A new piece of the puzzle: slag and ore analysis to reconstruct the prehispanic smelting technology at the Atacama Desert, Chile

The Incas appropriated many local metallurgical technologies throughout the Andes, each of which had its unique peculiarities and was based on local ancestral knowledge. The widespread use of tin-bronze during the Inca expansion, the development of mining and smelting sites, as well as ethno-historical records evidence the Incas' interest in copper smelting, a key activity in the Andes since ca. 1400 BC. However, little is known about the technical parameters achieved by ancient metallurgists and the changes that occurred during the Inca expansion. In this paper, we address these changes through a case study of Copiapo valley, focusing on the Vina del Cerro site, one of the most famous Inca smelting centres of the southern Andes. Although this place was architectonically restructured by the Incas, its operations began long before the imperial expansion and used wind-powered furnaces. We analysed 19 slag and 11 copper ore samples using OM, SEM-EDS, WD-XRF, and XRD analyses. Results identified heterogeneous and viscous slags, rich in SiO2 (43 wt%) and poor in FeO (13 wt%). Copper retention was high (up to 60 wt%). Microstructural analyses indicate that slags were formed under unstable oxidising conditions, reaching temperatures that ranged between 1000 to 1100 & DEG;C. The copper produced was very pure. High-grade copper ores containing up to 69 wt% CuO were reduced at the site, combining carbonates (malachite, azurite), halides (buttgenbachite, clinoatacamite), and some sulphates (brochantite). We propose that even under the relatively unfavourable conditions for slag formation, the smelting conditions generated at Vina del Cerro were competent enough to extract metal, but not necessarily enough to form liquid slag. These conditions were facilitated by the local metallurgists' thorough knowledge of the wind flow and their ability to select the right ore. This new information contributes to understanding the efficiency of metallurgical technology and the knowledge, skills, and adaptability of the ancient metallurgists from Copiapo valley, a group that was integrated into the economic networks of the Inca Empire.
Copper smelting, Slags, Wind-powered furnaces, WD-XRF, XRD, SEM-EDS, Copper-rich ores, Andean metallurgy, Vina del Cerro, Atacama Desert