Reading: The Production of Silver in South America


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The Production of Silver in South America


Thilo Rehren

UCL Institute of Archaeology, GB
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Silver plays important roles in pre-Columbian, colonial and modern South American societies. Case studies covering the production stages, and spanning nearly two millennia, provide examples of the complexities of silver metallurgy. Ethnographic evidence from Bolivia demonstrates the function of the pre-Columbian huyarachina furnace, adapted to the environment of the high Andes, while an archaeological site in southern Peru exemplifies the small-scale, probably domestic, processing of silver slag across major socio-political changes. The transition from indigenous to European technology is another complex aspect of South American silver metallurgy and highlights the importance of studying technology in its social and economic contexts. We can see the co-existence over several centuries of a large-scale state-run silver industry, based on the patio process (and requiring a long-distance network to provide silver ore, mercury, energy and supervision), alongside a small-scale European high-temperature silver extraction (using fuel-intensive ‘dragon’ furnaces), and a surviving indigenous technology based on huyarachina furnaces.
How to Cite: Rehren, T., 2011. The Production of Silver in South America. Archaeology International, 13, pp.76–83. DOI:
  Published on 10 Oct 2011

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