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New Worlds: Metallurgy

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Metal technology has been important enough in human society that we name epochs of history after it: Iron Age, Bronze Age, sometimes a Copper Age before that. We definitely use metals artistically as well as pragmatically, but I’m going to diverge a tiny bit from our focus on the functional arts to take a look, not just at the aesthetics, but at the symbolic significance of it all.

Traditionally, we say that in antiquity seven metals were known: gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, iron, and mercury. Of course, those aren’t the only ones that exist — and some were even known sooner than you might think, as Native South Americans were working platinum long before Europeans had identified it. Part of what dictates what was known as a metal in the past is how easy it is to find in something like pure form, or to extract it from its ore; nickel and zinc saw use, but they were often not isolated and identified as distinct metals until later. Aluminum, so ubiquitous today, wasn’t produced until the nineteenth century, and even then, the process created such small quantities that it was worth more than gold.

Would you believe that silver used to be more valuable than gold, too? That’s because, while it’s more abundant than gold, it’s much more rarely found in its native form, i.e. as lumps of more or less pure metal just lying around in the environment. Once we learned how to extract it from other substances, the value dropped — but not too far. Silver has historically been one of the workhorse metals of coinage, landing in a Goldilocks (Silverlocks?) zone of value and availability.

As for gold, its value doesn’t lie only in its rarity — and this is an example of where the symbolic side starts to come in. Gold is notably non-reactive and non-corrosive, which gives it a connotation of purity and immortality. (I’ve heard, but I don’t know if it’s true, that silver tarnished much less rapidly before the Industrial Revolution pumped a lot of sulfur into the atmosphere.) These qualities make gold a natural fit for association with the divine . . . and anything often linked to the divine, like kings. Gold’s yellow color, especially paired with the whiter shade of silver, also creates very obvious sun/moon imagery. (Now pause to wonder what imagery we would have come up with if our moon had been, say, green.)

From the sun and the moon, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to associating other metals with the planets visible to the naked eye. This was further developed in Western alchemy, mapping the metals not only to the planets but to stages of the hoped-for transmutation of base metals (like lead) into gold. Because the planets were also named for gods, and because any such system readily accretes other sets of symbols to itself, you can keep chasing this outward into other realms, well beyond the metals themselves.

But we don’t only use them in their isolated, pure form. In fact, alloys — mixtures containing at least one metal — can be more important than their separate components. The exact composition of bronze varies, but it’s primarily composed of copper and secondarily of tin; the comparative rarity of tin meant that during the Bronze Age, access to its sources drove a great deal of commerce and warfare. The list of interesting alloys could go on for a while: brass (copper and zinc), pewter (tin and lead, until we decided lead poisoning was bad for us and changed the formula), electrum (gold and silver, and naturally occurring), amalgams (various other metals dissolved in mercury), sterling silver (silver and copper) — and that’s before we get to the ones that require modern science to make.

Heck, steel is an alloy! The term doesn’t only cover metals blended with other metals; iron blended with carbon counts, too. Which means that “iron” in the sense we generally use it — not the element but the material we work for our own ends — is usually an alloy. Iron itself is rarely found native; apparently there was one deposit in Greenland, but mostly it has to be extracted, and the extraction process often frequently introduces carbon. Over time, we learned to control how much, thereby creating iron alloys suited to different purposes. Before that began, everybody but a small number of Inuit relied on meteoric iron, another naturally-occurring alloy that incorporates nickel.

Alloys can have their own symbolic cachet, too. I have no idea why the early developers of Dungeons & Dragons chose to have two of the five metallic dragon breeds be bronze and brass rather than, say, iron and mercury, but they’ve firmly established their place in the lore. Off in India, panchaloha (literally “five metals”) is an alloy of gold, silver, copper, zinc, and iron used for making religious items like statues; the even more complex alloy of ashtadhatu adds in lead, tin, and mercury, and is used in a similar way.

. . . or sometimes the cachet is much less respectable. The value of pure gold has attracted many people not only into trying to transmute it out of baser metals, but also into adulterating or counterfeiting it. I believe most of these efforts relied on mixing in copper, which comes the closest to gold in color, but there may have been more arcane methods. And pity the poor fools who took iron pyrite for gold — a mistake all the more understandable when you realize that genuine gold can in fact show up in pyrite deposits.

Lest we forget, though, there are still the decorative uses of these things. In addition to the generalized applications like sculpture, we’ve developed any number of techniques specific to metal. Gilding covers a surface with a thin layer of gold; you can also coat an object in a different metal such as silver, but doing that without modern techniques like electroplating is more difficult. Damascening inlays one metal into another, usually a precious one like gold or silver into a darkened steel background. This produces an effect similar to niello, though that latter technique instead uses a dark inlay on brighter engraved metal. Japan has a host of decorative metallurgical techniques, such as mokume-gane (mixed-metal lamination) or the niiro patination process, used to create “colored metals” or irogane.

One metal — or more probably an alloy — deserves special mention, thanks to the prestige it’s acquired by association. Orichalcum shows up in a handful of ancient Greek writings, none of which help us know what it really was: pure copper? A certain formulation of bronze, or of brass? Platinum? Because Plato mentioned it in the context of Atlantis, however, some writers have treated orichalcum as something else entirely, a magical metal with wondrous properties.

Really, though, metals are already kind of magic. They’re ductile and malleable, they conduct heat and electricity, and they shine up awful pretty. No wonder we’ve treasured them for so many years.

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6 thoughts on “New Worlds: Metallurgy”

  1. Phyllis Irene Radford

    For a surface view of metal working the TV series “Forged in Fire” brings bladesmithing to life. Some of the most beautiful damascas work ever as well as brief history of the origin and use of blades.

    “Time Team” has episodes where the experimental archeology shows the gathering of the raw ore, prepping it and then actually producing iron ready to be forged.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Forged in Fire was one of our binges during covid lockdown — we watched something like four seasons of it in very short order . . .

  2. Anthony Docimo

    Hmm…had the Moon been green to the eyes…I’d hazard a guess that we’d’ve associated it with oxydized copper.
    …Or cheese. 🙂

  3. You can also make bronze with arsenic. OTOH, the effects of cooking in such bronze tend to be noticeable.

  4. There’s one other critical use of metals that I’m surprised wasn’t mentioned: The (renewable) cutting edge. Various stones and glasses (a much broader class of materials than the stuff in cups and windows), and slightly later ceramics, can form good cutting edges, but those edges require extreme skill to renew when dulled or chipped — and they don’t retain their usefulness over a very wide temperature range.

    Pardon me while I carve that steak with a carbon-steel knife that I’ve just honed… but more than just knives, remember saws and files (and nails/screws) and all of those other wonderful ways that metal turns wood into useful things.

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