January 19, 2014

First ever bronze was smelt in the Balcans

It seems that West Asia is losing a bit of its relevance as the origin of nearly every development. Much as the first steel is now known to have been made in Central Africa several centuries before the Hittites (or not: see update below), the first bronze ("tin bronze" to be specific) seems now to have been made in the Balcanic peninsula, more than a thousand years before it was in Mesopotamia.

Miljana Radivojevíc et al. Tainted ores and the rise of tin bronzes in Eurasia, c. 6500 years ago. Antiquity 87 (2013). Freely accessibleLINK


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 Plocnik, a Vinca 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.

The specific well-dated finding is from Plocnik, Southern Serbia, however as we can see in the map below, most 5th millenium bronze sites are from Bulgaria.

This highlights the likely central role in this earliest bronze metallurgy of the Karanovo-Gumelnita culture (very likely a full-fledged state older than dynastic Egypt), which spanned most of Bulgaria, as well as some nearby regions by the south and the north. However the neighbor cultures of Gradesnica-Krivodol (NW Bulgaria and nearby Romanian areas) and Vinca (Serbia) were also involved.

The highest quality alloys (stannite bronzes) belong to this core area of Thrace (Karanovo, Smjadovo and Bereketska Mogila), as well as Southern Serbian sites (Plocnic and Lazareva) while a second category, "high tin fahlore", seems to concentrate along the Danube (Gomolava and Ruse). A "low tin fahlore" category is rarer and seems centered in the Gradesnica area.

For some reason, maybe the disruptive Indoeuropean invasions of the 4th millennium, this technology was apparently lost later on, only to be regained from a West Asian source (Troy) already in the 3rd millennium.

An interesting question is the source of tin, which was in many cases the mineral stannite. The authors suggests further research on isotopes but also consider ancient mines that could have been sources:
Stannite is present in the Bronze Age mines of Mushiston in Tajikistan (Weisgerber & Cierny 2002), Deh Hosein in Iran (Nezafati et al. 2006), the Bolkardăg mining district in Turkey (Yener & ̈Ozbal 1987), as well as in Iberia (Rovira & Montero 2003).

The West and Central Asian mines are often argued not to have been sizable enough to be a major source of tin in the Bronze Age proper but, considering that this is a very early and limited bout of advanced metallurgy, I guess that they are also possible sources.

Update (Jan 22): I must (partly) take back my initial comment on steel metallurgy being older in Niger than Turkey: while the discovery of Nigerien steel-making c. 1500 BCE stands, other recent findings in Turkey seem to push back steel metallurgy in Anatolia to c. 1800 BCE (instead of the c. 1300 BCE date accepted before). Thanks to Aeolius for making us aware of this important detail.

Note: thanks to the Stone Pages newsletter ArcheoNews for directing me to this most interesting study.


  1. I'm wondering if this ties into the point you make about the seemingly advanced nature of early farming in SE Europe. I'm wondering now if some of it was indigenous?

    1. They are different things. The Neolithic must have been imported, as it is found with the whole Neolithic package long after it appears in West Asia, another thing is where exactly from West Asia it came.

      A different issue is the pottery, which is quite early in Thessaly but probably not an indigenous development either. If I remind correctly, Kristiina noted recently that some Eastern European pottery is the oldest of West Eurasia and may have come from East Asia but, even if we discard this, Thessalian pottery is probably still contemporary at most with the first West Asian one.

      But I do think that this finding, along with others, underlines the importance of being open-minded about where technological and cultural advances were developed. And also about when.

  2. Hi Luis,

    Awesome paper. Thanks for finding it and posting it.

    Check out the similarity in writing between the Baltic script I posted recently on my blog.

    Compare this to the Vinca script described on wiki:

    I've mentioned to you before the Dispilio Tablet, which is dated to 7300BP. Some of the symbols on the Dispilio Tablet are shared with Vinca script. At least four of the characters on the Dispilio Tablet are shared both with Vinca script and the symbols discussed in the Baltic Cosmology paper.

    Dispilio is, in fact, on Lake Kastoria, province of Western Macedonia, Hellenic Republic. On Lake Kastoria was also situated Argos Orestiko:

    It was commonly believed in Ancient Greece that some of the people of Argos:

    had originated from Argos Orestiko.

    Which brings me back to my statement at few days ago that some of the people of Ancient Greece originated from the Pannonian Plain. Here, more specifically, based on the association of ancient scripting (Baltic, Vinca, Dispilio), and this paper, it would indicate an association of Myceneans, Macedonians, Bulgarians, Serbians relating back to the Vinca culture and even to the Pre-Neolithic Baltic culture.

    1. "Thanks for finding it and posting it".

      I must thank the Stone Pages team because I found it via their often interesting newsletter (I forgot because I was being pressed to do something else while writing the article, I'll note it now).

      The issue of the Vinca symbols/script remains shrouded in mystery but I can agree that some symbols like the rotating cross or swastika are indeed present in both systems. Other characters however might remind of other early scripts. Can't study the matter more in depth right now; it probably requires of some very serious kind of work anyhow, more than I can fathom myself.

    2. Yes, agree, need more serious work.

      There are some other aspects of these cultures that line up: lace making, similar embroidery styles, congruence of some musical instruments, scales and dance.

      There's also the myths and the obsession with Time (Chronos), which I've touched on recently on my blog.

      This paper on the Bronze Age is important, as I'm sure it will help to better understand the spread of the Bronze Age.

      Awesome find!

    3. Kronos is not "khronos", that's just a wordplay in ancient Greek. The ancient god (titan) Kronos (Saturn for the Romans, arguably the same as Sumerian Enki) had no mythological relationship with the concept of time whatsoever.

      "... it will help to better understand the spread of the Bronze Age".

      I don't see how, at least not in principle: it seems a geographically restricted development which had no direct continuity. I don't say it's impossible that some Balcanic metallurgists did not went into exile to West Asia or the Greek islands and somehow helped develop the bronze tech again but, considering the time gap, it'd be more a semi-mythological thread than something that we are likely to find in archaeological materials.

      More interesting for me regarding bronze, although more towards the Bronze Age proper, is the scarcity of tin in West Eurasia excepting certain areas, all them to the West: Ore Mts. in Central Europe, Galicia, Brittany and Cornwall. Other mines surely existed but these were the only plentiful sources. And, unlike in the Chalcolithic Balcans, in the Bronze Age proper this metal had become of military relevance, being used for all kind of weapons, notably swords, making it a key strategical asset. This explains why we can see growing Eastern Mediterranean influences in Iberia at that time and probably explains the kernel of truth behind the myths of Herakles in the Hesperides and even Plato's narration of Atlantis (which places Greeks fighting against a semi-mythical Western civilization which I identify with Zambujal/VNSP).

      But the bronze metallurgy itself was probably (barring hypothetical lone wise coppersmiths' journeys across the globe) developed independently in several places and times. This actually seems to emphasize these various independent developments without any clear single origin. We must not forget that, beside the Balcans, Mesopotamia, NW China and West/Central Africa, bronze was also developed independently by West Mexico peoples just before Columbus.It's even possible that the Irish developed their own bronze themselves for what I've read.

    4. "Kronos is not "khronos", that's just a wordplay in ancient Greek."

      Luis, I really like your blog and you critical analysis. However, sometimes I suspect that you are a little too willing to make emphatic statements about things on which you may have limited knowledge.

    5. → http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Chronos#English

      (Greek mythology, Greek mythology) The personification of time. (Not to be confused with Cronus or Kronos.)

      → http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Cronus


      Ancient Greek Κρόνος (Kronos), possibly from the Ancient Greek κραίνω (krainō, “to rule or command”).
      Proper noun


      The youngest of the twelve Titans, son of Uranus and Gaia; father to Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon.

      Coordinate terms


    6. Maybe we're not reading the same wiki pages?


      Ancient Greek: Χρόνος, "time," (transliterated as Khronos or Latinized as Chronus) is the personification of Time in pre-Socratic philosophy and later literature.

      Χρόνος was imagined as a god, serpentine in form, with three heads—those of a man, a bull, and a lion.[citation needed] He and his consort, serpentine Ananke (Inevitability), circled the primal world egg in their coils and split it apart to form the ordered universe of earth, sea and sky.

    7. It's the personification of an idea or concept, more proper of philosophy (or art) than of religion. Khronos was not any "real" god, just a concept treated in some literature as a god. I actually don't think any religion ever considered time as a deity. They should but, heh, I'm philosophing here (religion is not about space-time or the Universe but about funny things that people happen to believe for no obvious reason at all).

    8. Suffice it to say, that I disagree with you. Moreover, many folk customs, alive and well in Greece and the Balkans, mark the passing of time, and are connected to this ancient concept and personification of Time: Χρόνος.

  3. "Check out the similarity in writing between the Baltic script I posted recently on my blog."

    Did you really mean to say "Baltic script"? Or Balkan script?

    1. Baltic, why don't you look at her blog: she's published several recent entries on those Baltic icons (script or whatever).

    2. Wow, thanks! So it is Baltic. (This interests me partly my last name is from Lithuania.)

      Here's a link to the original article:
      I must point out, on Marnie's blog, the prominent image of the distaff with sun motifs (Fig. 6 in original article) is that of Lithuanian grave markers called Krikstai, dating to the renaissance, maybe medieval periods; I would still like to see some image of the Mesolithic bone carvings "demonstrating some kind of a symbolic script" mentioned on the first page of the article and her blog post.
      I wonder if the Mesolithic symbols will turn out to be related/similar to the patterns from the late Paleolithic site of Mezin, Ukraine. http://donsmaps.com/wolfcamp.html

    3. The geometric designs of Mexin are very cool, thanks for mentioning, John. Some, especially the zigzags remind of Vinca decorative style indeed. The so-called "stylized female figurine" is particularly recalling of Vinca ones. Some objects look like decorated dildos, I must say, but in any case the story about the musical use of some of those decorated mammoth bones is amazing.

  4. To update you
    Kaman-Kalehöyük is a multi-period archaeological site in Kırşehir Province, Turkey, around 100 km south east of Ankara 6 km east of the tow center of Kaman. It is a tell or mound site that was occupied during the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Ottoman periods. Since 1986 it has been investigated by archaeologists from the Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan.

    In 2005, metallurgical analysis by Hideo Akanuma of iron fragments found at Kaman-Kalehöyük in 1994 and dating to c. 1800 BCE revealed that some of these fragments were in fact composed of carbon steel; these currently form the world's earliest known evidence for steel manufacture.

    1. 1800? Vaya! If that is correct then the Hittites should take back the "iron crown". Still I do find notable that Nigerien steel metallurgy is as old as 1500 BCE.

      Can you provide a source (preferably an online link) because Wikipedia still claims a mere 1300 BCE.

    2. sorry
      The quote is from the wiki article on Kaman-Kalehöyük
      Also in that google is a thread in: http://www.jiaa-kaman.org/en/excavation.html about the excavations.There is reference to annual reports on excavations (unavailable to me) and a statement
      "In the levels belonging to the 2nd millennium B.C., a succession of cultural levels can be clearly seen, from the Assyrian Colony Period, Old Hittite Kindom, and Hittite Empire Period. Artifacts that raise new opinions about when the Iron Age began are excavated one after the other."

    3. Fair enough. I'll edit my comment on the first steel to incorporate this. Thanks.

  5. Great article; Always liked the Vinca, did great gold work.
    I think the paper implies that "bronze" was produced by smelting certain ores rather than alloying different metals as was the case with tin-bronze in the EBA proper, which was developed via arsenical bronze.

    1. "I think the paper implies that "bronze" was produced by smelting certain ores rather than alloying different metals"...

      Yes, that's what they imply, I think. But they used at least two different ores: one as source of copper and another (stannite) as source of tin. They even suggest that all the ores might originate in the same mine but be of different qualities - I'm not too sure about that.

      "... as was the case with tin-bronze in the EBA proper, which was developed via arsenical bronze".

      I'm not too sure about how tin-bronze was developed later. I used to think that arsenical bronze was a mere ersatz of tin-bronze, when tin was lacking, but I realize now that the story may be much more convoluted. In any case when Bronze Age was consolidated it was usual, as found in some Mycenean age wreckages, to mix pure copper with pure tin at 9-1 apportions (which may be even shipped together in the exact apportions). But in the early times or where trade routes were not so readily available, I really don't know: they may well have done the best they could with the available resources.

    2. Also, I don't really understand why Vinca gets all the fame, when it is clear that the civilizational center was in Karanovo-Gumelnita (metallurgy, royal tombs, likely first state in all Europe), further to the East. And it is not different in this case: most of the bronze metallurgy of the Chalcolithic was in the Karanovo-Gumelnita area and its satellite of Gradesnica-Krivodol. Vinca had two or three instances but it does not seem so central.

  6. With regard to early innovations in Bronze and Steel, I'd offer the analogy of the automobile. There were automobiles in existence for about twenty years before Ford's Model T made the invention a significant one. Before that they were one more exotic toy for the rich of the steam age.

    Similarly, the Chinese had kites but never put them to practical use, and also had natural gas which they exploited only most timidly. Figuring out how to use a technology in a civilization changing way as we done by the people we associate with the bronze and steel technologies, matters as much or more than being the first to actually invent or use some technology at all.

    1. You are right in general terms, I believe. The Antikythera mechanism shows that ancient Greeks were able to build sophisticated clocks, yet the technology got lost for almost 2000 years since then. Chinese people invented many technologies that were later exploited more efficiently (or at least famously) by the West: gunpowder, paper, printing machine and even the concept of paper-money are some examples. Also it is very likely that horses were domesticated by others than Indoeuropeans, yet it were these (and later the Turks and Mongols) who made a more effective use of them, at least in military terms.

      However I must say that the examples chosen are a bit inadequate: 20 years of "primitive" cars is nothing compared with the 1500 years of missing bronze metallurgy discussed here, and, anyhow, who did ever put kites to a practical use?

    2. The reference to kites probably was obscure. The notion there is that from an engineering perspective, early aircraft were very similar to early Chinese kites and very different from birds (a la the Greek legend). The Chinese had all of the pre-requisite technology with their kites necessary to make a hang glider or parachute or partially human powered aircraft akin to that of the Wright Brothers minus the engine, but they never actually saw the potential and put the pieces together so that they could have limited flight.

    3. As George Burns said, "The real genius is not the guy who invented the wheel but the one who added the other three ones"


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