Did You Know? The Bronze Age

by Rick Dapp

Perhaps it’s because there’s so much to see around the Capitol Complex; so much marble and granite that we often take some of the greatest artistry for granted by pulling the handle and walking right through it. The preponderance of bronze and the creative detail exhibited is nothing short of phenomenal.

Bronze is an interesting and, obviously, historic metal – actually an alloy – consisting primarily of copper with approximately 12 percent tin and often with the addition of other metals, such as aluminum, manganese nickel or zinc. On occasion some non-metals are added to the mix, like arsenic, phosphorous or silicon. Anyone who ever went to school had to take, at least, one world history class and, provided they were awake, may remember the era known as The Bronze Age. That historical age began in Western Eurasia approximately 3,500 BC and continued until the advent of the Iron Age approximately 500 BC.

As usual, every time mankind discovers a new material they seem to make a weapon of it first, and bronze was no exception, bronze tools, weapons and armor were far superior to stone and copper. But, it did have a downside; earliest bronze was made of copper and arsenic, with the earliest artifacts coming from the Iranian plateau. It was only later that tin was used which was an advantage to foundry workers since metallic tin and fumes from tin refining are non-toxic and probably ensured greater longevity of the foundry workforce.

What does all this have to do with the bronze doors at the entrance to the state capitol building? Nothing, really. But, in the great scheme of things they represent the apogee of bronze as a building material. Since copper ore and tin are rarely found together, with the exception of a site in Thailand and another in Iran, bronze work required trade. And, with trade came cultural interchange and development. In Europe, a major source of tin was in the British deposits in Cornwall, which was traded as far as Phoenicia (now parts of Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Syria). In the Bronze Age two forms of the alloy were commonly used, a (90/10) percentage mixture of copper and tin and a milder version with only 6 percent tin. Bladed weapons were cast from the harder stuff, while helmets and armor were hammered from sheets of the milder material.

Brass, not to be confused with bronze, is an alloy of copper and zinc in varying proportions to create different mechanical and electrical properties. Often used for decoration for its bright finish and for applications where low friction is required like locks, gears, ammunition casing, doorknobs and zippers, it is also used in situations where sparks won’t be created in fittings or tools near flammable or explosive materials. And political correctness in language has further invaded academia with archaeologists and historians now avoiding differentiation in terms by simply referring to historical bronze and brass objects as “copper alloy.” With that thought in mind, perhaps all those world history textbooks will have to be rewritten with references to the “Bronze Age” replaced by the “Copper Alloy Age.”

For those of you who have stayed with this thus far you will be fascinated to know that commercial bronze (90 percent copper/10 percent zinc) and architectural bronze (57 percent copper/3 percent lead/40 percent zinc) are more properly regarded as brass alloys because they contain zinc as the primary alloying ingredient.

What does this have to do with the one-ton bronze doors at the entrance to the capitol building? Again, nothing really, except that they’re technically brass, and if the archaeologists and historians have their way they’ll be copper alloy in the future. What’s really interesting about them and the way they were made is in the casting process itself.

Each door was made using the “lost-wax” method. Also commonly referred to as investment casting, it had its origins in France where it is referred to as the cire perdu process and is the process by which a duplicate metal structure is cast from an original sculpture. It essentially involves a twelve-step procedure beginning with an artist sculpting an original, often from clay which is then used to make a mold. Once the mold is made molten wax is poured into it sufficient to create a coating on the inner surface of the mold. The wax mold is then removed and “chased” with a heated tool to rub out any marks or parting lines between the halves of the mold. At this time “spruing” occurs, which is creating small openings for the molten metal to flow and for air to escape. Then the sprued wax copy is dipped in a slurry of silica and dry grit to create a ceramic shell when the mold is placed in a kiln and heated to harden the ceramic material and to “lose the wax” in the heating process. Once the mold is cool it is tested to make certain that water flows freely through the feeder and vent tubes and then reheated in the kiln. Finally, the molten metal (in the case of the capitol doors, a ton of it for each “pour”) is poured into the mold to create the one-of-a-kind piece of artwork.

Each door at the Capitol’s main entrance weighs (as previously stated) one ton. Each door was poured as a single unit using the lost wax method, accounting for the intricate details. The molds were prepared by sculptor Otto Jahnsen with the casting done by the Henry Bonnard Bronze Company, known, as well, for casting many of Frederic Remington’s smaller sculptures. The individuals displayed on the Capitol doors are, not unlike many public memorials and permanent displays, politicians and contractors responsible for the Capitol’s construction. Of greater interest are the 22 bronze doors of the Forum building. Designed by Lee Lawrie, they depict “Man’s Creative and Recreative Occupations.” These include the Fable, the Circus, Mythological Tales, and the arts of Poetry, Music, Drama, and Abstract Science and Philosophy. Certainly worth a walk around and more interesting than the subject matter on the Capitol doors.

Other bronze items of interest on the Capitol grounds include “Miss Penn,” the 14’6” tall statue atop the capitol dome. She’s only shiny because she’s gilded. The heroically-proportioned statue of Boies Penrose (he was a big man but not 7 feet 3 inches tall), and the stirring statue of a mounted General John Hartranft who, in addition to serving two terms as governor of the commonwealth, has had his statue in two different locations since its creation.

The business website manta.com lists 96 companies under the category of bronze castings in the United States, but that’s just scratching the surface. Further research shows that artistic independence doesn’t always conform to corporate standard. Sculptor.org is a fabulous site to see what is currently being created in bronze by artists working in the medium. One of the initial pieces you will see is western artist Mike Flanagan’s life-size (six feet tall and nine feet long) rendering of an American Bison. What a unique piece of art for your front yard, and yours for only $90,000.

The only remaining bronze foundry building in Harrisburg that might have produced pieces for the capitol is the Pennsylvania Bronze Foundry at 2300 North 7th Street. In the trade journal Iron Industry and Trade, Vol. 61, p. 1296 it was noted that “In 1917 the Atlantic Refining Company purchased the Pennsylvania Bronze Foundry at Camp and 7th street.” Present owner of the building is Lacy Foundries, a 152-year-old business that operated in Baltimore’s Fells Point area. Joe Lacy, Jr., the fifth generation of the family to run the company said of the Pennsylvania Bronze Foundry: “My dad bought the foundry in 1972, but our production for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was largely metal seat frames for the Farm Show Building and a limited number of bronze pieces.”

Given the current trend to eliminate statues, particularly those honoring Civil War-era Southern combatants, we lose the opportunity to view the artistry involved in creating these masterpieces. And, in the event that your parents told you that the number of feet off the ground on a bronze statue of a mounted horseman indicated how he passed from this life (one hoof raised, wounded in battle; two hooves raised, death in battle; a four on the ground, survived all battles unharmed) well, they were wrong.

General Hartranft is artistic proof. His horse has two feet off the ground and he managed to survive the war and serve two terms as governor!