How Was Copper Smelted in Ancient Times?

Copper is a metal that has been used for centuries because of its malleability and conductivity. It is one of the oldest metals known to man, and it was used extensively in ancient times for making tools, weapons, and decorative items. But how was copper smelted in ancient times?

The Beginning of Copper Smelting

The process of copper smelting dates back to the Chalcolithic period (c. 4500-3500 BCE), where copper ores were first mined and then smelted in open pits. This method involved heating the ore in an open fire until it melted and separated from the rock.

However, this process was not very efficient, and it produced impure copper with a lot of slag (waste material). As a result, new techniques were developed to improve the quality of the copper.

The Bronze Age

The Bronze Age (c. 3200-600 BCE) saw the development of new techniques for smelting copper. One such technique was called matte smelting. This method involved mixing copper ore with charcoal and heating it in a low-oxygen environment until it melted.

The resulting mixture was then poured into molds to create bars of pure copper called ingots. These ingots were then used to make bronze by adding tin or arsenic.

Ancient Egyptian Smelting

Ancient Egyptians were among the earliest civilizations to use copper extensively for making tools, weapons, and jewelry. They developed their own techniques for smelting copper.

One such technique involved heating malachite (a green mineral containing copper) with silica sand in a furnace until it melted. The molten mixture was then poured into molds to create pure copper ingots.

The Chimu Civilization

The Chimu civilization (c. 900-1470 CE) that existed in what is now Peru, also developed their own unique techniques for smelting copper. They used a technique called cementation to extract copper from ore.

This involved mixing copper ore with water and adding crushed shells or bones to the mixture. Over time, the shells or bones would release carbon dioxide, which reacted with the copper to create a layer of pure copper on top of the mixture.

The Aztecs

The Aztecs (c. 1300-1521 CE) that lived in what is now Mexico also developed their own methods for smelting copper. They used a technique called slag tapping, which involved heating the ore until it melted and then tapping off the slag as it rose to the surface.

This method produced high-quality copper with very little waste material.


In conclusion, copper smelting has a long and fascinating history that spans many different civilizations and time periods. From the Chalcolithic period to modern times, people have been developing new techniques for extracting pure copper from its ores.

While ancient methods may seem primitive by modern standards, they were critical in laying the foundation for modern metallurgy. By understanding how ancient people smelted copper, we can appreciate both their ingenuity and hard work in producing this valuable metal that still plays an essential role in our lives today.

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