THE HISTORY OF BRONZE, ANCIENT AS TIME
Bronze Age tools and weapons, c. 950 BCE, Monmouthshire, Wales
The Kingdom of Benin, now in Nigeria, was famous for its bronze casting developed well before the 15th century.
A 7th century bronze from Iran.
One of the most celebrated bronze sculptures in history is Auguste Rodin's The Thinker, completed in 1889.
Bronze was so important to the march of civilization that it became one of four hallmarks of human technological evolution. The Bronze Age was preceded by the Stone Age and followed by the Iron Age, the Industrial Revolution and what we now experience as the Digital Revolution.
Hard and Hardy
The development of bronze technology and its varied uses was important because, suddenly, craftsmen were able to produce a metal that was very hard and could endure over time. Prior to the discovery of bronze, the most widespread metal was copper (first smelter about 6,000 years ago) – a lovely metal that was too soft to hold up to aggressive use and quickly lost its honey-color sheen.
About 4,500 years ago, copper became the base for the alloy bronze when other elements were added. Made from mixing copper, tin and a bit of lead or other metal it produced a hardness that was unsurpassed. Even though the percentage of tin is frequently small (70% to 97% copper to 25% to 3% of tin) the addition changed the way that people, more than 5000 years ago, fought wars and lived their daily lives.
It had generally been accepted that bronze casting began in Greece, Egypt and China. More recently however, archeologists discovered evidence of bronze making near Ban Chiang, Thailand, as far back as 4500 B.C. – although there is a bit of professional controversy about this date. Interestingly, this site lacked evidence of the production of any kind of bronze weapons – an artifact hugely popular with other Bronze Age civilizations. Instead, the culture forged bronze for special religious and funerary objects.
Later, in other developing Bronze Age cultures, people were discovering an array of applications for bronze. It quickly became a favorite material for weapons – hard, nearly indestructible and, most certainly, deadly to the enemy. These early artifacts were hammered, like copper had been.
Lost Wax Discovered
It was not until about 1400 B.C that the most enduring beauty of bronze was discovered by artisans in China, who began using the lost-wax process to make items that were not only strong, but also beautiful. This process became an important element in the very hierarchical structure of China’s first dynasty – the Xia, circa 2200 B.C. Mystery continues to surround King Yu, founder of the dynasty, who is said to have ordered nine monumental food “cauldrons” cast in bronze, to symbolize the nine provinces of his realm. But, even with extensive excavation of the region’s Bronze Age archeological sites, none of the large castings has been unearthed. Dynasties that followed, used bronze to cast ornate vessels and goblets, affording bronze artisans an important status as their talents served the royal and the elite.
But it was not just the urban, complex societies of the ancient world that worked magic with bronze. In the 15th century, craftsmen in Benin, in the southern portion of today’s Nigeria, were producing bronze castings that were highly prized by the ruling elite of the region. Scholars say that there is evidence of bronze casting as early as the 13th century.
Bronze work became so important that one ruler in the 15th century, designated one-half of the city to be the domain of bronze workers and artists, while the other half was reserved for royalty. These workers not only made functional and religious objects, they also created a series of bronze bas-reliefs that decorated the walls of the king’s palace.
Centuries later, when Western colonizers swept across Benin, they were shocked – indeed, in denial – that an African culture could have produced bronze works of such complexity and beauty. It took many decades for these colonizers to recognize the authentic provenance of the Benin bronzes which, today, retain their cache as masterworks of antiquity.
The use of bronze in other parts of the ancient world became more ubiquitous – people began cooking with bronze pots, wearing bronze jewelry, sewing bronze buttons onto clothing. Of course, most of us identify bronze with the beautiful sculptures produced by the Greeks and Romans, sculptures that began a bronze tradition that continued long beyond the Age that bears its name. Among the most memorable of these sculptures is Donatello’s David, a spectacular nude that represents an apex in bronze artistry.
Although the Iron Age supplanted the Bronze Age for industrial uses, the value of bronze as a medium for artistic creation has endured throughout the millennia. Names abound from the Renaissance period and rise like a tide to the fabulous works of Rodin (1840 –1917) – perhaps the world’s most familiar name in bronze. Who cannot conjure up an image of Rodin’s “The Thinker?”
There are few artists of acclaim who have not at least dabbled in bronze casting, including Picasso, who produced several pieces that echoed his groundbreaking style in painting that, itself, ushered in a new age in art.
Much of the bronze process has remained unchanged throughout time – certainly, the essential interaction of the alloy, the of 2000-degree-plus furnaces, the lost-wax process, the clamor of metal on metal and the deep emotional connection of artist to the alchemy of bronze endures. Some of the tools have changed - now the whir and whine of air-powered tools competes with ancient echoes. But the molten river of fire-red bronze still flows over time and change, and in the view of each artist captured in its spell.