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Bronze Age metallurgy in southeast Spain.

Technology has had pride of place in European prehistory since the beginnings of scientific research in the early 19th century, as Thomsen's Three Age System of cultural periods makes manifest. Reinforced by evolutionist notions of progress, technological development has presented itself as one of the constant factors underlying the unfolding of human history, a factor which would permit one to establish a chronological sequence and to define the level of development which each human group had attained. Within this way of thinking, the appearance of metallurgy would reflect one of the greatest of advances ever achieved in human knowledge, since it is a technology that, instead of merely modifying nature, transforms it. After all, metallurgy, unlike the lithic or ceramic industries, attains a final product completely different, both physically and chemically, from its initial raw materials.

In spite of the technology's importance for cultural evolution, it is not sufficient in itself to account for the changes and differences in prehistoric cultural development. The simpler versions of technological determinism assumed that knowledge of a particular technique would involve its immediate application and the rapid unfolding of its full potential. The adoption of a particular technology and the development of its capabilities depend, however, not just on its own technological preconditions, but on its social acceptance (Renfrew 1978; McGlade & McGlade 1989). In other words, the potential advantages which may be derived from knowledge of a particular technology can only be developed within a favourable economic and social context. Knowledge of a technique does not necessarily imply its immediate development, but may remain dormant until a society encounters the incentives required to take advantage of it and to assume the risks it involves. This dependence on the way a technology is accepted and integrated socially means that the same invention will not always lead to the same innovative development and cultural transformations.

The appearance and development of metallurgy in western Europe is associated with a process of increasing social complexity, both aspects being essential in the definition of what a 'Bronze Age' constitutes. That these two events occur at the same time has allowed the formulation of a causal relation between them. One depends on the other, and metal is usually given the determinant role in the explanation (Champion et al. 1984: 215). The economic and social changes produced by metallurgy would be profound, in that its development would imply the accumulation of surpluses, full-time craft specialization, trade and a hierarchical social system with elite groups who control the system (Sherratt 1976). This explanatory model for the development of hierarchy in European societies makes the metal industry a key explanatory factor, since it would involve the full-time specialization of metal workers, the establishment of commercial relations based on metal exchange and control over the limited resources on which the industry depends.

These ideas have been developed to interpret the Bronze Age of temperate Europe, but they have also been taken up in research on the Bronze Age of the Iberia, particularly with respect to the 'El Argar Culture'. The Argaric encompasses those prehistoric remains found in the provinces of Almeria, Granada, Murcia and parts of Jaen and Alicante during the first part of the 2nd millennium BC, and is the most important and best known Bronze Age culture of the Iberian Peninsula.

The El Argar Culture

The Argaric complex was identified and defined early in the history of prehistoric research in Iberia. The extensive, magnificently published work of Henri and Louis Siret (1887) still constitutes the most complete documentary source available even today. From the very first, metal working was considered to be one of the Argaric's most important features and the central axis on which explanations of its cultural development would revolve. Historiographical tradition underlined the great mineral wealth of the Iberian Peninsula during antiquity, and colonialist hypotheses were put forward that posited commercial ties with the eastern Mediterranean based on the exploitation of metal resources from the Copper Age on (Blance 1961; Arribas 1967; Savory 1968; Schubart 1976). More recently, the colonialist perspective has been rejected (following Renfrew 1967), but metallurgy's leading role in the dynamics of culture change continues to be accepted, and most explanations of Bronze Age development are tied to it. (For a detailed historiographical reviews of these issues see Martinez Navarrete (1989: 225-358) and Chapman (1990: 18-53).) In particular, Lull's (1983) general study has had great influence on Spanish researchers: his innovative suggestions have been widely accepted in recent textbooks and other works directed to a broad audience. In his view, the Argaric has come to be defined as a 'society of metallurgists' (Gonzalez Marcen & Lull 1987: 10-11). This explanatory model adopts the general propositions put forward for the Bronze Age of other parts of Europe: that control over the raw materials required for metallurgy is the source of elite power; that metal production was commercialized; and that specialization and social divisions were a consequence of this activity. In addition to these general principles, further important propositions have been developed concerning the effect of metallurgical activity in the particular Iberian case (Lull 1983: 437, 456-8):

1 that a cultural expansion occurs from the coastal zone of southeastern Iberia into the interior, motivated by the need to find and exploit new sources of metal;

2 that Argaric economic organization is based on communities carrying out complementary activities (some settlements would be inhabited by miners, others by food producers, yet others by those who controlled metallurgical production); and

3 that eventually the intense metallurgical activity would lead to a crisis involving the exhaustion of mineral resources and the deforestation of the environment.

In spite of the importance attributed to metallurgy in Iberian cultural processes, the requisite empirical testing of the scale of metallurgical activity in the southeast has not been carried out. The research reported on here has sought to remedy this deficiency by three lines of investigation:

1 the study of mineral resources;

2 the study of metallurgical technology; and

3 quantification of the inventory of metal known in the region's archaeological record.

This work has made it possible to develop new data for the interpretation of the metallurgical industry of this region.

Exploitation of mineral resources

Our study of mineral resources has centred on the Vera Basin, given that adequate coverage of the whole southeast would only be possible given research over a much longer term. All the same, this limited area combines characteristics that are particularly suitable for our goals: on the one hand, archaeological research has been intensive and, accordingly, much information is available; on the other hand, the Basin has traditionally been considered the nuclear zone of Argaric development.

Field survey guided by historical sources has identified a number of copper ore bodies. These may not have been the only ones used by the prehistoric inhabitants of the Vera Basin. The intense mining activity carried since the second third of the 19th century has transformed the landscape and may have obliterated some ancient mineralizations. However, our study identifies potential resources and permits us to evaluate the geographic possibilities available in the past. By characterizing the composition of the copper deposits, we can make some observations about their relation to the composition of metal objects and metallurgical remains known from the region. Our results reveal a panorama defined by the abundance and accessibility of copper minerals in small ore bodies. These are not big enough to be worth exploiting today, but they would have satisfied the necessities of metal-producers in the Copper and Bronze Ages, as Siret & Siret (1887: 296) once observed. (The Siret brothers were mining engineers engaged in operations in the Vera Basin, so they were well informed on these matters). The compositional characterization of the minerals (Table 1) permits one to identify some ore bodies individually and to relate these to particular local productions. Our analysis indicates that metal sources were exploited by different prehistoric communities in the Vera Basin (Table 2). A clear example of this is the difference in metalworking at the sites of Almizaraque (Copper Age) and Herrerias (Bronze Age), which are separated by less than 1 km. The copper ore from the mine in the immediate vicinity of the Herrerias settlement TABULAR DATA OMITTED contains large amounts of lead, and a high level of lead is also found in the metal artefacts analysed from the site. Neither the ore recovered from Almizaraque (which comes from Sierra Almagrera) nor the finished artefacts from the site contain such high levels of lead, however (Montero 1992). Furthermore, mean values of various trace elements in Argaric objects show strong contrasts in different sites in the Vera Basin. This is most likely due to the exploitation of different ore sources from the different sites. This situation probably is not unique to this intensively studied area: other districts of southeast Spain also have numerous sources of metal, a circumstance which would facilitate a differentiated pattern of resource exploitation and minimize the possibility of a particular community's exercising control over raw materials.
TABLE 1. Composition of copper ore deposits.
sites Fe Ni Zn As Ag Sn Sb Pb
Sierra Cabrera
C. Hilos X D
C. Canton X X X X
S. Cabrera 1 X
L. Colorado 2-3 X D
L. Colorado 4 X X X D
L. Colorado 5 X X
Cota 372 X D
C. Huerta Llana X D
M. Indiana X D
Puerto Tabala X D
Sierra de Bedar
Los Pinares 1 X X X
Los Pinares 2 X X X
Los Pinares 3 X X X X
Los Pinares 4 X X X
Mina fe Pinar. X X X D X
Sierra Almagro
C. Minado Esc. X X D
C. Minado G1 X X X D
C. Minado G2 X X D
Tres Pacos X X D
C. Guardas X X
Sierra Almagrera
S. Almagrera X
B. Cuevecica X D X X
Other sites
C. Atalaya X D
Loma del Campo X X
Herrerias X D X
X = main element. D = present.

Metallurgical technology

Our technological research has been carried out using microscopic metallography and the non-destructive spectrometric technique, X-ray fluorescence (XRF), for quantitative analyses. X-ray fluorescence energy dispersive spectrometry has been used for quantitative analysis with the Kevex-7000 spectrometer set of the I.C.R.B.C. laboratory in Madrid. Weight per cent composition of chemical elements (Fe, Ni, Cu, Zn, As, Ag, Sm, Sb and Pb) has been calculated. The spectrometer uses a gamma ray source provided by 241Am, a Si (Li) detector with an area of 80 sq. mm, and berilo window, working in 40 keV. Sometimes the zinc value may be mistaken because the zinc K-alpha spectral line overlaps the copper K-beta line and it is difficult to measure a low zinc concentration; however, silver, tin and antimony have a very good definition.

We have also compiled the analyses published by other laboratories and critically evaluated their reliability and possible use for a general, comparative study. Some analyses are imprecise, others mistaken, because they were carried out by laboratories that are not specialized in archaeometallurgy. As matters stand, for studies of composition, we have effectively been restricted to analyses carried out by the British Museum (Harrison & Craddock 1981; Hook et al. 1987; 1991) and the Programa de Arqueometalurgia (Montero 1992). Some other analyses, like those of the S.A.M. program (Junghans et al. 1960; 1968) or the Sirets (1887), can be used to evaluate the presence of true bronzes, but not for differentiating between copper and arsenical copper or for studying trace elements.

Small discrepancies in the metal compositions reported by different laboratories are commonplace, but in the case of arsenic the S.A.M. analyses show irregular variations (sometimes too high, sometimes too low), which make it difficult to classify objects as arsenical coppers. Comments on the S.A.M. analyses can be found in Ottaway (1982: 92 & figure 21), Butler & van der Waals (1964) and Boomert (1975).

Remains of metallurgical activity are not abundant, but they do not indicate substantial changes in technology from the Copper to the Bronze Age. There is some refinement and greater control in working techniques over time, but in general the following comments apply equally to both periods.

Transformation activities

There are three main features that should be emphasized. First, and perhaps most suggestive, is the simplicity of the smelting furnaces. These are generally ordinary open-mouthed ceramic vessels, but showing shallow shapes, like dishes, and exhibiting no special preparation or clay selection. The sherds have a slaggy layer in the inner surface, usually with small copper prills and unreduced ores. Inside the vessel the ore was mixed with fuel, so that the furnaces worked without external thermal inputs (Delibes et al. 1991: 307). This kind of smelting 'crucible' was also found at the Los Millares site and Hook et al. (1991) wrote a detailed study of the clay and the slag with the SEM, making evident they had been heated from the inside, and the cooler exterior surface prevented collapse during use. A second interesting feature, already pointed out by Craddock & Meeks (1987), is the minimal slag produced by this primitive technology. This is on account of the use of ores with little gangue, the relatively low temperatures of smelting and the poor reducing conditions within the vessels. Under these conditions one obtains partially reduced ores, some droplets or nodules of metallic copper and very little slag. The third point to be underlined is that all of these smelting remains are found inside residential sites. This shows that the work was carried, not out near the mine, but in settlements to which the raw material was brought.

Production activities

As with smelting, the archaeological remains associated with making metal artefacts are always found inside settlements. During both the Copper Age and Argaric, moulds and crucibles are in most cases found together with the remains of ore reduction. This shows that there was no separation or specialization in activities between settlements. Given the lack of other evidence such as ingots, one also cannot speak of a commercialization of metal in the rough. Also, as we pointed out earlier, study of the composition of objects in the Vera Basin permits us to deduce that different sources were exploited from each site. All of this goes against the proposition that metal production and exchange were commercialized and controlled by a limited social segment. There may have been some exchanges of particular finished objects, but this would be a long way from commercialized exchange networks.

Our modelling of the processes of transformation from raw material to finished product suggests that the metalworker did not exercise close control over production, and that he might have been able to obtain arsenical coppers naturally from the raw ores available to TABULAR DATA OMITTED TABULAR DATA OMITTED him. The lack of intention in the production of arsenical coppers is also supported by our quantitative study of metal pieces by type, geographic area, site and chronological period (TABLES 4 & 5) (Montero 1992: 473-9). This study reveals irregular distributions caused by the particular characteristics of the ore being used and by the metalworkers' inadequate control over the conditions of manufacture. To the extent that arsenical coppers were produced intentionally, one would expect to find regular, uniform tendencies in the presence of arsenic in a broad range of finished objects, but this is not the case. Argaric axes, for example, have an arsenic content lower than that of Copper Age axes (1.75% As vs 2.21% As, respectively), while the opposite is true for daggers (3.07% As in the Argaric vs 2.73% As in the Copper Age). Hook et al. (1987; 1991) think the high arsenic level detected in daggers suggests some degree of control over an arsenic alloy, however, it doesn't seem to be true that daggers always have more arsenic than other items, and, as TABLE 5 shows, the arsenical content of Argaric daggers from different sites shows great contrasts with high standard deviations, all of which confirms that the amount of arsenic in the metal was not deliberately controlled. Furthermore, Budd et al. (forthcoming) explain the influence of temperature in smelting process using a simple bonfire, and the possibility of obtaining arsenical copper unintentionally.
TABLE 4. Arsenic mean values (%): geographic study.
 C. Vera rest of Granada total
Chalcolithic 2.92 2.06 1.42 2.05
Argaric 2.61 1.51 2.54 2.41
TABLE 5. Argaric daggers.
sites mean arsenic std
El Oficio 2.10 1.22
El Argar 4.89 3.42
Cuesta del Negro 4.15 2.34
Terrera del Reloj 1.93 1.18
Hoya de la Matanza 1.34 0.54

Intentional alloys are eventually attained in the Argaric period, with the use of bronze and the adding of copper to silver, but unfortunately we cannot as yet determine precisely the start of these practices. The available evidence from other areas of the Peninsula suggests that the appearance of bronze may not much earlier than the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. Use of bronze was limited, with only 20% of tools and weapons showing a Cu-Sn alloy. (50% of the very small sample of ornaments that have been analysed show a tin bronze alloy, however). Silver metallurgy may also be considered an innovation developed in Argaric times. The region's native silver and the exploitation of silver chlorides may have supplied Argaric demand, since for the moment there exists no proof that the technique of cupellation was known at that time. Copper and Bronze Age metallurgy in southeast Iberia shows some innovation over time, as trial and error led to a gradual accumulation of experience. What is most striking, however, is its isolated and generally primitive character: working conditions remained rudimentary and the level of technical control low, with little or no exposure to outside influences that might have spurred technological or typological change.


Our quantitative study covers metal artefacts from sites in Almeria, Granada and Murcia provinces. We have sought to enumerate the inventory as exhaustively as possible. The concrete percentage values cited below are subject to the inevitable limitations imposed by incomplete data, imprecisions in publication and as yet unpublished information, as well as by the classificatory criteria chosen for our study. However, they should reflect general trends, given the volume of information we have handled. The broad criteria we have used to classify metal objects are as follows: In terms of chronology, they are assigned to the Copper Age or to the Bronze Age. In terms of function, they are assigned to five categories: 'tools' (including awls, chisels, saws, fish-hooks), 'tools/weapons' (daggers/knives, axes, arrowheads), 'weapons' (swords, halberds), 'ornaments' and 'accessory objects'. Finally, in terms of provenience, we note whether objects come from funerary or occupational contexts. The results of this enumeration are as follows: there are 3493 objects, of which 587 belong to the Copper Age and 2888 to the Argaric (18 objects cannot be classified chronologically). During the Copper Age, somewhat over 60% of the objects are 'tools' (TABLE 6), 26% are 'tools-weapons', 8% are 'ornaments' and there are no 'weapons' as such. However, in the Argaric period 55% of the objects are 'ornaments', 27% 'tools-weapons', only 15% are 'tools', with 'weapons' constituting less than 2% of the objects. In terms of particular artefact types, in the Copper Age the most frequent item is the awl (over 50%), while in the Argaric rings constitute about 30% of copper artefacts, followed by daggers with 24%. In the Copper Age generally similar frequencies of metal types are recovered from funerary and habitational contexts, with the exception of ornaments, concentrated in graves. In the Argaric one sees a more selective pattern of deposition in the burials, with chisels, saws and arrow-heads left out.

From the Copper to the Bronze Age metallurgical production increased, but not greatly (TABLE 7). There are 4.9 times more metal objects in the Argaric than in the Copper Age, but if we exclude the Vera Basin the increase is by a factor of only 1.7. In real terms, this means an overall average concentration of less than 10 (in fact, 6.77) metal objects per site (counting only those sites with some sign of metallurgical activity). (The exception is the Vera Basin, where the largest known Bronze Age sites are concentrated.)

Interpretation of Bronze Age metallurgy

In the light of this review of early metallurgical activity in southeast Iberia, one must reject the proposals set forth in the beginning concerning the economic importance of metalworking in the El Argar culture. The archaeological record contains a relatively small number of objects, and the amount of metal becomes even more limited if its quantity is evaluated by weight, since the majority of the pieces we have enumerated (like rings and awls) are of small size, heavy pieces being scarce. In addition, the large increase in metal consumption from Copper to Bronze Age which would be expected if Argaric society was organized around mining turns out to be quite small (less than double, in fact). In the Vera Basin, where there is a large increase in metal from Copper to Bronze Age, studies of the use of raw materials permit us to reject notions of economic dependency and a political and social organization based on the exploitation of metals. As we have already indicated, the characteristics of the ores and the results of chemical analyses of artefacts indicate that each site used different sources of raw materials, each community exploiting a separate nearby ore body. Furthermore, the presence in most Argaric settlements of metallurgical remains representing the complete production process argues in favour of self-sufficiency with respect to this economic activity, which may be considered as secondary to subsistence production. All of these facts make it hard to accept that a large part of the Argaric economy was conditioned upon the acquisition of a few metal objects over several centuries of a site's occupation. It is also hard to accept that settlements would have re-oriented their economy from agriculture to mining and metallurgy, as Lull (1983: 456-8) has argued, or that there existed an economic complementarity between communities organized around metallurgical activity.
TABLE 6. Typological distribution.
 Chalcolithic Argaric
 frequency % frequency %
tools 355 60.48 449 15.74
tools--weapons 155 26.40 793 27.45
weapons 0 0.0 50 1.73
ornaments 48 8.18 1540 53.32
accessories 4 0.68 32 1.11
non-classified 25 4.26 24 0.83
TABLE 7. General quantification.
 sites Cu Ag Au total density
Copper Age
Cuenca de Vera 22 102 3 105 4.77
Rest of Almeria 33 200 200 6.06
Granada 72 219 4 223 3.05
Murcia 23 59 59 2.56
total 150 580 7 587
Cuenca de Vera 11 1708 356 11 2075 188.63
Rest of Almeria 26 96 16 112 4.31
Granada 63 356 59 1 416 6.60
Murcia 31 249 33 3 285 9.19
total 131 2409 464 15 2888

The abundance and accessibility of copper ores are features that go against any account of copper as a limited, critical resource, whose control would permit the dominion of some communities and the subordination or dependency of others. In the Vera Basin, where the largest-scale production of metal is attested, no such control over sources is apparent, and it probably did not exist in other districts of the southeast where production was lower. Consequently, the notion that the Argaric expanded towards the interior in search of new metal sources to replace those exhausted in coastal areas fails to make sense.

The low level of metal production, the abundance of metal resources and the absence of any traces of prehistoric mining lead one to believe that mining required no large investments of labour, to prop up mine shafts or to build systems of drainage, lighting and ventilation that would require maintenance or special care by the community. (The paper by Rothenberg et al. (1988) about a Chalcolithic mine in Sierra Alhamilla (Almeria) must be rejected because there is no any real argument about its antiquity or about prehistoric works. The pottery found in the area with slags is 'insufficient and not typical', and all mines show recent mine operation. Furthermore, the Bronze Age technology does not produce large deposits of slag (Craddock & Meeks 1987) and the bulk of the sites, including Los Millares, have copper ores and reduce them in the settlement area.) On the contrary, mining was an unspecialized task. Accordingly, we see no division of labour between households with respect to metallurgical activities or any other primary economic production. As Gilman (1976; 1981; 1987b) has argued, the small scale of mining and metallurgical production suggests a sporadic, unregulated endeavour of small importance within the totality of production, an activity carried out at opportune moments when there was time to be spared for it.

Metallurgical production seems to have been carried out with little regard to economic efficiency, since the costs of transporting the raw ores to the settlements was not taken into account. If, as we argue, mining and metal production was a sporadic activity never oriented towards commercial exchange, and total production amounted to a few kilograms a year, then the metal-worker might find it cost-effective to transport the ore from a nearby source to his residence, where the eventual reduction and manufacture could be undertaken whenever it was most convenient. If, on the contrary, metallurgical activity was of greater economic importance and overall demand for metal was higher, then the goal of optimizing production would make it rational to reduce the ore at the mine itself, so as to save the costs of transporting not only the dead weight of the gangue, but also the fuel required for the primary reduction. The archaeological record reveals no technological improvements that would support specialized, commercially regulated production, however. The existence of regular commerce would require the development of ingots or other standardized forms to make measurement and transport of metal easier, but up to now there is no archaeological evidence to support this.

Argaric metallurgy is rudimentary compared to that of contemporary Bronze Age cultures. Its cultural isolation is evident in the delay with which tin alloys are incorporated into the technical repertoire and in the absence of items like ingots that would facilitate commodity exchange. As Chapman (1984; 1990) points out, this relative retardation is also visible in the small volume of metal produced and in the limited typological diversity of the production.

All of this makes the hypothesis of an Argaric crisis proposed by Lull (1983: 457) most questionable, since it is improbable that such a secondary activity could affect the whole society and irreversibly degrade the environment. Likewise, Lull's idea that available mineral resources were exhausted in a region where they are so abundant seems unconvincing.

To sum up, explanations that give great causal weight to metallurgy in the dynamic of Copper-Bronze Age change in Iberia need to be replaced by alternatives that give metal its appropriate value. It is difficult to suppose that the formation and consolidation of an elite could be based on a small-scale industry that was not essential for subsistence and that depended on raw materials whose availability could not be easily restricted. The causes of social differentiation must be sought in the intensification of other activities, such as agriculture, on which the real survival of individuals and the social community depends. Accordingly, the hypotheses of Gilman (1987a; 1987b) gain force as a viable alternative for interpreting cultural dynamics in southeast Iberia. Here the idea is that the ruling class would have obtained its income by collecting rents from the peasants they controlled, a control facilitated by the intensification of subsistence production by such means as livestock-herding oriented towards secondary products, tree crops or irrigation. In this context, metallurgy would be of secondary importance in generating the cultural changes which occurred in southeast Iberia during the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. This does not minimize metallurgy's relevance as a technological innovation which constitutes an important index of the historical process that made possible its appearance and development.

Acknowledgements. I am grateful to Professor Antonio Gilman, who translated the original from Spanish and made some helpful comments. I specially thank Manuel Fernandez-Miranda and Salvador Rovira for their advice to develop this investigation.


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Author:Ruiz, Ignacio Montero
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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