Tracing the Flows of Copper and Copper Alloys in the Early Iron Age Societies of the Eastern Eurasian Steppe

By Hsu, Yiu-Kang; Bray, Peter J. et al. | Antiquity, April 2016 | Go to article overview

Tracing the Flows of Copper and Copper Alloys in the Early Iron Age Societies of the Eastern Eurasian Steppe


Hsu, Yiu-Kang, Bray, Peter J., Hommel, Peter, Pollard, A. Mark, Rawson, Jessica, Antiquity


Introduction

The Early Iron Age of the Eurasian steppe zone (c. 1000-300 BC) is characterised, above all, by connectivity. Rapid transmissions of ideas within the pastoral world are marked by the appearance of strikingly similar modes in material culture and stylistic representation from the Danube to Manchuria (Figure 1), matched by ever more specific material evidence of contact between these steppe societies and their agricultural neighbours to the south (Rawson 2013; Wu 2013).

Many researchers have sought to explain this increasingly interactive world as an outcome of migration or mobility, associated with rising equestrianism in both economic and martial contexts (e.g. Moskova & Rybakov 1992; Davis-Kimball et al. 1995; Chernykh 2014). Others have looked within to find new kinds of social and structural complexity in the societies of the steppe (e.g. Linduff 2004; Bokovenko 2006; Hanks & Linduff 2009; Houle 2010). Whatever the case, a clearer understanding of the patterns and character of interaction is one of the essential goals of archaeological research in this period.

Drawing together existing 'legacy' data on the composition of copper and bronze artefacts from the Early Iron Age of eastern Eurasia, new theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of artefact chemistry (see Bray & Pollard 2012) can begin to contribute to this discussion. Although such data are imperfect in many ways, they reveal structured patterns at a regional scale, providing a framework for the reconstruction of flow (Bray et al. 2015) in the circulation of copper and tin through contemporary society. By rejecting simple ideas about object and origin, we can begin to trace complex patterns of production and reproduction, mixing, movement and exchange across space and time, and to explore variations in the perception of both metals and metal objects in the societies that made and used them.

Archaeometallurgy in the eastern steppe

Although nominally attributed to the Iron Age, copper, bronze and occasionally gold remain dominant in archaeological metal assemblages for much of this period. These items--including personal weapons and tools, horse bits, mirrors, plaques, pendants and a range of ornaments (Figure 2)--have been extensively studied in terms of typology and style (e.g. Bunker et al. 1997; Wu 2008). Such traditional discussions frequently use stylistic and typological similarities as markers of 'interaction and exchange. The character of contact is rarely explored in detail, however, and the orientation of exchange often remains a matter of opinion.

Research into the metalwork of the Eurasian Bronze Age, particularly in the western steppe, has attempted to integrate these traditional modes of archaeological research within a single interpretive system, combining absolute chronology and technological and chemical analyses (e.g. Chernykh & Kuz'minykh 1989; Chernykh 1992, 2007, 2014). For some reason, this kind of approach has not been extended into the Iron Age. Despite more than 50 years of research, discussions of metal chemistry in the first millennium have remained solidly independent, locally focused and largely disconnected from the primary archaeological narratives.

The earliest significant archaeometallurgical study in the region, led by I.V. Bogdanov-Berezovaya (1963), analysed more than 400 artefacts from the Minusinsk Basin and applied a 1% cut-off to tin and arsenic to classify their metallic chemistry into four broad alloy types: clean copper, arsenical copper, arsenical tin-bronze and tin-bronze. The observed range of trace elements within each of these alloy types was also discussed. The author concluded that arsenical copper production played a primary role in Tagar metallurgy, with tin-bronze as the second largest copper alloy, and also noted that some objects attributed to the Tagar culture contained high quantities of nickel, sometimes up to 2-3%. …

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