Kopparyxa från Frömkenberg (Tyskland) i svepelektronmikroskopet vid Institute of Materials Science at Kiel University. Genom blyisotopanalyserna i den här studien identifierades kopparens ursprung i yxan som Belovode-regionen i Serbien, mer än 1000 km från platsen där yxan hittades.
Photo: Christin Szillus, Kiel University, CC-BY 4.0

Copper artefacts reveal changing connections in prehistoric Europe


Seven axes from Skåne in Sweden, the earliest from 4100 BC, have been analysed in a new study. The axes are made of copper. After geochemical analyses, the researchers were able to determine that the copper comes from mines in Serbia - so already in the Stone Age, people moved over greater distances than previously thought.

The geochemistry of copper artefacts reveals changes in distribution networks across prehistoric Europe, according to a study . 

In the study published in PLOS ONE, Zofia Anna Stos-Gale, a metal analyst and researcher affiliated with the Maritime Encounters research programme at the University of Gothenburg, is one of the authors.

'All seven objects from Sweden analysed in the study come from mines in Serbia', says Zofia Anna Stos-Gale.

Early copper artefacts are considered to have a high cultural and historical significance in European prehistory, but limited information exists about how copper was used and distributed in Neolithic Europe. In this study, the authors analyzed 45 copper objects, including axes, chisels, and other items, from various sites dating to the 4th and 3rd millennia BC of Northern Central Europe and Southern Scandinavia.

Based on lead isotope analyses of the largest sample to date of Neolithic copper objects from southern Scandinavia and northern Germany, the study proves that the exchange of metallic objects connected Europe over long distances. However, the introduction of new technologies and materials alone did not lead to social changes; their integration required deliberate choices by societies.

The researchers examined the lead isotopic signature of the copper objects to link them to previously sampled sources of ore around the European continent. Their data indicate that artefacts from before 3500 BC derived exclusively from mines in southeast Europe, especially Serbian mining areas, while later artefacts include ores from the eastern Alps and Slovak Mountains and, much later, potentially the British Isles. Their results also indicate fluctuations in metallurgic activity over time, including a decrease in the prevalence of copper artefacts around 3000 BC.

These changes in the origins and availability of copper likely reflect differences in distribution networks through time, probably influenced by changing economies, social structures, communication networks, and technologies across prehistoric Europe.

"Further study of the sources and uses of copper artefacts will enhance our understanding of how metal goods were produced and distributed around the continent in the past", says Zofia Anna Stos-Gale.

Studien är publicerad i PLOS ONE.  The origin of Neolithic copper on the central Northern European plain and in Southern Scandinavia: Connectivities on a European scale

Text: Cecilia Sjöberg 

  • Artefact means artificial object. In other words, an object made by humans. An artefact can also be the remains from the manufacture of objects. In this study, artefacts include axes and chisels. 
  • The axes from Skåne that were analysed are 7 in number. 4 are dated 4100-3500 BC and 3 dated 3500-3100 BC. 
  • The study was carried out by an international research team led by Jan Piet Brozio from Kiel University in Germany. From the University of Gothenburg, Zofia Anna Stos-Gale, affiliated with the Maritime Encounters research programme, participated.

Funding: The research was conducted and financed in the context of the Collaborative Research Centre 1266 ‘Scales of Transformation: Human-environmental Interaction in Prehistoric and Archaic Societies’ of the German Research foundation (DFG, German Research Foundation – project number 290391021 – SFB 1266). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.