The Neolithic, or the “Missing Copper” Age

by Edward Pegler on 18 March, 2010

Is the Copper Age (the Chalolithic) really the start of the copper age? Are we perhaps missing something?

Image courtesy of Purple Moon Beads

Imagine that copper was really rare. By that I mean that people would kill for a small bead of the shining orange metal, that they would sell their mothers for a copper bracelet.

White diamonds are an example of extreme rarity. These days they aren’t really rare, their prices being artificially inflated, although big ones are still highly valuable. But once, when diamonds really were rare because no-one had discovered kimberlites, the stories of diamond hunting were literally legendary.

The celebrated Koh-I-Noor diamond had the best legend of all. Some estimate that over the space of five millennia it passed through the hands of hundreds of rulers. Even at a more conservative estimate the diamond has been knocking about for a thousand years since it was first mined in Andhra Pradesh, India.

And the point I’m trying to make is that in all that time no-one thought to bury it with each of the rulers once he’d died (however he died). Funnily enough it passed on to his successor.

Was a lump of verdigris covered native copper ever perceived as being that rare? It seems unlikely. There are brass ornaments all over the pubs near here and I’ve never noticed anyone try to steal them.

Ancient copper sources

The answer to the above question may be yes. Long before the Copper Age (the Chalcolithic or Eneolithic – starting in the fith millennium BC), and before copper mining started, the only copper attainable was the stuff lying around on the surface. Much of that was locked up in carbonates such as malachite and azurite which, whilst attractively colourful, aren’t shiny. So native copper, the stuff that doesn’t need processing, would have been difficult to find.

Furthermore, the places were you found native copper at the surface were localised. They were only found where the mountains, mineralised by ancient geological plate collisions, jutted through the surface dirt. Almost all that native copper has long since gone, the places it came from mined away by later generations.

Copper, a life story

Native copper

No, gone is wrong. The copper is still in existence. For example, take one piece of native copper. After collection it was probably hammered into a sheet, ornament or bead. It may have stayed near its source or it may have travelled hundreds of even thousands of miles before being exchanged for who knows what. Perhaps for a time it was worn by people of “high status” (the ancient equivalent of the rich) and their descendants on special occasions.

A few generations later it might have been refashioned into another item of jewellery. After some more generations it could have been heated and beaten together with other bits of copper from elsewhere into an even more spectacular jewellery item.

But as mining took off and the value of copper fell it might have been buried with it’s owner. Or as copper became more abundant and working techniques developed it might have been melted down and incorporated into a “decorative” copper axe. When the art of alloying was perfected that weapon may have been incorporated (by the addition of tin) into a hard bronze sword.

The advent of iron would have diminished its status further. Maybe then it was laid to rest in the ground. But maybe not. Maybe some of it ended up in that crap brass ornament on my pub wall.

The missing copper of the Neolithic

Ornaments of copper have been found in ancient settings. The Neolithic settlement of Çayönü, in Turkey, contains buried copper ornaments from the eighth millennium BC. But such finds are extremely rare. And, frankly, that’s not surprising. The Koh I Noor effect could keep ancient copper ornaments in circulation for a long time.

And at this point, by way of analogy, I’ll mention the 5300 year old Alpine visitor and subsequent iceman, Ötzi. At his untimely death he was carrying a copper axe. This axe is 500 years older than any other found in the area before. Chances are that if he hadn’t inappropriately snuffed it he might have handed it on to his children, who in their turn might have done the same. No wonder Alpine archaeologists haven’t found other axes of a similar age.

The fate of metals

If you compare gold with copper you can, to some extent, see the same effect. But gold has never become useful in the way that copper did. It is not as hard. Its alloys are not as strong. On the other hand it does not tarnish like copper. Perhaps most importantly, it is still relatively rare. So you’re likely to see even less gold in the early archaeological record. Good quality gold has stayed the preserve of the rich, ever an ornament or status symbol, rarely a practical metal.

The increasing abundance of copper from mining and the increasing usefulness of copper have changed its status out of all recognition over the millennia, from absolutely fabulous gem through minor status symbol down to practical tool and, finally, to pointless trinket.

It is a fascinating story, played out, for example, in the ancient copper fields of the Balkans in their two heydays: the first as fabulous sources of exportable copper; the second as bland local mines for useful raw materials.

Don’t get me wrong. I pretty much understand why the Chalcolithic is defined as starting when it does. Whatever way you read the archaeological records, increased mining and the smelting of ores during the Chalcolithic meant that people would have seen much greater quantities of copper at that time. It’s just that there is a reason why archaeologists don’t find more copper in pre-Chalcolithic settings. It was probably there… only it got moved on.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Graham Hill January 31, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Dear Edward, I am interested in what you say and find your explanation logical.I found your article whilst reseaching the theories pertaining to polished stone axes and the first metal objects. Me and perhaps others suggest that humans are attracted to shiny surfaces and this pre-existing survival instinct lead to the reverence for the over-polished celt and metal, perhaps influencing the shape of society that persists today. (Sorry for the briefest sketch as I am only a few hours into my research).


Edward Pegler January 31, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Dear Graham

Thanks for the kind comment. This article was written some time ago and has many flaws, so please forgive them.

I think that shiny-colourful-aromatic-melodious are all probably big factors in many people’s lives, whether ancient or modern. I guess the past, being potentially quite drab, must have made shiny and colourful things very special to ancient peoples, doubly so if they were rare things. As many colourful things rot we’ve probably lost even more evidence for ancient exchange of colourful things.

best regards


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