Copper and its Alloys

Unlike iron, copper is only found in a few places in sufficient concentration to be useful. These include Katanga in the Republic of Congo and northern Zambia, Zimbabwe, northern South Africa, and Niger in west Africa.

Just as with iron, smelting the metal from the ore required a furnace. However, unlike iron, copper can be both beaten cold, and cast into an infinity of shapes in moulds. Copper can be combined in casting with other metals, particularly tin, zinc, lead, antimony to make variety of alloys. Much of the raw materials are recycled items containing a wide variety of metals. It is therefore not usually possible to be sure what is in the items usually referred to as ‘brass’ or ‘bronze’.

For hundreds of years copper has also been imported, mainly from Europe. The amount of copper produced in and imported to Africa from the earliest times until about 1900 could easily top 100,000 tonnes. The majority of this vast amount would have been used and re-used to make quite small items such as in this display. It is likely that much of the output has been buried with the bodies of chiefs and other high-status people. After the assassination of the Zulu king Shaka several tons of brass, beads and other valuables were buried with him.

Figures in copper alloys are being made in quantity in some parts of Africa , in response to the requirements of the local communities as well as in fulfilment of the demands of visitors, tourists and the art market. This is a series of images taken in 1967 to show the process of casting various figures in the metal-working quarter of the Yoruba city of Ibadan, south-west Nigeria.

Visit the Gallery to view the objects in our collection that are made of copper and copper alloys.

Or have a go at our ‘Copper Plate Jigsaw’.

We also have a section on Copper Alloy Casting.