Reconstruction of the Late Bronze Age copper smelting process in the Southern Alps

Reconstruction of the Late Bronze Age copper smelting process in the Southern Alps
Ufficio beni archeologici PAT

The research carried on up to now in the Trentino area (Southern Alps, Italy) highlighted a massive prehistoric copper production, mostly dating back to the last phases of the Bronze Age. More than 200 smelting sites (working areas with furnaces and roasting beds where the copper ore was processed), have been found. In order to collect information about the smelting process, still largely unknown and debated, the thesis includes an overview on the recent excavations and an archaeometallurgical part with analyses on slags, the so called “plattenschlacken” in particular. This type of slag, not found in the more ancient smelting sites, seems to be an evidence of a technological step and a change in the operative chain, which occurred during the last phases of Bronze Age.

The research on Late Bronze Age copper production in the Southern Alps, wich had started in the 1980’s by the Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum and the Ufficio Beni archeologici della Provincia autonoma di Trento (Archaeological Heritage Office), shows the intensive exploitation of the copper ore in the area in prehistory. Two doctoral theses have already been completed on this topic at the Deutsches Bergbau-Museum/Ruhr-Universität Bochum: one in natural sciences in 2003 and one in archaeology in 2008. More than 200 smelting sites have been found and mapped. The research project is now being continued and intensified within the framework of a doctoral thesis.

During the last years, a large number of new Bronze Age smelting sites have been excavated by the Ufficio Beni archeologici, increasing the knowledge about technology, techniques and organization of work. A smelting site is a working area, usually in the mountains in vicinity of ore deposits, and water sources. Typical installations are furnaces, sometimes roasting beds and milling areas. Typical finds are stone tools and grinding stones and large heaps of slags.

The thesis aims at the investigation of a desiderata of the archaeometallurgy of the Alpine Late Bronze Age: the formation of the of so-called plate slags (Plattenschlacken). It is divided in two parts: the first part is strictly archaeological and describes the evidence of prehistoric copper production in the area emerged in the last years; the second part is archaeometallurgical and includes analyses on plate slags coming from different Late Bronze Age smelting sites. Polished thin sections of plate slags have been analysed by optical microscope and by SEM (scanning electron microscope) in order to determine the bulk composition and the composition of the different parts and inclusions (copper-iron sulphide inclusions, copper prills, quartz, etc.). The analyses, carried on on a large scale, can provide important information about formation of the slag, temperature and conditions inside the furnace, cooling speed, composition and provenience of the ore.

Relevant project

Prehistoric copper production in the Southern Alps, in the Trentino Orientale region

PhD theses

Elena Silvestri

Responsible body

Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum


Ufficio beni archeologici – Soprintendenza per i beni culturali della Provincia autonoma di Trento (Bodendenkmalpflege Trentino)


Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum

Ufficio beni archeologici – Soprintendenza per i beni culturali della Provincia autonoma di Trento (Bodendenkmalpflege Trentino)


since 2011


  • E. Silvestri, P. Bellintani, F. Nicolis, M. Bassetti, S. Biagioni, N. Cappellozza, N. Degasperi, M. Marchesini, N. Martinelli, S. Marvelli & O. Pignatelli, New excavations at smelting sites in Trentino, Italy: archaeological and archaeobotanical data. In: A. Hauptmann & D. Modarressi-Tehrani (Hrsg.), Archaeometallurgy in Europe III. Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference, Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum. Der Anschnitt 26, 2015, 369-376.
  • E. Silvestri, A. Hauptmann, P. Bellintani, E. Mottes & F. Nicolis, Bronzezeitliche Kupferverüttung in Trentino. In: T. Stöllner & K. Oeggl (Hrsg.), Bergauf Bergab. 10.000 Jahre Bergbau in den Ostalpen. Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum, Bochum 2015, 201-208.
  • E. Silvestri, P. Bellintani, E. Mottes & F. Nicolis, Evidence of mining without mines: smelting activity during the Bronze Age in Trentino. In: J. Silvertant (eds), Research and preservation of ancient mining areas. Acts of the 9th International Symposium on archaeological Mining History (Trento, 2014). Yearbook of the Institute Europa Subterranea, Trento/Valkenburg aan de Geul 2014, pp. 88-103.
  • E. Silvestri, P. Bellintani & A. Hauptmann, Investigation of plate slags from the southern Alpine area. In: S. Greiff, F. Schlütter & M. Prange (Hrsg.), Archäometrie und Denkmalpflege. Kurzfassungen. Metalla Sonderheft 5, 2012, 127-129.