‘All that Glitter is not Gold’

Research on the early Bronze Age royal tombs of Alacahöyük

Contacts: Prof. Dr. Ünsal Yalçin

Belongs to the project: The origin and development of metallurgy: issues of provenance in Anatolia


The Fritz Thyssen Foundation initially provided one year of funding for an interdisciplinary research project aimed at the analysis and geochemical characterization of metal objects from Alacahöyük in central Anatolia. The focus was 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 alongside 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 first year of excavation, four richly endowed royal tombs were discovered. In the years that followed, further graves were also found. The finds include numerous sun standards and animal statuettes made of bronze and silver, vessels with filigree work, jewelry and ornaments made of gold and silver, and a few objects made of iron. The artistic craftsmanship and materiality of the finds makes the collection one of the most important prehistoric complexes – alongside those from Ur, Maikop, Varna and Troy.

Fig. 02: Statuette of a Stag made of bronze, decorated with silver.

Fig. 03: Vessel with filigree decoration.

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, previously there had 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 through non-destructively and semi-quantitatively methods with a portable XRF device. Additionally, we were able to chemically analyse the samples from 80 artefacts made of silver (some of them severely corroded), bronze, and iron in the Deutsches Bergbau Museum’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 analyse the provenance of the copper and silver.

Fig. 04: Non-destructive testing of all metal findings with a portable XRF analyzer.

Lively Discussions among Experts

Our investigations have produced various interesting findings. One particularly surprising finding 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 former wooden handles, which we took samples and analysed with an aim of determining their age. According to this, the tombs of Alacahöyük were dated 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 experts on the topic.