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Worldbuilding: Metals

From the earliest societies, metallurgy paved the way from crowns to guns and steel and changed the course of history. Let's take a brief look at the history of metals.

Bronze is a mixture of copper, tin, aluminum, manganese, nickel, or zinc. In the Bronze Age (3300 – 600 BCE), bronze was used in the Near East with the rise of Sumer, in India, and China. Tin had to be mined and smelted separately then added to molten copper to make bronze alloy.

Copper occurs in nature in directly usable metallic form and was in use in 8000 BCE. It was the first metal to be smelted from its ore in 5000 BCE, cast into a shape in a mold in 4000 BCE, and alloyed with tin to create bronze in 3500 BCE. Copper was principally mined on Cyprus during the Roman Empire. (Mined in Greece, Chile, Utah, New Mexico, Indonesia, and Peru.)

Gold has been used for coinage, jewelry, and other arts throughout recorded history. Gold coins ceased to be minted as a circulating currency in the 1930s, and the world gold standard was abandoned for a fiat currency system after 1976. Gold artifacts in the Balkans appear from the 4th millennium BCE. Gold artifacts appeared in Central Europe from the 2nd millennium BCE Bronze Age. Egyptian hieroglyphs from as early as 2600 BCE describe gold as "more plentiful than dirt." Large mines were also present across the Red Sea in what is now Saudi Arabia. Bronze Age gold objects are plentiful, especially in Ireland and Spain. The first written reference to gold was recorded in the 12th Dynasty around 1900 BCE. Gold is mentioned in the Bible. In China, during 6th or 5th century BCE, a square gold coin was in circulation. (Mined in Bulgaria, Georgia, China, Russia, Australia, United States, and India.)

Iron metal was widely used about 1300 – 500 BCE. Beads made from meteoric iron in 3500 BCE or earlier were found in Egypt. Meteoric iron was highly regarded due to its origin in the heavens and was often used to forge weapons and tools. Items that were likely made of iron by Egyptians date from 3000 to 2500 BCE. Iron production started in the Middle Bronze Age but it took several centuries before iron displaced bronze. The Hittites established an empire in north-central Anatolia around 1600 BCE and were the first to understand the production of iron from its ores and regard it highly in their society. The practice spread to the rest of the Near East after their empire fell in 1180 BCE. The subsequent period is called the Iron Age. Iron objects were found in India dating from 1800 to 1200 BCE. There is evidence of iron being smelted in Zimbabwe and southeast Africa as early as the eighth century BCE. Ironworking was introduced to Greece in the late 11th century BCE, from which it spread quickly throughout Europe.

Silver was coined around 700 BCE by the Lydians. Silver is mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Slag heaps found in Asia Minor and on the islands of the Aegean Sea indicate silver was being separated from lead as early as the 4th millennium BCE. Roman currency relied to a high degree on the supply of silver bullion. The principal sources of silver are the ores of copper, copper-nickel, lead, and lead-zinc. (Mined in Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, China, Australia, Chile, Poland , Serbia, Argentina, Canada, and Tajikistan.)

Steel has a lower carbon content than pig iron but more than wrought iron. It was first produced in antiquity. Blacksmiths in Persia were making good steel by 1000 BCE. Improved versions in India and Damascus were developed around 300 BCE and 500 CE respectively. These methods were specialized, and so steel did not become a major commodity until the 1850s. In the Industrial Revolution, new methods of producing bar iron without charcoal were devised and these were later applied to produce steel. In the late 1850s, Henry Bessemer invented a new steelmaking process involving blowing air through molten pig iron to produce mild steel. This made steel more economical, thereby leading to wrought iron no longer being produced in large quantities.

Platinum was first used by pre-Columbian South American natives to produce artifacts. Early references date back to the 1500s. It was found in ancient Egyptian tombs and hieroglyphics as early as 1200 BCE. However, it is quite possible they did not recognize there was platinum in their gold. The first European reference to platinum appears in 1557 CE as found in Mexico. It was considered an impurity of gold and often discarded.

Suggested References:

1. Introduction to Precious Metals by Mark Grimwade
2. Recovery and Refining of Precious Metals by C.W. Ammen
3. Ironwork in Medieval Britain: An Archaeological Study by Ian H. Goodall
4. Iron Making in the Olden Times as instanced in the Ancient Mines, Forges, and Furnaces of The Forest of Dean by H. G. Nicholls
5. Ancient Egyptian metallurgy by Herbert Garland & Charles Olden Bannister
6. Gold and Platinum Metallurgy of Ancient Colombia and Ecuador: Ancient Metals Microstructure and Metallurgy by Dr. David Arthur Scott
7. Ancient Science Through the Golden Age of Greece by George Sarton

Next week, we will explore jewelry.

For advanced world-building, the SBB Build A World Workbook is available in print and e-book.

Other titles in the series:

Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict available in print and e-book takes you from story seed to conflict outline. The fourteen companion Build A Plot Workbooks, in print and e-book, offer step by step development prompts: ComedyCon, Heist & Prison BreakFantasyGothicHistoricalHorrorLiterary
(Drama),  MysteryRoad TripRomanceScience FictionTeam VictoryThriller & SuspenseWestern.

SBB II Crafting Believable Conflict in print and e-book and the Build A Cast Workbook in print and e-book help you build a believable cast and add conflict based on the sixteen personality types.

SBB III The Revision Layers in print and e-book helps you self-edit your manuscript.

Free story building tools are available at  

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