For this issue of the world records of art we will explore metallurgy, a craft that has arguably been around since the late Stone Age. Simply put, metallurgy is the technique, art, or science of working and heating metals so as to give them desired shapes or properties. Over the eons, this craft has been honed and protected by expert metalworkers and has included techniques such as hammering, cutting, casting, granulating, smelting, forging, and so on.
Throughout prehistory and all of the historical periods, we can trace a rich history of metal working. From the Pharaohs in Egypt and the Vedic Kings in India to the Tribes of Israel and the Mayan civilization in America, among many other ancient civilizations, metals have had great value, both symbolic and practical.
Since its conception, metal work has blurred the lines between art, science, and engineering. In the late stone age, Cro-Magnon Man first began manipulating metals through processes of cold-hammering, creating tools and objects of adornment out of metals that could be found in nature in their pure form, such as gold and silver copper. From their, as prehistoric man discovered and developed techniques of forging, prehistoric man was able to create alloys, combinations of two or more metals, taking us out of the stone age and bringing us into the Bronze Age and eventually into the Iron Age. Much later, with the advent of steel and other modern metals, we were able to thrust ourselves through the Industrial Revolution. And with the advent of silica, we were to develop the microprocessors that gave us computers and ushered us through the so-called Information Revolution.
Since metalwork blends the line between art, science, and engineering, we won’t attempt to draw the line between what makes art art, but instead we will celebrate the craft and appreciate some of its most notable moments in history.
Although he is not an actual person, we would be remiss if we didn’t give a nod to old Hephaestus, the cantankerous Greek god of metalworking, fire, volcanism, masonry, carpentry, and sculpture. Like many artists throughout history, Hephaestus was a bit of a tortured soul. Rejected by his mother and cheated on by his wife, Hephaestus struggled greatly, partly because he was said to be hideously ugly and had deformed legs. (It is thought that he likely had deformed legs because many ancient metal workers suffered from arsenic poisoning as a result of forging a type of bronze alloy that combined copper and arsenic when tin was not available.)
Jealous and vengeful, he crafted some works that created pain and suffering for his enemies, such as a golden throne that imprisoned his mother, a golden net that trapped his adulterous wife Aphrodite and her lover Ares, and a cursed necklace that plagued his adulterous wife’s children that doomed them to a life of tragedy.
But he created great works of beauty as well. He was said to have crafted Pandora, the first human woman. That’s right, according to the Ancient Greeks, man was created out of mud by Prometheus, but the first woman was forged by a master craftsman and god, from materials that were thought of as having magical properties. Hephaestus was also said to have created Hermes’ winged helmet and sandals, which Perseus used to defeat the Medusa, Aegis’ breastplate, Aphrodite’s girdle, and Eros’ — AKA Cupid’s — bow and arrows, as well as many other masterpieces that were each imbued with certain magical qualities.
Although he is not a real person, his stories in the Ancient Greek Pantheon display the great importance of metalworking to humanity and the dual-natured power of the technologies that it has spawned.
Hephaestus at the Forge by Guillaume Coustou the Younger (Louvre)
Rosie the Riveter
Okay, okay, so Rosie isn’t an actual person either, but she is quite likely the most famous metalworker in recent collective memory. A cultural icon in the United States, Rosie the Riveter represents the American women who worked in shipyards and factories during World War II. Oftentimes, these women took completely new jobs and replaced the male workers who were shipped off to war, making munitions and other types of war supplies, frequently working on or creating metalwork.
Many of these women took jobs outside of the house for the first time ever, making the image of Rosie the Riveter almost synonymous with feminism and the empowerment of women.
Cover of the 1942 song
We Can Do It! by J. Howard Miller
Okay, okay, so we should probably include an actual person in our list of notable metal workers. And of all those known for their work with metal, Gustave Eiffel’s name is about as close as we can get to a name that is synonymous with the art and craft of metalwork.
A French civil engineer and architect by trade (1832-1923), Eiffel got his start working with metals as a bridge builder for the French railway network, the Garabit viaduct being his most notable contribution. But he is best known for his work on his name sake — the Eiffel Tower — as well as for his work on what is perhaps the most famous statue of all time — the Statue of Liberty (more on that below).
Gustave Eiffel in 1888, photographed by Félix Nadar
Caricature of Eiffel, published in 1887 at the time of “The Artist’s Protest”
The “First Metal”
Gold is no older than any other metal, but when it comes to human interactions with metal and metal work, as Isaac Asimov asserted, in many ways gold was the “first metal.” Unlike most other metals, which need to be smelted from ore or forged into an alloy, gold can be found in its pure state in large nuggets in the natural world. It is also incredibly malleable and easy to work. Which is not even to mention its beautiful appearance and smooth texture. All of these things came together when Cro-Magnon Man first stumbled upon it in the late stone age and began to fashion it into pieces of jewelry and other ornaments.
Pictured below are images from the Varna Necropolis, a burial site found near Varna, Bulgaria, where archeologists found what is thought to be the oldest known collection of gold jewelry and treasure, dating from around 4,600 BCE to 4,200 BCE — that’s over 6,200 to 6,600 years old!
The male skeleton found in the burial site is thought to have been of high status, as he was buried with the most amount of gold of anyone else found during that epoch, including numerous bull shaped gold platelets placed all over his body, a golden war adze or mace, as well as a sheath placed on his — ahem — private part, bringing the term family jewels to a whole new level.
A burial at Varna, with some of the world’s oldest gold jewelry, dating back to 4,600 – 4,200 BC.
A burial at Varna, with some of the world’s oldest gold jewelry, dating back to 4,600 – 4,200 BC.
The Real “First Metal”?
Although many assert that gold was the first metal, Cro-Magnon Man worked with silver and copper at approximately the same time. Like gold, silver and copper can be found in their pure states in nature and are both soft metals that are fairly easy to work with, even without the assistance of heat.
And although it may not be considered art in the most proper sense, the oldest metal artifact found to date is a little awl made of copper. Found in a burial site in Tel Tsaf, a Middle Chalcolithic village situated near the Jordan river that dates back to 5,200 BCE to 4600 BCE, and archeologists estimate that the awl is about 7,000 years old!
The awl was found in a woman’s grave, which archeologists surmise attests to both the importance of the awl as well as to the importance of the woman (who knew metal working was so closely linked to women’s empowerment!).
7,000 year old copper awl
Bronze — The First Alloy
An alloy is a combination of two or more metals, and about 4,400 years ago when metallurgists of the ancient world combined copper and tin for the first time, they took themselves out of the Stone Age and ushered humanity into what came to be known as the Bronze Age. Copper is soft by nature, but when tin is added to it (or arsenic), the produced bronze alloy is stronger than either of the other two metals that make it.
During the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greece, as well as today, bronze made for a favorite medium for creating metal statues. Unfortunately, bronze is also quite useful and, as such, throughout the course of history, many Ancient Greek bronzes were melted down and used for other purposes, leaving behind only written records and empty pedestals.
Boxer of Quirinal, Greek Hellenistic bronze sculpture, 100-50 BC
Oldest Known Iron Art
After the Bronze Age, ancient man discovered how to smelt metals. Smelting is the process of extracting metals from ore, a solid material that contains metal deposits that need to be melted for extraction. Iron was among the first metals to be extracted through the smelting process, and when the Bronze Age civilizations discovered this process, they ushered themselves into the Iron Age.
The oldest known iron artifacts, however, were not created through a smelting process. Rather, they were cold hammered from pieces of meteorite, predating the Iron Age by about two millennia. That’s right, the first iron artifact came from outer space!
Excavating a pre-dynastic cemetery near the village of el-Gerzeh in Lower Egypt, archeologists found a necklace with nine iron beads that were carefully hammered thin and rolled into tubes.
meteoric iron beads (center), including the tubular lapis lazuli (blue), carnelian (brownish/red), agate, and gold beads that they were originally strung. Credit: UCL Petrie Museum/Rob Eagle
Largest Ancient Statue
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes would have been a sight to behold. A statue of the Greek titan-god of the sun Helios (who rode a chariot constructed by Hephaestus), it was erected on the Greek island Rhodes under the direction of sculptor Charles of Lindos in 280 BC to celebrate Rhode’s victory over the tyrannical ruler of Cyprus.
Standing at over 98 feet (30 m), it towered over the Mandraki harbor entrance and attested to the strength of the Rhodesian people. Ancient accounts say that it was constructed out of iron tie bars to which brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) plates were affixed to create the skin.
In the modern world, stories of the Colossus of Rhodes inspired Gustave Eiffel and his contemporaries to make a colossal statue of their own — the Statue of Liberty, a copper monument to the abolition of slavery that stands at an astonishing 151 feet from base to top of the torch.
Colossus of Rhodes
Statue of Liberty
Most people probably don’t draw a straight line between metallurgy and computation, but the truth is, Silicon Valley could have never existed without silicon. Discovered in 1823, silicon now makes the digital world go around and acts as the metallic backbone that holds together every microprocessor, computer program, and social network. The oldest artifact that resembles a computer, however, contains no silicon. Found in an ancient shipwreck south of Greece, the so-called “Antikythera mechanism” is thought to be both the oldest gear machine and analog computer. Archeologists are not certain about its purpose, but many believe that it was used to detect or predict various astronomical phenomenon.
First Viable Microprocessors
Intel changed the world with the advent of their first commercially viable microprocessors. Made up of silicon, the first 4-bit and 8-bit processors were released in 1971 and 1972 respectively, helping to usher in the computing and information revolutions that have shaped the modern world we get to enjoy today.
Intel 8008, 8-bit central processing unit
Although digital art is about as far away as you can get from Hephaestus’s anvil, digital art was made possible by the metal workers that were able to forge silicon into the microprocessor. And among the most lasting images created during the 8-Bit revolution were the images of aliens and space ships found in the arcade video game Space Invaders, by Tomohiro Nishikado (1978).
The images in this game have become such icons, the street artist featured in Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, who also goes by the name Space Invader, took to the streets and plastered images from the classic video game all over the streets of Europe. Since then, despite the fact that digital capabilities have far exceeded the limitations of 8-bit computing, the images from Space Invaders have remained in the public’s mind and are printed on countless t-shirts, baseball caps, and posters.
Metalwork has become intertwined into every aspect of human life, and whether you call it art, science, or engineering, it has changed and enriched the human experience in almost every aspect. Like the pieces of art that came out of Hephaestus’s forge, metalwork today in all of its aspects still seems to carry a certain level of magic.
Aliens from the original Space Invaders arcade game
Space Invader piece in Shoreditch