Archaeology of Raw Materials - Building Blocks of the Ancient Past

What Makes Up Ancient Artifacts is a Secret Key to Human Behavior

Raw materials, in my definition, are natural substances which were recognized by our ancestors as something special, and then used--carved, mixed, processed, preserved--for all kinds of reasons. Identifying the source and selecting specific types of raw materials for their characteristics is a uniquely human trait: and one that can teach us plenty about human behavior.

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Amber Room, St. Catherine's Palace, Tsarskoye Selo (Russia)
A guide tells tourists about the famous amber room July 10, 2000 in St. Catherine's Palace in Tsarskoye Selo near St. Petersburg, Russia. Kaliningrad's customs officials donated 2.5 tons of amber for restoration of the famous room. Oleg Nikishin / Getty Images

Amber is a fossilized resin, made by trees at any point between the Carboniferous Period of some 300 million years ago to yesterday, hardened and preserved in shiny golden to brown blobs of shiny, translucent material. Prized for its beauty, used at least as long ago as the Neolithic period of some 5,000 years ago, amber has also preserved some of the oldest bugs we know.

This photograph is of the Amber Room, a shameless but nonetheless beautiful extravagance constructed in the early 18th century AD in Prussia and presented to the Russian Tsar Peter the Great in 1717.

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Natural bitumen seep, Mexico
Natural bitumen seep, Mexico. Carl Wendt (2005)

While many of the raw materials in this list are undeniably beautiful, only an archaeologist could love bitumen (aka tar or asphalt), that smelly, sticky natural organic byproduct of decomposed organic materials.

First used at least 40,000 years ago to fasten stone tools to wooden hafts, bitumen was also used for water-proofing things such as reed boats and baskets, and for preserving ancient animals at the La Brea Tar Pits in California. La Brea is not the only surface expression of the stuff, as can be seen from this image from Mexico, from a study on use of bitumen by the Olmec culture.

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Comb with Ibex Effigy (Hippopotamus Ivory), Naqada, Predynastic Period
Comb with Ibex Effigy (Hippopotamus Ivory), Naqada, Predynastic Period. Louvre Museum, Paris. Guillaume Blanchard

Ivory is basically dentine--the natural stuff that makes up animal teeth, particularly rhinoceroses, pigs, whales and, most importantly, elephants, ancient and modern. Ivory was one of the earliest materials used by Upper Paleolithic people to make beads, portable art, tools and weapons, by at last 35,000 years ago, such as the figurines from Hohle Fels in Germany.

Today, ivory is still so precious as to be the focus for ivory poachers, who ruthlessly decimated elephant populations without cease until international laws were written in the last century to stop it.

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Ming Dynasty Nephrite Dragon Plaque at the Seattle Art Museum
Ming Dynasty Nephrite Dragon Plaque at the Seattle Art Museum. bobosh_t

Jade, more properly called nephrite and jadeite, occurs naturally in very few places in the world, and it was used to make luxurious art objects, vessels, tools and weapons in China, Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Neolithic Europe and Mesoamerica.

Nephrite is a silicate made of calcium and magnesium, and it comes in a wide variety of colors from translucent white to yellow and green. Jadeite, a sodium and aluminum silicate, ranges in color from apple to deep blue green. Jadeite is found only in Mesoamerica, where it was used by most of the complex cultures beginning with the Olmec some 3,200 years ago.

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Lake Natron in Tanzania
Lake Natron in Tanzania. Marc Veraart

Natron is an alkali substance that was used for several purposes in ancient and modern times. Natron is chemically known as sodium carbonate 10-hydrate (Na2CO3), and its deposits are created by the evaporation and desiccation of soda-rich soils.

Deposits of natron are found in isolated lake beds throughout the Mediterranean region. The most famous use of natron is for the process of mummification by ancient Egyptians, but it is also used as a preservative for a wide variety of materials, and as an important part of glass-making.

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West Java Copal Tree (Agathis dammara) Exuding Resinous Oils
West Java Copal Tree (Agathis dammara) Exuding Resinous Oils. Wibowo Djatmiko

People have been using tree resins for all kinds of things for thousands of years. The best known might well be incense, but don't forget water proofing, makeup, solvents, medicines, chewing gum, pitch, and maple syrup! 

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Clear Obsidian from Japan
This chunk of clear obsidian lies at a temple doorstep in Aoichi Prefecture in Japan. The inscription written on the base is visible through the glass. Ben + Sam

Obsidian is volcanic glass--the natural product of what can be wildly violent upheavals of the earth. The mineral is found naturally in translucent to opaque deposits of black, green, orange or clear. As any amateur flint knapper can tell you, it has amazing flaking characteristics, and the edges of a newly flaked obsidian knife are sharp enough--and can be sterilized enough--to use in modern surgery.

Best of all, obsidian is datable--using obsidian hydration techniques, it is possible to estimate when the material was last flaked.

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Iron Oxide Outcrop, Alligator Gorge, Flinders Range, South Australia
Iron Oxide Outcrop, Alligator Gorge, Flinders Range, South Australia. John Goodridge

Ochre is a natural iron oxide, a mineral found in natural deposits pretty much all over the world. Ochre is mostly used primarily as a pigment--its red to orange to yellow to brown used to stain everything from rock art paintings to pottery to human tattoos.

The earliest record we have of ochre use is over 300,000 years ago, by some unknown hominid ancestor in eastern Africa. A paint pot made of abalone shell was found in Blombos Cave, South Africa, dated to some 100,000 years ago.

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Papyrus: A Plant for Making Paper

Life Stages of the Papyrus Plant
circa 1850: The stages of life of the papyrus plant. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Papyrus is a non-domesticated plant--actually a freshwater reed--that people have been using for centuries to create paper. Papyrus grows wild, but it does require management to thrive, such as burning bans, rotational and seasonal harvesting and control of other intrusive plants.

First used as paper in the Mediterranean Bronze Age about 4,400 years ago, papyrus made possible the great strides in modern civilization brought about by the spread of writing, including the Ebers and Edwin Smith surgical papyri, Egyptian Bronze Age textbooks on medicine.

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Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota
Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota. Brian Jeffery Beggerly

The most famous pipestone quarry in the world is at Pipestone National Monument, in the upper Midwestern United State of Minnesota. But that's not the whole story...

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The Ancient History of Making Salt

Salt Making in Yunnan China in 1922
Salt Making in Yunnan China in 1922. Restored photo by RalphRepo

Salt is a natural substance and preservative found the world around--and we have evolved a need for it so deep, that we can die without it. Salt maintains the balance of fluids that carry nutrients and oxygen from the digestive system to the other parts of the body, and its chemistry controls our taste, smell and touch.

Recent scientific study has revealed that too much salt can cause high blood pressure and associated health issues: but people still crave it. Pass the chips!

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Spondylus is a type of shellfish, found in warm pockets of most of the oceans of the world. In at least two time periods and locations in the world, spondylus had a significant role in the cultures: South America and the eastern Mediterranean.