Ancient Italy Was a Hub of Metal Exchange Thousands of Years Ago

Thousands of years ago in prehistoric Italy, a complex network of metal production and exchange thrived, research suggests.

In a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, a team of scientists wanted to investigate the trade of copper in the region across 4th and 3rd millennia B.C. The exchange and production of copper in this period is a debated issue, with several aspects not well understood, according to the researchers.

"There is ample archaeological evidence of the use of metal for ornaments, tools and weapons in this period, but rather limited evidence of mining, extraction and metallurgical production," Gilberto Artioli, an author of the study from the University of Padua, Italy, told Newsweek.

Researchers analyzed 20 copper items found in central Italy that date to between 3600 and 2200 B.C. These items included axe-heads, daggers and halberds—a type of two-handed pole weapon.

Part of the analysis involved taking measurements of lead isotopes—a chemical variant of a particular element—while also looking at archaeological data.

"By the use of lead isotope measurements...and thanks to extended reference databases of ores, it is now possible to infer the provenance of the copper that was used to manufacture the objects," Artioli said.

They found that most of the objects were made of copper sourced from local ores in what is now the Italian region of Tuscany, in the center of the country. While this finding was unsurprising, Artioli said the team also made a more intriguing discovery.

Several of the objects contain evidence of a "foreign" signal traced to the Western Alps mountain range—which lie to the north of Italy—and possibly as far as the French Massif Central, a highland region in the middle of southern France.

"This puts early central Italy at the center of a dynamic exchange of metalwork and perhaps of technology, at this early time," Artioli said.

copper mineral
Stock photo: Image of mineral copper. iStock

This result demonstrates that there was a "far-reaching" trade of metals in prehistoric Europe at an earlier point in history than previously thought.

"There are several important implications," study author Andrea Dolfini, from Newcastle University in the U.K., told Newsweek. "The central Italian metal procurement and exchange networks were not purely regional—as per current orthodoxy—but stretched to the western Alps and perhaps beyond. This was not expected for such an early period. Note that some of the objects analysed are amongst the earliest in the region."

The results indicate that metalworkers in this period engaged in an early form of recycling. "As all objects look local by shape and features, the implication is that the foreign looking objects were remelted by smiths in central Italy and cast into new objects," she said. "This is important indirect evidence of copper recycling, which again we did not expect to see at such an early stage."