All that Glitters is not Gold

Research on early Bronze Age royal tombs of Alacahöyük

Contacts: Prof. Dr. Ünsal Yalçin

Laufendes übergeordnetes Projekt: Anfänge und Entwicklung der Metallurgie: Zur Provenienz von Metallartefakten in Anatolien

The Fritz Thyssen Foundation initially provided one year’s funding for an interdisciplinary research project aimed at the analysis and geochemical characterization of metal objects from Alacahöyük in central Anatolia. The focus is on fundamental questions about the development and structure of metallurgy in Anatolia in the 3rd millennium. Here aspects of cultural history and economic archaeology are considered along with technological aspects.


Richly Endowed Royal Tombs

The first systematic excavations at Alacahöyük – initiated and carried out by the Turkish Republic, still in its infancy at the time – began in 1935. In the very first year, four richly endowed royal tombs were discovered; in the years that followed, further graves were found. The finds include numerous sun standards and animal statuettes made of bronze and silver, vessels with filigree work, jewellery and ornaments made of gold and silver, and a few objects made of iron. The artistic perfection and materiality of the finds makes this one of the most important prehistoric find complexes – alongside those from Ur, Maikop, Varna and Troy.

Scientific Analyses of the Finds

In terms of cultural history, the finds from Alacahöyük have an important position in the development of metallurgy. In spite of this, there had previously been no scientific analyses of these finds. We started to carry out such analyses in 2009, in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara: we analysed all the metal objects non-destructively and semi-quantitatively with a portable XRF device; we were able to chemically analyse the samples from 80 further artefacts made of silver (some of them severely corroded), bronze and iron in the DBM’s Materials Laboratory, using ICP-MS. In addition, these samples were subjected to lead isotope testing in the Mineralogy Department of the University of Frankfurt, in order to discuss the provenance of the copper and silver.

Lively Discussion among the Experts

Our investigations have produced various interesting findings: one particularly surprising one was that most of the objects which had previously been thought to be gold were actually made of silver or bronze, and merely gilded. For the gilding, the goldsmiths of Alacahöyük used gold leaf which was in some cases just 1 micrometre thick. We also discovered, on some awls, remains of the former wooden handles, which we took samples of and analysed with a view to determining their age. According to this, the tombs of Alacahöyük are from the first half of the 3rd millennium BC and not – as stated in the archaeological literature – from the period around 2300-2100 BC. Our new dating of the tombs has therefore triggered a lively discussion among the experts.