Does the peculiar tendency of the first farmers in Greece to settle near certain bands of ophiolitic rocks hint at the strange fascination Early Neolithic farmers had for copper.

Location of Early Neolithic sites (black dots) and possible Early Neolithic sites (pink dots) in Greece, as well as contemporary sites in neighbouring lands (after Perles, Ruzi, Brami et al) (click to see full image).

Farming first appeared in Greece in the first half of the seventh millennium BC, around the time of the discovery of pottery in Western Eurasia. Although there is much debate, it appears that it spread as part of a seaborne settlement of lands around the Aegean, by migrants from modern day Central Anatolia and, perhaps, the Levant (NOTE 1).

Settlement around the Aegean was not simultaneous. Ulucak in Western Turkey, Knossos in Crete and Franchthi in the Peleponnese were settled by around 6800 BC. By around 6400 BC farming had spread to other parts of Western Turkey, as well as the Greek mainland. Migrants may well have mixed with small local populations to varying degrees to create various hybrid cultures, but probably not everywhere.

Patterns of Greek Early Neolithic Settlement

It has long been known that the distribution of Early Neolithic farming sites across Greece is not uniform. The smaller Greek islands (except the Sporades) show no settlement. Crete’s early settlement may have been abandoned. Euboia is the only island that was extensively settled. On the mainland, sites are almost entirely centred in the east of the country, extending from the easternmost Peloponnese in the south to the massive concentration of sites in the Thessaly Plain in the north, with odd sites further north into Albania.

The limited sites found to the west often show hybrid or variant qualities (e.g. very poor quality pottery and unusual stone tools), perhaps suggesting that farming here was adopted by aboriginal foragers, not migrants. Finally, there is little or no sign of settlement on the Macedonian mainland further northeast. It appears as though most farmers were rather particular about where to settle (NOTE 2).

Greek Early Neolithic sites (black) and possible sites (pink) superimposed on a Greek soil map. Brown and salmon pink areas are those with good soil. Most sites lie on areas of good soil but many areas of good soil have few sites.

There are, of course, differences in the geography and climate of Greece that make some areas preferable for farming. As pointed out by Catherine Perlès, small islands often have intermittent water sources. The west coast may have been too wet for traditional near-eastern farming styles and the north too cold. Understandably farmers would settle in open plains rather than the mountains.

Sites superimposed on rainfall map, showing sites generally located in areas of lower rainfall.

Sites superimposed on rainfall map, showing sites generally located in areas of lower rainfall.

Catherine Perlès argues that rainfall could be a significant factor, which is reasonable. Regardless, some areas were inhabited by Early Neolithic Greek farmers whereas other areas with similar rainfall levels, soils and climate show little or no occupation.

So what’s going on here? Despite the Catherine Perlès’ comment that ‘the pattern seems to be too systematic to be explained by geological factors’ there is a possibility that she is, at least in part, wrong. I want to use one particular kind of rock as an example.


Ophiolites are a strange kind of rock formation; these pieces of ancient ocean floor have been caught in the mangle of colliding landmasses and now rest, boiled and shredded, in mountain ranges north of the eastern Mediterranean. Ophiolites of the Mediterranean are largely the result of stages in the closing of an ancient ocean, the Tethys, during the Cretaceous and Tertiary Periods. The Mediterranean is all that remains of this ocean. These stages were also instrumental in the formation of the mountain ranges which now occur around the Mediterranean, such as the Alps, Carpathians, Atlas and Taurus.

Ophiolites are made of igneous rocks, both intruded as magma and extruded as lava. These rocks are basic and ultrabasic (mafic and ultramafic), which means that they are lack much silica and are often rather heavy. They weather to a dull brown colour, with occasional flashes of dark bluey-green, but are instantly recognisable to a geologist for all that (see here, for example). Geologists like them because of the history they reveal about the Earth and its ancient oceans. Capitalists sometimes like them too as they can contain chromium, platinum and gold.

Distribution of Greek and other nearby ophiolitic rocks (multiple sources). Sites of known Greek VMS mineralisation (dark blue) and PGE mineralisation (white) are also indicated (based on Melfos & Voudouris 2012).

The distribution of the majority of ophiolites in Greece is along the edges of a geological band called the Pelagonian Zone, which runs NNW-SSE across the eastern part of the mainland. This zone represents small landmasses and slices of ocean which were sandwiched together during the closure of the Tethys (NOTE 3).

With some notable exceptions (e.g. parts of the south-eastern Peloponnese), the ophiolites occupy the same band as that inhabited by most of the early Greek Farmers.

Farmers don’t eat ophiolite

The farmers of Early Neolithic Greece did not tend to live on the thin soil of mountains, so naturally didn’t live on ophiolite. They sensibly chose to farm the thick alluvium of the plains instead. However, they were generally close to ophiolitic rocks. It’s true that many of the farming sites are above deeply buried ophiolites, but I doubt that the farmers would have known or cared.

Distribution of ophiolites compared to EN sites.

Faults at the edge of the plains would have exposed shattered fault-faces of ophiolitic rocks. These appear to have been the source for pieces of serpentinite, a relatively soft, green metamorphic rock. Farmers made small axes out of this, which may have been prized, but are only useful for light cutting jobs (or murder).

Other rocks, often derived from further away, were used for harder cutting edges. Perhaps the most valued of these cutting edges was obsidian, which came from apparently uninhabited volcanic Aegean islands such as Melos. As such, a rock’s usefulness for tools doesn’t seem to control settlement patterns.

Speculation – ophiolites and minerals

At this point I want to make a huge leap from data to conjecture.

Cyprus also includes significant ophiolite rocks, generated at the boundary of the African and Eurasian Plates. The ophiolites of Cyprus are, at present, mined for chromium. However, historically, they were mined for copper ores. This is also true for the ophiolites of of the Bitlis-Zagros Suture Zone (BZSZ) in south-eastern Turkey, defining the boundary between the Arabian and Eurasian continental plates. Both of these areas were  centres of occupation for Early Neolithic farming communities during the Pre-pottery Neolithic B, shortly before the settlement of Greece.

Ophiolite distribution in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the location of Cayonu/Ergani marked in red. The Bitlis-Zagros Suture zone runs through here and toward Cyprus.

Ophiolite distribution in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the location of Cayonu/Ergani marked in red. The Bitlis-Zagros Suture zone runs through here and toward Cyprus.

Greek ophiolites show the same mineralisation patterns as those in Cyprus. They contain small quantities of copper, chromium and other rare elements, locked up as sulphides and oxide minerals, either in ‘Volcanogenic Massive Sulphide (VMS)’ or ‘Magmatic Ni-Cu PGE (Nickel-Copper, Platinum Group Element)’ type ores. Strabo’ miracles aside, they are not, and historically never were, economically workable for either chromium or copper ores. (NOTE 4).

This is all, arguably, irrelevant. The archaeological evidence strongly suggests that techniques for the extraction of metals such as copper from the oxides and sulphides in these rocks (by smelting) would not be invented for more than a thousand years after the time that we’re discussing. In fact, copper artefacts are unknown from Greece before the fifth millennium BC.

However, people of the Early Neolithic still knew about copper. Despite the fact that not one artefact of copper has ever been found in Early Neolithic Greece (or Cyprus, for that matter), I reckon that those farmers still knew about copper. Native copper.

‘Supergene’ processes and native copper

Within the top few metres of the land surface (the supergene zone) metallic ores, exposed to air and rain water, can experience oxidation, leaching and enrichment. In the case of copper ores this often produces small concentrations of copper metal (native copper) within cracks in the rock.

Such surface rocks are thought to be the source of the oldest copper artefacts known, those from Çayönü Tepesi in south-eastern Turkey, dated to around 8200 BC, over two thousand years before the Greek Neolithic. Based on trace elements within these copper artefacts (e.g. occasionally high arsenic levels), this copper is generally thought to be derived from the Ergani Maden (Kızıldağ) mining region, a short distance to the north of Çayönü. The host rock is ophiolite (part of the above mentioned BZSZ).

I say that these copper artefacts are ‘thought to be’ derived from Ergani Maden (and there is some debate) because there is no evidence of this early mining. Perhaps this is because Ergani is now a hole in the ground. The evidence of early mining is always rare if other miners came afterward, clearing away the earlier diggings to dig deeper. Perhaps it is because early sources of copper were derived not from the host rocks themselves but from streams which eroded similar host rocks to the west of Ergani Maden.

(I should add here that there would have been no particular reason for ancient peoples not to collect gold as well as native copper from streams or out of rocks. However, there is even less evidence for that, so I won’t push that).

Discussion – we need more evidence

So is it possible that ophiolites, with their dull brown, dusty look, could have been sought out by early farmers as being associated with native copper? If this is so, was Cyprus also first settled by farmers in the ninth millennium BC for the same reason? Did running out of native copper cause Cyprus’ disconnection from the world around 7000 BC? Did this have a knock on effect on the Pre-pottery Neolithic cultures of the mainland?

This essay cannot be conclusive. Too much evidence is missing. There are clearly problems with some areas, such as the Peleponnese, where settlements occur away from ophiolite (this is also true for the Bosphorus region in NW Turkey). Obviously, the lack of a single copper (or gold, for that matter) artefact from Early Neolithic Greece seems damning.

If artefacts of native copper ever turned up either Early Neolithic Greece (7000 to 6000BC) that would help. Personally, I suspect that it’s unlikely, but not necessarily because the ideas above are wrong. As for native copper artefacts turning up in Early Neolithic Cyprus (around 8200 to 7500BC) I still wait and hope.


P.S. Long ago, in the early days of writing this blog, I wrote a post comparing the distribution of historically mined copper ores in Europe to the locations of early Neolithic settlement. The post was just based on a few published maps, no-one took much notice and I soon forgot about the idea. Two major problems with it were that the first farmers in Europe, those of Greece, settled in an area with no copper mines and that northern Turkey, which has extensive copper deposits

But certain things kept bringing the idea back. The first was the discovery that the coast of north Africa only has copper ores in the far west, the only place where there is any evidence of Early Neolithic farming settlement. The second is that copper-rich Cyprus had a much earlier Neolithic than once thought, fully as old as that of Anatolia, but that this Neolithic went downhill.

It was for that reason that I looked at Greece again. I’m still not convinced, but I think that I’m groping around the edges of a real story.


1) The settlement of Greece from Cyprus seems unlikely. This is because Cyprus appears to have been without Cattle by the time of settlement of Greece (early to mid seventh millennium BC), whereas cattle are present in the fauna introduced into both Crete and mainland Greece.

2) To add a further complication to this, radiocarbon dating of sites around the Aegean is patchy and the pottery is surprisingly undiagnostic.

3) There are tiny, scattered fragments of ophiolite throughout the Aegean, most of which are shown on the map. Many of these are metamorphosed to almost unrecognisability. Other, even smaller fragments occur in ancient melanges, ancient massive debris flows, preserved within the Pelagonian and other zones. The variability of published maps in showing these fragments is understandable.

4) Copper has been worked from Greek mines in prehistory, largely from Crete, the Cyclades and Lavrion. However, I think that these may be skarn deposits, associated with limestone and metamorphism, and I suspect that they would not have been worked or noticed until much later.


Adamides, N.G. 2010 Mafic-dominated volcanogenic sulphide deposits in the Troodos ophiolite, Cyprus Part 2 – A review of genetic models and guides for exploration, Applied Earth Science 119, p193-204.

Highlights two known mines, Mangaleni and Skouriotissa (Phoenix) as currently showing native copper in their supergene zones.

Akinci, 2009 Ophiolite-hosted Copper and Gold Deposits of Southeastern Turkey: Formation and Relationship with Seafloor Hydrothermal Processes, Turkish Journal of Earth Sciences 18, p475-509.

Discussing the VMS deposits of the Ergani-Maden mine.

Bakhuizen, S.C. & Kreulen, R. 1976 Etymology of the name Chalcis, In: Chalcis in Euboea: Iron and Chalcidians Abroad, Brill, p58-64.

Bamba, T. 1974 Ophiolite and related Copper Deposits of the Ergani Mining District, Southeastern Turkey, p36-50+

Brami, M.H. & Heyd, V. 2011 The origins of Europe’s first farmers: The role of Hacılar and Western Anatolia, fifty years on. Praehistoriche Zeitschrift 86, p165–206.

A more traditional view of arrows spreading culture across Anatolia to the Aegean.

Bunguri, A. 2014 Different models for the Neolithisation of Albania, Documenta Praehistorica 41, p79-94.

Çilingiroğlu, Ç & Çakırlar, C. 2013 Towards configuring the neolithisation of Aegean Turkey, Documenta Praehistorica 40, p21-29.

Hejl, E. et al. 2000 Young Neogene tectonics and relief development fission-track dating
on the Aegean islands of Naxos, Paros and los (Cyclades, Greece), Mitteilungen der Österreichischen Geologischen Gesellschaft 93, 105-127.

Lichter, C. 2005 Western Anatolia in the Late Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic: the actual state of research, In: How did farming reach Europe? (Lichter, C. ed.) BYZAS 2, p59–74.

Melfos, V. & Voudouris, P.C. 2012 Geological, Mineralogical and Geochemical Aspects for Critical and Rare Metals in Greece, Minerals 2, p300-317.

Mining Atlas (online resource) – e.g. for Turkey

Perlès, C. 2001 The Early Neolithic in Greece : the First Farmers in Europe, Cambridge, pp356.

An excellent introduction, carefully thought out and well written, discussing the relationship of EN Greek farmers with foragers as well as farmers to the north and in Anatolia and the Middle East. A little out of date now but the main source of information for this post.

Perlès, C. et al. 2011 Melian obsidian in NW Turkey: Evidence for early Neolithic trade, Journal of Field Archaeology 36, p42-49.

Perlès, C. et al. 2013 Early Seventh-Millennium AMS Dates from Domestic Seeds in the Initial Neolithic at Franchthi Cave (Argolid, Greece), Antiquity 87, p1001-1015.

Reingruber, A. 2011 Early Neolithic settlement patterns and exchange networks in the Aegean, Documenta Praehistorica 38, p291-305.

Argues, based on Thissen’s dating, for strong influence of Foragers on the Earliest Neolithic.

Reingruber, A. & Thissen, L. 2009 Depending on 14C Data: Chronological frameworks in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic of Southeastern Europe, Radiocarbon 51, p751–770.

Questions the traditional dating for the Peleponnese Early Neolithic, putting it back a few hundred years, but see Perlès et al. 2013.

Ruzi, E. 201X Investigating Compositional Variability among Early Neolithic Ceramics from Korça Region, Albania, Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology, pp15.

Swiss world atlas version 1.0.1 – image of Aegean rainfall patterns.

Thissen, L. 2011 The Neolithic–Chalcolithic sequence in the SW Anatolian Lakes Region, Documenta Praehistorica 37, p269-282.

Yigit, O. 2009 Mineral Deposits of Turkey in Relation to Tethyan Metallogeny: Implications for Future Mineral Exploration, Economic Geology 104, p19-51. (image from this)

Ophiolite maps of Greece – are all slightly inconsistent. The maps used here are composites from a large number of sources, including this and this.




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.

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 pieces 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.

Perhaps 100 or more 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. Many show evidence of high arsenic contents, which is an indicator of a basic igneous source. Modern copper mines to the north near Ergani are potential sources.

Copper bead from Aşıklı Höyük, Turkey.

Copper bead from Aşıklı Höyük

Other early sites are Aşıklı Höyük, further west, from which have been found more than 11 rolled or solid, mostly annealed native copper beads included in burials (levels 1-4, but mainly level 3) probably from the early 8th millennium BC. Small copper beads at Nevalı Çori, thought to date around 7500 BC, despite being genuine in form, are considered by some to be suspect, due to base metal impurities indicative of smelting (does this mean an excess of iron? I can’t say at the moment).

(Personally, I am inclined to believe that all these beads are genuinely Neolithic. One of the beads from Aşıklı contains high amounts of arsenic and tin, often taken to be an indicator of smelting too. However, in early American sites this is taken as being an indicator of the native copper coming from basic igneous sources, not of smelting).

After a gap in evidence of about a thousand years, native copper reappears in a number of sites across Turkey. Awls, tubes, rings, pins 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. 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’.


Abundant evidence of fairly pure native copper artefacts comes from around 7500BC or just after in Tell Halula (phases 11 and 12). In level 11, 4 burials contained 14 beads. In the following level 6 burials contained 23 beads. Many of these were buried with infants. A last burial in the sequence contains a 9cm long crescent-like strip of hammered copper. Most of the artefacts show evidence of being tied with string, presumably to be worn around the neck or head.

A native copper nugget, made into a bead and again with evidence of string, is found at Tell Ramad (level I). It is dated to the ?first half of the seventh millennium BC (apparently within the thousand year gap in the evidence from Turkey). More native copper artefacts, 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 has evidence 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.

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 are no recorded Neolithic gold artefacts. The most spectacular find of gold artefacts comes from the copper age 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 dates 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 is first extracted in south eastern Turkey around 8500 BC, near the beginning of the PPNB (pre-pottery Neolithic B).

2) After about 7400 BC copper becomes extremely rare in the archaeological record for almost 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 becomes increasingly available, with its use being more extensive, occurring from the Balkans to Pakistan, as well as profligate.

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). Coincidentally or not, the first appearance of silver is also from this time.

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.

Eşin, U. 1995 Early copper metallurgy in the Pre-pottery site of Aşıklı, Readings in Prehistory: Studies presented to Halet Çambel, Graphis, p61-77.

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.

Molist, M. et al. 2009 New Metallurgic Findings from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic: Tell Halula (Euphrates Valley, Syria), Paléorient 32, p33-48.

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.


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