The Legacy of Armenia: Trade, Metallurgy, and Forging of Precious Metals of the Ancient World

Since ancient times, demand for metals has been a big part of commercial exchange between countries separated by great distance. The Armenian Highland is situated between the Anatolian and Iranian plateau, and has played a significant role in ancient times in metal casting and processing.

In the second to first millennium BC, the exchange of metals was characterized by very specific features: Iran was exporting lazurite; Armenia, copper, tin, gold, silver, iron; Middle Asia, turquoise; Sinai, copper and onyx; and Egypt was known for the export of lead, silver, and glass.

Since the fifth to fourth millennium BC, the Armenian Plateau territory has processed and exported almost all types of minerals. Among them are: copper, tin, gold, silver, iron, lead, zinc, magnesium, antimony, arsenic, quartz, salt, and more.

This is evidenced by findings from different corners of the region. Those findings are also evidence that our ancestors knew how to use minerals and how establish trade relations, including the exchange of valuable minerals.

The Role of Metals

The earliest evidence of use of metals in Armenian Highland can be found in ancient records of Hittites (second millennium BC).

Tin was the rarest metal in ancient world. Tin has been the cause of some long term invasions as far reaching as the British Isles and Iberian Mountains.  In ancient Armenia tin was discovered in several places, such as Aghdznik, Syunik.

Having rich minerals, Armenia played an important role in ancient world in relation to processing and exporting metals. Initially, Armenia exported tin, copper, gold, and large amounts of iron into Egypt, India, Greece and Scythia.

Mountain of Iron and Lead

Armenian historians Faustus the Byzantine, Moses Khorenatsi, and Lazarus Pharpensis have written about various minerals processed in the region. According to Faustus, the Byzantine part of Armenian Taurus and part of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia from 189 BC to 387 AD, the region of Turuberan, was called “the mountain of iron and lead” by the ancients.

According to ancient Greek writers Homer, Hesiod, Euripides and others, “copper, silver and iron were first invented in Armenian Highland and then exported to other countries.”

World renowned archaeologists such as Henri Frankfort, Jacques de Morgan, Leonard Woollay and others, studying Aegean islands, Asia Minor, and metallurgical samples of North Eastern regions of Northern Persia, came to the conclusion that the Armenian Highland was one of the cradles of metallurgy, and for the first time in history iron was casted in Armenian Highland in the second millennium BC.

In Lchashen, in the basin of Sevan, iron casting furnaces were found dating back to the second millennium BC.

According to the British scientist Gordon Child and Indian archaeologist Kashinath Narayan Dikshit, the first discoverers of iron foundries were Armenian highlanders, and the “epicenter of the Iron Age revolution was the mountains of Armenia”.

All abovementioned scientists emphasized that Armenia constantly supplied metals to Assyria and Babylonia, Egypt, India and Media. The necessary prerequisite for the development of ancient civilizations was a supply from a country with necessary minerals or metal products.

Ores and Goods from Armenia

The Assyro-Babylonian ancient protocols regarding Armenian metals are dated to the 13th century BC.

In Assyrian King’s Salmanassar I and Tukulti-Ninurta I protocols, there is evidence regarding “mountains’ heaviest tax,” and “mountains of wealth,” which were exported from Armenia to Assyria every year.

Tiglath-Pileser I chronicled evidence that Assyrians were considering copper, bronze, gold, silver, as well as magnesium ore to be the best resources of Armenian Plateau. Those materials were produced by Malatya residents.

According to the Tukulti-Ninurta II chronicles, processing and export of gold, silver, lead and iron had already been widespread in the ninth century BC. They were taken to Assyria either as castings or in form of pots, sculptures or statues.

King Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria, (ninth century BC) during one of his invasions of Tigranakert region, is said to have taken “67 kg silver, 67 kg of gold, 3 tons of lead and 6 tons of bronze, 9 tons of iron, 1000 bronze receptacle, 2000 bronze cup, wheelchairs made of ivory and gold.” From the metal-rich Mountains of Sasun, great amounts of silver, gold, lead and iron were delivered to the king.

Shamshi-Adad V (ninth century BC) chronicled that “the great amount of silver, red gold and bronze items” were exported from Armenia.

Assyrian and Babylonian sources pointed to “countries” in the region of Armenian Taurus, and in the basins of Van and Urmia lakes (The three largest lakes in Armenian Highland are Lake Sevan, Lake Van and Lake Urmia).

In their trade and conquests, Assyrians rarely reached far North or West. According to Salmanassar III, (ninth century BC) silver, gold, lead, and bronze pots were taken to Assyria from the provinces of the western shore of Urmia lake.

During the invasion into Lesser Armenia, Tiglath-Pileser III (eighth century BC) appropriated three tons of gold and 300 kilograms silver.  From the Armenian Highland, he also took got gold, silver, tin, iron and magnesium ore on yearly basis.

Interesting data on the export of metals by Sargon II (end of the eighth century BC) was found in his chronicles and his address to the god Ashur.

Sargon II, from the royal palace of Ardini Musasir (The Musasir temple, built in 825 B.C., Musasir was the holy city of Kingdom of Urartu, and the temple was dedicated to the Supreme God of Haldi) is written to have stolen more than one ton of gold, about five tons of silver, “white copper” (bronze), lead, carnelian, various kinds of precious stones, “countless numbers” of copper and metal items, golden swords, daggers, precious stones, silver spears, cups and other items, copper boilers, fire-places, ladles, lamps, iron furnaces, and more. Accordingly, this shows that in the Armenian Highlands from the end of the second millennium BC until the beginning of the first millennium BC, metal casting was widespread.

Metsamor: Metal Casting and Ancient Observatory

Talking about metal casting, it is also important to mention the archaeological site of Metsamor, Armenia, where archeologists have found a large mineral and metallurgical complex dated to between the third and first millennium BC. Until recently, Palestinian metal casting furnaces were considered to be the oldest in the Middle East (13th century BC), but the big and small smelters found at Metsamor site are older.

An ancient observatory was also discovered at the Metsamor site, thought to be established between the third and second millennium BC. The general location of observatory coincides with the Zodiacal belt direction, in which the average line of length stretches along the sun’s annual path. The tracks of the moon and planets are also lying along the belt.

Weapons and Wealth

So during the middle of the second millennium BC, gold items, and the moldings of gold, silver, copper and bronze were exported from Armenia to many other countries. Since the 17th century BC great amounts of iron from Armenia was exported to the Hittites Kingdom, Egypt, Assyria, North Caucasus and Central Russia in the form of weapons and decorations designed for daily use.

During that time period Armenia was supplying almost all neighboring countries with ferrous (or iron) chariots and horses. In addition to this, according to Manetho, who was priest in Egypt, horse domestication first occurred in the Armenian Highland.

So Armenia’s natural resources contributed significantly to the development of neighboring countries’ economies and military preparedness. Because of this, ancient countries of the Middle East sought to control Armenia, or establish permanent trade relations.

These trade relations with distant countries contributed to the development of the geological and geographical knowledge of Armenians.

Is it possible that the development of metal ore and metallurgical production of metals—primarily, the production and export of iron—was the basis of the development of astronomical knowledge in the Armenian Highland? Perhaps the simultaneous existence of a metallurgical complex and observatory at ancient site of Metsamor is not accidental, but has a very clear and reasonable explanation.

Featured image: Metal belt from Metsamor site, Armenia. Second century BC. Photo courtesy author, Lilit Mkhitaryan

By Lilit Mkhitaryan

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