How far could the technology of a copper age society get; Could they work up to the level of late antiquity?


Im working on a si-fi/fantasy world were people have been transplanted onto a series of small continents (a few hundred thousand square miles), with differeing levels of acess to metals, as a long term experiment in the development of culture with different acess to tech. (There are still enough metals in trace amounts in things like sand and bacteria to support an ecosystem, but no ores)

By the time of the story setting,the people on each continent no longer remember being placed there, or that other continents exist, (so no trade).

How far could technology advance on the continent with only copper? They can use as much pure copper as needed, without having to worry about expense. They do not have any alloys, however, as arsnical bronze has not been discovered, and there is no tin on the continent.They do have beasts of burden, such as horses and cows, and a temprate rain forrest climate, with lots of rich farmland.

They may smelt a small amount of Iron from sand, but at the time of the story setting it is expensive and difficult enough to produce that it functions as more of a luxury item for the rich, and a precious metal for currency(maby Iron coins in place of gold) but is not used on anywere near an industrial level, and so it should'nt factor into wide spread technology.

I am aware of this question: Could a society attain 1800s technology if limited to using copper and bronze?

However, this is seems to be reliant of different types of bronze, and presumably a copper only society would plataue much farther back in history.

  • $\begingroup$ "horse drawn arsnical bronze plows" With that single statement you've admitted your society isn't copper age - it's bronze age. There is no bronze in the copper age. "The Chalcolithic or Copper Age is the transitional period between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. It is taken to begin around the mid-5th millennium BC, and ends with the beginning of the Bronze Age proper, in the late 4th to 3rd millennium BC, depending on the region." (Source) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 7, 2023 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ I'd make a start by reading about the Neolithic toolkit, then about speculative archaeological experiments with bronze saws. If you look into it further, I think you'll be amazed what can be accomplished with even just stone tools. Wood is always stronger if it's split along the grain rather than sawn. $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2023 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH, None of the things he's asked about are known to predate the start of the copper age. The first Brick and Mortar construction for example was around 4000BC. Also, arsenic bronze dates back to about 5000BC, within a few hundred years of the beginning of the Copper age and before any of the inventions he's asked about. The "Bronze Age" (about 3300 BC to 1200 BC) refers to Tin-Bronze specifically. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 7, 2023 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ There is a Turtledove short story where humanity never discovers FTL, but civilizations with much less technology than our own do discover FTL/antigravity. Most are in the iron age, but one manages to build spaceships out of bronze. Apparently, discovering FTL has sociological implications that stunt scientific development. The aliens show up on Earth with muskets... we answer with fighter jets and air-to-air missiles. It's not like a video game, there is no tech tree. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Mar 8, 2023 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ Tin Bronze is easier to work with then arsenic bronze, but fundamentally, they are too similar to matter which one you use. If you removed arsenic bronze (and yes it is the same things as arsenical copper) as an option or wanted to know about iron age technologies, you'll probably get a more interesting answer. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 8, 2023 at 16:23

1 Answer 1


These things can be made without any metal at all:

  • Roman style concrete: Roman style concreate (in a strict since) requires a specific volcanic ash, but is very easy to make if you have it. That said, most of the concreate used in the Roman Empire was not what we would now call "Roman" concrete. They mostly used a quicklime based concreate which is created by heating limestone in a wood kiln and dossing it with water. You don't need any special tools here since pretty much any river or ocean front will have plenty of limestone that is naturally broken up enough to simply harvest for use, and the kiln can be made from hand formed clay.
  • Large brick & mortar buildings(2-3 story, multiple rooms) Again, not really metal problem. Early mortar was just quicklime cement or gypsum cement without all the larger rocks mixed in. Brick is also pretty easy since it's just clay that has been dried and fired in a kiln. While copper tools could be helpful for the wood working parts of the construction, all of the wooden beams and such required to frame a multistory building can be managed with stone tools if need be.
  • Looms for wool/cotton/canvas fabric: Looms do not require any metal parts, many historical looms were made entirely from things like wood and bone pegged together. Metal allow you to make smaller, more durable pins and tighter weaves, but a basic cloth is still doable. Arsenic copper was the most likely material used in Archaic Greek looms, and what surviving samples of fabric we have from the region show that they would regularly make 50-70 thread per inch cloth with some finer examples even being around 300 threads per inch. These high thread count fabrics were possible without super precise or delicate machines because a fabric's warp can be much looser than its weave. Also, your pins don't have to be side by side, but you can use several rows of pins that feed thread between each other allowing for a surprisingly clumsy warp to still produce a nice sheet of cloth.
  • Glassware: While glassware originated during the bronze age, bronze is a bad material to manipulate molten glass with because it has a much lower melting point. Instead, if you wanted to manipulate glass without iron, you could perhaps use ceramic tools. In fact, early glass work did not need iron at all. It was poured into a clay mold, not blown on an iron pipe. All you need to establish glass working is clay, limestone, sand, and wood making this another stone age doable technology.

These things were made with arsenical copper (aka arsenic bronze)

  • Armor & weapons similar to early hoplites (except a bit weaker): arsenical copper was heavily utilized by the Greeks after the "Bronze age Collapse" and before the wide spread adoption of iron in Europe. So, this would have actually been the most common alloy during the hoplite revolution 750-650BCE, not tin bronze which became a lot less common after about 1200BCE. In practice, arsenic bronze is just as tough as tin bronze for most applications. The reason that tin bronze was so popular for a while was that it does not need to be work hardened. You can directly caste a tin bronze weapon or armor piece whereas arsenic bronze has to be forged and great care taken to work and relax it through the application of hammering and heating to achieve a desired hardness such that it takes much more skill to make a good suit of arsenic bronze armor than it does with tin bronze.
  • Horse drawn arsenical bronze plows: Again, this was a common use for arsenical bronze in Archaic Greece.

These were harder, and not always practical, but doable.

  • Nails or pins: While nails can be made from arsenic bronze (and they were), the cost involved compared to how good they are is not often worth it. Most of the time, bronze age, and even iron civilizations preferred the use of peg and hole construction. You often saw copper, bronze, or brass pins used in smaller things like a jewelry boxes and shoe making, but if you are making anything larger like furniture, housing, boats, etc., they were not worth the cost, even if they could get the job done.

  • Saws and Sawmills: This is where copper really fails the test. A copper blade is easily blunted. This is fine for an axe which has a solid flat head you can just sharpen as needed, but saws are different. They are by their very nature much more delicate and harder to sharpen if they get dull, so you only want to use saws on things much softer than your saw blade. The Egyptians likely used hardened arsenical copper saws for cutting softer woods like tamarisk or sycamore, but hard woods and stone are a different story. That said, some archeologists believe that the Egyptians solved this limitation through the method of gemstone inclusion. A copper saw blade designed like a steel saw blade would struggle to cut the harder woods used by the Egyptians like acacia, much less the stonework that shows clear signs of saw marks from the period. So one leading theory is that they would use special saws designed to press and rub powder made of crushed gemstones against what you are cutting which would let you saw through not just harder woods, but even solid stone.

... and a final minor frame challenge: You can't stop the iron age, just make it more expensive.

Iron is a prevalent element no matter where you go. It is the 4th most abundant element in the Earth such that all soil, rock, etc. has some non-negligible amount of iron in it. Plants and bacteria are adapted to soil that contains certain amounts of iron. While you can get rid of "good" sources of iron like hematite and bog iron, you cant get rid of enough to make iron smelting unobtainable. In places like Japan, where there is no "iron ore", they would pan rivers and use sluices to sperate heavier iron rich sand and dirt grains from the lighter more silicate rich grains, using the same method you would use to get gold out of a river.

If these sediments are still too iron poor, you can double smelt it. To do this, you form the heavier sediments into clay balls, and fire them. While you may not have enough iron to form a bloom, the clay balls will form tiny little beads of iron call prills inside of them that you can then break out, collect, and then re-fire in a second stage to form high purity steel.

This will make iron and steel require much more fuel and labor to refine, and maybe take civilization longer to discover and adopt, but it will still not be so expensive as to render its production not worth the cost.

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    $\begingroup$ a ceramic pipe long enough to use is never going to hold the weight of glassware. blowpipes need to be long to keep from burning the blower. but +1 for iron being basically impossible to eliminate. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 7, 2023 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ @John, Hmm... I thought about it, and the weight should not a problem, but the heat gradient is. I forgot that part of why we use steel pipes is that steel does not shatter from heat shock like glass and ceramics do. That said, I looked it up and other kinds of glass working were already around for thousands of years before glass blowing was even a thing. So, the answer is still yes to glass working even if glass blowing may be undoable. See revision. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 7, 2023 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ As long as you don't want complex vessels or clear glass sheets, which are the biggest benefit of glass. and its is not weight is much as length ceramic is not know for its tensile strength, make a blowpipe too short and you get burned handling it, make it too long and simple leverage will break it. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 8, 2023 at 1:23
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    $\begingroup$ @John Clear glass was invented 800 years before glass blowing, and there were some pretty complex glass vessels made using non-blowing techniques bohaglass.co.uk/glass-art-early-glass-manufacturing-techniques. The biggest advantage I can tell of blowing is that it is much faster to blow a vessel than it is to go through all the steps of making cores and molds and polishing etc. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 8, 2023 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ Earliest examples of iron tools show that they were created from meteorites. Very sharp, but also very rare. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Mar 8, 2023 at 15:29

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