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Oxhide-shaped copper ingot.
Oxhide copper ingot in the British Museum. (70.5cm x 41.5cm x 5.2cm; weight: 36.92kg) Image used with kind permission of the British Museum.

Late Bronze Age trade in the eastern Mediterranean

Archaeological appreciation of the Late Bronze Age period in the Mediterranean has been significantly enhanced by the impact of maritime archaeological findings.

The eastern Mediterranean seaboard had for a long time been recognised as a region of increasing connectivity between the key players in the region: Pharaonic Egypt in the south, Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and the Levantine coast of modern day Syria, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine to the east, and palatial Minoan Crete to the west.

Our understanding of this dynamic period of international trade and long distance overseas exchange, was considerably enhanced when in 1960 George Bass commenced excavation of the iconic 12th century BC shipwreck at Cape Gelidonya in southern Turkey. This wreck was not only to change the way archaeologists conducted research underwater but was also to expand our understanding of Late Bronze Age trade in a way that could never have been anticipated from terrestrial finds alone. The subsequent discovery of a second Turkish shipwreck, the hugely important 14th century BC wreck that lies 60m beneath the sea off the headland of Uluburun, southern Turkey, was to provide even further insight into this ‘golden age’ of international trade.

The key commodity of Late Bronze Age trade was copper used in the production of bronze. Central to this trade was the island of Cyprus where high in the Troodos Mountains copper was mined for export in the form of distinctive oxhide-shaped ingots exported through coastal ports such as Kition, Enkomi and Hala Sultan Tekke. The 15 tons of cargo discovered abroad the wreck of the Uluburun was not only to reveal a transhipment of 10 tons of copper ingots with a further ton of tin but it revealed the richest cargo ever located in the eastern Mediterranean on one of the earliest shipwrecks ever discovered.

The copper and tin proportionally (10:1) formed the main ingredients for the metal bronze, critical to the construction and the manufacture of weapons, tools and household metal objects. The ingots were significant as they would rarely have been found on land, having been recycled to be used in the creation of such objects. Thus, they provide a rare glimpse of the manner in which raw materials were transported and the volume that was transported and traded in a single cargo.

Alongside the ingots other raw materials were also discovered glass, ivory and food stuffs including pistacia terebinthus, olives, grapes and figs. Besides the raw materials the Uluburun also carried a very rich and exotic cargo of luxury goods, gold jewellery, figurines and scarabs, together with worked ivory and bone, metal tools and weapons, and of course pottery.

The nature of Late Bronze Age trade was illuminated through the large collection of weights found on board representing standards used in different cultures in the region thus hinting at the wide scale and organisation of this international trade. As such, the cargo of the Uluburun reveals the nature of gift exchange that was believed to have been the main mechanisms for exchange during this period.

Besides the cargo, a small extant fragment of the wooden hull constructed from planks of Lebanese cedar were also recorded, together with 24 stone anchors. The shell- or plank-first hull construction provides insight into one of the earliest examples of a seagoing vessel fastened by mortise-and-tenon joints secured by wooden oak pegs. This method of ship hull construction was to continue as the primary form of construction for some centuries to come in the region and beyond.

The shipwreck at Uluburun provides a view of Late Bronze Age life and aspects of trade that we can rarely identify through the terrestrial record alone. Besides the specific nature of the cargo, it gives an idea of the size and capacity of ships of trade of this era being 15m in length and carrying some 15 tons capacity of cargo. The arrangement of the cargo on the seabed provides an idea of how the cargo would have been stowed on board, the hull protected by a layer of dunnage in the form of brushwood and sticks, and the zoomorphic and standard weights provide an insight into the range of cultures that were involved in maritime trade at this period.

The makeup of the cargo hints at the wide geographical range from which it originated, amber from the Baltic Sea, ebony from Africa, ivory from Syria and pottery from the Aegean, as well as the route the ship followed travelling from the eastern coastal seaboard of the Levant, via Cyprus where it took on copper, along the southern Turkish coast en route to the Aegean, before it reached its final resting place. This route would have been facilitated by the prevailing winds and currents and necessitated by the demands of international trade.

Besides the shipwrecks, we have an insight into the nature and scale of seafaring and international trade through the evidence of trade goods at the port sites, through iconographic depictions of boats and traded items particularly from the famous frescoes of Thera, Santorini and the Egyptian tomb reliefs. Texts such as those revealed on cuneiform tablets such as the Mari Archives from Mesopotamia, the Ugarit and Amarna tablets from the Levant and Egypt, inform us about trade envoys and gift exchange between pharaohs and kings, and goods offered as tribute in this relatively early period.

Towards the end of the Late Bronze Age prior to the so-called collapse, we have the impression that the scale of international trade had expanded significantly. The numbers of ports of trade had increased and their capacity to provide the infrastructural support required for an expanding maritime trade network is also apparent through the more sophisticated port structures that were being constructed at sites such as Tel Dor on the Levant coast and Kition in Cyprus. Essentially, the Uluburun shipwreck gives us a glimpse into elite exchange in the Late Bronze Age world of the eastern Mediterranean.

Lucy Blue

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