A Brief History of Bronze Casting


A Brief History of Bronze Casting

Any attempt to describe here how bronze has been used through the ages around the world to cast utensils, ornaments, figurines and statues can only be very brief.  Only a few items have been selected to show the impressive use that various cultures have made of this  metal over the past 5,000 years.  Even then, the prior use of native copper extends this period back another 5,000 years and is discussed separately.  The transition from the Copper Age to the Bronze Age happened at different times in different places and is made all the more difficult to determine, because sometimes the native copper used already contained other elements like arsenic.  Also early records from the Greeks and Romans do not distinguish between  copper and bronze, e.g. in Latin, the word aes can be used for either metal, although they did have specific terms for the ores depending on their qualities.  It is hoped that the few items shown will whet the appetite of anyone interested in this material.

A cast bronze figurine from Mohenjo-Daro, in what is now the Sindh province of Pakistan, dates back at least as far as 2500 BCE.  Bronzes are usually cast hollow and the most commonly used method is known as the cire-perdu or lost-wax process.  Sumer in West Asia was also using this process in the 3rd millennium BCE.

332px-Dancing_Girl_of_Mohenjo-daroReplica of Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai, India.
Photograph attributed to the author, Joe Ravi,
Used under Creative Commons Share Alike license CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The lost-wax process was in use in the Aegean and other areas around the Mediterranean in the 2nd millennium BCE.  Also in Northern Europe, various cultures had developed copper and bronze casting for tools and weapons and, although examples are much rarer, items have been found that show that the lost wax process was used there too for other items.  One example is the Solvognen or Chariot of the Sun, found in Trundholm Denmark.  This has been dated by the National Museum to 1400 BCE.  It is thought to represent the movement of the sun across the heavens and would have been used in religious rituals.  It is interesting to note that the Indian Rigveda also tells of a horse-drawn chariot taking Surya, the Hindu solar deity, across the sky.

Solnognen, Sun Chariot, Trundholm.

Solvognen, Sun Chariot,Trundholm, Denmark, 1400 BCE.
Attributed to the National Museum Copenhagen, Denmark.

In China another method known as piece-mould casting was in use in the Shang period before 1100 BCE and the lost-wax process was in use by about 550 BCE. Perhaps the earliest bronze statue of a man from was unearthed at Sanxingdui in Guanghan, Sichuan Province and dates to about 1200 BCE. The statue, 262 centimetres tall, is the tallest of its kind found so far in China.

Shang period figure 2.62 m tallSanxingdui bronze figurine, 1200 BCE.
Photograph is attributed to Sanxingdui Museum, Sichuan.

Artefacts from the Đông Sơn culture in Vietnam and the Ban Chiang and other sites in Thailand have shown that bronze casting was carried out at least as early as the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE.  These cultures spread to and influenced other parts of South-east Asia, including the Indonesian archipelago from about 1000 BCE to 1 BCE.

Bronze Figurine Dongson CultureBronze Figurine, Dong Son Culture, 500 BCE
East Asian Art Museum, Berlin.
This photograph is attributed to the author, PHGCOM.
Used under Creative Commons Share Alike License.

After the start of the Iron Age, the use of bronze decreased for making weapons and tools, but its use for making certain utensils, ceremonial and religious items such as statues and containers continued and increased. This was especially true in Ancient Greece, India and China.  The earliest extant archaic statue from Greece goes back to about 600 BCE and there are many examples after 500 BCE.

Delphi Charioteer

The Charioteer of Delphi, 570 BCE, Delphi Museum.
Photograph attributed to Lourdes Cardenal
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Leaving the 1st millennium BCE, over the next millennium the casting of bronzes continued in all regions.  It is pertinent to pay attention to those produced in India, especially those made as Hindu and Buddhist religious images.  The Sanskrit Shilpa Shastra texts mention the lost-wax process and call it the Madhucchishta Vidhana. The Chola dynasty from the mid-9th to the mid-13th century is renowned for the casting of bronze statues and produced some of India’s greatest bronzes, with the pinnacle reached during the first 120 years of this period, Chola period bronzes were created using the lost wax technique. The culture spread out through South-east Asia including Indonesia and had a lot of influence in the art of these regions.

467px-Shiva_as_the_Lord_of_DanceShiva Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, Chola Dynasty 950-1000
Released to the public domain by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Perhaps the most famous bronze is the Tōdai-ji Daibutsu, a statue of the Vairocana Buddha, located in the city of Nara, Japan.  The 15 metre high statue was made from eight castings over three years, the head and neck being cast separately.  The casting of the statue was started in Shigaraki in 742, completed in Nara in 745 and finally finished in 751 weighing 500 tonnes.

399px-NaraTodaiji DaibutsuVairocana Buddha Statue at Todai-ji in Nara Japan.
Photograph released by Wikimedia Commons to the public domain.

While you contemplate this Great Vairocana Buddha statue, if you wish to listen to a Sanskrit mantra dedicated to this Buddha chanted with music and bells, please start the player below.

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