Institute of Archaeology


The Rise of Metallurgy in Eurasia

The purpose of this project was to understand the emergence of metallurgy in the Balkans during the 6th-5th millennia BC.

Project Summary

The project was an unprecedented three year collaboration (mid 2012- mid 2015) between British, Serbian and German archaeological institutions and was generously funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

This was the largest international archaeological project currently working in Serbia and the largest project to investigate early metallurgy in the world. The project involved survey and excavation at the sites of Jarmovac, Belovode, Pločnik in Serbia and post-excavation at Gornja Tuzla in Bosnia.

The recent application of modern archaeometallurgical techniques on technological debris from Belovode has transformed our understanding of early metallurgy and yielded the world-wide earliest known evidence for copper smelting, at c. 5000 BC (Radivojević et al. 2010).

Project Background 

This project originated in the collaboration between Thilo Rehren and Miljana Radivojević UCL Institute of Archaeology and the National Museum in Belgrade, Serbia in 2007.

The analysis of the copper smelting slags at Belovode provided the core of Dr Radivojević’s MSc thesis which subsequently led on to a PhD thesis (2008-2012) incorporating metallurgical remains from the Vinča culture sites of Pločnik, Gornja Tuzla, Vinča, Gomolava and the Early Neolithic sites of Lepenski Vir, Vlasac and Kolubara-Jaričište.  

The project built on two decades of excavations at Jarmovac, Belovode and Pločnik conducted by the National Museum, Belgrade; the Museum of Toplica, Prokuplje and Homeland Museum of Priboj all of which were, and continue to be, funded by the Serbian Ministry of Culture.

Archaeological Background-Vinča Culture

The origins, chronological phasing, and coherency of Vinča culture have been disputed for over a century. It is currently conventionally dated to c. 5300-4600 BC. The Vinča culture is distinguished primarily by large tell villages which range up to 100 ha in size, thus exceeding many contemporary Near Eastern settlements, and also by its distinctive pottery. If these two are taken as diagnostic, then the extent of the Vinča culture would be up to c. 190,000 km2.

No Vinča site has been sufficiently excavated to provide good enough data for estimating its population size but estimates have been made of 50-200 for smaller sites (c. 1-1.9 ha) and 1000-2500 people for large sites (>29 ha), all under the assumption that the entire site area was used simultaneously (Chapman 1981: 51). 

Early metallurgy in the Balkans has attracted scholarly attention for almost a century and is closely associated with Vinča culture sites, from the discovery of metal artefacts at the Vinča culture settlement of Pločnik (Grbić 1929) and the excavation of Vinča culture pottery in copper mining shafts at Jarmovac (Davies 1937), both in Serbia. The region became a major focus for early mining and metallurgy with the excavation of the copper mining sites Rudna Glava and Ai Bunar (Jovanović 1980Chernykh 1978).

While pioneering provenance studies demonstrated these mines were exploited by local communities to make large copper tools during the 5th millennium BC (Pernicka et al. 1993Pernicka et al. 1997), the recent political situation has meant that the quantity and scale of excavations and surveys decreased dramatically since 1990 due to political instability. Thus, despite this mining evidence and c.4.7 tonnes of contemporary copper objects recovered in the region, there was little evidence for actual metal production until the recent findings at Belovode (Radivojević et al. 2010).

Project Sites

The project focused on the sites of Jarmovac, Belovode, Gornja Tuzla and Pločnik. 

The importance of these sites lies in the quality and quantity of evidence for mining at Jarmovac, metal production from Belovode and Gornja Tuzla, and metal processing and consumption at Pločnik together covering the full chaîne opératoire of metallurgy. 

Jarmovac consists of mining shafts and an associated settlement containing early 5th millennium BC pottery. 

Belovode and Pločnik comprise 3-5m of well-preserved occupation deposits covering c. 80-100ha, 14C-dated from c. 5400-4600 BC (Borić, 2009). Both are close to ore sources and on important route-ways through the Balkans, and existed at the centre of large exchange networks. Belovode metal production can be linked to massive copper artefacts found across the Balkans, while the typologically homogenous Pločnik hammer-axes have been demonstrated to come from at least five different copper sources (Pernicka et al., 1997Radivojević et al., 2010).

Gornja Tuzla has a well-dated mid 5th millennium BC Vinča culture sequence with a smelting hearth and copper smelting evidence (Čović, 1961).

Together, these four sites provided an unparalleled opportunity to comprehensively study the early development, evolution and spread of metallurgy. The project combined two seasons of surveys and excavations at Belovode, Pločnik and Jarmovac with laboratory analysis of already existing finds, and new ones. Gornja Tuzla was subjected to post-excavation analysis only.