Prehistoric copper production in the eastern and central Alps - technical, social and economic dynamics in space and time


Financed by:

Austrian Science Fund FWF


German Research Foundation DFG


Swiss National Science Foundation SNF


Run-time: 2015 - 2018

Karte DACH

Principal Investigators:

Gert Goldenberg, University of Innsbruck (RC HiMAT)

Thomas Stöllner, University of Bochum / German Mining Museum Bochum

Ernst Pernicka, CEZ Archaeometry Mannheim / University of Heidelberg

Philippe Della Casa, University of Zürich

Thomas Reitmaier, Archaeological Service of Canton Graubünden

Project summary

The eastern and central Alpine copper economy played a major role in the metal supply of central Europe during the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. In that period, the Alpine economy changed considerably as mining and metal production transformed large parts of the landscape from agrarian and remote areas into early industrialized regions. Three of the most important copper producers have been selected for this joint research project: (1) the Schwaz/Brixlegg district in North Tyrol, Austria, (2) the Mitterberg district in Salzburg, Austria and (3) the Oberhalbstein district in Grisons, Switzerland. In all of these mining districts Bronze Age to Early Iron Age relics of copper ore mining and/or metallurgy are widespread and the archaeological investigation of a considerable number of sites is highly advanced. The state of research represents an excellent base for a supra-regional study dealing with the dynamics of prehistoric large-scale metal production in the three key-areas and beyond.

The fahlore mining district of Schwaz/Brixlegg played an important role during the Early Bronze Age, when “fahlore-copper” became an essential raw material for the central European copper respectively bronze market. From the late Early Bronze Age on and especially during the Middle Bronze Age, the Mitterberg district dominated the copper supply. An estimated 20,000 tons of copper were produced in this region, mainly from chalcopyrite ore (“eastern Alpine copper”). The Mitterberg area can be considered as a starting point for technological and economical innovations in copper production (“Mitterberg-process”) and the associated occupation of the eastern and central Alps by specialized communities. Fahlore mining and metallurgy in the Schwaz/Brixlegg district reached a second prime during the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. In the Oberhalbstein, chalcopyrite ores were exploited from the end of the Middle Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age. Due to a different geological genesis, a geochemically distinguishable type of copper is to be expected compared with the “eastern Alpine copper” and the “fahlore-copper”. Whereas the systematic archaeological investigation of mining and smelting sites in the Oberhalbstein is just at the beginning, settlement archaeology furnished strong evidence of secondary copper metallurgy.

Based on specialized (mining-)archaeological investigations, highly precise chronological data using dendrochronology, geochemical analyses and econometric evaluations, the joint project aims to carry out a comparative and diachronic study of these three important prehistoric copper mining districts. The aim is to reconstruct and to better understand the development and significance of the districts, their economic dynamics and the manifold interrelations within the network of alpine metal producers. The results will be integrated into the European context of Bronze Age and Early Iron Age metal economy.

Project parts Austria

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  Radio interview
Radio Freirad (30.6.2017): "unikonkret: Kupferbergbau"