The Silver Rush: New Technologies Remap Phoenician Expansion in the Mediterranean

Israeli scientists analyze lead isotopes in Phoenician hoards and discover that westward expansion began earlier than was previously believed

The silver hoard ofun in Ein Hofez, Israel, August 2, 2018.
Warhaftig Venezian/Israel Antiquities Authority

New research that analyzes the chemical and isotopic composition of caches of silver found in archaeological excavations in Israel offers new answers to the question of the spread of the Phoenician culture, one of the most important civilizations in the Mediterranean region in the first millennium before the Common Era. 

The Phoenicians originated in the region of the Levant and are often remembered for their centuries of warfare against their main rival, Rome, and their ultimate defeat by them. They were experienced seafarers who established a commercial empire throughout the Mediterranean and all the way to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. They were also the main actors in spreading the written alphabet, and were experts in working metal and glass.

The Phoenician culture flourished for centuries – until Hannibal and his elephants fell to the only enemy they could not beat: Rome, and ended with the Third Punic War and the destruction of their capital, Carthage, in 146 B.C.E as the rest of their empire fell and was absorbed into the Roman Empire.

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The main questions still unanswered about the history of the Phoenicians are not about the end of their civilization – but about its beginning: Who were the original Phoenicians, how did they spread all over the Mediterranean basin, when did this happen and what motivated them to search for newer shores.

The silver hoard found in Tel Dor, Israel, February 12, 2019.
Ardon Bar-Hama/The Israel Museum

A combination of scientific techniques from a number of fields now enables scientists to solve these historical and archaeological mysteries. A new study using rare samples of ancient Phoenician silver items found in archeological digs in Israel proposes a route for their spreading westward – and even strengthens the theory that it was the search for sources of metals that pushed them farther and farther from their original region. The study, “Lead isotopes in silver reveal the earliest Phoenician quest for metals in the west Mediterranean,” was published on Monday in the prestigious scientific journal PNAS by scientists from Haifa University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The study focuses on three large caches of Phoenician silver found in Israel, at Tel Dor, Acre and Ein Hofez. It attempts to answer the question of where they came from, because the precious metal is not found naturally in the Mediterranean region. The research was part of the doctorate research conducted by Tzilla Eshel, the lead author from the archeology department at Haifa University 

The cities where the silver hoards were found were part of the empire along the coasts of Lebanon and northern Israel, and all had similar material cultures, said Eshel about what is known today about the Phoenician civilization in the region. “There is great interest today in the question who were the Phoenicians and when they reached the west.”

The archeological digs show that Phoenician culture was widespread in the region back to the 11th century B.C.E, says Eshel. But the commonly accepted theory that they reached the Iberian Peninsula only in the second half of the 9th century B.C.E. and to Sardinia even later, in the 8th century, has now been shaken in the light of the analysis of the silver caches.

Most of the silver was produced from lead minerals containing small amounts of silver, and using isotopic analysis of the lead remaining in the silver items it was possible to identify where the metals were mined, said Professor Yigal Erel of the Institute of Earth Sciences at Hebrew University and one of the authors. 

The silver in the oldest hoard, from the second half of the 10th century B.C.E, found in Tel Dor on the coast of northern Israel, came from eastern Anatolia and Sardinia. In contrast, the silver from Ein Hofez, which is 50 to 100 years younger than the first cache, is almost completely from the Iberian Peninsula. 

The scientists say their analysis provides clear evidence for the route and speed of the Phoenician expansion westward, which began earlier that what the archeological excavations in the west have shown. In addition, because this means the Phoenicians began establishing their colonies in the west only after a long exploratory phase during which they began mining the precious metals there, the new research supports the theory that it was the presence of the metal that pushed the Phoenicians to expand and that “the quest for sliver was a major trigger for a long ‘precolonization’ phase, during the 10th to 9th centuries BCE.”

Another major conclusion is that the Phoenicians introduced innovative silver production methods to historic Europe