Chapter 10 – Life in the library

Further investigation into the Uluburun wreck and the treasures in her hold reveals the wide reach in trading opportunities which the Minoans exploited.

Infrared spectroscopy proves that most of the amber found in ancient sites in the Mediterranean came from the Baltic, as did that in the Uluburun wreck. It appears possible that Crete’s expanding empire was already trading in amber by 1725 BC. Others have come to similar conclusions, notably Hans-Peter Duerr, who’s most exciting findings, he told the German magazine GEO, lay underneath the late medieval Rungholt – beneath, and therefore older than, a Bronze Age layer of peat dated to 1200 BC.

“… We came across remains of Levantine and especially Minoan ceramics, the daily kind used to transport goods. They were dated 13th and 14th century BC. Amongst these were shards of two tripod cooking pots from Crete. That’s why we believe ships were sailing in 1400 BC from Crete to the coast of Northern Frisia…”

The Uluburun wreck held a length of elephant tusk, cleanly sawn at both ends. Heavily stained by the copper ingots in the wreck, it was found at the stern of the ship. Ivories were regularly traded as luxury goods. Elephants are, of course, found in both Africa and India, but the tusks found in the Uluburun wreck have not yet been classified. However we know Indian elephant tusks did reach the wider Mediterranean in the Bronze Age.

As were found in the Uluburun, a fragment of a hippopotamus lower canine was also found at Knossos in the ruin of an early Minoan (3rd millennium BC) palace. So there must have been trade between Africa and Crete long ago.

We are interested in two types of shell in particular. The first sort came in their thousands: those of murex opercula sea snails. Crete was the world centre of the trade in the prized purple dye that was extracted from these incredibly smelly molluscs. Minoans had farmed them in great numbers for lucrative trade. The presence of so many of them on the wreck supports the idea that the ship was Minoan.

Also intriguing are twenty-eight rings from an unidentified, large shell. The rings were found cut into shape and ground down. Experts believe they provide “… evidence for trade between the Persian Gulf and the Levantine coast during the 14th century BC. Shells were either imported into Mesopotamia as finished rings, as may have been the case at Usiyeh, or made into rings there and probably also embellished with inlays affixed with Mesopotamian bitumen, before being exported to the Levant…”

The total weight of the ingots was some 11 tons –10 of copper and one of tin.

The origins of this copper are heatedly debated: this is also true of the tin. If we knew its sources, it could explain how the Mediterranean exploited such enormous quantities of bronze, when there appeared to be insufficient numbers of mines to satisfy the demand.

A thorough analysis of the copper ingots has been carried out by Professors Andreas Hauptmann, Robert Maddin and Michael Prange. One of their findings was of special importance: “From the chemical point of view, the purity of this copper is extraordinary in comparison with other sorts of copper distributed in the late Bronze Age Old World… We therefore conclude that the ingots reflect the composition of ‘pure’ copper ores that were smelted to produce the metal…”

This is cause for some suprise – there is only one type of copper with that level of purity – the copper that comes from Lake Superior on the Canadian–American border!

Further reading:
Hans Peter Duerr, GEO Magazin, no. 12/05:

Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade and Diplomacy in the 2nd Millennium BC – Metropolitan Museum of Art:

D. Grimaldi, ‘Pushing Back Amber Production’, Science 326 (5949): 51:

The Amarna letters:

Hauptmann, A., Maddin, R., Prange, M., “On the structure and Composition of Copper and Tin Ingots Excavated from the Shipwreck of Uluburun”, American Schools of Oriental Research, Bulletin No.328, pgs.1-30, Nov.2002

To view Great Lakes copper analysis please click here.

Cargo From The Age of Bronze
– Bass, G.F 2005:

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