Balkans: Archaeologists puzzle over 7,000y old copper-find - a tremendous fire destroyed a flourishing city

by Angelika Franz
Der Spiegel, December 27, 2010
Translated from the German by Ami de Grazia

Scientists have discovered in Serbia the oldest copper implements in the world. Some 7000 years ago, tradesmen of great wealth flourished on the Balkan peninsula. They present the archaeologists with a puzzle: why did the age of copper begin there so early - and why did it find an abrupt end?
In the 5th millennium before Christ there was not a lot going on in Europe. Slowly the people living on the Continent were beginning to familiarize themselves with the new idea of agriculture which strangers had brought from the East. Great building projects like the circles of megaliths lay still far in the future. Slowly the population of humans on the planet grew from five to seven millions.
Yet in the deep Southeast of Europe, near today's village of Plonik in Serbia, there existed 7000 years ago a major city. It inhabitants lived in closely assembled huts and they melted copper to make jewels, tools and weapons. Archaeologists have now come to this surprising conclusion.
The age of the oldest pieces which they have found up to now in the settlement is up to 7300 years. That's a good 800 years older as any other copper implements which have been found anywhere on Earth to this day.
Until now, many researchers surmised that the mining of metal and its transformation had been invented in Northern Mesopotamia and had spread from there to the East. But the new discoveries in Plonik tell of a different story. They were not the results of casual experiments. The people of the Balkan peninsula had a good knowledge of how they could create jewels, tools and weapons out of earth with a high copper content.

Violets betray where the copper lays

"The soil around Plonik is rich in copper - the metal in a pure state lays often directly at the surface," says Raiko Krauss, from the University of Tübingen, an archeologist and specialist of the Age of Copper. Therefore, conditions had been ideal for experimentation.
The so-called "copper-violets" blossom all over. "They are related to the Alpine violets, which we know in Germany from flower pots," says Krauss. "But they grow only in a soil with a very high copper content. There - where the soil is too poisonous for the other plants, they blossom in wide carpets - and in so doing point to the presence of copper."
Already in the late stone age people picked up the beautiful stones. For instance, malachite. The green-hued mineral belongs to the class of carbonates. Copper content: 57 percent. Our ancestors made experiments with different stones over the fire. From there, it was only a small step to jewels and to more practical objects.
In Plonik, excavators found hatchets of copper. And weapons: axes and maces. With them a new area began. The stone age was gone, the copper age - chalcolithic - had begun.
Plokin was not the only urban center in the Balkans. A short time later, on the Black Sea Coast in today's Bulgaria, there flourished a prosperous, big city, quite close to today's Varna. Archaeologists have found the cemetary of this settlement. The graves were loaded with treasures: jewels - mostly gold, but also copper - sea shells from the Aegean and tools made of types of stone which must have come from far away.

Wealthy and well connected

From one grave, the excavator dug 1,516 K of gold jewelry. This is more gold than has been found in all the rest of the world for this particular epoch. The inhabitants of Varna were not only wealthy. From all appearances, they held up far-reaching commercial networks.
With the finds of Plonik, the picture of these networks becomes clearer. On the one side there were the settlements in the Balkans, on the other, the metallurgists of Northern Mesopomtamia. "In the 5. Millennium BC people lived there in complex, centralized settlements of up to a thousand inhabitants." says Krauss. They invented a new ceramic oven with two chambers which was remarkably well suited to the extraction of metal. We must strongly surmise that there existed relations between the Balkans and Northern Mesopotamia."
Still, some large pieces are missing in the puzzle. Between the Balkans and Northern Mesopotamia there extends the whole of Anatolia. From the archaeological standpoint, this barely populated stretch is no-man's land. "Anatolia is the great unknown," says Krauss.
The beginning of the copper age will presumably remain a mystery for a long time to come. For financial means are missing to begin the necessary digs in far isolated regions. A collaboration between the Balkans, Anatolia and today's Syria and Iran must also surmount language barriers.

A tremendous fire destroyed the flourishing city

In order to begin to give an idea of what life in copper-age Plonik was like, excavator Julk Kuzmanovic-Cvetkovic organised a fashion show with clothes such as humans in these times might have worn, 7500 years go. The clothes are known to us from small clay statuettes - miniskirts and long wool capes seem to have been then in fashion. Moreover, hair was combed in fine hairdos and necklaces were worn.
Yet the end of Plonik was not good. An enormous fire unleashed itself around 5000 BC in the city. The earth carbonized. The houses collapsed and buried all the possessions of the inhabitants under their walls. When the flame died down, the city had ceased to exist.
The dimension of the destruction was enormous. Nobody returned to reclaim the site.
The copper age had met its end and its demise is as mysterious as was its beginning. All of the urban high fortresses were abandonned. Nobody fired the ovens any longer, nobody fashioned jewels or tools from the booty of the earth. The knowledge of the ancients got lost in oblivion.
"In a time span of only 100 to200 years on the whole of the Balkan, the copper-age finished," says Krauss. After that, there was a deep silence. It lasted almost 1000 years - until mankind began to discover bronze for their usage. At which point it must be pointed out that the gap between the copper - and bronze age is enormous.