Copper – an age-old history

The relationship between copper and humanity stretches back to prehistoric times – with a major stage of history named after a copper alloy – and into the future, as it enables renewable energy technologies, electric vehicles and consumer electronics. In this article, the Copper Development Association takes a brief look at how and where that relationship developed.

The oldest copper findings come from Asia Minor and Iran, and are over 9000 years old. They are fragments of beads and brooches decorated with copper particles – a demonstration of the red metal’s beauty being among its first recognised properties. At that time, the material was hammered out of natural surface deposits of pure copper.

Basic methods of metal extraction and processing slowly developed between the end of the New Stone Age – or Neolithic period – and the Early Bronze Age. This is why the period is sometimes called the Copper or Copper-Stone Age. Prior to this, our knowledge of metal processing was so basic that tools and weapons were made from stone.


Between 3200 and 1160 BC, the Egyptians had extensive state copper mines on the Sinai peninsula, in which copper ore was intensively exploited and processed. At the same time, they developed techniques to solder copper plates. Copper-related trade grew in economic significance, reaching a zenith at the end of the first century BC when, for the first time, objects were produced by hollow casting.

As previously mentioned, the Bronze Age is named after the alloy of copper and tin. Copper remained the most important metal for a long time, even after methods had been developed for processing iron.

Copper played a significant role in finance in the Roman Empire. The Romans used bronze bars as a means of payment from 500 BC onwards, long before the modern concept of money developed. A law stipulated the equation ‘one cow = 10 sheep = 100 pounds of bronze’. Stamped bronze bars appeared around 300 BC, weighing ‘one pound of copper’. By stamping the bars, the state guaranteed the purity of the metal and the weight of the bar.


In the Middle Ages, copper was widely used for jewellery and objects for daily use, as it is today. It also developed into a highly prized metal for chemistry. From the 13th century onwards, metallurgy became a huge field of experimentation for chemists, and it continues to this day.

Without copper, the modern era as we know it would never have come about. The events that marked its dawn – the discovery of America and the invention of the printing press – would simply not have been possible without copper. Centuries later, copper-zinc alloys were used to create brass, which has multiple uses and helped Britain transform itself into a leading industrial nation.

Since the discovery of electric current, copper has been used in almost all fields. It is an essential material in modern industry, and key to future technologies. It seems our love affair with the red metal is not likely to end any time soon, particularly when it comes to interiors!



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