I am beginning research on a new book that requires me to learn something about mining and metals. Not since I was in summer camp at age 11, where we sang Peggy Seeger’s “Springhill Mine Disaster” and felt appropriately sad and righteous, have I thought much about “the men in the mines.” So I cruised around on some virtual library shelves, found a world history of mining, ordered it, and started reading. I had never thought this through, but learning how to find metals, separate one kind of metal from another — think of anytime you have taken a geology class or visited a geology exhibit in a museum: outside of meteorites, most often the clump of stone features more than one kind of material fused together as tightly as only stone can be — and then — here’s the astonishing part — learning how to combine metals, and which to combine in what proportions — were some of humanity’s greatest accomplishments.
Having worked on Stonehenge, I had spent some time reading about the Bronze Age. But that is the most easy-to-ignore term: Bronze Age. It carries no power, no affect, no resonance. Say “the 1960s” and that still sets off a sound track. Say “The Bronze Age” and you are checking off “identify and define” terms on a test, on your way as fast as you can to Iron Age. Yet the creation of Bronze was like the invention of the microchip — it totally changed the planet. First you have to find copper — not so hard. Then you have to get it into a workable state — there are only two ways to do that, muscle power or heat. If you opt for heat you have a second problem — how do you build and maintain your fire, and how do you get your fire hot enough? Think Vulcan — the world began to create masters of the forge, of fire, men (I assume it was men) who could tame the breath of dragons. OK now comes the hard part: how do you come to know that adding one eighth part of black sand (we call it tin) to a puddle of copper will allow you to smelt one gleaming but soft substance (copper) into a hard one useful for daggers, crowns, and tools (bronze)?
A scholar I met at Stonehenge had recommended an academic study called The Rise of Bronze Age Society — I had purchased it but never waded into it. Now I have. The whole point of the book is that the Bronze Age was nothing like the familiar medieval period. It was a world in motion, a world of trade, of ideas and cultures being exchanged, a world of long-distance travel. It was not a time where farmers worked the same land as their forefathers, and never moved past their local church or market. That came thousands of years later. Instead, the amazing fact is that it took just 500 years for the miracle of bronze-making to spread from where it was invented — somewhere in what is now Turkey — throughout all of Europe. For an era when there were no books, no dictionaries, no reliable ways of knowing what language the next group of folks would speak, that spread of information and technology is astonishing.
Today I get to go down in a mine myself. There cannot be more fun than learning new things.