General introduction to archaeometallurgy

Archaeometallurgy is the study of the ancient metals.

  • How were metals produced in the past ?
  • Which mines were operated ?
  • What kinds of objects were manufactured ?
  • And many other questions on ancient technology, social organization, economical and environmental impact.

Metal is a very important material for mankind. Gold and silver are the standards of wealth. The copper-based alloys, e.g. bronze, firstly were used to make tools and weapons and later for coinage. After iron became available it replaced bronze for objects of everyday use, thereby improving the efficiency and reducing the costs.

Since 5000 years, humans have been searching for metals. They had to dig underground galleries to extract the ore and to crush the rocks and wash the earth to concentrate the usable minerals. In infernal furnaces the metal was extracted from the ore. After the metal was obtained it had to be moulded or hammered and only then the metal was ready to be shaped into tools, weapons and furniture. From the smallest insignificant piece of construction material to delicate works of art, all these objects show the incredible amount of labour and the fascinating knowledge of our ancestors.

All these activities have left many traces like wastes (slags), products (objects) and structures (furnaces) that are revealed and recovered by the archaeologists. In order to understand the role of metals in societies of the past, these material remains are to be studied by applying techniques used in natural sciences, among which chemical analysis, measurements of physical caracteristics, mineralogical and petrographical investigations.

Department of Geosciences,
University of Fribourg

Chemin du Musée 6
CH - 1700 Fribourg
Switzerland

Tel. + 41 26 300 89 70
Fax + 41 26 300 97 65