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Episode 1.5: The Cutting Edge of Bronze Technology (Script)

Hi. I’m Keith Decent and this is From the Ground Up. A podcast about how we make what we make, the materials, the tools, and the stories behind the things we build.


A farmer in his field, or a soldier on the battlefront. Before the age of silicon and radio, before energy and information ruled, these were where you would find the latest in technological advances. The tools that carved great bounty from the earth, and the weapons of war used to defend or appropriate those resources, held the promise of power and survival for those that wielded them, in the keenness and durability of the cutting edge.


Back then the world was powered by muscle and blood, civilization was held together through the edge of a plow, the point of a spear, and at times, advanced with a little bit of luck. Fortune often favors the bold, but, just as often, it favors the curious and observant. For millions of years, people used stone tools for everything. Millions of years. They got the job done, and various cultures had gotten pretty adept at forming them into specialized shapes for different applications. However, they were brittle, and required replacement or large scale maintenance and reshaping fairly often. Losing a day’s work or a night’s sleep searching for new stones, of suitable composition for a hunting spear or axe could mean the difference between life or death, and often did. People eventually found out about copper. It could be heated, poured, and pounded into various shapes. It was okay, but really not much more effective than stones in terms of utility. It was soft and malleable, so tools and weapons, while lasting longer, would have to be reshaped often. In some parts of the world, where there was no copper, there was tin, which shared some of the same properties, but also the same drawbacks.


No one knows how or where exactly it happened, but it was almost certainly an accident. Perhaps it was a contamination while smelting some copper, maybe someone stacked just the right type of ore-bearing rocks in the fire pit together, but at some point, someone noticed that if you mixed molten copper and tin, the resultant metal was much harder and much more durable than either alone. It was became known as Bronze. It was one of the single largest advances of technology in the whole of human history, and it remain as such for thousands of years.


The story of bronze is the story of humankind and our relationship with the world. The story of how we discover and learn, utilizing our knowledge to produce more, to travel further, to mingle, to clash, to trade, to conquer, and to create.

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It’s about 2200 BCE. A grizzled warrior, hardened by life in a violent and unforgiving time, stands, bleeding from the shoulder. He is important, possibly a chieftain or elder of his tribe. His age and height speak to a talent for violence, which would have afforded him elevated status among his people.


Along with age, however, has also come illness. He’s lost a step or two. He has a harder time breathing and his back is not as strong as it used to be. He leans forward as he succumbs to the deep gashes on his arm, likely a defensive wound from single combat. This fight would be his last, and from his hand slips an elegant, bronze dagger.


The piece is unique for its time. A stubby, broad blade and a studded hilt and handle, it is a fearsome weapon for a fierce warrior. Instead of being stolen or passed along, it is picked up, and buried alongside of him. A proper, respectful burial, unusual in that the dagger was included in the grave. He was revered. As time went on, stories were told of this man, this brute. Fantastic tales of his exploits shared over a fire, told to those who were not there to bear witness to his skill. Perhaps a few generations of tribespeople knew his name and his adventures, then a few less, and a few less still, until there was no record. No memory. No man. All that remained was a forgotten pile of bones, and a rotting dagger, a few feet beneath the Earth on the Southern coast of England.

That is until, one day, just shy of 4000 years later, in 1989, another man, set out on a sort of adventure of his own. He was an anonymous “detectorist,” or one who hunts for treasures using a metal detector. And his route this day took him through Racton Park Farm, in Westbourne. He ambled onward, into the fields, his detector sweeping in front of him, back and forth lazily across his path. Suddenly, an electronic chirp rings in his ear. Then another, longer and more pronounced. The hairs on the back of his neck stand up. More tones and more excitement. There is definitely something here. Something sizeable. He begins to dig.


Not too far below the surface, from beneath a chalk deposit, peeks a bit of a familiar green. The recognizable color of ancient, oxidized bronze. As he carefully exposed his discovery, what appeared to be the blade of an ancient dagger, he also unearthed a human jawbone. His excitement abated, it was time to call the authorities. James Kenny is exactly what you’d think of when someone says the words “British Archaeologist,” Complete with rumpled clothes and often sporting a tweed jacket, but minus only, perhaps, the wire rimmed glasses. A slight man, with sleepy eyes who, when he speaks about buried history, resembles a bloodhound who has picked up a scent. The Chichester District Council sent Kenny to the scene in Racton Park Farm. One can easily picture him pacing around the burial site, hypothesizing about what lies below, bouncing on the balls of his feet, passionately gesticulating as he leads his team in uncovering the final resting place of our warrior chief.


To find a man buried in such a fashion indicated that great care was taken in his entombment. His pose and, of course, his dagger, now completely recovered with the intricate bronze rivets from the long decayed handle, told only the prologue to a very interesting tale. The rest of the story would have to wait, as the district did not have the means necessary to test the excavated remains, and they would be placed in storage indefinitely.


It wasn’t until a conversation with a colleague in 2012 that Kenny was able to secure the funding to fully examine the remains. Radiocarbon dating and other such tests were prohibitively expensive and time consuming back when the dig was first initiated, but that was no longer an issue, and it was time for ‘Racton Man,’ as he was known, to finally be reconnected with his past.

The tests showed was archaeologists already suspected. The warrior as a man of high social standing, but what they hadn’t realized was how incredibly rare and special his dagger had been. At the time of his death, almost everyone else in the world was still utilizing stone and copper tools. To have a bronze dagger was phenomenally rare. In fact, this was the earliest bronze object to be found in Britain, and only 7 similar weapons have ever been recovered. It seems Racton Man was one of the earliest early adopters.


The spread of bronze technology happened at different times throughout different parts of the world. A millennia or so before Racton Man was fighting with his incredible blade, smatterings of bronze objects were in use in the Near and Middle East, and parts of Eastern Europe and China. Britain saw widespread us of the technology starting in about 2000 BCE, due in large part to having copper and tin deposits coexisting within neighboring regions.This was highly atypical, as other regions would have one type of metal or the other at their disposal, but not both. The rest of the world was catching up, however, and the introduction of this new alloy into people’s lives was changing humanity and society in astonishing ways. ---------------------------------------------- An ancient, stone axe was a useful tool. The design was typically just a hunk of flint, sharpened with a broad edge, and held in the hand, or set into the split top of a handle and fastened with a line or rope. If overworked, the handle would split, and so they couldn’t be used for too long or too heavily without needing repair. A bronze axe head, however, could be cast or formed with a hole through it, into which a handle could be inserted. This design was much more durable, as the wood wasn’t weakened in the process, and the metal provided a firmer hold than rope. An axe went from being slightly better than holding a sharp rock, to being one of the most vital pieces of equipment a farmer could possess. And with it, more work could be done in each day of the season, and farms grew rapidly. Farmers started putting down permanent settlements, and communities sprung up around them. Local trade had become quite common as bronze was adopted, but this new discovery was rapidly shifting the scale of human commerce. Communities where Bronze was prevalent had great abundance. The most logical thing to do, once your stores and the stores of your neighbors are full? Once you’ve sold your wares to everyone in your community? Once you’ve saturated your market? You expand.


And there as one thing that everyone wanted. Bronze. Tin was exceptionally rare, existing in deposits in the farthest eastern reaches of Asia, and in the Westernmost parts of Europe only. Naturally shipping and sailing technology boomed during this time period, along with a rise in the domestication of pack animals. Trade routes branched out across the known world, and, along them, settlements where merchants could do business sprung up and grew into cities. Bronze had brought the world together, born out of curiosity, cultivated out of necessity, and spread out of the simple human desire for more.

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As cultures grew and intertwined through the global trade community, they felt an increased desire to leave their mark on the world. The skilled laborers who made the tools that worked the earth, the weapons that defended their homes, and the vessels that carried their goods began to embellish their utilitarian designs. A robust global economy meant there were a growing class of rich merchants and traders, along with customers far and wide, who suddenly had the taste and the wealth for finer, decorative objects and art. The artisans were now able to create goods never before seen anywhere due to the superb castability of Bronze. The keenness and durability of their tools led to the mastery of ceramics, wood, stone, and textiles. Artists created works of wonder and majesty that captivated the hearts and minds of people all over the ancient world, and many that still mystify and enthrall those of us living in modern times. One of the most alluring and bewitching of all these objects is called the Nebra Sky Disk.

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One dark night in 1999, on a hill in a forest in Central Germany, two treasure hunters stumble upon a find of a lifetime. Henry Westphal and Mario Renner were sweeping the area with metal detectors, knowing that ancient peoples had settled the area during the Bronze Age. The two seemed rushed. Even after their detectors indicated that ancient loot lay below their feet, they didn’t smile or rejoice. They dug, hurriedly.

The state of Saxony-Anhalt, where the men were searching, has laws about such finds. The law is, that they belong to the state. These two had other plans. They dug hastily, destroying part of the ancient site in their rush, clumsily jabbing at the Earth with their spades, damaging the artifacts below. Their haul was significant. Two beautiful bronze swords, two axe heads, a chisel, two bracelets, and something quite odd. A large disk, about a foot in diameter, made of bronze, with gold shapes laid into it. They snuck out of the forest and back to their homes, scheming on how to unload these items onto the black market.


It didn’t take long. The very next day, they sold the horde to a buyer in Cologne, and earned a tidy sum for their mischief. The artifacts, the disk most prominently, traveled the world by means of various black market transactions. No one had ever seen anything quite like it. The artifact’s reputation grew, and with it, the asking price. By 2001 it was worth more than Thirty times the value Westphal and Brenner received originally. But in the shady world of stolen antiquities, notoriety, like 1/4 of their illegal bounty, is a double edged sword.


State archaeologist Herald Meller had heard the tales. Unique artifact. Black market. Unlike anything anyone’s ever seen. Found right here in Saxony-Anhalt. He devised a plan, working with the state police, to bring this piece of his nation’s history home. Clearly, it belonged in a museum. Meller set up a sting. He found the piece and arranged to purchase the disk, alone, for a large sum of money. 700k deutsche marks, or about 350k dollars. The trap was set, and within seconds of the transaction, the police pounced, arresting the sellers and recovering all of the artifacts.

The disk was traced back to Renner and Westphal, who were promptly arrested, and through a plea bargain, led archaeologists to the site where they had recovered the treasures. Later they attempted to appeal their cases, but were instead given even longer sentences. Finally the site, the disk, and the rest were all in the hands of the scientific community who could study it’s mysteries.


And it had no shortage of mysteries to study. The disk is bronze, corroded to a bluish green hue. On its surface are several small, round plates of gold, a much larger circle, crescent, and three arcs all in gold as well. Scientists realized what they had was the earliest depiction of the sky ever found. The shapes represented a large round sun, the crescent moon, and the smaller round stars, one grouping of which was even shaped like the pleiades, a legendary fixture of the night sky and ancient Greek culture. But, what about the arcs? The gold arcs that adorn the left and right sides of the disk were added some time after the depictions of the celestial bodies, and each cover exactly 82 degrees of the circumference of the piece. It turns out, that, in the exact location of the ancient settlement that created the disk, the distance between where the sun sets during the winter and summer solstices is 82 degrees. The final arc, on the bottom of the piece, was the last bit added before it was lost for millennia. It, most likely, is a representation of the “sun boat.” This is a concept based strongly in ancient Egyptian mythology. The sun god, Ra, rides across the sky in a boat, completing his journey each night, only to be born again, and continue the cycle every morning. The imagery on the disk very strongly matches renderings of this myth.


Historians were baffled. Whoever crafted the piece, used celestial markers from Greece, imagery from egypt, gold from the Carpathian Mountains, Copper from current day Austria, and Tin from a mine in Cornwall, England, the likely birthplace of Racton Man. The sky disk represented something wholly unique to that region in that time period. Previously thought to be home to barbarian tribes, interested more in survival and warfare than art and trade, a new version of history was coming to light. These people knew of the myths and religions of far off cultures. They had reason to map the sky. They were engaged in the global culture of the time, thanks to the bronze that had brought the world to their little hillside in the woods.


Until next time, this is Keith Decent saying, later makers.