Copper Man

I know a man who knows copper. He knows copper, but he also knows the meaning of copper, where it fits in today’s world, where it fit in yesterday’s world, and how it came into history.

I am a student of the “ages”, some of this is structured knowledge from coursework, most is eclectic reading. Our earliest “age” is called “the Stone Age” but it could also be called “the Bone Age”, because our tools were made of stone and bone.

We really don’t have an accurate timeframe, the beginning of the Stone Age could be millions of years ago. Using stone without “working the stone” may have just been as natural as throwing rocks.

The earliest “worked stone” tools are now thought to be 3.3 million years ago, according to a recent find. Previously it was thought 700,000 years later. It is safe to say the our progress in developing tools was as slow as the glacier that we lived near.

But then, something happened, we discovered metal. It could have been a nugget in the stream, or a natural ingot exposed in a river bank. If it was gold, we discovered it could adorn our bodies, but not much use for anything else.

If the metal was copper, that was a different story. It could be formed into jewelry, it could also be formed into tools. It was discovered that hammering copper actually made it harder. A copper tool could also make more copper tools. An actual sharp knife could be made.

As soon as metal was discovered, our tool making skills took a logrhythmic turn. There is much disagreement, but most scholars date the earliest copper artifacts were in Turkey approximately 7000 bc, give or take a 1,000 years. In any case, it only took 10,000 years to get to our modern age. For 3,000,000 million years we had only improved our flaky techniques in stone.

Most general knowledge is centered on the “Bronze Age” or the “Iron Age”, and I can completely understand this. Hard to compete with the Trojan War, and medieval knights. What do we really know about “the Copper Age”?

It may have been just a Mediterranean phenomenon, existing primarily from 3500 to 2300 bc according to some scholars. There are copper workers in other areas of the world, in the Americas and Asia, but certainly the Mediterranean cultures took the metal to new heights.

Yes, it is true that copper weapons were sharper and more deadly than bone or obsidian, but copper allowed the culinary art to form. Copper vessels were not very toxic and water could be easily boiled.

Changing the eating habits of a people has a far greater impact then you might imagine. The inedible could be come edible. Foods could be rendered and mixed. In general, before copper, food was eaten one individual bite at a time. Cooking allowed stews and soups to be created, mixing various foods in that one bite.

I’ve seen demonstrations of wooden bowls of water being heated by hot stones. Well, perhaps they worked, but not half as well as a copper kettle, suspended on a tripod over the fire. And later, perhaps the kettle became a helmet. I recall heating water for coffee in my steel helmet while in the field, True now, probably True then.

Why such a short age? Barely over 2000 years before becoming erased by history? It was simply the art of metallurgy. Instead of relying upon naturally formed ingots, we discovered the ability to smelt copper ore. It wasn’t long before someone experimented with adding other metals to the liquid copper. With tin added, copper became bronze.

Imagine the shock of Egyptian troops with their copper scythe-like swords being cut in half by the sharper bronze swords in the hands of their northern barbarians. It must have been the same as the bronze wielding armies when they faced the far northern barbarians that had iron swords.

There was a time that I fenced quite a lot. I preferred the saber over the epee, or foil. It wasn’t life or death in the heat of the match, but sometimes it felt that way. One time I raised my blade in defense to block a downward head cut. My blade snapped about six inches up from the guard. My sword was cut in two.

In that one moment I felt all the emotions of thousands of individuals that had trusted their weapon, and then realizing that their life hung in the balance because of a superior metal. It was devastating.

Someone needs to give me more information on that first age of metal. Someone who knows the meaning of copper. Perhaps my friend?

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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6 Responses to Copper Man

  1. Hans De Keulenaer says:

    Challenge accepted John my friend. I’ll start thinking about this. Writing about the meaning of a metal that has served mankind for over six millennia is a big responsibility and cannot be undertaken casually. It’s interesting to observe that copper remains to be used today for its first applications in tooling, decoration and weapons (ammunition). But by far the biggest use today is as an electrical conductor (about two thirds). In this sense, we can see copper as part of the second (electrical), third (electronics) and fourth (internet) industrial revolution.

    • johndiestler says:

      I generally call this the “Esther Principle”. It must be done, it will be done. You have been gifted to do it. But if not you, then someone else will step forward. Haha, no pressure!
      It’s true that this will take time just to make an outline, and certainly you will have one sale in the States! (actually more, I give gifts)

      • Hans De Keulenaer says:

        Hold on John. Rather than a book, I’m thinking a blog post on the connotations of copper (in the spirit of general semantics). In the spirit of copper, I’m a conductor, not a composer.

        Writers need readers on which I’m happy to oblige in the current social media age of bots talking to bots.

      • johndiestler says:

        Hey, without hope, Man is lost! Haha!
        I just read a bunch on Otzi, the smelter of copper.

      • Hans De Keulenaer says:

        If it helps, a colleague of mine has written a book on copper technology, markets and business. He’s done that after his retirement. He also shares some generous resources on his website.

      • johndiestler says:

        You are right, the links are very informative. What is missing for me is the mystery behind the sudden rapid development of tool making. I don’t believe in coincidence. Discover copper and then suddenly we have civilization? And then to have copper at the source of the four major industrial events? This stretches the mind. I become passionate about the possibilities. I’ve read bits of Webster’s Story of Copper. Not very passionate.

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