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Copper Island

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Mediterranean On the Rocks:
Copper Island

Archaeologist Walter Fasnacht found the remains of a copper mine and furnaces dating to 600 B.C. on the island of Cyprus, and wanted to find out how people smelted copper. The best way to understand ancient technologies is to reproduce them. After building a model of the 2,600-year-old furnace, Fasnacht's team attempts to produce copper by hand.

Curriculum Links
National Science Education Standards
Discussion: Mysteries of the Past
Activity: Mysteries of the Future









(Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for related Frontiers shows and activities!)


5-8: Properties & Changes of Properties in Matter
9-12: Structure & Properties of Matter
5-8, 9-12: Abilities of Technological Design; Understandings About Science & Technology
5-8: Science & Technology in Society
9-12: Natural Resources; Science & Technology in Local, National & Global Challenges
5-8: Science as a Human Endeavor; Nature of Science; History of Science
9-12: Science as a Human Endeavor; Nature of Scientific Knowledge; Historical Perspectives


In experimental archaeology, archaeologists and other scientists reconstruct and replicate artifacts of the past to see if doing so will help them learn how ancient people used tools and technologies.

Because we can't go back in time and interview people from the ancient past, and because there may be no extant records, archaeologists rely on inferences. Making replicas and reconstructions has added greatly to our knowledge of life in the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and other eras.

Experimental archaeology at sites around the world has contributed much to our understanding of how people lived in earlier times. Archaeologists have built boats and houses and made stone tools and pottery. They've experimented with building and raising huge obelisks and other monuments of the distant past, to see how structures like Stonehenge or the Easter Island statues might have been built.

Two examples of experimental archaeology in this episode of Frontiers are the building of a Neolithic papyrus boat and the copper smelting furnace in this story. Though the furnace seen in this story dates to the Iron Age (600 B.C.), it uses Bronze Age technology to smelt copper ore. Swiss archaeologist Walter Fasnacht wanted to rebuild the furnace to see how people smelted copper 2,600 years ago. He did not have much to go on, except debris and remains found on Cyprus.


Being an archaeologist is like being a scientific detective. Archaeologists must base their findings on inferences made from observations of artifacts at various sites. One way they do this is by observing the debris -- flakes of stone left behind at a campfire, for example. Then they use a reconstructed tool to replicate the activity and compare the debris. Such assessment provides clues into the past. Sometimes all an archaeologist has to go on is the garbage left behind at a site in what is called a "kitchen midden."

Here's your chance to try being an archaeologist. Everyday objects of today will become the archaeological remains of the future. Imagine it is about 5,000 years from now. Great cities of the 21st century have become submerged in water or covered with layers of soil or sand. You are an archaeologist assigned to examine some of the artifacts at sites dating from the year 2000. What conclusions will you make about the various items you find buried in the sand or under the ocean?

Brainstorm some of the conclusions archaeologists of the future might make when seeing these or other items for the first time:
  1. computers and computer chips

  2. hammer or other tool

  3. rotary telephone

  4. TV antennae ("rabbit ears")

  5. styrofoam containers

  6. peace symbol

  7. subway token

Remember, no one has seen these artifacts before and there are no clues about their uses. Write down your ideas and then share them with the rest of your class. How many different ideas can be listed? As an example, when future archaeologists come upon one of our modern landfills, they might think it was an ancient burial mound.

Before beginning this project, you may want to read the book Motel of the Mysteries by David Macauley, which shows how archaeologists of the future make erroneous assumptions about everyday objects.

NOTE: An artifact is any object used, made or modified by people.


  1. How do you think people in ancient cultures came up with inventions and innovations? Would you agree that ideas are "first in the mind," as archaeologist Curtis Runnels suggests in "The Paper Boat"? How much did accidents, luck and human imagination contribute to new technologies?

  2. Make a timeline that shows when the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages occurred. Place the Cyprus furnace on it, and add references to other findings in this episode.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
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