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The working of copper-arsenic alloys in the Early Bronze Age and the effect on the determination of provenance

  • Hugh McKerrell (a1) and R. F. Tylecote (a2)

The earliest copper alloy of the British Bronze Age is arsenical copper, a material relatively short-lived when compared with the succeeding tin bronze but of no little importance when tracing the stages and progress of prehistoric metal working. Like tin, arsenic functions as a mild deoxidant and confers the useful property of work-hardening upon the metal. Copper-arsenic alloys need to be strengthened by cold working, and it was probably this requirement as much as any other that would have led to their eventual disuse and replacement by cast tin bronzes. The normal source of arsenic for such alloys is generally agreed as a constituent of the copper ore actually smelted, usually the grey tetrahedrite tennantite mineral (Coghlan and Case, 1957; Tylecote, 1962), although other suggestions have been made (Charles, 1967).

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Caley, E. R., 1964. Analysis of ancient metals. London.
Charles, J. A., 1967. ‘Early arsenical bronzes—a metallurgical view’, Am. J. Arch., 71, 21.
Coghlan, H. H. and Case, H., 1957. ‘Early metallurgy of copper in Ireland and Britain’, PPS, 22, 91.
Coles, J. M., 1969. ‘Scottish Early Bronze Age metalwork’, PSAS, 101, 1.
Junghans, S. E., Sangmeister, E., and Schroder, M., 1968. Studien zu den Anfangen der Metallurgie (SAM 2, 3). Berlin.
Lorenzen, W., 1965. Helgoland und das fruheste kupfer des Nordens. Ottendorf.
Organ, R. M., 1963. ‘Are analyses of uncorroded ancient alloys representative?’, Studies in Conservation, 7, 48.
Tylecote, R. F., 1950. ‘The oxidation of copper at 350–900 °C in air’, J. Inst. Metals, 78, 327.
Tylecote, R. F., 1962. Metallurgy in archaeology. London.
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Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society
  • ISSN: 0079-497X
  • EISSN: 2050-2729
  • URL: /core/journals/proceedings-of-the-prehistoric-society
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