The Art Medium Copper

Known to some of the world’s oldest civilizations, copper was essential to ancient Egyptians, Romans, and others. Copper and its alloy bronze were and still are major art mediums. Copper was discovered by prehistoric people. Some of the earliest copper works are beads that date 9,000 years ago to the Iraq region. Refining techniques date to roughly 5000 BC. Historians believe that copper smelting was invented in various world regions about the same time. The earliest metallurgical practices included cold work, annealing, smelting, and a lost wax method. Historically important centers of copper smelting include Mesopotamia, China, Zambia, and Central America.  

Copper’s most important alloy is bronze which gave its name to an historic age. Bronze forms by mixing copper with tin. The Bronze Age is typically dated to Sumer around 4000 BC. The Bronze Age lasted until the Iron Age which began around 2000 BC. However, the art of smelting and creating works in copper and bronze continues to the present day. Ancient copper and bronze works survive today as artifacts in museums and attest to the importance that the ancients placed on these metals. Many copper artifacts and tiles boast a green patina. This outer layer forms on copper due to oxidation; however, it actually protects the copper beneath it.

Copper and bronze were used to create jewelry as well as vessels for daily and ceremonial use. It was vital for trade as well as to centers that boasted large populations. Copper was often used to create purely functional items. For instance, one of the ancient pyramids features copper piping. Copper has historically been used on various exterior buildings; even as it has undergone oxidation, its patina has provided a desirable effect to many structures including the Statue of Liberty. Ships, as early as Columbus’s time, boasted copper sheathing to protect their hulls from algae.  This sheathing was more widely used in the shipping industry during the eighteenth century. Aside from bronze, another widely used alloy of copper is brass which is renowned for its use in musical instruments.

While today copper is widely used to create electrical wiring, pipes, and plumbing fittings, it was historically used to create objects of art such as statues, icons, and vessels. It is known that Julius Caesar preferred his coins to be made from a copper and zinc alloy, but, of course, many ancient and historic coins featured copper, bronze, and other alloys in their composition. Later, silver-plated copper was essential to early photography and formed the basis of the daguerreotype. Copper artifacts like ancient jewelry and vessels are housed in some of the most illustrious museums in the world.