Copper and Gold in European Prehistory





The beginning of the metal ages was not driven by economical needs.  Apparently copper was initially used to make jewellery: The earliest metal finds are mostly small copper beads. Experimentation with metal, at first with native copper, began as early as the PPN in Anatolia, during the 9th millennium BC. In Aşıklı Höyük copper beads are found foremost in graves. In Çayönü there is a large spectrum of beads, pendants made of malachite and copper, and small tools such awls. There are even indications of the specialised production of beads. As in Aşıklı Höyük, the objects are made of native copper that was either cold-hammered or formed in a warmed state. The Copper Age also saw the appearance of gold, most likely as a result of the rather frequent joint occurrence of copper and gold; the various objects made from this metal. The melting point of these two metals is similar (1083 °C and 1063 °C) and their contemporaneous utilization can in part be attributed to the similar techniques necessary for their processing. There is little evidence for the use of gold before the Copper Age

The profusion of copper artefacts in the Carpathian Basin led Ferencz Pulszky, as early as 1876, to speak of an independent Copper Age there.The question as to the provenance of these artefacts had to remain open at that time, as evidence of production was unknown. But with the discovery of mines in Rudna Glava (Serbia) and Ai Bunar (Bulgaria), dated as early as the 5th millennium BC, the exploitation of copper ores could be definitively proven. Copper had not been imported from afar, but instead procured locally; copper axes were not made from native copper, but were produced by casting.


Gold began to be worked at an early stage at the dawn of metallurgy between the 5 th and 3th millennium BC in different regions in South-West Asia and East Europe. This early use contrast with the limited availability of these metals compared to others like copper or lead. The efforts necessary to find and process gold and silver stands in no relation to any productive advantage that could motivate such an interest. The first use of gold was definitely not related to any economic use as we understand it today but rather served to express notions linked to a new social reality memerging gradually after the introduction of early metallurgy.

Gold has physical properties that result in an unique combination of reflectivity, resistance against corrosion workability and durability that makes it an  ideal symbolic expression  of those values and notations perceived as most transcendental and invariable by a society, group or individual.

The most important early concentrations of worked gold in the 5th millennium BC is the well-known  Varna necropolis. The most important grave was grave 43 that held the remains of a 40–50-year old male in extended supine position. His grave gifts included several weapons made of copper: two shaft-hole axes, one broad and one narrow one, and a copper spearhead or dagger that is a singular piece in itself. The deceased male also had a pointed flint blade, with bilateral retouching and a rounded base. The stone axe with a wooden shaft covered with gold sheet can be understood as a sceptre.

A jade axe is an import from afar: The raw material derives from the Alps and the axe likely made its long way from western Europe to ultimately reach the Black Sea coast, where it was brought into the typical shape of east Balkan axes. Among the many flint blades is one outstanding example of almost 40 cm in length. Its significance lies in the fact that there is still no plausible explanation for the strength and prowess that was necessary to strike such a long blade from the core.

The spondylus from which the originally red bracelet was made came from the Mediterranean. The bracelet must have been repaired once, for which gold sheet was used, an indication indeed of how precious it was. This solitary piece was worn together with two arm rings of gold on the left arm. All together 1413 grams of gold were found in the grave. Aside from the armrings, there was a myriad of golden beads that had been attached to the bracelets or worn as necklaces. The various gold discs were likely sewn onto garments, so that the entire body of the deceased was covered in gold.

Varna 43 is the beginning of an innovative physical symbolic relationship between new forms of power and “noble metals”, which  had definitively become sanctioned by the time of the first Mesopotamian dynasties during the first half of the 3th millennium, as the diadem and other artifacts of the royal tomb of the queen Puabi of Ur express very vividly. This appropriation of  gold and its social significance by the dominant social classes has prevailed until our days on a global scale.

Social stratification during the Upper Paleolithic?

Non Utilitarian Objects collected by Early Humans: The Archaeology of Curiosity

Neolithic / Chalcolithic Jade artifact from Varna

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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome!

About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University.

Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.

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