What is bronze? - what metals do you use to make bronze? When did people first invent bronze? Why is bronze better than copper?

Quatr.us answers questions: an online encyclopedia of history and science

What is bronze?

Head of an Akkadian king (ca. 2300 BC)

Bronzesmiths make bronze by melting two different metals and mixing them. The two metals are copper and tin. Copper, by itself, is too soft to make tools of. (Have you ever had a copper bracelet? It dents every time you knock your hand on a door). Tin is too brittle: it breaks too easily. But if you mix a little tin into the copper, it becomes bronze, which is much harder and at the same time less brittle. It is more useful for tools and also better for making statues.

Etruscan greaves
Etruscan greaves (Vatican Museum, Rome)
about 600 BC

When smiths first began to make bronze, it was very expensive. Mostly people used bronze for weapons and armor. You could make a much better sword out of bronze than out of stone or wood. Bronze swords were lighter and sharper. Still, they weren't strong enough to cut with the side of the blade: you had to use bronze swords mainly to stab people, or your sword would break. Bronze armor was stronger and lighter than the leather and wood armor soldiers had worn before.

But soon artists also began to use bronze to make bronze statues. As with the weapons, bronze is lighter than stone, and you can make statues in different poses with bronze than you can with stone. To get these bronze statues, the artists invented lost-wax casting.

When bronze gets old, and the air touches it, it corrodes (like iron rusting) and turns green, like these Etruscan greaves (leg armor). Once bronze got old and corroded, people usually sold it to a bronze-smith to melt down and recycle into new bronze things - that's why we don't have very much ancient bronze.

Learn by Doing - make a copper bracelet

Bibliography and further reading:

What is metal?
History of Art
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Copyright 2012-2015 Karen Carr, Portland State University. This page last updated September 2015.

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