What is Bronze? – History of Art

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bronze sculpture of a man's head with a turban-style hat on and a long beard and the eyes gouged out later

Head of an Akkadian king (ca. 2300 BC)

Bronze smiths 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. (Early on, people tried mixing copper with other things like lead and arsenic, but tin works best.)

bronze greaves in the shape of a person's lower legs, green with patina

Etruscan greaves (Vatican Museum, Rome) about 600 BC

When West Asian smiths first began to make bronze, about 3500 BC, 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, bronze swords 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. Everybody wanted it for war. By 3000 BC, Central Asians and Harappans in India were using bronze. Around 2000 BC, Indo-Europeans spread the use of bronze to Europeand China. The Hyksos encouraged Africans in Egypt and Sudan to use more bronze around 1700 BC.
sculpture of two bronze figures sitting together holding hands

Get your own bronze sculpture!

But soon Chinese and West Asian 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.

By 900 AD, Ife and Hausa people in West Africa were also using bronze alongside of iron. But after that, when new people in the Caribbean or the Pueblos or Brazil learned how to work metal, they went straight to using iron, and nobody used much bronze anymore.

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
More about iron

Bibliography and further reading about the history of bronze:

What is metal?
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By | 2017-05-25T07:55:12+00:00 May 25th, 2017|Art|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is Bronze? – History of Art. Quatr.us Study Guides, May 25, 2017. Web. December 11, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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