Colonial Mesoamerican Copper Smelting Technology

This hearth from one of the Meso-American smelters, seen as being excavated by Dorothy Hosler and her team in Mexico, was among the sites that showed that the indigenous people were producing copper for the Spanish colonists. Courtesy: Dorothy Hosler.

When the Spanish invaders arrived in America, they were usually able to enslave the indigenous peoples, in part thanks to their excellent weapons and technology. But archaeological evidence suggests that, at least in one critical sense, the Spaniards were very dependent on older indigenous technologies in parts of Mesoamerica (today's Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras).

Invaders needed copper for their artillery, as well as for coins, dummies and pans, but they lacked the knowledge and skills for metal production. Even Spain at that time did not produce metal domestically for centuries, relying on imports from central Europe. In Mesoamerica, they had to depend on local metallurgists, furnace manufacturers, and miners to produce the necessary material. Those experienced workersin turn, were able to conclude a deal for exemption from taxes levied on other indigenous peoples.

According to new results published in the journal, this dependence has persisted for at least a century, and maybe two or more centuries. Latin American Antiquityby Dorothy Hosler, professor of archeology and ancient technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Johan Garcia Zaidoua, researcher at the University of Porto in Portugal.

A study conducted onsite in El Manchon, Mexico, used information from over four centuries of archaeological features and artifacts discovered by Hosler and her team over several years of field work, as well as laboratory work and historical archives. in Portugal, Spain and Mexico analyzed by Garcia.

El Manchon, a large and remote settlement, initially showed no sign of Spain's presence. The site consisted of three steep sectors, two of which had foundations of long houses, some with interior rooms and religious sanctuaries, a patio and conceptually Mesoamerican configuration, but not related to any well-known ethnic groups such as the Aztecs. Between them was the region in which the pieces of slag were located (non-metallic material, which is separated during smelting from pure metal, which floats to the surface).

According to Hosler, the Spanish invaders urgently needed a huge amount of copper and tin to make bronze for their guns and other weapons, and this is recorded in historical and archival documents. But "they didn't know how to smell," she says, whereas archaeological evidence suggest that the indigenous people have already smelted copper in this settlement for several hundred years, mainly for making ritual or ceremonial materials such as bells and amulets. These artisans were highly skilled, and in Guerrero and elsewhere for hundreds of years they produced complex alloys, including copper-silver, copper-arsenic and copper-tin, working on a small scale using blown pipes and crucibles for smelting copper and others ore. ,

But the Spaniards desperately needed large quantities of copper and tin, and some European technologies were introduced into the process in consultation with indigenous metallurgical plants. Hosler and her colleagues unearthed a mysterious feature that consisted of two parallel stone moves leading to large slag slag in the smelting zone. They defined this as the remnants of a hitherto undocumented hybrid type of enclosed furnace design powered by a modified European manual bellows. The small regional museum in the highland state of Guerrero illustrates just such a design of a hybrid furnace, including a modified European bellows system capable of producing large volumes of copper. But the actual remains of such furnaces have not been found previously.

Colonial Mesoamerican Copper Smelting Technology

The diagram shows the excavation site of one of the local melting furnaces, adapted to use European-type bellows instead of pipes. The designations above show a large piece of slag, material left after melting, and a drawing of the reconstructed furnace design. Courtesy: Dorothy Hosler.

According to Hosler, the period this site was busy lasted from 1240 to 1680 and may have lasted to earlier and later times.

The Guerrero site, which Hosler unearthed four field seasons before work had to be stopped due to local drug cartel activity, contains large heaps of copper slag accumulated over centuries of heavy use. But this required a combination of material evidence, analysis of ore and slag, archaeological features in the smelting zone, archival work and reconstruction drawings, which made it possible to identify the centuries-old interdependence of two groups of the population in this remote outpost.

Earlier studies of the slag composition on site, conducted by Hosler and some of her students, showed that it was formed at a temperature of 1150 degrees Celsius, which could not be achieved only with the help of a discharge pipe system, and this would require a bellows. This helps confirm the ongoing work of the site back in the colonial period, says Hosler.

Years of work were spent on finding ways to date the various slag deposits on the site. The team also verified archaeomagnetic data, but found that the method was not effective for materials in this particular region of Mexico. But written historical records turned out to be the key to understanding a wide range of dates that reflected centuries of use of the site.

Documents sent back to Spain at the beginning of the colonial period described the presence of locally produced copper and the successful trials of the colonists on its use for casting bronze artillery pieces. The documents also describe transactions concluded by local producers in order to obtain economic privileges for their people based on their special metallurgical knowledge.

“From the documents, we know that Europeans have found that the only way to melt copper is to work with indigenous peoples who already do this,” says Hosler. “They had to make deals with indigenous metallurgical plants.”

Hosler says that “what interests me so much is that we were able to use traditional archaeological methods and material analysis data, as well as ethnographic data“ from the stove in the local museum ”, as well as historical and archival materials from the 16th century archives . in Portugal, Spain and Mexico, to then combine all the data from these individual disciplines into an absolutely reasonable explanation. "

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Additional Information:
Johan Garcia Zaldua et al. Copper smelting at an archaeological site in El Manchon, Guerrero: from indigenous practices to colonial production, Latin American Antiquity (2020). DOI: 10.1017 / laq.2019.105

This story is republished by MIT News (, a popular site that covers MIT research, innovation and training news.

Mesoamerican smelting technology aided colonial weapons (2020, March 31)
retrieved April 1, 2020

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