Development of metallurgy of copper and copper alloys in China in the 2nd millennium BC 

Grigoriev S.A.



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The first rare metal finds in China are dated to the Neolithic period, but most of them belong to its final phase. For this period, pure copper is known, very rare arsenic alloys, probably smelted from ore with arsenic admixtures. At the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, in Gansu, the technology of smelting ore with the following alloying with arsenic, occasionally tin minerals were borrowed from an unknown source. This technology spread to the east, and is present in the Erlitou II layer. At the beginning of the Erlitou III phase (which corresponds to the beginning of the Shang dynasty), the tradition of the Seima-Turbino metallurgy and the technology of smelting copper sulfide ores and alloying with tin penetrated into the Yellow River basin from the north (through Shanxi) from southern Siberia. This tradition soon spread to southern China, as well as the western and northern periphery of Chinese civilization. The penetration of the Karasuk tradition of arsenic alloys is also observed in the west and north in the late Shang period, and the Shang and Karasuk metallurgical traditions coexisted there. A special situation formed in Xinjiang, where the Andronovo tradition of smelting sulfide ores and tin alloys penetrated, but this penetration was limited to the west of the region. It did not affect the development of Chinese metallurgy. In general, in China, there is the same correspondence between the types of used ores and alloys as in the rest of Eurasia: native copper and malachite pure copper, oxidized ores and secondary sulfides with gangue arsenic copper, occasionally tin bronze, copper-iron sulfides tin bronze. But in China, this sequence was driven by two technological impulses at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC (from an unclear source) and at the end of the second half of the 2nd millennium BC from southern Siberia. In addition, during the late Shang period, the interaction of the Shang and Karasuk traditions occurred in the north and west.

Keywords: Bronze Age, metallurgy, China, alloys, smelting technologies.


Funding. This work was carried out as part of a project supported by the Center for Chinese Studies (Taipei, Taiwan).


Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Accepted: 03.03.2021

Article is published: 15.06.2022


Grigoriev S.A., Institute of History and Archaeology, Ural Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences, S. Kovalevskoy st., 16, Ekaterinburg, 620108, Russian Federation, E-mail:,