January 08, 2014

6,500-year old tin bronze from Serbia

Antiquity Volume: 87 Number: 338 Page: 1030–1045

Tainted ores and the rise of tin bronzes in Eurasia, c. 6500 years ago

Miljana Radivojević et al.

The earliest tin bronze artefacts in Eurasia are generally believed to have appeared in the Near East in the early third millennium BC. Here we present tin bronze artefacts that occur far from the Near East, and in a significantly earlier period. Excavations at Pločnik, a Vinča culture site in Serbia, recovered a piece of tin bronze foil from an occupation layer dated to the mid fifth millennium BC. The discovery prompted a reassessment of 14 insufficiently contextualised early tin bronze artefacts from the Balkans. They too were found to derive from the smelting of copper-tin ores. These tin bronzes extend the record of bronze making by c. 1500 years, and challenge the conventional narrative of Eurasian metallurgical development.

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7 comments:

bicicleur said...

Amazing, they knew how to process and mix different ores for different applications. I wonder where these smiths went after the collapse of the Vinca culture. Maykop?

eurologist said...

I am not surprised. Sourcing the origin of tin bronze to the Caucasus or deep in E Anatolia has always been short-sighted, given the high state of advance and richdom of early West-Pontic cultures - (one of the likely origins of IE, too).

Va_Highlander said...

bicicleur:

Amazing, they knew how to process and mix different ores for different applications.

The paper itself may suggest that, but it does not necessarily follow from the quoted abstract. One piece of foil represents at most one application and use of the word "tainted" does not suggest intentional production. Ores "tainted" with arsenic or lead, whether intentionally exploited or not, were being smelted throughout Central and Southwest Asia and Southeast Europe by the late fifth or early fourth millenium BCE. By the mid-fourth millennium, such alloys were deliberately produced.

Tin bronze first appears in Southwest Asia by the end of the fourth millennium BCE and in Central Asia and Central Europe by the beginning of the third millennium. A unique and possibly accidental specimen of earlier date may or may not significantly change the overarching story.

Grey said...

I think that deserves a wow.

andrew said...

Put me in the "not wow" camp.

Accidentally producing small amounts of bronze using exactly the same methods used to produce copper that is not naturally alloyed at the time it is mined doesn't seem like a very impressive step to me. Also, the lack of large scale exploitation and leveraging of the special properties of accidental bronze alloys for 1500 years suggests that they weren't all that aware of what they had lucked into for most of that time period.

eurologist said...

Va_Highlander,

According to the paper, the metal workers understood the differences in working with these (natural and/or intentional) alloys vs. more pure copper, and adjusted annealing temperatures and processes accordingly and differently depending on usage of the items.

There are 15 items studied in detail, but only 2 could be properly and securely dated.

Also, analysis indicates that various ores were used, and in one group of artifacts it appears that stannite (Cu2FeSnS4) was added on purpose to increase the tin component.

This early tin-bronze manufacturing ceizes when their repective culture(s) collapse - so it is possible that this metallurgical knowledge was locally lost.

The authors speculate that tin-bronze production was initially motivated by its similarity to gold in color (the world-earliest gold finds from the 5th millennium BC are from the same general area). Perhaps it wasn't that easy to produce, or knowledge how to do it was limited, given that the vast majority of finds (by a lot) are copper. Finally, lead and silver were also worked in the area during the same time frame, so the metallurgy state of knowledge was very high.

Va_Highlander said...

eurologist:

Many thanks for the clarification. It has been speculated for some time that exploitation of stannite may have resulted in the earliest production of tin bronze.

The authors speculate that tin-bronze production was initially motivated by its similarity to gold in color (the world-earliest gold finds from the 5th millennium BC are from the same general area).

This seems reasonable. Copper was also used first for ornamentation and only later for tools.

Perhaps it wasn't that easy to produce, or knowledge how to do it was limited, given that the vast majority of finds (by a lot) are copper.

Actually, this is typical of tin bronze. It was adopted slowly, over a period of some centuries, and production did not become widespread until the early to mid-second millennium BCE. The adoption of arsenical bronze followed a similar pattern. The spread of metallurgical innovations depended upon many factors, many of which had nothing to do with metallurgy as such.

Finally, lead and silver were also worked in the area during the same time frame, so the metallurgy state of knowledge was very high.

Perhaps. The earliest silver I'm seeing in Southeast Europe is the horde from Alepotrypa Cave, in southern Greece, dated mid-fifth to early fourth millennium BCE. The technology may have been contemporary or it may not.

It will be interesting to see what specialists in the history of metallurgy make of this latest find.