Chalcolithic Period - The Beginnings of Copper Metallurgy

Polychrome Pottery and Copper Metallurgy of the Chalcolithic Period

Interior Work Area At Los Millares; Almeria Andalusia Spain
Guy Heitmann / Getty Images

The Chalcolithic period refers to that part of Old World prehistory wedged between the first farming societies called Neolithic, and the urban and literate societies of the Bronze Age. In Greek, Chalcolithic means "copper age" (more or less), and indeed, the Chalcolithic period is generally--but not always--associated with wide-spread copper metallurgy.

Copper metallurgy was likely developed in northern Mesopotamia; the earliest known sites are in Syria such as Tell Halaf, about 6500 years BC.

The technology was known considerably longer ago than that--isolated copper axes and adzes are known from Catalhoyuk in Anatolia and Jarmo in Mesopotamia by 7500 cal BC. But the intensive production of copper tools is one of the hallmarks of the Chalcolithic period.


Pinning a specific date on the Chalcolithic is difficult. Like other broad categories such as Neolithic or Mesolithic, rather than referring to a particular group of people residing in one place and time, "Chalcolithic" is applied to a broad mosaic of cultural entities located in different environments, which have a handful of common characteristics. The earliest recognized of the two most prevalent characteristics--painted pottery and copper processing--are found in the Halafian culture of northeastern Syria about 5500 BC. See Dolfini 2010 for a thorough discussion of the spread of Chalcolithic characteristics. 

  • Early (5500-3500 calendar years BC [cal BC]): began in the Near East (Anatolia, then Levant and Mesopotamia)
  • Developed (4500-3500 BC): arrived in the Near East and Central and Eastern Europe in SE Europe, followed by Carpathian basin, East-central Europe and SW Germany and Eastern Switzerland
  • Late (3500-3000 cal BC): arrived in Central and Western Mediterranean (North and central Italy, southern France, Eastern France and Western Switzerland)
  • Terminal (3200-2000 cal BD): arrived in the Iberian peninsula

The spread of Chalcolithic culture appears to have been part migration and part adoption of new technologies and material culture by local indigenous people.

Chalcolithic Lifestyles

A main identifying characteristic of the Chalcolithic period is polychrome painted pottery. Ceramic forms found on Chalcolithic sites include "fenestrated pottery", pots with openings cut into the walls, which may have been used for burning incense, as well as large storage jars and serving jars with spouts. Stone tools include adzes, chisels, picks and chipped stone tools with central perforations.

Farmers typically raised domestic animals such as sheep-goats, cattle, and pigs, a diet supplemented by hunting and fishing. Milk and milk by-products were important, as were fruit trees (such as fig and olive). Crops grown by Chalcolithic farmers included barley, wheat, and pulses. Most of the goods were locally produced and used, but the Chalcolithic societies dabbled in some long distance trade in figurines of laden animals, copper and silver ores, basalt bowls, timber, and resins.

Houses and Burial Styles

Houses built by Chalcolithic farmers were constructed of stone or mudbrick.

One characteristic pattern is a chain building, a row of rectangular houses connected to one another by shared party walls on the short ends. Most of the chains are no more than six houses long, leading researchers to suspect that they represent extended farming families living close together. Another pattern, seen in larger settlements, is a set of rooms around a central courtyard, which may have facilitated the same sort of social arrangement. Not all houses were in chains, not all were even rectangular: some trapezoid and circular houses have been identified.

Burials varied widely from group to group, from single interments to jar burials to small box-shaped above-ground ossuaries and even rock cut tombs. In some cases, secondary burial practices included the disinterment and placement of older burials into family or clan vaults.

In some sites, bone stacking--the careful arrangement of skeletal materials--has been noted. Some burials were outside of the communities, others were within the houses themselves.

Teleilat Ghassul

The archaeological site of Teleilat Ghassul (Tulaylât al-Ghassûl) is a Chalcolithic site located in the Jordan Valley about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of the Dead Sea. Excavated first in the 1920s by Alexis Mallon, the site contains a handful of mud brick houses built beginning about 5000 BC, that grew over the next 1,500 years to include a multiroom complex and sanctuaries. Recent excavations have been led by Stephen Bourke of the Unversity of Sydney. Teleilat Ghassul is the type site for the local version of the Chalcolithic period, called Ghassulian, which is found throughout the Levant.

Several polychrome murals were painted on the interior walls of buildings at Teleilat Ghassul. One is an intricate geometric arrangement which appears to be an architectural complex viewed from above. Some scholars have suggested it is a drawing of the sanctuary area on the southwestern edge of the site. The schematic appears to include a courtyard, a stepped pathway leading to a gatehouse, and a brick-walled thatch-roofed building surrounded by a stone or mud-brick platform.

Polychrome Paintings

The architectural plan is not the only polychrome painting at Teleilat Ghassul: there is a "Processional" scene of robed and masked individuals led by a larger figure with a raised arm. The robes are complex textiles in red, white and black with tassels. One individual wears a conical headpiece that may have horns, and some scholars have interpreted this to mean there was a priestly class of specialists at Teleilat Ghassul.

The "Nobles" mural shows a row of seated and standing figures facing a smaller figure positioned in front of a red and yellow star. The murals were repainted up to 20 times on successive layers of lime plaster, containing geometric, figurative and naturalistic designs with a variety of mineral-based colors, including red, black, white and yellow.

The paintings may have originally also had blue (azurite) and green (malachite) as well, but those pigments react poorly with lime plaster and if used are no longer preserved.

Some Chalcolithic Sites: Be'er Sheva, Israel; Chirand (India); Los Millares, Spain; Tel Tsaf (Israel), Krasni Yar (Kazakhstan), Teleilat Ghassul (Jordan), Areni-1 (Armenia)


This article is part of the guide to History of Humans on Earth, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology