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Tin from Bronze Age shipwreck reveals complex trade network

Using advanced geochemical analysis, researchers determined the origins of tin ingots aboard an Uluburun shipwreck dating back to the Bronze Age.

(CN) — Sponge divers off the coast of Turkey in 1982 discovered the Uluburun shipwreck, a vessel carrying goods of immanent splendor, including gold and agate jewelry, ostrich eggshell vases, ivory treasures and metric tons of copper and tin ingots —the materials used for making bronze.

And as of 1500 BCE, bronze was the high technology of Eurasia.

The Uluburun shipwreck contributed the most extensive collection of Bronze Age artifacts ever found in the Mediterranean. The sheer amount of copper and tin aboard the ship could have produced 11 metric tons of bronze of the highest quality — enough to arm 5,000 sword-wielding soldiers.

But until now, the origins of some of its most valuable cargo have evaded historians, leading a team of scientists to discover a historical trade route that includes highland pastoralists in present-day Uzbekistan.

That’s according to a recent study from Science Advances, published Wednesday, in which researchers describe how they used advanced geochemical analysis to pinpoint the origins of some tin ingots aboard the shipwreck to pre-historic mines in Uzbekistan — more than 2,000 miles from where the ship loaded in Haifa, Israel.

During the Late Bronze Age, the mining regions of Central Asia involved small communities of highlander pastoralists located in rugged terrain far from any empire or industrial hub. With this in mind, researchers — along with the help of historians and archeologists — unveiled a complex supply chain that included several small mining communities that worked to deliver tin to the Mediterranean marketplace.

“It appears these local miners had access to vast international networks and — through overland trade and other forms of connectivity — were able to pass this all-important commodity all the way to the Mediterranean,” said co-author Michael Frachetti, professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis, in a statement accompanying the study.

Notably, Frachetti said the mining industry appears to have been run by small-scale local communities or free laborers who negotiated the marketplace outside the control of kingdoms or political influence.

“To put it into perspective, this would be the trade equivalent of the entire United States sourcing its energy needs from small backyard oil rigs in central Kansas,” Frachetti said.

Aslihan Yener, a research affiliate at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University and a professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago, was part of a research team in the 1990s that performed the first lead isotope analysis of Uluburin tin, which suggested the metal either came from the Kestel Mine in Turkey’s Taurus Mountains or another unspecified location in Central Asia.

Yener also discovered tin in Turkey in the 1980s, further assisting the research community in its quest to source Uluburun tin. Thanks to advanced tin isotope analysis 30 years later, researchers now know that one-third of the tin aboard came from the Mušiston mine in Uzbekistan, while the remaining two-thirds originated from the Kestel mine in ancient Anatolia or present-day Turkey.

Overall, the research settles years of debates regarding the origins of metal aboard the Uluburun shipwreck and tin exchange during the Late Bronze Age, but there is still much to know about how the shape of ingots played a role in trade, Frachetti said.

For instance, what is known is that the distinct shape of ingots determined where they originated. However, many of the ingots on the Uluburun ship came in an “oxhide” shape, previously thought to have come from Cyprus, and recent findings suggest this shape may have come further east.

But beyond archaeology, Frachetti believes there’s a parallel, prehistoric relationship between what happened in the Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age and what’s currently happening now in modern trade supply chains involving the pandemic or even the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

“Going back 3,000 years, we see that supply chain was equally affected and that people were stretching their networks to find rare resources in ways that aren't so different from the kind of pressures that we find today,” Frachetti said in a phone interview, adding that the bigger lesson isn’t simply the nuances of trade, but the reality of how resources and connectively draw populations that are far away from conflict into the broader economic system.

“And that's a tale for us to pay attention to when we consider where we're heading going forward into the future,” Frachetti said.

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