The Construction of the Bronze Age Copper-Works in the Alps


The Eisenerzer Ramsau Valley, Styria. (© S. Klemm)

In the Eastern Alps, the smelting of copper ore was widely practised in the Bronze Age. Copper sulphides as well as fahlore (antimony-bearing copper arsenate) were used for smelting. The aim of the project is to supplement and refine the model of the Eastern Alpine copper-works of the Bronze Age established by Clemens Eibner in 1982 based on the excavation results of the Copper Smelting Site S1 and other, more recently published reports on copper smelting sites in the Alps.

The archaeological excavation at the Middle Bronze Age Copper Smelting Site S1, in the valley called Eisenerzer Ramsau in Styria, carried out in 1992–2006, proved to be the largest and most complex site of its type and period in the Eastern Alps and shows the characteristic layout of Eastern Alpine copper-works, consisting of at least one roasting hearth and two shaft furnaces as one unit, supplemented by a distinctive slag dump. The main features are the remains of six double furnaces, ten roasting hearths, a number of pits of variable size and form, and three separate slag dumps. The activities on site covered the period from 17th to 13th century BC.

The presentation of the new model is based on the archaeological excavation results from the Copper Smelting Site S1, thus establishing a basis for the reconstruction, as well as for metallurgical analyses and experiments and a discussion on possible technological development. Another emphasis of the project is on establishing a temporal sequence and possible synchronism of the various structures. This is based on archaeological methods such as stratigraphic excavation and archaeological dating of small finds as well as on the comparison of these results with dates achieved by absolute dating methods. 

Double furnaces (furnaces 1 and 2) in the western part of the Bronze Age Copper Smelting Site S1 (© S. Klemm)

As the archaeological remains of the pyrotechnical activities on a site of this type are especially suitable for the application of archaeomagnetic dating, the Copper Smelting Site S1 has been used from the start of excavation as an experimental setting for further research on this special dating method. The samples measured from the site will ultimately result in part of the secular variation curve for Austria for the Bronze Age being established and can already be used to verify the stratigraphical sequence in cases where the sequence of archaeological layers is uncertain.

Archaeometallurgical analyses will describe the metallurgical process in all detail; a further aim is the description of a possible technological development within the Middle Bronze Age. The question of fuel (wood, charcoal, type of wood used) has already been pursued by anthracological analyses of all charcoals found at the site. These analyses will now be interpreted in detail on the basis of the stratigraphic evidence. These analyses also provide important data for a description of the local vegetation history. The diet of the copper workers can only be inferred from a number of very small, burnt animal bones in the absence of any other remains such as grains, fruit or vegetables being found.