Hasan (TR) Naturwissenschaftliche Untersuchung und Neue Interpretation, p279-289 In: Rehren Th. Hauptmann A. & Muhly J.D. Metallurgica Antiqua. In honour of Hans-Gert Bachmann and Robert Maddin. Deutsches Bergbau-Museum, Bochum, pp304. I wish I read German, but it is an original source.

Unknown Provenance, list of sites in Turkey producing metals from Neolithic to Bronze age. Possibly rather dated sources summarised by someone with a familiarity with Japanese.

Unknown authors (date unknown) The History of the Near East Electronic Compendium (website). Info on Tell Ramad and other sites.

Unknown author 2014 Neolithic metallurgy in Anatolia (copy of powerpoint slides). Actually covering metallurgy down to the chalcolithic.


Trying to date Avebury with the help of Stonehenge

by Edward Pegler on 4 December, 2013

This post gives me a chance to compare the radiocarbon dating of Avebury with the dating of Stonehenge and to see if Stonehenge’s new dates can help solve the dating mystery of Avebury.

The currently proposed sequence of events at Stonehenge and the neighbouring riverside stone circle of 'Bluestonehenge'

The currently proposed sequence of events at Stonehenge and the neighbouring riverside stone circle of ‘Bluestonehenge’

Stonehenge – current radiocarbon dating results

So as far as anyone can tell, the ages of the stone circles and earthworks at Stonehenge are now known (though not, sadly, the woodwork). Repeated excavation and re-excavation, coupled with some very good recent archaeology by the Stonehenge Riverside Project, has established a reasonable set of results. These are:

Stonehenge phase 1

Around or just after 3000 BC a circular ditch was dug with most of the spoil placed on a bank inside the ditch. About 56 holes (‘Aubrey holes’) were dug just within this bank and (probably) 56 pieces of Welsh igneous rock (‘bluestones’) were stuck vertically in the holes to make a nice stone circle of the classic British ‘rough’ kind. During this time various cremated people were buried around and in these stone holes. A second, small circle of bluestones (called by the excavators ‘bluestonehenge’) was put up around the same time a little way to the east, by the River Avon.

Stonehenge phase 3 (no 2)

Almost 500 years later, around 2500 BC, a set of shaped sandstones (‘sarsens’) were erected in a much smaller, but admittedly more spectacular, temple (‘Stonehenge’) at the centre of the earthwork. The bluestones around the edge and in the small riverside circle were dug out and moved to be incorporated into this temple.

Stonehenge tinkering

Somewhere around 2300 BC (give or take a hundred years) various earthworks were undertaken, including the cutting of ditches to form a rather bent avenue (‘The Avenue’) leading from Stonehenge to the river. Also, a circular ditch was dug around the emptied ‘bluestonehenge’, and the spoil placed in a bank on the outside of the ditch. This type of rounded earthwork with a bank on the outside is, confusingly, known to archaeologists as a ‘henge’.

The bluestones were moved into a new circle within Stonehenge around 2100 BC. Finally, two rings of pits were dug around the outside of Stonehenge (the ‘Y and Z holes’) around 1600 BC.

So much for Stonehenge.

Avebury  – the radiocarbon desert

The largest stone circle in the country, Avebury is not as well understood as Stonehenge and has always been a bit of a mess when it comes to giving it a set of construction dates. This is for a number of reasons: a shortage of datable material, a lack of excavation, and the effects of more recent local digging and destruction.

The components of Avebury

Avebury consists of a number of different earth and stone features. In no particular order these are:

1) A 2.5 metre high earth bank, sometimes known as ‘phase 1’, remains of which has been found in patches to the south of the monument. This bank was perhaps roughly circular.

2) A large earth bank and ditch, sometimes known as ‘phase 2’. This is also approximately circular and, unlike the bank and ditch at Stonehenge, is a ‘henge’, having the bank on the outside and ditch on the inside. As this bank overlies the bank of ‘phase 1’ this is clearly younger than phase 1.

3) A large circle of sarsen stones just inside the ditch of phase 2.

4) Two relatively small (100 metre-ish), round, sarsen stone ‘temples’ inside the large circle. Unlike Stonehenge these are classic British, rustic affairs, unshaped and without any fancy extras.

5) Two avenues, lined by sarsen stones, running south (‘West Kennett Avenue’) and west (‘Beckhampton Avenue’) from the large circle. Neither avenue is straight.

6) A few stones running NNW-SSE across the bank and ditch.

7) A second stone circle with a wooden structure on the same site (the ‘Sanctuary’) at the eastern end of the West Kennet Avenue.

Avebury’s few radiocarbon (and OSL) dates

There have been several documented excavations at Avebury. These were carried out by (amongst others) Henry Meux, Harold Gray, Alexander Keiller, Stuart Piggott, Faith and Lance Vatcher, Joshua Pollard and Mark Gillings, W. E. V. Young and Mike Pitts. All of these have, sadly, produced only a small amount of dateable material. Of this material (antler, bone and charcoal) a fair amount was destroyed for use in radiocarbon dating the monument in the 1980s. This was before dating methods were improved to use smaller samples and better statistical techniques.

Of the dated material, the charcoal pieces were probably lying around for some time before they were buried at Avebury. Since these were also ‘bulk samples’ (i.e. not neat individual pieces but a collection of bits), there’s also the potential for a range of dates from the samples. Furthermore, they come from wood which could have grown over a long period of time before being felled. The best that can be said is they give dates which will be older than the layer that they’re buried in.

Of the three bone samples, one was also a bulk sample of bits, meaning that its dating probably indicates an older date than the layer it was buried in. The other two bone samples (from a pig and a person) and the antler samples should give good dates (although even these have the potential to have been ‘curated’, or kept for a while – though let’s face it, would you keep a pig bone?)

Even here there’s a complication, as Fran Healy has recently pointed out. The original 1980s sample dating was done at Harwell.  However, more recent re-dating of some of the left over fragments of one antler from the original 1980s radiocarbon samples (HAR-10502) suggested that the Harwell date was perhaps 300 years too old. This appears to be a general pattern for the Harwell dates, many of which could be in error by 300 years either way. Luckily, this one redating has given an improved date for one key sample.

The only date added to this list more recently is some quartz grains analysed using a relatively new method called optically stimulated thermoluminescence (OSL). However, this has large potential errors and no-one is quite sure how reliable it is.

Of course there’s undoubtedly more datable material still in the ground… only this hasn’t been excavated yet. In the mean time, the evidence that’s been gathered and dated has to do.

A summary of what’s ‘known’ about Avebury’s dates

Avebury’s phase 1 bank was piled up some time after 3600 BC – this is based on charcoal two samples (HAR-10063 and HAR-10325), with the youngest given ‘oldest confident dates’ (I know that’s confusing) of 3300 BC. Adding the 300 year potential error of the Harwell dates gives the value quoted.

Avebury’s large ditch was very likely dug in the period 2630-2460 BC – this is based on re-dating of an antler sample (HAR-10052, new dates OxA-12225/6) from the bottom of the ditch, as well as good dating of another antler sample (OxA-12227) low in the ditch fill. As the phase 2 second bank was almost certainly built at the same time as this ditch was dug then it is probably the same age.

Avebury’s outer stone circle appears to have erected after about 2900 BC and probably a little later. This is based on the date of a pig bone sample (HAR-10327) from a stone hole called ‘41’, with earliest confident age of around 2580 BC, allowing again for a 300 year error.

A very loose date of around 3000 BC is given for a ‘Cove’ stone at the centre of the north inner circle, based on OSL dating (X1559) of quartz grains below the stone. However, there’s a large quoted error for this value of 350 years either way (this error could well be more).

The West Kennet avenue appears to have been constructed at some time after 3300 BC, based on material from beneath the avenue (HAR-9695 and HAR-10501) of a youngest ‘earliest confident age’ of around 3000 BC, again allowing for 300 year error.

The far end of the Beckhampton Avenue appears to have been constructed at some time around or a little later than 2500BC. This is based on a good (but unfortunately single) articulated pig bone date of 2660-2460 BC from the Longstones enclosure, which underlies the west end of the Beckhampton Avenue. This enclosure didn’t seem to last long and appears to have been demolished to allow the end of the avenue to be completed.

So the only confident dates are the digging of the ditch and, arguably, the completion of the west end of the Beckhampton Avenue, both of which lie around 2500 BC. Frankly, it’s not much to go on.

Avebury – A simple dating model

Avebury - a simple one phase history

Avebury – a simple one phase history

The simplest model possible is that the whole of the Avebury complex, ditches, stones and avenues, was constructed in one short burst of activity around 2500 BC. The only date which doesn’t allow this is the rather problematic OSL date from the centre of the northern circle and there aren’t many archaeologists I’d guess would put money on that date.

However, the evidence of an extensive build-up of turf between the first phase of bank building and the second indicates that this probably isn’t right. So is there an alternative?

Avebury – A ‘Stonehenge’ type model

Avebury - a three stage history involving a final 'closure'

Avebury – a three stage history involving a final ‘closure’

In the absence of anything to pin the Avebury dates down, a ‘simple’ alternative is to use the Stonehenge dates as a guide, comparing banks, ditches, stone rings and avenues to see if Avebury could be squeezed to fit these.

This would mean that at least one bank and ditch, and the large stone circle, would have an early date of around 3000-2900BC. The big ‘phase 2’ ditch at Avebury is clearly younger than this. However, the phase 1 bank (and any ditch that it might once have had) could fit this date. Perhaps archaeologists should be having another look for such a ditch, but on the outside of the phase 1 bank (as is the case with Stonehenge’s ditch being on the outside its main bank).

If the large stone circle at Avebury also dated from this time, this could (at a push) be accommodated by the single radiocarbon date of pig bone. This is taking the date to its earliest limit but is just feasible.

On this scheme, the other stone ‘temples’ within Avebury would be similar in date to Stonehenge itself, around 2500 BC. Again, this would contradict the single piece of dating evidence, the OSL date from the northern circle, but this is a date of low confidence. Alternatively, these inner stone circles, which are not shaped like those of the temple at Stonehenge, could be part of the suggested 3000-2900 BC phase.

The Avebury avenues, in this version, would be slightly later, say somewhere around 2450 BC, something which fits comfortably with the evidence available.

Discussion – the significance of that ‘henge’ bank

Perhaps the most interesting problem with the second model is that there is no equivalent to Avebury’s large earthwork henge (the ditch with phase 2 bank on the outside) at Stonehenge. This is the only thing with a really good date fix (around 2500 BC) at Avebury. There are similar henges of this type near Stonehenge (e.g. at Durrington Walls, Woodhenge and Bluestonehenge) and all of these are dated to around 2400 BC, so the dates match reasonably well with Avebury’s henge.

Perhaps it’s worth turning to an interesting comment, passed over quickly by Mike Parker-Pearson in his recent book on Stonehenge, about the significance of ‘henge’ earthworks.

“Henges, with their inward-facing earthworks, were built as memorials to something that had already happened rather than to signal what might still be to come. They are backwards-looking and commemorative” (p225)

MPPs point here was that all of these henges appear to mark the closing off of a done thing. So Durrington Walls bank overlies the suburbs of Durrington and Bluestonehenge was dismantled before the henge was put up. The reasons for this may be superstition, but who knows.

If this is true, then perhaps much of Avebury’s circle, stones and all, was made obsolete by the emplacement of a large, inward-facing bank and ditch, say around 2450 BC, at the time that Stonehenge was at its height. This would be a little earlier than when the nearby Silbury Hill was constructed.

Now my personal fancy is that Stonehenge and Avebury may have been rival centres. If true then the group controlling Stonehenge could have been the ones who ‘closed’ Avebury. Of course this is all without evidence and is likely to be wrong. Sadly, finding out what kind of timescale is, in fact, right for Avebury will have to await further excavation… and who knows when that will happen.


Parker-Pearson, M. 2012 Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery, Simon & Schuster, pp406.

Pollard, J. & Reynolds, M. 2002 Avebury: The biography of a landscape, Tempus, pp288.

Pitts, M. 2000 Hengeworld, Random House, pp409.

Gillings, M. & Pollard, J. 2004 Avebury, Duckworth, pp221.

Bayliss, A. et al. 2012 Radiocarbon Dates from samples funded by English Heritage between 1981 and 1988., English Heritage pp363.

Healy, F. 2012 Scientific Dating, from ‘The Stonehenge and Avebury Revised Research Framework (SARRF)’, Wessex Archaeology Report, pp15.

Anon. 2004 Avebury older than Stonehenge – and the ring gets bigger, News Section, British Archaeology 76

Unseen but probably useful references

Pollard, J. and Cleal, R. M. J. 2004 Dating Avebury, in: R.M.J. Cleal and J. Pollard (eds.), ‘Monuments and Material Culture. Papers in Honour of an Avebury Archaeologist: Isobel Smith’, Hobnob Books, p120–29.

Rhodes, E. and Schwenninger, J.L. 2008, Optically stimulated luminescence dating, in: M. Gillings et al. (eds), ‘Landscape of the Megaliths.Excavation and Fieldwork on the Avebury Monuments, 1997–2003’, Oxbow Books, p 164–65.



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