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Metal crafts in the Cycladic culture

Even in the late Stone age, people occasionally used metal to make simple tools or jewelry. These were mostly made of metals, which could be found in a pure form in nature, not as an ore, like silver and gold, but also lead and copper. The beginning of the Bronze age was marked by the development of metal processing, in which an alloy was produced or the metal was extracted from ores. The discovery of the production of bronze, an alloy of copper with tin or arsenic, led to a crucial developmental step, because the production of tools from the hard alloy opened new possibilities in craftsmanship and technology.

The first metal objects on the Cyclades

Already in the Neolithic age individual metal objects appear in the Aegean, such as copper pieces and crucibles in the Neolithic settlement of Kephala and the small piece of gold sheet from the Cave on Mount Zeus; simple bronze tools were also occasionally found. Nevertheless, it was not until the Bronze age that metal began to play a greater role in the life of the people. In the first phase of the Cycladic culture, metal objects are still rare and usually consist of copper, silver or lead (this phase might actually still be considered to belong to the Copper age, the last phase of the Neolithic; but in other respects it is obviously part of the Cycladic culture, i.e. the Early Bronze age). From the middle phase of the Cycladic culture onwards, considerably more metal goods appear and bronze becomes the most common metal, especially for the manufacture of tools.

Silver was used by the Cycladic people for the production of jewellery: finely worked and decorated silver cloak pins were found, as well as about 200 perforated discs of silver sheet in a grave, which probably originally belonged to a necklace. While quite a few silver objects exist, no gold objects appear in the Cycladic culture, except for a small gold pearl from a grave. Lead, which was easy to form, was used occasionally for small artifacts as the three metal ship models that were found on Naxos. Lead wire or lead rivets were also used to repair broken clay or marble objects.

Neolithic gold plate from Zeus Cave Naxos
The Neolithic gold plate found in the Cave of Mount Zeus is the only gold object found on Naxos until a much later age (Archaeological Museum in the Chóra).

repaired cycladic marble plate
This marble plate was broken and repaired, probably with lead wire.

From copper and bronze simple utensils and tools such as awls and needles, axes, chisels and wedges were made.

cycladic bronze tools
bronze tools in the Museum of Apíranthos

cycladic bronze tools
various small bronze tools, Museum of Apíranthos

Weapons have rarely been found in the Cyclades; they only occur in the late phase of the Cycladic culture. Most common are knives (which of course could also have been used for domestic purposes) and spearheads; swords are only known from the end of the Early Bronze age.

cycladic silver-plated dagger
This silver-plated dagger was probably a prestige object. Silver plated objects are very rare in the Cycladic culture. This type of dagger was developed on the Cyclades. It is one of the earliest examples of a silver-plated object in the Aegean (Museum of the Chóra).

The development of metal tools also gave a great impetus to many other crafts, especially carpentry. The invention of the saw was of particular importance, which was only possible after the discovery of bronze alloys, since only bronze can be used to produce sufficiently strong metal blades. The development of the saw brought about an important progress in shipbuilding, as thin wooden planks could now be produced, which made it much easier to build ships suitable for long-distance voyages and trade.

cycladic carpentry tools: hatchet and chisels
carpentry tools: hatchet and chisels

The origin of metal processing

The people that settled the islands of the Aegean in the Neolithic age were already familiar with simple copper processing. Around 8,500 BC the use of copper as the first metal had been discovered in southeastern Anatolia. Copper is the only metal other than silver, gold and lead to exist in its native form in nature, so that it could be used comparatively easily. In the Neolithic age, however, metal was only used very sparsely.

From Asia Minor, the craft of metal processing gradually spread over the entire eastern Mediterranean area. In this whole area natural metal deposits are rare, so that from early on metals had to be imported. In Northern Greece and the Balkans, important gold and silver deposits were discovered and exploited already during the Stone age (before these precious metals were sifted out of the sands of the river estuaries). This is how the impressive gold treasures of the rich and well-advanced Neolithic cultures in the Bulgaria and Romania were created. From these treasures came the single piece of gold sheet that was found in the neolithic layers of the Cave of Mount Zeus on Naxos. In Serbia rich copper deposits were found, leading to a rise of the use of copper from 5,500 BC onwards. In this area around 4,500 BC for the first time the processing of copper-bearing ores was developed and thus a genuine metal processing.

Metal processing reaches the Aegean

After the early use of solid metals, the more elaborate technique of metal smelting and the production of metal utensils and tools for daily use reached the Cyclades possibly via the close contacts to the Northern Aegean, which had adopted it from the Balkan. According to other researchers, the techniques of metal crafting were brought to the Aegean by traders from the Levant who were searching for ore deposits as the Anatolian supplies were gradually depleted. In Crete, the new technique established itself earlier than in the Cyclades, with numerous metal objects occurring already in the first phase of the Early Bronze age.

The types of the metal objects on the Cyclades during the middle phase of the Early Bronze age, when they appeared in larger quantities, point to connections to the Northeastern Aegean (e.g. Troy), but also to Crete and the Levant. However, the Cycladic people also invented some unusual or unique objects such as the leaden ship models or a lead seal that was found on Naxos.

cycladic metal vessel
small metal vessel in the museum of Apíranthos

cycladic bronze objects
Cycladic bronze objects in the Museum in the Chóra

No metal ore deposits have been found on Naxos, nor have any traces of metal processing been discovered so far. Silver, lead and copper were mined on the Cycladic islands of Kythnos and Siphnos. Copper ores (azurite and malachite) occur on Thera and were probably mined there as early as the Early Bronze age; ores of volcanic origin containing arsenic can also be found on Milos or Thera. On Aegina and near Rafina smelting furnaces have been found, while the remains of a metal workshop have been discovered on Syros and lately also on the nowadays uninhabited island of Keros southeast of Naxos. Most objects were produced by casting in open clay or stone moulds and subsequent forging; also purely forged or driven objects are known (eg. some needles as well as silver sheet diadems and silver bowls carefully decorated with incisions).

The exploitation of the Iberian metal deposits

The inhabitants of the Cyclades had only limited metal resources available in their area. Accordingly they started very early to search for new sources, turning to the west, as the deposits in the eastern and northern areas were already exploited. On their search for new resources they reached Spain, where they found rich metal deposits. From the first phase of the Early Bronze age onwards they founded small colonies in southern Spain and on the Portuguese Atlantic coast near to copper deposits, which differed greatly from the local settlements that still belonged to the Stone age.

Arsenic Bronze

Most bronze objects of the early Cycladic culture, as well as of other related cultures of the same time, consisted of an alloy of copper with arsenic, not with tin. On the Iberian Peninsula, some copper deposits have a natural content in arsenic. As early as 4,000 BC the first objects made of arsenic-containing copper from the Iberian Peninsula appear in the Aegean Sea, as can be proven by mineral analyses. Maybe this means that the advantages of this alloy were discovered through the exploit of these deposits.

The development of tin bronze

Genuine bronze is an alloy of copper and tin in a proportion of about 9:1. Tin does not occur in the eastern Mediterranean and had to be imported from the Orient or the western Mediterranean. In Anatolia existed smaller deposits which were exploited from 3,300 BC on. The nearest rich deposits to the east lie in Iran, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, from where the tin was traded to Mesopotamia and to the Aegean Sea. In the cultures of the Middle East (Mesopotamia, Palestine,…) and in Egypt, as well as in the Aegean region, genuine tin bronze was only produced from the Middle Bronze age onwards. Around 2,600 BC tin deposits were discovered in central Spain. Genuine bronze is harder than arsenic bronze and has better properties for the manufacture of tools. After tin had become available, the production of arsenic bronze quickly stopped, possibly also because people recognized its toxicity.

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