Study Reveals Complex Network of Metal Exchanges in Copper Age Italy

(CN) – During the fourth and third millennia B.C. what is now Italy was renowned for its copper deposits and complex metalwork exchange networks, according to newly discovered evidence revealed in study published Wednesday.

That time period, referred to as the Copper Age, is well-known for its major social and economic developments. Transforming ethnographics due to Indo-European migrations, climate change, and the discovery of metallurgy brought forth the new age – a transition period between the late New Stone Age period and the Bronze Age, in which Italy’s early societies began experimenting with metal tools.

They used copper to make tools for agriculture, ornaments, construction, weapons, and other various tasks of daily life.

Metal exchange across Europe and other parts of the world during this time period has intrigued scientists for years. Research has revealed that early copper mining and metalwork in Italy began much sooner and involved the use of much more complex technology than previously believed. However, relatively little is known about metalwork exchange worldwide, especially areas south of the Alps.

“Otzi,” Europe’s oldest known natural human mummy found in 1991 in the Otztal Alps bordering Austria and Italy. (By Thilo PargOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

The study was prompted by the discovery of the Alpine Iceman Otzi, the oldest preserved frozen corpse found buried in the Alps. He was found with a copper axe that proved to be more significant than met the eye.

“It was amazing because it was the only copper axe with a wooden handle dated perfectly, and could be used as a benchmark in time,” said co-author Gilberto Artioli in an interview.

In the new study published in the scientific journal PLOS One, authors Andrea Dolfini of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, Artioli and Ivana Angelini of the University of Padova in Italy, and their colleagues sought to understand the logistics of the mysterious Copper Age. This team of archaeologists and scientists looked for answers as to how commonly and widely copper was imported and exchanged throughout Eneolithic Italy, and they arrived at an unexpected discovery.

They conducted an analysis of an array of copper items, including axe-heads, halberds and daggers. Each of these 20 ancient artifacts came from central Italy and dated back to the Copper Age, between 3600 and 2200 B.C. The scientists pieced together the makeup of these items by comparing the archaeological data and chemical/isotopic signatures to that of nearby sources of copper ore, as well as to other prehistoric sites. Their findings confirmed that most of the analyzed objects originally came from copper mined in Tuscany, while others came from the western Alps and possibly the French Midi.

“We have a very detailed database of all the copper mines in the Alps, Italy, around Europe, and the whole Mediterranean, so when we analyze an object we can detect the fingerprint of the lead isotopes and most likely trace it to the original source,” Artioli said.

Before the mines in Tuscany were made famous by their rich iron deposits, they were an important site for copper smelting. Southern Tuscany contained several copper-rich deposits which would have been very profitable for those living in the region at the time. Today, they are visited daily by tourists who go to see the rich deposits and learn about their fascinating history.

As more evidence is discovered about their history, the mines are becoming increasingly recognized as a once-vital source of the high-demand mineral.

“We are essentially changing the picture – before, most people are thinking copper is coming from Mesopotamia and the Balkans, but this is not the case. Tuscany had very developed metallurgy very early in time and this is proving it,” Artioli said. “There are a lot of speculations and models in archaeological literature, but proving it with data is the thing that’s really moving. It’s a different ball game, and it’s exciting.”

The team’s findings add to the growing significance of Tuscany as a copper source for Copper Age communities in Italy, including the Tyrolean area, where the Alpine Iceman Otzi was discovered. These results also surprised the authors with the unexpected discovery that non-Tuscan copper was a significant import to the region at this time.

“It was a really big surprise to find that some of the objects made in Tuscany were not made of copper because the signal traced the metals basically to the Western Alps and Liguria and South of France,” said Artioli. “It looks like there was a sort of circuit in the exchange of metals, and it was a confirmation that metallurgy was already well developed in the second part of the fourth millennium.”

The findings will help scientists piece together the evolving puzzle of Copper Age metal exchanges. According to the study’s authors, future research could uncover other early sources of copper and details about the interactions between these early trade networks.

“The first systematic application of lead isotope analysis (a geological sourcing technique) to Copper Age metal objects from central Italy, 3600-2200 B.C., has shed new light on the provenance of the copper used to cast them,” the authors wrote in the study’s conclusion.

“The research has revealed that, while some of the copper was sourced from the rich ore deposits of Tuscany, as was expected, some is from further afield. This unforeseen discovery demonstrates that far-reaching metal exchange networks were in operation in prehistoric Europe over a thousand years before the Bronze Age.”

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