Impact of Metals on Society

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Historical Insight

The Impact of Metals on Society Part I: Antiquity
Raymond L. Smith

Over 5,000 years, our quest for metals has led us to strange lands, on bold adventures, through terrible hardships, and to great riches and devastating failures. Immeasurably, the fates of entire nations and peoples have been shaped by this quest. tion for many centuries. A product or process might have been developed in one area and, through trade, passed to another in a short period; or, because of isolation, the same product or proMETALS IN ANTIQUITY cess could have taken centuries to be transAll civilizations were born of agriculferred or reinvented by ture. Although the use of copper, silver, another culture. and gold overlapped the Stone Age era, Bronze provides an their early practical application was negexcellent example of ligible. Still, even in very early history, how a new technology is metals had a significant societal impact. developed. It persists in Because of their scarcity, durability, and defying neat chronologibeauty, the ownership of metals implied cal dating. The notion of material wealth and power for the living Iron implements of China’s Han Dynasty (119 B.C .–220 A .D.). Left to right: sledge hammer, chisel, rake, and adz (with maker’s a simple Bronze Age preand, through votive offerings, repremark [“Ho-3”] from the number three iron and steel works of the ceding the Iron Age was sented a mystic insurance policy for the Honan Prefecture). Excavated at Tienshengou, Gongxian, discarded many years dead. This constituted a powerful emoHonan.4 ago as archeometaltional symbolism that carried into the lurgists unraveled some following centuries to accompany the secrets of this ancient craft. It was most inevitable technological changes that aware of great cultures elsewhere, likely produced first in Thailand, but it metals brought about in society. thereby slowing the spread of knowldid not spread from there.1 About three Technology transfer was slow since edge, the situation allowed civilizations entire civilizations lived in virtual isolato develop in unique ways. For example, centuries later, it was developed in Scandinavia lagged its European counMesopotamia; over the terparts by centuries, but the early tribes ensuing centuries, it difof Britain, Central Europe, and Asia Mifused into neighboring nor eventually opened corridors of comcultures. In the Western merce. This was a two-edged sword beworld, the knowledge of cause it brought about both developbronze lagged that of the ment and warfare. One of the first great Eastern world by more civilizations, Egypt, was protected from than three millennia. Alinvasion by the desert and sea; thus, her though bronze had been isolation allowed peaceful growth. cast in Mesoamerica beChina, virtually a world unto itself, tween 600 A .D . and evolved with little intercourse with oth1,000 A.D., it had to wait ers. Although the development of bronze for the Incas in the 15th in China lagged other parts of the world, century to be put to practhe technology of iron casting was centical use—mostly for turies ahead of any known culture. farming tools.2 Innovations such as bronze CHINA spurred trade and proIt has been only during this century vided improved weapthat we have learned much about the ons of war—powerful ancient use of metals in China, and there factors in creating sociis still little known about the influence of etal change. Electrotypes from gold objects found in the royal graves of Ur metals on politics, demographics, and Although major parts (ca 2750 B .C.). Excavated by Sir Leonard Wooley. Originals conflict. T. Ko pointed out that China’s of the world existed unhoused in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad.9 Editor’s Note: One of 15 parts, this article and the installments that follow revisit the historical record and reference figures of the past to show how mining, minerals, and metals have profoundly influenced conflict, religion, technology, economics, and...
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