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Our world today is full of different metals of varying value. Metals can naturally occur on Earth, or asteroids and meteorites bring them to the planet when they make impact. In more recent times, we have combined materials to make new, stronger metals.
Humanity’s development has depended on the use of metals. It wasn’t called the Bronze Age or the Iron Age for nothing! Prehistoric humans used metals in tools, weapons, jewelry, and so much more. The advancement of humanity across history is down to the developments made using metals, and so metallurgy was born. Over time, metal contributed to advancing agriculture practices, created new transport methods, and divided the wealthy from the poor.
But let’s step back and have a look at the original seven metals that were used in the days of lore and explore how their uses have shaped the world we know today.
Gold is one of the most valuable metals, not only in weight but also in our culture. The word ‘gold’ is synonymous with wealth and perfection. The first-place prize in competitions is a gold medal or a golden trophy. Well-known award statues are made from gold or gold-plated, like an Oscar or a Nobel Prize.
But where did gold come from? And how did it become so ingrained into our culture?
Golden grains and nuggets occur in rock from the Precambrian period. There is no way for us to know who first discovered it, but it is accepted that gold is the first metal that became widely known to our species.
We have evidence Stone Age humans were using gold to create jewelry at around 6000 BC. However, the use of this valuable metal goes all the way back to 40,000 BC when natural gold deposits were found in Spanish caves inhabited by the Paleolithic Man. It’s easy to understand why gold became so popular worldwide. It’s straightforward to smelt and work with, occurring in a practically pure state, and it doesn’t corrode or tarnish easily.
The oldest recorded gold mine dates back to Ancient Egypt in 1320 – 1200 BC, but archaeologists have dated gold artefacts much further back. It’s clear Ancient Egyptians were using the metal to make items as far back as the fifth and fourth millenniums. From its inception, humanity has associated gold with status and wealth.
Gold also played an integral part in Incan history. Tales are told of temples built from gold, and they considered it sacred. The Inca believed gold was the blood of one of their chief gods, Viracocha.
The promise of gold motivated explorers to travel to new lands, attempting to find enough to make them. Massive gold rushes defined the 19th century in Australia, the United States, South Africa, New Zealand and Brazil, but smaller gold rushes took place everywhere. Searching for gold has created some of the world’s most densely populated cities. Johannesburg in South Africa came because of the Gold Rush of Witwatersrand in 1886, as people flocked to the locale when they discovered gold there.
The landscape in the United States was shaped by numerous gold rushes, with towns popping up all over the West Coast from the 1850s onward. The California Gold Rush alone brought around 300,000 people to the state seeking their fortune.
Today, the current top gold producing country is China, followed by Australia. However, the largest gold mine in the world is in Indonesia, the Grasberg mine has one of the largest gold reserves in the world.
Much like gold – and all the metals of antiquity – the initial discovery of silver was before recorded history. So we don’t know exactly when humans discovered it. The value of silver has changed throughout history – in Ancient Egypt they considered it more valuable than gold until approximately the 15th century. It’s likely that silver’s early uses were currency, and jewelry, as its poor structural sense means it’s not very durable and wouldn’t have been suitable for tools.
Linked to the moon, and having protective powers, silver is rooted in the mythology of many cultures. In Greek mythology, the Goddess Artemis had silver-tipped bows and lances, and they wrote about the metal almost as much as gold.
Aztecs used silver in both jewelry and clothing. Artefacts found in Mexico show they valued the reflective characteristics of the metal, polishing it to use as mirrors that were believed to symbolize portals that reached the spirit world.
Silver is an important metal used symbolically throughout folklore. They believed that a silver-cased bullet could kill a werewolf, witch, or other monsters in stories.
Thirty pieces of silver became synonymous with betrayal, as in the bible Judas takes a bribe of thirty pieces of silver for the betrayal of Jesus. They didn’t consider it a lot of money either, which means the Romans didn’t consider Jesus to be worth an expense.
We have used copper across the world, dating right back to the prehistoric era. The Chalcolithic Age (also known as the Copper Age) is a period in the Neolithic period in which the use of copper greatly advanced humanity. It predates the Bronze Age (which copper was also instrumental in) and Iron Age.
Much like silver, copper has roots in mythology too. They associated it with Venus in Ancient Rome, and Aphrodite in Ancient Greece. The symbol for females still used today comes from the alchemy symbol for copper.
Copper usage dated back to 9000 BC in the Middle East. There’s evidence of copper smelting in Israel, Egypt, and Jordan dating back to 4500 BC. The Ancient Egyptians used copper for tubing – the structures of which were similar to the way we use copper today! It goes to show this technique is futureproof, it’s been 6000 years and we’ve still not found a better resource for plumbing pipes. Much of this tubing is still functional. This is primarily why copper is an excellent metal for tubing. It doesn’t release any fumes or toxic elements, doesn’t burn, and doesn’t melt. It’s structurally sound.
Mining copper was worldwide as early as 2000 BC, and it played a powerful role in currency. Copper was malleable and easy to smelt, but a durable metal, making it perfect for coins – many of which are still around today. It was also used to make utensils and crockery in the home.
Much like all the metals of antiquity, the usage of copper continues to be widespread. It’s used in plumbing and currency, and as it’s an excellent electrical conductor, it is the favored option for wiring and cable. We also use copper in architecture, with plenty of roofs being created from copper – usually discernible by their aged green corrosion, and was the material used to create one of the most well-known symbols of freedom in the modern world: The Statue of Liberty.
We get iron in two ways – it comes from meteorites in its metallic state, and we mine it from extensive iron ore found in the earth’s crust. Iron usage has been widespread throughout human history all over the world. Unfortunately, as iron corrodes at a much faster rate than gold, silver, or copper, it is difficult to find artefacts from a prehistoric era as the tools and objects have usually disintegrated.
Iron is forged and smelted into different forms. We see this with cast iron, wrought iron, and steel. Each of these different types has their own varying levels of strength and durability. As iron became more widespread across the globe, its usage developed new technologies that were groundbreaking for the time.
It’s responsible for two massive revolutions for humanity: the Iron Age, and the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s.
While cast iron was being used in China as far back as the fifth century BC, it took until the medieval era to make its way to the rest of the world. In China, cast iron had uses in agriculture, weaponry, and architecture. As it became more common worldwide, they developed wrought iron, as it was far cheaper to make.
In the 1700s the first iron bridge was constructed, and in steam engines they used iron cylinders as they could withstand heat. Humans also used iron in boats, cars, trains, ships, railways, buildings, bridges, and fencing.
There is evidence of highly specialized steel being used in antiquity, but these methods were rare. Luristan in modern-day Iran was creating steel in 1000 BC. Wootz steel was also being forged in modern-day South India, a high-carbon type of steel that was high quality.
Damascus steel was a technique for steel creation developed in around 1000 BC. The high quality of the steel has given birth to legends and stories of its proficiency. People used it for knives, daggers, and swords. There have been many attempts to recreate Damascus steel, but so far, these have been unsuccessful and we have lost the technique to history.
Both Wootz steel and Damascus steel are recognizable by the banding pattern on the surface because of the intermixed alloys.
Tin is cut and bent with little force applied, but it is a durable metal and usage stretches right back to around 3000 BC. Humans used tin and copper when making bronze and this technological development instigated the Bronze Age. Naturally occurring tin deposits were rare in antiquity, therefore humans traded tin worldwide because of its extensive use globally. There were sources in the UK and on the modern border of Germany and Czechia. Tin was mined and exported all over the globe.
Archaeologists have mapped the far-reaching trade networks created by the desire for tin using historical texts and excavations.
In the Bronze Age tin was vital for creating bronze, and used in almost everything. Artefacts containing tin are abundant all over the world. We used it for weaponry and warfare, architecture, jewelry and clothing, and for essential household tools like cooking pots.
Nowadays, the most common thing that springs to mind at the thought of is a food can. Using tin for food cannery dates all the way back to the 1800s, and it’s still the most convenient way to store food we intend to preserve over long periods.
But that’s not all we use tin for in modern society. It’s also used in soldering, wiring, and iron, lead, and copper get encased in tin to help stop corrosion. We use specialized alloys made of tin daily. It goes into bronze, pewter, and copper.
Lead has had a variety of uses throughout history. We have used this dense malleable metal for everything from paint, cosmetics, as a contraceptive, and in piping. Different cultures and civilizations had varying methods for using this metal in their daily lives, but lead was widespread globally even at approximately 6500 BC.
One of the popular cosmetic uses for lead was in skin whitening products that were commonly used in the 16th and 17th centuries when pale skin represented purity and wealth. This then expanded to white wigs. Socialites in the 18th century wore enough lead-laced make-up that they ended up giving themselves lead poisoning and many died.
Meanwhile, in Ancient Rome, the use of lead was extensive. It was the biggest lead producer of the time. They made their water pipes of lead. In fact, the Latin word for lead is ‘plumbum’, which is where the word plumbing is derived from. Ancient Rome had lead-lined coffins, lead tablets for writing, they used it medicinally, in architecture and roofing, and as currency.
Some historians believe that lead poisoning led to the fall of Ancient Rome. Historians also suggest that the reason Julius Caesar only had one child, and his successor Caesar Augustus was sterile, was because of lead poisoning from the widespread usage of lead in their society.
The only time lead production rivaled that of Ancient Rome was when the UK, Europe, and the US entered the Industrial Revolution. However, we use lead less in the modern day because we now know about lead poisoning. However, we do still use it widely for holding acidic substances because of its noncorrosive nature.
While we know about the toxic properties of mercury now, back in ancient history, it was a widely used metal for medicinally. Archaeologists have also found it in paint in the Ancient Roman homes in Pompeii that were drowned in ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.
Mercury is found in cinnabar ore, and they often used the red pigment of the rock in paint and decoration in Ancient Egypt. In fact, it was only in 1991 when it stopped being used in paint in the US.
Back in ancient times, they often referred to mercury as ‘quicksilver’. Aristotle wrote about it and also called it ‘fluid silver’. Originally, they thought mercury was the matter from which all metals came from, and we could adjust this with the amount of sulfur it had in it.
It’s been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs dating back to 1500 BC and was believed to have medicinal properties. They used it regularly for skin disorders, in ointments, and as a contraceptive method in China 4000 years ago. In homeopathic Chinese medicine, they still use cinnabar as a sedative. It was also used in cosmetics by the Ancient Romans and Egyptians.
Now we know better, but they still use mercury in skin-whitening cosmetics that are popular in Asia. Other common uses include amalgam fillings in dentistry and thermometers. It’s also put into fluorescent bulbs. These uses remain a concern because of the potential exposure to the compound when the bulb smashes or the filling breaks down.
From Antiquity to the Future
The seven metals of antiquity have all played vital roles in the development of civilization, all the way from the prehistoric era through to modern times. We continue to learn more about these metals and their uses can change throughout time. But it’s also clear that some uses – like copper piping – will be relied upon for centuries. If our ancestors had it right, there’s no point in reinventing the wheel.
Gold, silver, tin, mercury, lead, and iron have been integral for the development of humanity across our history, and these metals remain just as relevant to our future.