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On salt, copper and gold

 | 
Catherine Marro
, 
Thomas Stöllner

Early metallurgy in the Caucasus and beyond

Patterns of early metallurgy on the Iranian Plateau, from the beginnings to the end of the Bronze Age

Barbara Helwing

Résumé

Les hautes terres d’Iran, avec leurs riches ressources minérales, sont connues pour être l’un des hauts lieux de la métallurgie. Après une longue interruption de la recherche archéologique après 1979, les travaux effectués depuis 2000 ont permis de mieux comprendre les premières étapes de l’exploitation du métal en Iran. Ces nouvelles recherches nous permettent de retracer un développement technologique qui commence avec le martellement et la chauffe du cuivre au Néolithique, se poursuit avec la réduction du minerai et le coulage du métal à petite échelle au Ve millénaire et, à partir du IVe millénaire, par une métallurgie sophistiquée du cuivre et de l’argent, dont les produits circulent à grande échelle et alimentent les consommateurs des basses terres du Khuzestan et probablement de Mésopotamie. La fondation des premiers sites urbains de la fin du IVe millénaire est corollaire d’un bond en avant de la technologie métallurgique, rendu possible grâce à l’introduction de fourneaux à cheminée verticale. C’est à partir de ce moment que l’on peut observer la production de différents types d’alliages comme le cuivre arsénié. Curieusement, le bronze (alliage cuivre-étain) n’est introduit dans les hautes terres d’Iran qu’au IIe millénaire av. J.‑C.
Les matières premières utilisées en métallurgie n’étaient au départ que des métaux natifs. Les zones minières, bien répertoriées en Iran, sont rarement datables ; il est donc difficile d’établir le début des exploitations à ciel ouvert ou en milieu souterrain. Cependant, des puits souterrains ont été utilisés au plus tard à l’âge du Bronze pour obtenir les matériaux recherchés. De nouveaux travaux ont fourni des données très solides permettant d’établir des distinctions chronologiques mais aussi géographiques entre les différents courants de développement de la métallurgie, lesquels se répartissent en « écoles » régionales. Les échanges de savoir-faire et d’objets à longue distance ne commencent qu’à partir du IVe millénaire av. J.‑C. avec l’inclusion des hautes terres iraniennes à un réseau de sites urbains.
Les plus anciens développements de la métallurgie doivent être replacés, comme par la suite, dans leur contexte historique particulier d’alliances et de barrières régionales. Jusqu’à l’âge du Fer, ce sont des constellations politiques mouvantes qui déterminent l’accès et la distribution des matières premières et des productions métalliques en Iran et aux alentours.

Texte intégral

The Tbilisi conference was an excellent opportunity to bring together a number of specialists and to exchange the latest views on the development of metal work and mining in general. I am most grateful for this great opportunity to learn and share. I also wish to acknowledge the fruitful and inspiring exchanges with colleagues in the Berlin Topoi “Atlas of Innovations” and in Research Cluster 2: “Innovations: technical, social” at the German Archaeological Institute. The English text profited greatly from corrections and suggestions by Joseph Lehner. All mistakes remain, naturally, my own.

Introduction

  • 1 For renewed lab work on previously excavated material see Thornton et al. 2002; Frame 2004; Thornt (...)
  • 2 For an overview of recent archaeometallurgical studies, see Thornton 2009a; Helwing 2013a; Weeks 2 (...)

1The highlands of Iran with their rich mineral resources are well established as one of the hotspots of early metallurgy (Pigott 1999). Following a long gap in archaeological research after 1979, new field and lab work carried out since 20001 has provided robust new data that led to a more precise chronological but also geographical distinction between the various strands of development, which differ according to regional “schools”.2 This renewed work opens perspectives towards a more detailed understanding of the early steps in metal exploitation and use in this country. These new investigations make it possible to trace back a technological development from the beginnings to the rise of a complex metallurgy, whose products circulated widely and supplied consumers in the lowlands of Khuzestan and probably Mesopotamia. The integration of the polities of the Iranian highlands into a network of urban sites from the late 4th millennium BCE onwards also promoted long-distance exchange in knowledge and objects. The development of early metallurgy in Iran therefore has to be understood in this particular historical setting.

2This paper seeks to explore the relationship between the emergence of metallurgical technologies and the social and historical context in which this took place. Metallurgy here serves as a magnifying glass to investigate the social processes that are reflected in, and determined by, the social context in which they occur. In particular, the development of early urban sites in the late 4th millennium BCE correlates with a quantum leap in metallurgical technology (Helwing 2011a). From that moment onwards, we may also observe targeted experimentation in the production of alloys such as arsenic copper, while tin bronze, the major copper alloy that came to dominate the production from the late 3rd millennium BCE in many places, was introduced into the Iranian highlands only later. The 2nd millennium BCE saw the establishment of the Elamite state in southern Iran, while the highland areas remained a mosaic of independent polities that engaged in greater or lesser interaction with the lowlands. These various dynamics are clearly reflected in the metallurgical record.

3The emphasis of this paper will be on copper since this is the earliest metal regularly used on a large scale. Some attention is also given to gold and silver, but iron is deliberately left out of the discussion since it has remained little studied until today (Pigott 1982).

Background

4Since the first formulation of the “Three Age System” by Christian Jurgensen Thomsen in 1816, who labelled two of the three major historical eras after the bronze and iron metals (Hansen 2001), metal has received extraordinary attention as a decisive material factor in the emergence of early cultures. Culture materialist approaches singled out metal as the driving force in the emergence of social inequality, based on the assumption that it allowed the production of more efficient tools and weapons and hence provided societies controlling the knowledge of metal production with an advantage over their neighbours (for example, Childe 1935, 1944). Embedded in a centralistic view of the world that understood the culture process as being driven by only a few societies in environmentally suitable locations, paradigmatic models placed the southern Levant at the forefront of metallurgical innovations, while other areas remained understudied and neglected mainly due to their inaccessibility to western researchers (Thornton, Roberts 2009). This biased perception has also affected Iran: although Iran had first been considered as one of the heartlands of metallurgy, the lack of primary research on this subject until 2000 has excluded this country from ongoing debates for some time.

  • 3 Exemplary studies are Ottaway 1994, 2015; Yener 2000; Kienlin 2007.

5Archaeometallurgical research has traditionally focussed on the investigation of technical processes (but not only, see Thornton, Roberts 2014 and contributions herein), which obviously lend themselves most easily to study regions where large-scale analytical research was possible. It took a departure from these technologically deterministic approaches to recognize the explicatory potential of studies that combined technical-analytical approaches with social concepts.3 In fact, the complex technology of metallurgy reflects not only the technical know-how of the craftsmen involved, but also the open questions regarding the effects of supply and consumer systems (Stöllner 2014, 2016; Stöllner et al., this volume). This recognition became possible through the application of a model of craft production that combines the technical properties of an artefact with the requirements of its consumers and users. This model has its roots in the chaîne opératoire approach originally formulated by the French anthropologists Marcel Mauss and André Leroi-Gourhan (Leroi-Gourhan 1964; Audouze 2002), whose application remained confined to the sphere of lithic analysis for decades. Rediscovered only in the late 1990s by colleagues working in other fields (Costin 1991, 2001), the approach was then adapted to the specific properties of metal as a material that can (almost) indefinitely be recycled in the form of a metallurgical cycle rather than a linear chain (Ottaway 2001; Hansen 2013). One major advantage of the metallurgical cycle is that it adapts the material and technical properties of metal to the needs and wishes of the society using the artefacts. The model breaks down the process of metal production into a number of subsequent steps, from initial mining to smelting and shaping, to usage and deposition, discarding or recycling. Archaeological approaches are material-based and by their very nature tend to emphasise the material data; however, it is the embedding of these data in the social context of the process that provides glimpses into the functioning of the societies who made and used these objects.

6A second premise maintained here is that the development of one technology never happened in total isolation. Most successful innovations occur through the application of known technologies to a different field. This concept, also known as “cross-craft interaction” (McGovern, Notis 1989; Brysbaert 2011; Fenn 2015), emphasizes the enmeshment of any technology within concurrent technical and cultural processes. Existing and developing knowledge of heat control, of transport means or of ceramic production certainly reflected back into the technology of metal production. In the following, I therefore will refer, where possible, to the development of metallurgical technology step by step through the residues of its production in their specific archaeological context, from smelting furnaces to artefacts and textual records. The data that have accumulated after 2000 provide a much better basis for such a synthesis today.

Copper sources and ore extraction

7Due to its rich natural resources, which comprise large bodies of metal ores, Iran has always been considered as a major supplier of metal to the early states of Mesopotamia and its neighbours (Wertime 1964, 1967). The inner Iranian highlands form part of the Tethyan Eurasian Metallogenic Belt (TEMB) that extends from the European Alps to the Himalayas and whose formation goes back in the earth’s history to the collision of tectonic plates after the break-up of the Gondwana continent. Enormous forces were released when the Arabian plate and the Eurasian plate collided and the Arabian plate subsequently dived under the Eurasian plate. The Iranian microplate broke into pieces that were pushed one on top of the other and lifted up, resulting in the formation of the Zagros and the Alborz folded zones and partly exposing layers of the old ocean floor of the Tethyan Sea (Momenzadeh 2004). High pressure and volcanism related to these ongoing tectonic movements contributed to the formation of metamorphic minerals and broke layers up, exposing them to weathering. Metal-ore bodies formed in the cracks within the metamorphic rocks over time. These ore veins can hold high concentrations of copper, often associated with gold, and are visible close to the earth’s surface, where they could easily be accessed by early miners and metal workers. Concentrations of specific ore bodies occur in the individual folded belts and in particular within the volcanic belts.

8As a result of these complex and drawn-out processes, exploitable ore bodies (fig. 1) are concentrated mainly within the volcanic belts that extend in a NW‑SE direction along the interior block of highland Iran, while the high Zagros folded belt and the Zagros crushed zone remain largely devoid of significant ore bodies (Momenzadeh 2004). This geographical zoning is important to recognize, in particular with regard to studies in historical geography that take the existence of copper ores for granted throughout Iran. A place like the mountain of Kimash, which Sumerian texts explicitly link with copper deposits (Steinkeller 2013), must be sought along the inner block of the Iranian highland.

Fig. 1 – Map of Iran showing the distribution of copper deposits and finds of early copper, distinguished according to technology applied in shaping (mapped by B. Helwing after Momenzadeh 2004).

Fig. 1 – Map of Iran showing the distribution of copper deposits and finds of early copper, distinguished according to technology applied in shaping (mapped by B. Helwing after Momenzadeh 2004).

9The earliest traces of exploitation in mining districts remain notoriously difficult to find (Stöllner 2014). Rich ore bodies with their colourful ore mineralisation are easy to spot and were most probably the first to be exploited in history. But mineralized deposits are also targeted by modern mining operations, which erase ancient industrial landscapes without leaving any trace of earlier use. The archaeological record of ancient mining is therefore strongly biased and fragmentary.

10Early mining probably began with surface collections, followed by opencast mining. We have no means of deciding if systematic surveying of the countryside led to the discovery of the ore sources; it is possible, for example, that mobile herdsmen and hunters contributed to the knowledge of sources through their extensive local knowledge and observations. Surface collections obviously leave no archaeologically visible traces, while opencast mines may not always be recognizable for what they really are. Underground mining, which certainly began during the Bronze Age, if not before, left more visible traces. Modern geological research mentions the existence of shafts and galleries in economically interesting areas; however, the remains of mining are unfortunately rarely protected as cultural heritage and preserved as such. Where ancient underground mining is preserved and archaeologically documented, it is evident that ancient miners followed the visible veins and mechanically dug their shafts and galleries (Stöllner et al. 2011). They used a combination of techniques: they dug up and crushed rocks and used “fire setting” to crack the rock (Weisgerber, Willies 2000). In this technique, the rock is first heated up by a fire underneath, and then rapidly cooled off by throwing cold water at it. As a result, the rock cracks, usually peeling away in thin layers, which leaves characteristic concave cavities. The mechanical digging was time-consuming and costly in materials, and heaps of discarded hammer stones that are often made of non-local hard stone, can be observed beneath the entrances to the mine.

  • 4 Graves of young miners are archaeologically documented at Kargali (Chernykh 2003).

11Mining areas are often located in distant or inhabitable zones, at high altitudes or far from sustainable water supplies. It is therefore likely that mining before the Bronze Age was not a year-round specialized profession, but rather a seasonal and episodic occupation. From the Bronze Age onwards, when copper working turned into a veritable industry, it is most likely that specialist expeditions set off to the mountains and that numerous helping hands were involved not exclusively in the underground digging but also in the providing of mining tools, of food and fuel. Some underground galleries are extremely narrow, so we can speculate that children may have regularly been members of the work gangs.4

Copper: early extraction, smelting, casting

12Only a minor amount of copper naturally exists in its native metallic form. Copper nuggets were certainly collected and mechanically worked since Antiquity; the Iranian archaeological record, however, has yielded hardly any evidence for the use of native copper. A bead made of a rolled sheet of copper found at protoneolithic Ali Kosh is the only example (Smith 1969). This bead closely resembles examples of cylindrical rolled copper beads found at Çayönü in southeastern Turkey. The site of Ali Kosh also contains a minor component of obsidian, which derived from East Anatolian sources, while this bead so far remains an isolated find in Iran. It is therefore possible that the bead from Ali Kosh also came from an eastern Turkish source and was not a local product, but this hypothesis has not yet been tested (Helwing forthcoming).

13However, from about 6000 BCE onwards, metallic copper had been used in Iranian Late Neolithic communities to shape reamers, points and hooks through mechanical working and annealing. Copper objects are reported from various places in all areas of Iran, without a clear local preference or concentration: we find them in the southern Zagros at Tal‑e Mushki (Fukai, Horiuchi, Matsutani 1973, pl. 51.14‑15), on the western Iranian Plateau at Tappe Zagheh (Malek Shahmirzadi 1977, pl. 25.1‑9) and Tappe Sialk (Ghirshman 1938, pl. 52, lower row), and on the north-eastern edge of the Central Desert at Kalateh Khan (Roustaei 2016, pp. 59‑60, fig. 26, 3502, 3506).

14Technology changed during the 5th millennium BCE in the Middle Susiana Phase in Khuzestan and the Bakun period in Fars. A new type of pottery kiln with two chambers was developed, which afforded temperatures up to ca 1,100°C (Petrie 2011). This is how potters learned that a solid material could melt when heated. This observation is key knowledge for the development of smelting technology as well. Applying strong heat to colourful minerals turned them into malleable and shimmering materials – metal. Moving from smelting to shaping, again a crossover from pottery production, comes into play: moulds were shaped by the same means and according to the same principles as early ceramics were (Frame 2004).

15The interrelated principles of smelting and casting seem to have been applied first in the southeast of Iran and the Makran region before 4000 BCE, where the earliest cast objects include some openwork wheel-shaped discs from Mehrgarh (Roux, Mille, Pelegrin 2013, fig. 4). In Tappe Yahya, one awl made from smelted copper appears as an outlier in an otherwise mechanically-worked copper assemblage (Thornton et al. 2002). At Tal‑e Eblis (Frame 2004), where abundant evidence for copper smelting is attested in the form of broken crucibles, we lack reliable dating to better posit this material in the wider context of the earliest copper metallurgy in Iran.

16If we map these earliest-attested occurrences of smelted copper in the southeast of Iran and the Makran against the earliest evidence from other regions of the country (fig. 1), a short time lag between the south-east and the central and north-western parts of Iran is obvious, as objects made from smelted copper appear on sites from the plateau only around and after 4000 BCE (Helwing 2013a).

17Only a few of the metal objects dating to the 5th and beginning of the 4th millennium BCE have undergone metallurgical analysis, so future work may alter this picture. Known copper objects from this period could just as well have been produced mostly by mechanical working and annealing: small hooks and awls are attested, while the first long dagger blades have been found at Tal‑e Bakun (Alizadeh 2006, fig. 70) and Tappe Sialk (Ghirshman 1938, pl. 85, S.312, S.127, S.1735). Of particular interest are two copper seals from 5th millennium BCE Tal‑e Bakun (Alizadeh 2006, pl. 20, E) that have never been studied from an archaeometallurgical perspective: they are shaped like the button-type stone stamps from the same site and it would be interesting to know if they were cast or made with stone-working techniques like grinding and incision.

  • 5 Opinions regarding the reconstruction of 5th millennium Chalcolithic societies in the Zagros vary (...)

18This precocious 5th millennium BCE metallurgical technology unfolds with small-scale village communities in the background.5 Settlement patterns indicate a two-tiered hierarchy with small and slightly larger villages, but no paramount centres. House sizes do not indicate much internal differentiation, and the few known graves indicate an emphasis on probably merit-based personal status. Images depicting social practices like commensal feasts and dancing seem to reflect a largely egalitarian social order; the sole distinction being based on personal achievements. It is in this respect that numerous exotic materials appear in the archaeological record, which are mainly used to craft jewellery and visible indicators of personal status. The use of metal is directly linked with this social practice of displaying status and prestige. Copper objects are mostly items of jewellery or personal adornment, and the few known dagger blades also fall into the realm of prestige display.

19With the onset of the 4th millennium BCE, smelting copper becomes a regular craft activity among the Chalcolithic communities of highland Iran (fig. 2). Again a bias in the data must be acknowledged, as some regions – including the south-east, where early smelting evidence had been brought to light – seem to be altogether under-represented in the archaeological record for this millennium. The best evidence comes from the Central Plateau where sites cluster in environmentally favourable locations around major springs. Settlements grow larger over the first centuries of the 4th millennium BCE and internal differentiation between individual buildings becomes more apparent (Nokandeh 2010; Helwing 2011a). During this time, copper smelting represents a regular “cottage industry” attested within the settlements at Tappe Ghabrestan (Majidzadeh 1996), Tappe Ma’morin (J. Mehr Kian, pers. comm.), Tappe Sialk (Nezafati, Pernicka 2006; Nokandeh 2010) and Tappe Ozbaki (Majidzadeh 1389), as well as in sites documented during survey work in the neighbourhood of Arisman (Chegini, Helwing 2011). Crucibles with a pierced hollow foot, open moulds with three to five ingot shapes and open moulds for the casting of heavy double shaft-hole axes are typical shapes during this period.

Fig. 2 – Map of Iran, showing the presence and technique of copper working in the Late Chalcolithic period, 4000‑3300 BCE (B. Helwing).

Fig. 2 – Map of Iran, showing the presence and technique of copper working in the Late Chalcolithic period, 4000‑3300 BCE (B. Helwing).
  • 6 The context and the date of a complex shaft-hole axe from Ghabrestan is not beyond doubt; cf. Stöl (...)

20The smelting took place in small pit furnaces within the settlement itself, often in open-air spaces or in the yards attached to the houses, as those brought to light for example at Tappe Ghabrestan (Majidzadeh 1977, 1996). Pit furnace smelting seems to have produced only little slag, and the process included steps of beneficiation through mechanical working: the smelted furnace charge was not a homogenous metallic ingot, but a slag cake comprised of metal and rocky minerals alike; these cakes were crushed and metallic prills sorted by hand; slag was also crushed or finely ground and the metal remaining in the matrix selected or sieved out. Altogether, the beneficiation was a time-consuming and tiresome mechanical work, which probably involved not only specialists endowed with copper-smelting knowledge, but also helping hands who could grind and sieve. In the end, these collaborative efforts processed considerable amounts of metallic copper. Some of these were transformed into heavy-weight tools or weapons, in particular large shaft-hole axes that seem to be modelled on stone prototypes (Helwing 2012, 2013a). Single-valve moulds for the casting of shaft-hole axes have been found in several sites on the western plateau, whereas the products themselves – axes of more than 1 kg in weight – are known from graves excavated in Susa in the Khuzestan lowlands.6 Hence, the output of the early 4th millennium BCE cottage industry was already fed into a system of supra-regional circulation at a time that correlates with the nascent states in the lowlands. We have no good evidence for contemporary graves in the highlands, therefore we do not precisely know if the consumers of the copper industry were only located in lowland sites or remain invisible in the highlands for reasons of selective preservation. The repercussions of these overland contacts are small objects that indicate influences from the lowlands on the communities of the plateau, in particular stamps and early cylinder seals, but also some vessels, like spouted vessels, linked to drinking habits (Helwing 2013b).

21While the workshop from Tappe Ghabrestan and the industrial residues from Arisman provide a wealth of detail on the processing of copper on-site, only indirect information concerning the origin of the raw material is available. No physical traces of ancient mining can be linked to this early exploitation; but geochemical analyses provide robust evidence to match trace element compositions with known ore bodies, while lead isotope analyses point at specific source regions (Pernicka et al. 2011). For the earlier 4th millennium BCE Arisman production, we know today that the ores processed were largely argentiferous polymetallic ores, which had formed as sulphides in quartzite veins within limestone and were later partly transformed into easily exploitable oxidic minerals as a result of weathering (Nezafati et al., this volume). It has been suggested that these ores were used to extract both arsenical copper and lead-silver. The ore was obtained from various sources and supply was organised in a decentralized way. The ores arrived at the site from at least four different mining districts. Lead isotope data point at the large mining district at Anarak and Baqoroq – and Nakhlak as one possible source for the ores processed in Arisman (Pernicka et al. 2011).

22The copper circulating at Arisman was arsenical copper throughout. Whether arsenical copper was a deliberate alloy or was an unintended but welcome result from the smelting of polymetallic ores has long been subject to debate (Lechtman 1996). Many scholars have used an arbitrary boundary drawn at 1 or 2% of arsenic content to distinguish unintentional “dirty copper” from a deliberate alloy. The arsenic content at Arisman is typically significantly higher than 2%. This has led to the hypothesis that deliberate alloying resulted in the production of arsenical copper, which left distinct brown-coloured slag behind. Smelters would first have produced arsenical speiss, and later on smelted this together with copper (Rehren, Boscher, Pernicka 2012). A recent reassessment of the ore procurement and the smelting process attested at Arisman has led N. Nezafati to propose the use of polymetallic raw materials instead, as well as a smelting protocol that resulted in a layered cake with different elemental composition within a single smelting procedure (Nezafati et al., this volume). The same raw materials could have been used for the extraction of silver (see below).

A reorganisation of copper processing

23The smelting technology in place during the early periods of copper extraction relied on pit furnaces that accommodated crucibles to produce small amounts of metallic copper, leaving little slag behind. This changed significantly during the second half of the 4th millennium BCE (fig. 3), when larger constructed furnaces came into use; these were designed to process larger volumes of ore and were constructed to take advantage of naturally occurring drafts of wind to drive the furnace (Helwing 2017). The technology allowed for larger capacities, however the yield was less in comparison to crucible smelting. The larger amounts of residual slag still contained a fair amount of copper that had to be extracted through mechanical beneficiation.

Fig. 3 – Proto-Elamite sites in Iran, most of which yielded traces of copper working (B. Helwing).

Fig. 3 – Proto-Elamite sites in Iran, most of which yielded traces of copper working (B. Helwing).

24The introduction of smelting furnaces correlates with a major social reorganisation, which occurred towards the end of the 4th millennium BCE (Helwing 2013b). This reorganisation includes a major shift in settlement organisation resulting in singular, large-scale urban-type settlements within an apparently empty hinterland, as opposed to the even distribution of settlements through the countryside in the preceding centuries. Together with a standardisation in building techniques, urban planning is evidenced through the layout of streets and lanes and the existence of pre-planned canalisation systems. Before the development of this reorganisation of society, copper-smelting sites shifted to special areas on the periphery of the inner urban site; only the secondary refinement and possibly small-scale casting or reworking was carried out within the inhabited zone. At Arisman, it seems that some specialized workshops were also set up in abandoned habitation zones (Chegini, Fahimi, Helwing 2011, p. 64).

25This major reorganisation of copper working, which correlates with the appearance of a new social order, does not seem to affect the kinds of raw materials used in copper production. The major material worked and used in Iran throughout the 4th and into the 3rd millennium BCE in major sites like Tappe Sialk and Arisman was arsenical copper (Nezafati, Pernicka 2006; Pernicka et al. 2011), and no shift in raw material preferences can be observed. All the analysed artefacts from Arisman show arsenical copper as a base metal, although it seems that a higher variety of possible sources were exploited in this later urban period. Tal‑e Malyan has yielded only a small assemblage of metal finds for the Banesh period, where analyses show the use of arsenical copper in about half the sampled cases. It is assumed that local copper with minor impurities of arsenic was exploited and smelted here (Pigott, Rogers, Nash 2003a). The assemblages from other sites on the plateau have not been analysed yet, making it problematic to extrapolate from this single case.

  • 7 Susa stands out as the site that has produced a majority of metal finds, which were also analysed (...)

26In lowland Khuzestan, Susa IIIA‑B provides insight into the consumers’ practices of this period of complex metallurgy throughout the proto‑Elamite period.7 A direct link with the ore sources and production centres of the Iranian Plateau has been proposed for copper, lead and silver, which are all well attested at Susa (Tallon 1987, pp. 318‑320). Contrasting with the preceding Late Chalcolithic period, no direct matches between production residues from the plateau sites and artefacts brought to light at Susa can so far be established. But typological similarities and the wide distribution of other artefact categories, such as cylinder seals in the Piedmont Jemdet Nasr style, indicate a close-knit network of contacts linking Susa with the eastern Tigris lowlands (Pittman 1994).

27This proto‑Elamite network collapsed after a short time in the early 3rd millennium BCE and some formerly inhabited regions seem to have been abandoned altogether. Other regions, such as the south-east of Iran and Khuzestan, seem to have become reorganized into a network of city states that centred on oasis-like localities and maintained long-distance trade contacts with neighbouring areas such as the Makran, Central Asia and Sumer. Metal craftsmanship developed further in the urban workshops and copper-shaping techniques were refined. From the early 3rd millennium BCE onwards, double moulds were in use for casting. Vessels were hammered and chased from cast blanks. Arsenical copper remained the main alloy throughout the 3rd millennium BCE despite the fact that other regions of western Asia began to systematically alloy copper with tin, or either to cover copper vessels with a tin coating, in the second half of the 3rd millennium BCE, as exemplified in particular by the finds from the Diyala cities (Moorey 1994, p. 298, quoting P.T. Craddock).

Tin bronze in Early Bronze Age Iran and beyond

28A number of exceptionally early finds containing tin have been repeatedly listed in previous literature, among them a pin from Sialk III5 (Halm 1939, pp. 206‑207). This object has so far not been available for reanalysis and therefore remains a doubtful reference; it is different with a small rod from Yahya IV, which consists of arsenical copper with a minor portion of tin (Thornton et al. 2002).

29However, the systematic use of tin bronze began on the territory of Iran in Susa in the Khuzestan lowlands only in the later 3rd millennium BCE. For example, in the well-known “vase à la cachette”‑hoard (Harper, Aruz, Tallon 1992, p. 108, fig. 35), four vessels made of tin bronze were found, which contained more than 7% of tin, while shallow bowls from the same context had a scant 2% of tin. Some tin bronze is also attested in the recently discovered graveyard at Deh Dumen in the southern Zagros, where it was used for vessels (Oudbashi, Naseri, Malekzadeh 2015). Other Iranian sites, like the oasis towns in eastern Iran, have not produced robust evidence for the use of tin in this period. It is only from the late 3rd millennium BCE onwards that tin bronze makes a regular appearance, at least in Susa from Susa IVB on (Tallon 1987, pp. 336‑340).

30The question of the provenance of the tin used in Mesopotamia and Susa is still debated. Ancient texts refer to sources located east of Greater Mesopotamia: the Ebla Palace Archive lists “tin from Dilmun” among its commodities. Two centuries later, Gudea refers to sources in Meluhha from which he imported tin. And the Mari archives mention that the route of the tin supply to northern Mesopotamia ran through Mari (summarized following Tallon 1987, p. 334). Hence, it seems that at least the Mesopotamian cities relied on trade via the Persian Gulf to obtain their share of the valued metal: the fact that south-eastern Iran sites seem to have been left out of this distributive network is even more puzzling.

31It is nevertheless most likely that the tin used in Mesopotamia and Susa and their hinterlands derived from Afghanistan, where sources of tin are amply documented in the Upper Helmand and Kandahar region, in the Badakhshan and in the Herat Province (for a recent overview, see Thomalsky et al. 2013). The same regions are well-known sources for equally sought-after materials, like gold and the blue lapis lazuli that is only found in Badakhshan, and it has been suggested that these materials may have travelled together (Herrmann 1964). Traded overland, tin, gold and lapis lazuli could have been transported through eastern Iran at some point. But the local metallic assemblages from major 3rd millennium BCE cities like Shahr‑e Sukhte, Shahdad and Jiroft in south-eastern Iran (fig. 4) have yielded hardly any evidence for the use of tin alloys during that time. Materials analysed from these excavations are almost entirely composed of arsenical and unalloyed copper. Shahdad is the only exception to this case: a few pins from graveyard A are reported to contain a high amount of tin (Hakemi 1997, p. 59), and a few spindles collected from the surface of the site (Mortazavi, Roudini, Salehi Nezhad 2011) are also rich in tin; however, as surface finds, these artefacts remain without a secure archaeological context and date. This “tin-avoiding” pattern remains puzzling when compared with the Susa evidence, and even more with that from sites like Deh Dumen, whose metal artefacts show strong stylistic similarities with east Iranian objects (Oudbashi, Naseri, Malekzadeh 2015). Nevertheless, it seems most likely that people from the Deh Dumen region obtained their materials from a supply via Susa and not from the eastern sites. One possible explanation could be that the tin trade circumvented south-eastern Iran and went overseas, via the Indus region and then the Persian Gulf, or that people deliberately chose a northern route along the Zagros, which circumvented south-eastern Iran.

Fig. 4 – Major Early Bronze Age sites in Iran, 2900‑2000 BCE (B. Helwing).

Fig. 4 – Major Early Bronze Age sites in Iran, 2900‑2000 BCE (B. Helwing).

Early Bronze Age bronze objects from the Zagros

32A very different dynamic seems to have held behind the possible early occurrence of tin bronzes in the western and central Zagros (fig. 4). This mountainous region is located beyond the zones where the early city states flourished in the course of the 3rd millennium BCE (for an overview, see Haerinck, Overlaet 2004). Few settlements are known in these mountainous areas, where most of the archaeological evidence relates to dolmen stone features, which served as constructed places for multiple graves over a long time. Occasional tin bronzes have been found in these tombs (Fleming et al. 2005). But it remains difficult to assign the tin-bronze objects from the dolmens with certainty to the early phases of the Early Bronze Age as the subsequent stages of usage are difficult to differentiate: so far, the earliest securely-dated tin bronzes in Iran belong to the second half of the 3rd millennium BCE. They occur alongside arsenical bronzes and lead-copper alloys.

33Two separate series of analyses of the bronzes from Lorestan have resulted in partly contradictory views. Both series use excavated materials from the Belgian Archaeological Mission to Iran (BAMI) directed by Louis Vanden Berghe as a reference, but the analyses were carried out in different laboratories. One group has worked at the MASCA labs in Philadelphia on 41 objects from various contexts of the graveyard of Kalleh Nisar, covering a chronological range from the early 3rd millennium BCE to the Ur III period (Fleming et al. 2005). The results showed that the earliest objects had all a significant content of tin, although the pieces were rather nondescript small rings, etc., shaped through mechanical working. Most of the assemblage from the second phase derived from possibly reoccupied EBA tombs and also contained tin. Within the last group, which comprised late individual 3rd millennium BCE graves, only a few objects contained tin. The second series was carried out on material from different Lorestan graveyards kept at the Louvre Museum, which were acquired long ago from several private collectors (no materials dating to the earliest phase of the Lorestan graveyards was included in this second series). This second study tested the materials for the presence of tin bronze and also sought to determine their authenticity (Begemann et al. 2008). The analyses carried out at the laboratories of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz investigated the elemental composition and conducted lead isotope analysis. The results provide evidence for different series of production, namely arsenic copper and tin bronze, whereby “clean” tin seems to have been added to the copper. The lead isotope ratio of the copper is consistent with the use of local sources, possibly in the Arak region, while at the same time these data rule out the possibility of copper supplies from the Iranian Plateau mining districts such as Anarak. According to the authors, this points to a highly localized industry with no exchange of raw materials with the lowlands of Khuzestan.

34Both sampling series support models that emphasize the local supply of copper in the Sanadaj or Arak area rather than a supply system controlled by lowland cities towards the high valleys of the Zagros. The recent discovery of a polymetallic ore deposit containing tin in Deh Hossein in the Sirjan-Sanadaj belt (Nezafati, Pernicka, Momenzadeh 2009; Nezafati, Pernicka 2011) may offer an additional explanation for the precocious appearance of occasional tin bronze in the area. It could be linked to an experimental phase during an early phase of copper exploitation in the region by local communities, which came to an end after a short time when centrally organized state institutions took control of the flow of materials, at the latest during the Akkad period. I have maintained earlier that the result of these early experiments may also account for the occurrence of early tin bronze in Kish in modern Iraq (Helwing 2009). Following this early experimental phase, tin bronze begins to occur regularly but not exclusively in 3rd millennium BCE graves. However, we still do not know whether these bronzes are local products or were derived from centralized production centres in the lowlands. Tin bronze is also attested at Godin Tappe (Frame 2010), where people built a community that was located on a strategic checkpoint in the Kangavar valley. This location made it possible to control the trade routes between the lowlands and the Central Plateau and would have ensured the occasional access to different sources.

35If we manage to define more accurately a local copper industry for Lorestan, it will be interesting to compare it with the textual evidence. The Ur III records mention the Kimash Mountains as a place from where copper was obtained, and Abullat and AdamDUN as stations on the way towards these desirable sources (summarized in Schrakamp forthcoming). The location of Kimash in the western Zagros is beyond doubt, but its precise location is not known. As a working hypothesis, the Sirjan-Sanandaj belt, where Deh Hossein is located, might be a good candidate for the location of Kimash. A radiocarbon date obtained from material sampled from this site falls into the first centuries of the 2nd millennium BCE (Nezafati, Pernicka 2011); apparently, it does not come from the lowermost levels of the deposit. If this area was exploited during the 2nd millennium BCE, it could have been a good source for copper and tin bronze, which may have supplied the interregional trade network. But up until now, no studies have tested the archaeological objects with this region as a source.

Copper and bronze in the 2nd millennium BCE

36Data on the metal industry of the Elamite state and beyond during the 2nd millennium BCE are more difficult to find (fig. 5). Tin bronze now makes a regular appearance, but the state of research is heavily dominated by a bias in archaeological inquiry, as systematic excavations and analytical programs are rare. In the Kaftari period of Tal‑e Malyan, some scraps of metal belong to objects produced from tin bronze (Pigott, Rogers, Nash 2003b); however, a systematic use of tin bronze is allegedly only attested in the Middle Elamite period after 1600 BCE. The lack of evidence for the Iranian highlands can partly be explained by the state of research, since only a few 2nd millennium BCE sites are known over wide areas; analyses of metal objects from these contexts are even fewer in number. Godin Tappe, where tin bronze was already attested in the 3rd millennium BCE, continues to yield evidence for the use of tin bronze into the 2nd millennium BCE, despite the absence of proper workshop or production sites (Frame 2010).

Fig. 5 – Map showing major sites of the 2nd and 1st millennium BCE with metallurgical evidence (B. Helwing).

Fig. 5 – Map showing major sites of the 2nd and 1st millennium BCE with metallurgical evidence (B. Helwing).

37From the Late Bronze Age onwards (after 1600 BCE), tin bronze was the established metal of choice in Elamite sites. At Haft Tappe it was used for weapons and jewellery alike (Rafiei Alavi 2015). Technical investigations on a number of small figurines of the Middle and Late Bronze Age (Tallon, Hurtel, Drilhon 1989) give insight into a complex bronze production that so far seems to lack apparent standardisation. Some of these figurines were solid casts, while others were cast in the hollow. The choice of alloys also differed widely with evidence for unalloyed copper, tin bronze, leaded tin bronze and among other copper alloys.

38Most spectacular are several complex cast three-dimensional objects found in Susa, among which the famous statue of queen Napirasu (Harper, Aruz, Tallon 1992; Meyers 2000). This statue weighs 1.75 tons and stands to almost life-size (fig. 6). Technical studies demonstrate that it consists of an outer shell of relatively soft, pure copper and a massif core of bronze with a high tin content. The casting has been reconstructed as a two-step process: first the outer shell was cast in a bell-shaped mould that was set into a frame of massive brickwork; secondly, this shell was turned over and the interior filled subsequently with the tin bronze. The materials were chosen deliberately, the copper shell lent itself easily to surface decoration by punching and was probably originally covered by a thin sheet of gold or silver. The Napirasu statue was one of several comparable monumental pieces from Susa, where only fragments of a second statue have survived (Amiet 2006). Another complex object is the so-called Bit-Shamsi, a model showing a ritual scene (Gautier 1911; Harper, Aruz, Tallon 1992). The individual parts of the model are made of different copper-based alloys that seem to have been deliberately chosen for their varying colours. The lavish use of copper-base alloys is further attested in objects such as the fragmented “table with serpents” (de Morgan 1900b), a fragment belonging to a relief stele (de Morgan 1900a; Amiet 1966, no. 305), or the temple barriers of the Inshushinak temple, which each weigh over 400 kg.

Fig. 6 – Susa, statue of queen Napirasu, 13th century BCE, copper (courtesy of J. Alvarez‑Mon).

Fig. 6 – Susa, statue of queen Napirasu, 13th century BCE, copper (courtesy of J. Alvarez‑Mon).

39The Elamite texts brought to light in Middle Elamite Haft Tappe (Herrero, Glassner 1990) and Tal‑e Malyan (Stolper 1984) give a glimpse of the amount of material that was handled and distributed to decorate temples and other buildings. These texts are the only sources at hand to estimate the amount of material that was circulating in this region during the Late Bronze Age, as hardly anything of these original objects has survived. Like the damaged statue of queen Napirasu and the second statue fragment, metal sculpture and furniture were prey to plunder in the numerous battles that contributed to the end of the Late Bronze Age civilisation.

40The Malyan texts refer to different types and qualities of metal that are usually recorded by weight, not by absolute numbers (Stolper 1984). Copper and bronze are listed, as is gold. The maximum quantity of gold recorded in one transaction is 1,445 shekels, which means more than 15 kg for one transaction. The maximum weight of transferred copper is 3,600 shekels, that is more than 39 kg; while the total quantity of copper-bronze registered in the transfers amounts to 396 kg. Different officials are responsible for the control of the transactions, which are classified as arriving or departing goods. One of the more explicit examples (no. 86) lists silver and gold and then adds the formula “gold of the king”. The name of the owner is only partly preserved but the text possibly refers to Huteludush-Inshushinak. The silver and gold were intended for the decoration of temples in or near Anshan.

41In comparison with the monumental statues, we know remarkably little about the Elamite production of ordinary metal ornaments – the last period systematically investigated in Susa was the Sukkalmah period (Susa V), when tin bronze seems to have become a standard (Tallon 1987, pp. 340‑352). No smelting sites or furnaces are known for the Middle and Late Bronze Ages or the Iron Age. Although 2nd millennium BCE Elamite assemblages amount to hundreds of individual objects, they have so far received little attention from scientists in the field of metallurgical studies. One reason may be that the serial or almost industrial production of standardized forms that characterizes the Late Bronze and Iron Age has so far discouraged systematic analytical approaches. A second reason, applicable to other regions as well, is the assumption that metal in these later periods may already have undergone several cycles of recycling, and may therefore be of lesser value for the questions addressed by archaeometallurgy, such as the origin of raw materials and elemental composition. This situation is hopefully going to change in the near future, with more data and a better basis for debate. Despite the lack of research, what is known of the Elamite bronze production points to a predominance of tin bronze during the 2nd millennium BCE (Oudbashi, Emami 2010; Rafiei Alavi 2015). While recycling is definitely a factor to be considered, it probably occurred more rarely than usually thought, in particular as this process is in fact not infinite – contrary to what is generally assumed. New techniques were then used, which allowed for the combination of different materials in one artefact, while different parts were stuck together through casting-on techniques.

42In any case, the amount of copper used on Middle Elamite sites is enormous. The origin of this material has not (yet) been investigated in detail; recent studies assume that the copper deposits of the Iranian highlands were exploited (Rafiei Alavi 2015), but no robust analytical evidence supports this claim. For Susa, we know that the trace element pattern for objects dating to the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE matches the raw materials known from the Persian Gulf shore (Tallon 1987, p. 351; Begemann, Schmitt‑Strecker 2009). These sources may have also been suitable later for the Elamite copper production: numerous copper deposits line the shores of the Persian Gulf, from the UAE to Oman, and traces of exploitation date back to the 2nd, if not to the 3rd millennium BCE. Oman has been established as a major supplier to Mesopotamian cities since the mid 3rd millennium BCE for long (Hauptmann 1985; Hauptmann, Weisgerber, Bachmann 1988; Prange 2001), but only recently have researchers begun to investigate and sample the huge fields of Bronze and Iron Age slag residues that cover square kilometres of land in Doha, Sharjah and Qatar.

The 2nd millennium BCE bronze production of the Zagros highlands and the Central Plateau

43It has proved possible to define the local production of copper and bronze in the western and central Zagros during the 3rd millennium BCE, but this is more difficult for the 2nd millennium BCE (fig. 5). No large-scale copper-production centres have been found so far, with the promising exception of the Deh Hossein mining district, which is dated back at least to the 2nd millennium BCE. Although minor copper-processing debris have been found at Godin Tappe, nothing at the site indicates major metal extraction. The incompletely explored 2nd millennium BCE sites of the Iranian Plateau provide no clues towards a proficient local industry either. This changes only in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages, when a highly original bronze industry flourished once more in the central and western Zagros valleys between the last centuries of the 2nd millennium BCE and the 6th century BCE (Fleming et al. 2005; Overlaet 2006). This characteristic highland style known as “Lorestan style”, with its abundant zoomorphic and anthropomorphic fittings, is to a large extent only known from objects obtained through the arts market, which come from the illegal excavations of the Iron Age graveyards of the Zagros valleys since the 1920s. The major part of these objects differs significantly from the objects brought to light in proper archaeological excavations in the same or similar graveyards, such as War Kabud excavated by the BAMI in the 1960s: the latter tend to be less spectacular, but it is now an established fact that some of the “original” Lorestan bronzes displayed in western museums are in fact pastiches created from ancient fragments (Overlaet 2006). A few recent Iron Age finds, such as a major hoard discovered at Sangtarashan (Oudbashi et al. 2013; Oudbashi, Davami 2014), confirm the existence of complex copper and bronze objects, including shapes that are distributed over wide distances, such as the “goitered jugs” (Oudbashi et al. 2013, pl. 3, a‑e), which are also found in necropolis B at Tappe Sialk (Ghirshman 1939, pl. XXIII, 2, 5; L, S.546a; LII, S.572), in the Marlik graveyard (Negahban 1996) and in the Heraion on the Aegean island of Samos (for a discussion of the Samos example, see Boehmer 1965, pp. 811‑812, Fn. 33) (fig. 7). Investigations are needed to establish whether the origin of the copper and bronze used on these sites and in the Iron Age graveyards has to be sought in the vicinity of the Zagros, as during the Early Bronze Age, or whether a different supply system enabled the craftsmen of the Zagros valleys to tap the sources of the Mesopotamian cities.

Fig. 7 – Goitered jugs from Sangtarashan, Sialk and Marlik (after Azarnoush, Helwing 2005, fig. 51 by courtesy of M. Malekzadeh; Ghirshman 1939, pl. 50, S.246a; Negahban 1996, fig. 6, 45).

Fig. 7 – Goitered jugs from Sangtarashan, Sialk and Marlik (after Azarnoush, Helwing 2005, fig. 51 by courtesy of M. Malekzadeh; Ghirshman 1939, pl. 50, S.246a; Negahban 1996, fig. 6, 45).

Gold and silver, silver and lead

44In some Iranian ore deposits, gold occurs regularly in combination with copper ore, but we still do not know whether this gold was deliberately exploited together with copper (Momenzadeh 2004). Placer gold sources have not yet been reported and it is no surprise that early gold objects are rare; a miniscule gold scrap was found in Late Chalcolithic Arisman (Helwing 2011b, no. 422‑423) and another one is reported from Tappe Borj in Khorasan (Thornton 2009a, Fn. 18) (fig. 8); the earliest solid find is a small lion silhouette made of a gold sheet from Tal‑e Malyan (Sumner 2003, pl. 21c), which was unfortunately found out of context, but nevertheless assigned to the proto‑Elamite period.

Fig. 8 – Map of Iran showing known silver deposits, silver working residues and occurrences of silver pendants, as well as prehistoric gold (mapped by B. Helwing after Momenzadeh 2004).

Fig. 8 – Map of Iran showing known silver deposits, silver working residues and occurrences of silver pendants, as well as prehistoric gold (mapped by B. Helwing after Momenzadeh 2004).

45However, gold, the noble metal, can also combine with silver to form a natural alloy called electrum; like pure gold, electrum occurs in the form of placers and nuggets, and in this form it is found in the wider surroundings of the Great Caucasus mountains. The famous gold and silver finds from the Majkop kurgans are most probably made from such electrum or metallic gold and silver, which occurs naturally in that region (Hansen 2014). As the well-known Se Girdan kurgans in the southern Urmiah region are now understood to relate to the Caucasian cultural sphere, it can be assumed that the few silver beads and fragments of a silver-sheet vessel found in the kurgan may relate to a similar raw material (Muscarella 1969, 1971). These finds have not been analysed so far: they could be made of silver-rich electrum, which would match well with the Caucasian evidence from the Majkop kurgans. In any case they represent some of the earliest silver objects ever found in Iran.

46But silver occurs much more often as ore mineral; it is generally a constituent of polymetallic ores (fig. 8). Extracting silver from complex ores requires a sophisticated technique, a pyrotechnological process called “cupellation” (Nezafati, Pernicka 2012), which is attested in Iran since the mid 4th millennium BCE. The cupellation method was applied to argentiferous lead, which may have been a by-product of the processing of polymetallic copper in the first place. When smelted at high temperatures, silver is reduced and absorbed by the liquid lead, resulting in a lead lump high in silver. In a second step, by reheating the lead to liquid state and exposing the surface of the liquid to oxidising conditions, it reacts with the oxygen and turns into lead oxide (litharge), while the silver remains. Litharge has been found in the shape of flat bowls, indicating the shape of the original vessel that held the liquid. Often two or three litharge bowls occur joined together.

47Litharge has been found in several 4th millennium BCE sites in Iran (fig. 8), at Tappe Sialk (Pernicka 2004) and Arisman areas B and C (Helwing 2011b, no. 257‑278; Pernicka et al. 2011, pp. 662‑674), together with later evidence from Tappe Hesar (Roustaei 2004, p. 228); in Turkey at Fatmali Kalecik (Hess et al. 1998); in Syria at Habuba Kabira South (Kohlmeyer 1994); and at Ilgynly Depe in Turkmenistan (Solov’eva, Yegor’kov, Galibin 1994). Given that fragments may be difficult to recognize for what they are by lay persons, this pattern certainly does not represent a complete map of distribution. The chronological resolution of these finds seems to indicate a regular appearance between the 4th and the early 3rd millennium BCE; no further litharge finds have been reported for subsequent periods, although silver started to be widely used in western Asia from the 3rd millennium BCE onwards and soon became a currency equivalent.

48Despite large-scale exposures, the site of Arisman has not yielded any evidence for installations related to the processing of lead-silver. Neither has Tappe Sialk, although the recently investigated “Industrial quarter” has yielded serious amounts of copper slag and also litharge. This gap is now filled by the recent discovery of probable cupellation installations on the mid 4th and early 3rd millennium BCE site of Tappe Shoghali (Nezafati, Hessari 2017). A row of standing conical tubes of fired clay is reported, which could have held a vessel or crucible. Small roundish vessels, possible crucibles, were found in the vicinity, as were large flat bowl-shaped pieces of litharge. Any evaluation of this important find will have to await detailed publication, but the evidence for local silver extraction through cupellation on the Iranian Central Plateau is extremely robust.

49The metallic silver was then mainly worked through cold hammering and was crafted into personal jewellery items and vessels. Among the earliest finds is a small silver button from Tappe Sialk III5 (Ghirshman 1938, pl. 85, S.1740). Although it has never been investigated from a metallurgical point of view, this button currently represents the first probable evidence for the extraction of silver from an argentiferous ore.

50Silver finds remain rare until the late 4th millennium BCE, when in the so-called proto‑Elamite period a specific type of compartmented pendant is found in graves at Susa (Tallon 1987, no. 1159, 1160), Tappe Sialk (Ghirshman 1938, pl. 30, 1, 2a), the Kunji Cave (Emberling et al. 2002, fig. 22e) and Arisman (Helwing 2011b, no. 421). These pendants have a plate basis and cell-like compartments made of silver sheet; the cell inlays were filled with gold sheet, hematite, slag, and marble. Forms vary from simple cross-shaped or round pendants to butterfly-shaped ones. These pendants are the only excavated evidence for what must originally have been an extraordinary silver industry; however no larger object has survived in a controlled archaeological context.

  • 8 Examples in Iran from Kunji Cave (Emberling et al. 2002, fig. 23a); Susa (Tallon 1987, no. 800); M (...)

51Silver was also used during the proto‑Elamite period for vessels, but no original finds have survived from controlled archaeological contexts. Imitations of silver vessels were produced from lead (Tallon 1987, no. 800‑805), a widespread phenomenon during a brief period at the turn of the 4th and the 3rd millennium BCE8, which extended a far as the Diyala sites (Khafaji, see graves 5, 8; Delougaz 1967, pp. 61‑63) and Ur (Woolley 1955; Kolbus 1983, p. 11) in lower Mesopotamia.

52After the short apogee of silver working in highland Iran, evidence for the processing and usage of silver on Iranian sites becomes extremely rare, despite the fact that the rich graveyards of Mesopotamia, like Ur, have yielded good evidence for the continuous use of this material. On the Iranian highlands, only Tappe Hesar shows continuous occupation well into the 3rd millennium BCE; the related layers of Hesar III have yielded burials with some of the most sophisticated early silver jewellery of Iran from an archaeologically-controlled context (Roustaei 2004; Gürsan-Salzman 2016). Unfortunately, an undated hoard of silver vessels discovered in the 19th century in the neighbourhood of Tappe Hesar is today only known from drawings (Rostovtzeff 1920); these vessels were decorated by chased imagery.

53The uneven distribution of archaeological sites, with no traces of occupation on the Iranian Central Plateau throughout the 3rd and most of the 2nd millennium BCE, makes it impossible to draw up a conclusive model for the production and use of silver throughout the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE in these regions.

54Silver was furthermore abundant in the late 3rd millennium BCE sites of the Bactria‑Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC). The rich graveyard of Gonur Depe has yielded a wealth of silver pins and vessels with relief decoration in repoussé (Sarianidi 2005; Boroffka 2015). Many details in this graveyard recall examples from the rich Mesopotamian burial sites. It is highly likely that concepts and prototypes travelled between these two distant regions through the emerging network that connected the BMAC sites with the Persian Gulf via the Bronze Age oasis cities of eastern Iran, such as Shahdad, Shahr‑e Sukhte and Jiroft. The Shahdad graves have yielded some interesting silver and massive objects, among which pins, cylinder seals and prestige weapons (Hakemi 1997, pp. 62, 71). However, the origins of the silver finds from Shahdad remain mere surmise – whether they were related to the BMAC area or not – since no archaeometallurgical sampling and analysis of the Shahdad silver have yet been possible.

55On the Elamite sites in the lowlands of Khuzestan (fig. 5), silver occurs in abundance in the form of jewellery, vessels and other items. Famous are the “trouvaille de la statuette d’or” (de Mecquenem 1905b) with two small and almost identical statuettes, one of silver and one of gold, together with other objects fitted in gold finials. The find was originally dated to the Late Bronze Age, although this has recently been challenged (Pittman 2003). Other hoards of precious metals from the acropolis mound of Susa seem to comprise material of different periods; these were considered foundation offerings (de Mecquenem 1905a). From a technical point of view, these finds provide evidence for the state of the art in gold and silver working at the time, including openwork, granulation and filigree work. Sheets of gold or silver were used to plate copper and bronze figurines, and the contrasting colours of the different materials were deliberately set against each other. According to textual sources (Stolper 1984), silver and gold were regularly listed as war booty, for example in lists by Shutruk-Nahunte. The value and currency character of these noble metals is thus clearly evident. It also accounts for the difficulty in tackling silver and gold in these historical periods with questions of provenance and supply systems.

56It is instructive, however, to compare the techniques attested on Elamite sites with the state of silver and gold craftmanship in other regions of Iran, in particular in northern Iran. The famous cemetery of Marlik in the Sepidrud valley of Gilan, which dates back to the end of the Late Bronze and the early Iron Ages, has yielded a wealth of gold and silver objects, among which sets of gold and silver vessels and jewellery items (Negahban 1996). Of the jewellery, only a few gold items, such as an earring (Negahban 1996, no. 202) and a sun disc pendant (Negahban 1996, no. 183), are made with true granulation. Other jewellery discs were decorated instead with small punches and holes in an apparent attempt to imitate the effect of granulation (fig. 9) (Negahban 1996, no. 185‑191, 193‑194, 196‑197). The case of the gold and silver vessels is more difficult to tackle: some gold and silver cups from Marlik are adorned with flat relief decoration (Negahban 1996, no. 3, 14, 19, 20), but others show extraordinary workmanship in chased relief decoration, and are considered imports from Elam or Babylonia (Negahban 1996, no. 8‑13; Löw 1998). Without any proper analysis however, it is impossible to decide whether the sophisticated gold objects were made in workshops affiliated with the Elamite palace, or were obtained through contacts with elites living further west.

Fig. 9 – Marlik cemetery, golden sun disc from grave 26 with granulation decoration, compared to a gold disc with punched decoration (after Negahban 1996, no. 183, p. 341).

Fig. 9 – Marlik cemetery, golden sun disc from grave 26 with granulation decoration, compared to a gold disc with punched decoration (after Negahban 1996, no. 183, p. 341).

57To conclude, it seems that the working of gold and silver during the Late Bronze to early Iron Ages required specialized skills that not all craftsmen possessed. Workshops affiliated with the elite palaces, Elamite or Kassite, produced pieces of outstanding beauty with highly sophisticated techniques, and their contemporaries living in smaller highland communities apparently had no access to this level of craftsmanship. As regards the artefacts preserved in highland cemeteries, it may be said that the elite individuals in these regions seem to have acquired prestige goods through gift exchange and trade with lowland societies. Attempts to copy or imitate such products in highland workshops did not result in works of similar quality and craftsmanship.

Evaluation of diachronic patterns

58If we consider the evidence that has just been summarized from a wider synthetic perspective, it is clear that the development of early metal working in Iran should be understood as part of a broader social and contextual frame.

59Contextually, the territory of Iran in its current modern boundaries is not a useful unit of analysis when it comes to understanding major innovations in supply and consumer requirements: it is too large – and too small. For supply systems, we have to look way behind the boundaries of the modern country, but as far as processing and artefact circulation are concerned, smaller units defined by landscapes and ancient cultural groups are more appropriate.

60For the early periods until the crucial mid 4th to early 3rd millennium BCE divide, the copper and silver sources located along the inner Iranian block, which are part of the TEMB, have provided sufficient supply and were exploited by communities living in the vicinity to an extent that led to the development of quasi-industrial sites during the proto‑Elamite period. The smelting of arsenical copper and cupellation of silver took place in craft quarters on the edge of the settlement sites. The Zagros piedmont and the Iranian highlands were embedded in a supra-regional network of urban centres located in Khuzestan; this system remained in place until the collapse of the proto‑Elamite network in the first centuries of the 3rd millennium BCE.

61From that period onwards, a rift opened in the metallurgical (and cultural) orientation of Early Bronze Age sites in Iran. While many of the former urban centres of the highlands lay deserted, new urban centres with flourishing craft industries emerged in north-eastern and eastern Iran. These cities, from Tappe Hesar to Bampur, were located in major oases, which formed nodes in a network connecting Central Asia and the BMAC sites with the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia. A local copper industry produced objects from arsenical copper, while silver artefacts may have been obtained or channelled through by trade from the BMAC sites. This network included Susa in so far as the city became a major turnstile in seaborne trade. Metal objects from Susa reflect this wide net of trade connections with materials of Iranian and Mesopotamian affinity; but the only evidence for metallurgy on-site are residues of casting artefacts, and a few ingots and fragments within the “vase à la cachette”‑hoard. As a major trade hub, Susa had access to many more different raw materials circulating in the 3rd millennium BCE than had the eastern Iranian cities or the inland centres, such as Malyan. These may have been linked via overland routes to both the eastern Iranian cities, and to Susa.

62The situation is entirely different in the central Zagros mountains. This region had previously been located outside the proto‑Elamite network, since north-western Iran in general had undergone a major influx of Caucasian elements, which totally altered the material culture of the region. When this interplay was over, local ceramic and architectural styles were revived. The communities in the secluded Zagros valleys continued to live in small centres, and buried their dead in extensive graveyards, either on the settlement mounds or on river terraces. Multiple burials in dolmen graves are a typical feature of the mid 3rd millennium BCE. An original local metal industry was established that made use of local sources, like the Arak copper sources or the Deh Hossein polymetallic mining district. Characteristic of this industry is an early phase of experimentation that led to the creation of some precocious tin bronzes, based on ores from the local mines.

63The rest of the Iranian highlands remains beyond the archaeometallurgists’ radar because of the lack of excavated sites of the 3rd and most of the 2nd millennium BCE. From the late 3rd millennium onwards, the evidence is restricted to the central Zagros and Khuzestan sites. This correlates with the temporary inclusion of Khuzestan and Fars on the one side, and the central Zagros on the other side, into the territory of the Akkadian and subsequently the Ur III state.

64This is also the time when tin bronze became a standard material in the urban sites of Mesopotamia and also in Susa. Among the early occurrences are objects from the Ur cemetery, where in ED IIIa 40% of copper base objects are made of tin bronze. In Susa, this is also the case to a lesser extent, but tin bronze is attested at Susa since period IVB, that is roughly ED IIIb. No tin reached the contemporary highland sites of eastern Iran, even though tin is thought to have come from sources located to the east of Mesopotamia and Elam; it is therefore highly likely that a seaborne trade of tin from Afghan sources via the Indus Valley over the Persian Gulf has ensured the supply of this material.

65In Susa, the Akkadian conquest resulted in the establishing of an Akkadian type of administration. Evidence is too scarce to determine whether silver, which in the Akkad period had been introduced as a currency into Mesopotamia, served the same purpose in Susa at this time. But at some point in time, the established system of value equivalence between copper, silver and gold became a standard throughout most of south-western Asia. As far as the archaeometallurgical record from Susa is concerned, the metal industry seems to have undergone a temporary decline as major resources were shipped away towards the centre of the empire; however, Susa continued to participate in the Persian Gulf trade, and by then obtained its raw materials from the Arabian Peninsula or Oman. This sets the metal production of Susa apart from what happened in the central Zagros high valleys, where cultural affiliations differed from region to region. Some areas, for example, show strong integration with the Akkadian, and later Ur III, traditions in weaponry. This seems to be the case, for example, in Kalleh Nisar area C, where a large amount of tin bronze was found, possibly derived from the personal possession of people engaged in Akkadian service. The same graveyard comprises other areas where arsenical bronze accounts for most artefacts, which indicates a fairly complex pattern of access to specific raw materials.

66At the same time, the central Zagros was an area that sparked covetousness in potential conquerors. As mentioned in Ur III texts, the Kimash mountains were then known as a copper-mining district and an area where prisoners of war could be deployed to the advantage of the conquering state. This fact is a case in point for locating the Kimash mountains within the TEMB belt, possibly in the Sanandaj or Arak area or possibly in Veshnaveh (as recently proposed by Steinkeller 2016).

67When the administrative power in Susa once again shifted to local dynasties in the Sukkalmah period, the administrative power over metal production and long-distance trade returned under local control as well. Throughout the 2nd millennium BCE, copper supply seems to have come continuously from the Persian Gulf shoreline. Copper, as well as silver and gold were commodities used to collect taxes and pay tributes in Elam as much as in Mesopotamia. In this function, the material was moved around regularly, and it was remelted and recycled as well. The famous statue of Napirasu may be a case in point where objects collected on the occasion of a battle or as a tribute were remelted and the bronze poured into the bell-shaped outer shell of the statue, either to prevent the theft of a valuable commodity or to accommodate and safeguard a war booty.

68The systematic administration and recording of transactions of copper and other metals suggests a strong-handed state, which presided over the distribution of these metals throughout the Elamite period. Through their vocabulary and diction, the Tal‑e Malyan texts from the end of the Middle Elamite period indicate the presence of officials in Anshan who came originally from the Susa area. This could point to the existence of a central institution behind these distributions of gold belonging to the king, which was affiliated with Susa and had no firm basis in Anshan at this point.

69Lastly, one further important observation connected with this broad-brush overview is the extremely biased state of research into questions of archaeometallurgy in Iran. While the use of copper and silver are relatively well documented and investigated for the early periods, we desperately lack information regarding the historical periods, both from an archaeological and from an analytical point of view. Much remains to be done before we may really understand the development of early metal industries in Iran, despite the important role of the country as a heartland of metallurgy.

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Notes

1 For renewed lab work on previously excavated material see Thornton et al. 2002; Frame 2004; Thornton et al. 2005; Meier 2008; Frame 2009; Thornton 2009b; Frame 2010; new systematic field work was conducted in the framework of the “Early mining and metallurgy on the western Iranian Plateau” project (Vatandoust, Parzinger, Helwing 2011), in the Shahroud area (Roustaei 2004), and around Tappe Sialk (Schreiner 2002; Nezafati, Pernicka 2006).

2 For an overview of recent archaeometallurgical studies, see Thornton 2009a; Helwing 2013a; Weeks 2013; Thornton 2014.

3 Exemplary studies are Ottaway 1994, 2015; Yener 2000; Kienlin 2007.

4 Graves of young miners are archaeologically documented at Kargali (Chernykh 2003).

5 Opinions regarding the reconstruction of 5th millennium Chalcolithic societies in the Zagros vary widely; cf. Alizadeh 1988, 2006; Fraser 2008; Helwing, Seyedin 2010.

6 The context and the date of a complex shaft-hole axe from Ghabrestan is not beyond doubt; cf. Stöllner, Slotta, Vatandoust 2004, no. 101.

7 Susa stands out as the site that has produced a majority of metal finds, which were also analysed (Tallon 1987).

8 Examples in Iran from Kunji Cave (Emberling et al. 2002, fig. 23a); Susa (Tallon 1987, no. 800); Malyan TUV (Nicholas 1980, fig. 130); Tappe Sialk (Amiet 1985, p. 305).

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – Map of Iran showing the distribution of copper deposits and finds of early copper, distinguished according to technology applied in shaping (mapped by B. Helwing after Momenzadeh 2004).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/12567/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 620k
Titre Fig. 2 – Map of Iran, showing the presence and technique of copper working in the Late Chalcolithic period, 4000‑3300 BCE (B. Helwing).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/12567/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 618k
Titre Fig. 3 – Proto-Elamite sites in Iran, most of which yielded traces of copper working (B. Helwing).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/12567/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 619k
Titre Fig. 4 – Major Early Bronze Age sites in Iran, 2900‑2000 BCE (B. Helwing).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/12567/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 623k
Titre Fig. 5 – Map showing major sites of the 2nd and 1st millennium BCE with metallurgical evidence (B. Helwing).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/12567/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 615k
Titre Fig. 6 – Susa, statue of queen Napirasu, 13th century BCE, copper (courtesy of J. Alvarez‑Mon).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/12567/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 274k
Titre Fig. 7 – Goitered jugs from Sangtarashan, Sialk and Marlik (after Azarnoush, Helwing 2005, fig. 51 by courtesy of M. Malekzadeh; Ghirshman 1939, pl. 50, S.246a; Negahban 1996, fig. 6, 45).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/12567/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 328k
Titre Fig. 8 – Map of Iran showing known silver deposits, silver working residues and occurrences of silver pendants, as well as prehistoric gold (mapped by B. Helwing after Momenzadeh 2004).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/12567/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 615k
Titre Fig. 9 – Marlik cemetery, golden sun disc from grave 26 with granulation decoration, compared to a gold disc with punched decoration (after Negahban 1996, no. 183, p. 341).
URL http://books.openedition.org/momeditions/docannexe/image/12567/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 243k

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The University of Sydney, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, Department of Archaeology, Australia

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