Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Bronze Age, Magic of Metals

The Bronze Age produced some of the most sophisticated and intricate works in metal known to humanity. Bronze is a metal that was created by metal artists and it served every possible purpose. Weapons and armour were not the only items made of bronze. Household implements and tools as well as incredibly exquisite pieces of jewelry were made from Bronze during this period.

I am no scientists, but it is my own understanding that bronze originally was discovered by metalworkers after they began to extract copper from sulfide ores.
Copper was highly prized by the ancients but in the process of extracting it, they began to realise that other substances in sulfide ores had even greater potential for use.

Ancient smiths produced copper initially probably from nuggets, malachite and azurite carbonate ores. As demand increased, however, miners were forced to delve deeper for ores that contained far more impurities. Almost every copper ore contains some arsenic, tin, zinc, antimony or nickel which, during the smelting process can produce a number of different alloys. When copper is impure, it can have a lower melting point than pure copper, allowing easier melting and casting. This gave smiths the power to produce better castings and to create stronger metals.
Ultimately, a particular mixture came to be known as Bronze.

Bronze is the name given to any alloy that is 85-95% Copper. The remaining percentage ordinarily consists primarily of tin. If the amount of tin or arsenic is too low, the resulting alloy is not improved substantially. If the amount is too high, the resulting alloy is too brittle to be useful.

In finding the perfect combination, metallurgists became magicians in the eyes of the uninitiated. They were able to create a new metal that outvied any other in strength and usefulness. Smiths came to be elevated to the position of gods or godlings. In many mythological cycles, metalsmiths occupy vital positions. Often it is a metalsmith who is married to the Goddess of Love.

Burials of metalworkers from the Bronze Age have been discovered containing all the tools of his trade: hammers, anvils, moulds and knives.

Bronze retains an edge that is sharper and stronger than stone, once it has been hammered. The ability to recognise Bronze, however, came slowly to the ancients. In the Chalcolithic period, when copper and stone artifacts were used together, tools and weapons were produced without any real comprehension of the percentages required to produce the best metal. As metalworking became more sophisticated, however, smiths began to recognise the best alloys.

Arsenic ores were more common than tin ores and could be used to create bronzes of very high quality. No tin bronzes have been found in Western Asia before 3000 B.C.
After 3000 B.C., bronzes in the Western Mediterranean and Crete as well as Egypt were made primarily with arsenic, but in Anatolia, bronze was made both with tin and arsenic. The mineral stannite would have been used in Anatolia to extract the ore needed.

Arsenic, however, is poisonous albeit slow to act. Over the years, smiths who breathed the fumes of arsenic as bronze was heated and worked would have succumbed to the poison or been affected by it. Nerve damage in the limbs is one of the most obvious symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Tin bronze gradually became the preferred alloy. By 2000 B.C., tin bronze had become the dominant metal and continued to be for Western civilisations for 2000 years.

It is possible that the depiction of so many smiths in legends and myths as lame was a distant memory of the effects of arsenic poisoning on early metalworkers. Hephaestus and Vulcan were lame as was Wolund or Weyland, although the Northern smith was said to have been hamstrung as a captive by a king who wished thereby to prevent him from winning his way to freedom.

Where sources both of copper and tin were available, the 'Bronze Age' flourished.

Bronze was not particularly costly even in ancient times, although the skill required to work it must have increased the cost of weapons, tools and jewelry made from it. The proliferation of Roman artifacts consisting of bronze rings and fibulae throughout Europe is primarily the legacy of the Roman legions. It is not simple farmers but soldiers who purchased jewelry that identified them, promoted a favourite god or goddess or otherwise was worn for good luck in battle. Countless rings have been found with the name or mascot of various legions engraved upon them. Pins, of course, were a necessary item to fasten garments, especially cloaks.

In the early 21st century, metals used to create jewelry tend to be mass-produced and have a consistency they would have lacked in earlier centuries. Even gold has become fairly homogenised. One need not go too far into the past, however, to find gold that, like bronze, could differ in colour and hardness depending on which alloys predominated. Rose gold and green gold are two examples of this. 'Black Hills Gold' is one contemporary label for gold that still is made in different colours but for the most part, hallmarked gold in this century is yellow and bears a stamp to confirm its level of purity.

So-called 'Roman' artifacts, as well as 'Victorian' antiques require fairly expensive tests for true proof of their antiquity. One learns to recognise obvious counterfeits but the difference between a ring that is two hundred years old and one that is two thousand years old may not be evident to a layman.

Furthermore, very often Roman rings that once held stones have been refitted either with modern or ancient stones. Reconstruction is common to improve the appearance and ostensible value of a piece of 'ancient' jewelry.

How much does any of this signify to most people? It would be a mistake, I think, to 'invest' sizeable income in ancient artifacts without being an expert with the equipment to date items. COAs have only as much value as the signature on them. Any one can create and sign a document declaring the age and quality of a piece of jewelry. Until they are challenged, the 'authenticity' of the piece stands.

A peripheral effect of the traffic in antiquities on the internet is the way that a statement made by one individual (whether or not he/she is an expert), then is copied by another, and again by some one else, until suddenly one has a definitive corpus of declarations attesting to the nature of an artifact.

For example, there are many 'Roman' rings that are described as dating 'from the 1st to 4th century'. The basis of this declaration may have been genuine expertise in one case but a dealer who is NOT an expert may attach that description to his/her objects on the basis of nothing more than style or general appearance. As more amateur 'dealers' in antiquities use the determining age description, ALL Roman artifacts offered by inexpert sellers are dated '1st to 4th century' without any real evidence to support the statement.

The 1st to 4th centuries were the periods of greatest expansion for the Roman Empire as well as a time of constant war. It makes sense that a large quantity of artifacts from battlefields and from military camps would exist, but there are many other possibilities in terms of the antiquity of any 'Roman' artifact. In the same manner as coins from the Islamic Empire were copied, sometimes poorly, in Asia as well as Northern Europe, Roman jewelry was copied through the centuries both by the descendants of soldiers and by native smiths who admired the work. Finally, there are many periods in history where Roman revivals in art occurred. Through the peculiar power of the internet, however, a vast number of Roman artifacts sold online are described as dating from '1st to 4th century.'

It is not only ancient artifacts that demonstrate the power of the internet to redefine reality or to create urban myths and legends. As a writer of game guides, I have been forced to disprove far too many urban myths about games. One individual, whether in jest or for mischief's sake, may make a claim about a game. It usually depends on a complicated chain of actions and represents something that players would LIKE to believe could occur. Sometimes it actually does represent a real result in a DIFFERENT game.

A player reads the statement and passes it on to his/her friends or posts it on a message board. Suddenly, the urban myth has spread like wildfire and I receive dozens of emails asking me if such an event can occur. Once an idea takes hold, it is difficult to erase. Years later, even after many guides have been written that specifically mention the false claims and disprove them, the rumours of these events continue...

As usual, I have wandered from the point I wished to make, which was the amazing beauty of Bronze. Studying Roman bronze jewelry, one marvels at the incredible diversity of the metal. Some pieces are darker than others. Some are clearly more akin to copper than others. There are pieces that resemble gold but others that exhibit the red flame of copper. The depth of Bronze is quite different from that of gold or silver. It is difficult to explain in words. There is a heaviness and density to bronze that effects its appearance. Copper is a very light metal. Gold somehow is not as heavy as bronze, even when its weight in grams is significant.

Like Silver, Bronze is affected dramatically by the act of polishing it. Gold always gleams unless it has been stored in earth or otherwise affected by the elements. The appearance of bronze, on the other hand, can change quickly. If one uses a simple wire brush on a bronze ring to buff the metal, it is transformed.

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