The Lost Knowledge of the Ancients: Were Humans the First? Part 6
Technology began with Hephaestus, or Vulcan, the world´s first metallurgist, according to Greek mythology. His workshop – a sparkling dwelling of bronze- was on Mount Olympus. But eventually he settled in Sicily on Mount Etna, and legends affirm that the smoke from the crater comes from the furnaces of the god. Although the author has seen this smoke from Taormina, he could not find out whether Hephaestus was still at his anvil or not.
‘Thetis receiving the arms of Achilles from Vulcanus’ (1630-1635) by Peter Paul Rubens. (Public Domain)
The Four (or more) Ages of Man
Greek myths speak of four ages of man – first came the Golden Age, followed by the Silver Age, after which arrived the Bronze Age. The last epoch is the Iron Age - in which we live today.
Though iron is more plentiful than copper or gold, it is more difficult to melt and forge. Thus, the ancient Greeks told us about the progress of metallurgy by this simple tale of how it had started with soft metals and ended with hard iron.
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‘Iron Forge Viewed from Outside’ (1773) by Joseph Wright of Derby. (Public Domain)
The Stone Age, which lasted for a long time, was followed by the Chalcolithic Age; when old perfected stone implements were mainly used, but copper tools and weapons were also making their appearance as luxuries.
Then came bronze, a hard alloy made of copper with the addition of one-tenth of tin. The Third Millennium BC in Sumeria and Egypt is predominantly the Copper and Bronze Age. No clear picture is available of where and how bronze first appeared. To combine copper which came from Sinai, Canaan, Crete, Cyprus, Portugal, or other parts of the Mediterranean, with rare tin from Etruria, Gaul, Spain, Cornwall, and Bohemia, it would have been necessary to have organized transport, skilled labor, and furnaces with temperatures well over 1000 degrees Celsius. (1832 degrees Fahrenheit)
Bronze, a mixture of copper and tin, is strong and durable. It should have taken ages to discover that the addition of one-tenth of tin to copper creates a better metal. Yet strangely enough, copper artifacts in our museums are few. Bronze seems to have appeared suddenly and spread far and wide in great profusion. The similarity of bronze artifacts found in different parts of Europe compels us to conclude that they came from one manufacturing center or school of technology. The alloy appears quite suddenly. Was the discovery made by experimentation or chance?
Early Bronze Age bronze flat axe of Migdale type. (CC BY SA 2.0)
South American Metallurgy
The discovery of bronze was not simultaneous in the Old World and the New. Copper, which is a component of bronze, was mined in Mesopotamia about 3500 BC, but not before 2000 BC in Peru (iron was unknown to the Incas until after the arrival of Pizzaro.)
Funerary Mask Sican (Lambayeque), Peru. 9th-11th century Hammered gold cinnabar copper overlays. (Mary Harrsch/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Certain achievements of the South American indigenous people in metallurgy are enigmatic. Ornaments of platinum were found in Ecuador. This poses a provoking question-how could the American Indian produce the temperature of over 1770 degrees Celsius (3218 degrees Fahrenheit) necessary to melt it? It should be noted here that the melting of platinum in Europe was achieved only two centuries ago.
Mask made from platinum, Ecuador, La Tolita, c. 200 BC – 800 BC; Ethnological Museum, Berlin, Germany. (Public Domain)
In testing an alloy from the prehistoric artifact, the United States Bureau of Standards ascertained that the original dwellers of America had furnaces capable of producing a temperature of 9000 degrees Celsius (16232 degrees Fahrenheit) seven thousand years ago. No satisfactory explanation has been given yet as to how such a technical feat was possible at so remote a date as 5000 BC.
Other Mysterious Metal Artifacts
The tomb of Chinese general Chow Chu (265-316 AD) also presents a mystery. When analyzed by a spectroscope, a metal girdle showed 10% copper, 5% manganese, and 85% aluminum. But according to the history of science, aluminum was obtained for the first time by Oerstead in 1825 by a chemical method. To satisfy industrial demands, electrolysis was later introduced into the manufacturing process. Needless to say, an ornament made of aluminum, whether chemically or electrolytically produced, seems out of place in a 3rd century grave in China. It is hardly reasonable to think that this aluminum artifact was the only one manufactured in China.
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The Kutb (Qutb) Minar iron pillar in Delhi weighs 6 tons and is about 7.5 meters (24.6 ft.) high. For fifteen centuries, it has withstood the tropical sunshine of India plus the heavy downpours during monsoons. Yet it does not show any signs of rust formation and provides proof of superior metallurgical skill in ancient India. Aside from the mystery of the non-corrosive metal of which the column is made, the task of forging so large a pillar could not have been easily achieved without our high technology - which is why it is surprising to find such an achievement in the year 415 AD.
The pillar stands as a mute witness to the scientific tradition preserved by the people of antiquity in all parts of the world. Men whom time has forgotten held the answers to these riddles of the history of science.
The iron pillar in the Qutb complex near Delhi, India. (Public Domain)
Top Image: Detail of ‘Der Parnaß’ (1497) by Andrea Mantegna. Source: Public Domain
By Sam Bostrom