3,300-year-old Canaanite Jars Found in Tiryns Rewrite History of Trade

Ports in today’s Israel and Lebanon may have supplanted the great city of Ugarit as the main trading partner with the Aegean even before civilization collapsed in 1,200 B.C.E.

Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom
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TirynsCredit: Nick Stenning
Philippe Bohstrom
Philippe Bohstrom

The fall of the great city of Ugarit and rise of towns along the coasts of today’s Israel and Lebanon had been thought to date after the empires around the Mediterranean collapsed 3,200 years ago. Now the discovery of a significant number of Canaanite jars in the Mycenaean city of Tiryns dating to well before the collapse indicates otherwise.

As the ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean arose, they not only warred on one another, they traded with each other too. Until the still-enigmatic large-scale collapse of civilizations around the Mediterranean in the 13th century B.C.E., Ugarit in today’s Syria had been believed to be the main trading partner across the sea for the Aegean kingdoms Tiryns and Mycenae.

The Aegean kingdoms were known to have also traded with the cities further south of Ugarit, but not much, it was thought.

Now archaeologists postulate that towns such as Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and the anchorage of Tell Abu-Hawam in the Bay of Haifa may even have supplanted Ugarit – a vassal city-kingdom of the Hittite Empire – before the collapse.

Excavating the Mycenaean palace in Tiryns, archaeologists identified 45 jars of a type manufactured in Canaan during the Late Bronze Age, around 3,300 years ago. Their origin was proven by petrologic and chemical analysis.

Canaanite jar found in TirynsCredit: Maria Kostoula
Canaanite jar fragment from Tiryns (1330–1180 BCE) with inscribed handle, suggested provenance in the area of Akko/AcreCredit: Peter M. Day

The study of the jars, which were used to transport stuffs such as oil, wine and dry grains, was reported in Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen.

“We see close interaction (direct or indirect) between the Aegean mainland palaces, in particular Tiryns, with the regions of the Kingdom of Amurru,” says Dr. Eleftheria Kardamaki of the Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences – referring to an Amorite kingdom established about 4,000 years ago in parts of Lebanon and Syria.

Amurru too, together with the ancient empires of the Hittites, ancient Egypt, Ugarit and more, was destroyed in the implosion of 1,200 B.C.E.

What happened in Ugarit before the collapse to change the trading pattern, if that indeed happened? We don’t know. “Between the early and late 13th century B.C.E., a major change must have occurred in the patterns of interaction between the trading centers that brought vessels to Greece. This conclusion was quite unexpected,” says Prof. Joseph Maran from the University of Heidelberg.

One of the anchorages that gained importance before the collapse was Tell Abu-Hawam, which now lies at the foot of the modern city of Haifa. Abu-Hawam contains the largest-known assemblage of Mycenaean pottery found in Israel. That also strengthens the hypothesis of significant pre-collapse trade with the Aegean.

TirynsCredit: Maria Kostoula

Also, jars found in Tell Abu-Hawam originated in Bronze Age Mycenae, Dr. Paula Waiman-Barak, a ceramics expert from Tel Aviv University, confirms.

Another piece of evidence is the Uluburun shipwreck, dated to the 14th century B.C.E and broadly contemporary with the finds from Tiryns. Found in 1982 off the coast of southern Turkey, it had 149 Canaanite jars on board, as well as Canaanite jewelry, among other things. Some of the jars contained resin of the terebinth tree, which was used to as a preservative in wine and for medicinal purposes. Where the ship was headed is not known of course, but it supports the existence of significant trade between ancient Greece and the Amurru kingdom.

In further support, archaeologists have found foreign pottery at Tell Abu-Hawam from the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.E. Some of the Canaanite jars now reported in Tiryns may have originated from Haifa, the Jezreel Valley, Akko (Acre), Tyre and northern Lebanon, posits Peter Day from Britain’s University of Sheffield and the Demokritos National Centre for Scientific Research in Athens.

Invasion, or trade

Some argue that Mycenaean pottery found in ancient towns along the northern Israeli coast argues for actual Mycenaean presence. Waiman-Barak thinks the pottery is evidence of trade, not invasion.

Photomicrograph of a thin section of a Canaanite Jar from Tiryns. Its mineral and rock fragments show that it was made in the area of the Haifa Bay or Lower Jezreel Valley.Credit: Peter M. Day

“Mycenaean ceramics found along the Levantine Coast were indeed a result of the active maritime connections of the time. We don’t need to think of an organized arrival of Mycenaeans and mercenaries,” she says.

Ugarit was situated opposite the northeast tip of the island of Cyprus, a major trading hub during the Bronze Age. Attesting to Ugarit’s status in international commerce at the time is a letter from the Ugarite merchant Sinaranu reporting that he didn’t have to pay import tax to the king when his boats returned from Crete. “From the present day Ammistamru, son of Niqmepa, King of Ugarit, exempts Sinaranu, son of Siginu … His grain, his beer, his oliv)-oil to the palace he shall not deliver. His ship is exempt when it arrives from Crete.” – Ras Shamra tablets 16.238+254 Evidently there is nothing new under the sun, which applies to tax breaks for the very rich as well.

Yet for all its material wealth, Ugarit was a vassal kingdom from beginning to end. From prehistoric beginnings, it became the northernmost outpost of the Egyptian empire. Later, in the 14th century B.C.E., it was incorporated into the Anatolia-based Hittite Empire. Then, in the late 12th century B.C.E., the entire region underwent upheaval. The powerful empires of Egypt, the Hittites and others imploded and into the void sailed the so-called Sea Peoples.

Hailing from somewhere in the Aegean, they tried to invade Egypt but failed; however they did make inroads elsewhere. The hapless Hittites in southern Turkey requisitioned the troops and fleet of their vassal Ugarit, leaving the city vulnerable.

And as it sat there defenseless, it was indeed completely destroyed in about 1200 B.C.E.

Fragment of a Canaanite jar fragment from Tiryns with suggested provenance in the area of Haifa (1230–1180 BCE)Credit: Peter M. Day

However, the Tiryns team’s analyses suggest that already a generation before that cataclysm, the circulation of transport maritime containers produced in the region of Ugarit seems to become rarer in the Aegean.

The reason may lie in the relationship, and rivalry, between the Hittites based in Anatolia and the Assyrians based in Mesopotamia. They did trade with one another; the Hittites seem to have learned writing from the Assyrians, no less; and they fought.

The Hittite empire began its road about 3700 years ago and at its heyday, encompassed all of Anatolia, and parts of the northern Levant and Upper Mesopotamia. The Assyrian empire was even older and lay to the east of the Hittites in Mesopotamia.

“Documentary evidence suggests that the Hittites urged the rulers of the northern Levant (the Kingdom of Amurru) to withdraw access to their harbors for ships from the Aegean, a sort of Bronze Age embargo, in order to prevent trade between the Mycenaeans and the Assyrians,” says Day. But possibly this “embargo” wound up costing Ugarit its life-blood: business.

Ruth Schuster contributed to this report

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