In Europe, the first copper and gold objects were produced in the Balkans and date from about 5000 BC. They were relatively simple and were made by hammering pure metals, found in areas of ore-bearing rocks. Later, from about 4500 BC, larger objects, such as tools and weapons, were manufactured by the techniques of smelting and casting. Metalworking spread east, west and north from the Balkans, reaching most of Europe and southern Britain by the third millennium.

Before the Bronze Age began in about 2300 BC, the Chalcolithic (copper-stone) period marked the beginnings of hierarchial societies, controlled by wealthy elites. In burials of southeast and east-central Europe during the fifth and fourth millennia, poorer graves contained only pottery, stone objects, or nothing at all, while richer graves included metal ornaments and weapons. A rich grave at Varna in Bulgaria, for example, contained bracelets, beads, and an array of other golden objects.

As metal usage spread, skills in metalworking developed, and raw materials and worked objects were traded. Long-distance trading networks of the third millennium can be traced by the appearance in northern and western Europe of metalwork found with the distinctive pottery known as Beaker and Corded Ware, originally made in central Europe. Farther east, in the Kuban region of southern Russia, richly furnished burials, such as at Maikop (southwestern Russia), dating about 2500 BC, contained gold and silver objects and copper tools made from local ores.

From about 2300 BC, the first bronze objects appear in the tombs and settlements of Europe. Bronze, which is harder than copper and so much better for weapons and tools, is an alloy of copper and tin, which was found only in parts of western Britain and France, northwest Spain, and northern Italy. Large mining complexes, such as the Mitterberg copper mines in Austria, developed, and these, coupled with the long-distance trade in metals, led to the emergence of the Bronze Age in Europe.

In northern Europe at this time, around Jutland and the Baltic, amber (highly prized for beads) as well as probably furs and skins were traded in exchange for metals. As bronze became available to them, Scandinavian craftsmen also became expert metalworkers. One of the best examples of their work is a cast bronze wheeled model of a horse drawing an engraved gold-covered sun disk. It was found in the Trundholm Bog in Denmark and dates from about 1650 BC. The lack of oxygen in this and other boggy ground has preserved many gold and bronze objects, including lurer, elegant bronze wind instruments shaped like horns.

In time, European Bronze Age society became increasingly stratified, as the burials of the wealthy elite reveal. By the early second millennium BC, individuals were being interred under large mounds, or barrows, often set apart from the rest of the community and containing rich grave goods. At Leubingen in Germany, the center of such a mound held a huge timber mortuary structure containing the body of a man and a young girl, buried with much bronze and gold. Barrow burials, which required extensive labor for their contstruction, became widespread in southwest England and Brittany. As these were both areas with access to tin sources, it is possible that control of supplies led to the emergence of elite groups who were considerably wealthy and powerful.

From about 2000 BC, settlements in eastern and central Europe were increasingly fortified. About 800 years later, this trend spread to western Europe, and hillforts and fortified lake settlements, such as at Wasserburg in southern Germany, were founded. At the same time, a new culture known as Urnfield, characterized by the dead being cremated and their ashes placed in urns that were deposited in large cemeteries, or urnfields, spread widely through Europe from the middle Danube area.

Bronze work was now advanced, and throughout Europe new types of bronze weapons and armor were used, including slashing swords, helmuts, greaves, breastplates, and shields. Late Bronze Age society had become militaristic, but although warfare was rife, it was still localized. Bronze had ceased to be a luxury article used only by the wealthy, and countless bronze tools and trinkets were made. This prolific bronze production suggests a time of prosperous trade, and it was in such conditions that the use of a new metal (iron) would begin to spread through Europe.

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